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SYDNEY — Sex and the single woman: This unlikely topic has suddenly become a political cause celebre in Australia. Even the Olympics are taking a temporary back seat to the debate on unmarried women’s right to motherhood.

Violence erupts in the region — Indonesians killing East Timorese, Fijian terrorists savaging Indo-Fijians, Solomon Islanders in revolt — yet this placid country is looking inward, mesmerized by the after-effects of one woman’s victorious legal battle to become pregnant.

It all started when Lisa Meldrum, a heterosexual woman in her 30s, won a constitutional battle in the southern state of Victoria. She successfully appealed against Victoria’s Infertility Treatment Act. That five-year-old act restricts fertility procedures to married women and those in heterosexual de facto relationships.

The judge ruled that the act was inconsistent with the federal government’s Sex Discrimination Act, which forbids discrimination based on marital status and was thus unconstitutional. The way is now open for Victoria and all other states to allow single women, homosexual as well as heterosexual, access to public fund-aided in vitro treatment.

Prime Minister John Howard expressed outrage. He immediately announced that he will attempt to amend the law that allows single women and lesbians to use subsidized fertility treatments, thus overriding conflicting state laws. His argument, quickly seized on by equally outraged pressure groups, is that every child should have the right to two parents. “The issue involves overwhelmingly the right of society to have the reasonable expectation, other things being equal, that a child shall have both a mother and a father,” Howard said.

The fact that so many Australian families are headed by only one parent — and supported by taxpayer-funded welfare payments — is now being used to beat Howard about the head. So is the fact that single women have been availing themselves for years of the fruits of government-backed artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization research.

As shock waves surged through the Labor Party’s national conference in Hobart, Tasmania, last week, confused delegates huddled to put on some semblance of a united front. Labor’s health spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, claimed that the issue was whether a child would be wanted, not the family unit.

But as early public-opinion polls showed revulsion at this turn of events, Labor leader Kim Beazley began making soothing noises. Politically, this is a tough nut. And Beazley’s prevarications on other issues, including the taxpayer-accepted new goods-and-services tax, already look like costing Labor next year’s election.

Strong condemnation of state-aided “anti-family” laws by the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne then stirred the pot. Independent Senator Brian Harradine, a Catholic whose balance-of-power position in Canberra regularly stymies “progressive” reforms, weighed in with support for Howard.

Sen. Meg Lees, opinionated leader of the balance-of-power Democratic Party, announced that she will ensure the Senate rejects any bid by Howard to “disempower” women.

By this time, the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. Nobody has mentioned the rights of babies. Do they want to be born into a family consisting of a lesbian woman? Nobody asked that question. But plenty of women have been sounding off on their rights.

Feminist Eva Cox accused Howard of taking an unprincipled stand in what is simply an attack on single women. “Parenthood is one of those freedoms that have not been challenged until now,” she said. “This is an attack on single mothers. Why should anyone dictate who has the right to have a child?”

But an Adelaide bioethicist, Dr. John Fleming, claimed that making fertility treatment open to single women contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under the convention, to which Australia is a signatory, children have the right to be cared for by both parents.

“We might as well demand state-funded stud farms,” wrote controversial newspaper columnist Padraic McGuinness. “Once we take into account medical intervention in human reproduction, we cannot treat a woman’s right to bear a child without moral considerations as a right to have other people pay the bills to do so.”

From as far off as Britain, the controversy swells. Reading University philosopher David Odenberg finds it “nothing less than child abuse intentionally to create another human being with the express purpose of denying it a father.”

Television, of course, rushed in, filming lots of smiling lesbian mothers and their smiling offspring. One lesbian couple told how they had gone as far afield as Canada in their quest to achieve fertility with minimal male intervention.

Health Minister Brian Wooldridge is threatening to prosecute doctors providing Medicare-funded in vitro services to fertile single and lesbian women. He is warning doctors to distinguish between medically infertile women and those who are “socially infertile.” The latter were not entitled to Medicare “when there is a simple alternative: intercourse.”

Naturally, conservative Howard is being railed against as old-fashioned and out of touch with today’s morality. The Australian newspaper editorialized that “Howard is threatening a basic tenet of Australian life in an attempt to preserve his vision of the family.”

Howard, however, has cleverly seized on an issue that divides his Labor opponents. Not only did he rob the Labor conference of media value, he is highlighting splits between Beazley, Victoria’s Labor Premier Steve Bracks, Labor-voting Catholics and libertarians.

He must now try to get past the uproar to legislate on behalf of the family as he sees it. That effort can only heighten the anger on both sides of the emotional divide. Win or lose in an obstructive Senate, the political outcome will be adverse to all sides.

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