Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Internet defeating paternalistic Australian baby laws

If it's OK with the father concerned, why shouldn't couples know more about the biological fathers of their children?

Desperate Australian couples are buying sperm from anonymous "designer donors" through overseas websites. The donor dad's religious beliefs, university major, temperament, ethnic ancestry and even voice recording are available at the click of a mouse. The trend has astonished IVF experts because the commercial trade in sperm is illegal in Australia and donors in Victoria must be registered.

Ethicists say the situation makes a mockery of Australian laws. They worry that detailed online menus let parents try to craft their child's characteristics before conception. Donors are scarce in Victoria and experts warn the state's sperm banks could be depleted in two years.

Major US clinic California Cryobank confirmed it had shipped 20 vials to Australia in the past five years. The sperm bank advertises physical traits - even offering photographs of the donor as an infant. The results of a temperament test, which assess the donor as having one of four temperament types, are also available for a fee. Voice recordings of donors, sketches of his facial features, in-depth medical histories and even high school test results can be bought.

In Australia, donor details are generally limited to ethnicity and medical history, to ensure the donor's features match those of the social father. Specimens from the US site cost between $US250 and $US500 and a donor dossier can be bought for an additional fee. It offers anonymous and known donors, all medically screened, and ships vials in liquid nitrogen to any specified address.

Commonwealth and some state laws make it illegal to sell or receive human sperm or eggs in a commercial transaction in Australia. Offenders face up to 15 years' jail under Commonwealth human cloning laws, but donations with cash subsidies for out-of-pocket expenses are allowed. In Victoria, donor details are recorded so a child can track down his or her biological parent later in life.

British clinic First 4 Fertility, which destroys donor details after a year and is not regulated by health authorities there, says it has also shipped to Australia and wants to expand its business. "We're looking at how we can find a partner in Australia to run a parallel service to ours there," spokesman John Gonzalez said.

Monash IVF's Adrianne Pope said buying sperm abroad was dangerous because it could complicate a child's efforts to trace his or her paternity. Dr Pope said a chronic shortage of donors could be forcing couples to look overseas. "I'd imagine lack of supply is an issue," she said. "We will reach a point where we will run out, probably in the next two years, if we don't start to see a change."

To import sperm to Victoria, a person must have permission from a regulator, the Infertility Treatment Authority. Failure to comply carries a two-year jail term or fines of $25,000. Clinics and donors wanting to use imported sperm must sign a form promising it has not been bought commercially.

Bioethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini questioned the level of details available on the online sites. "I'd be very surprised if Australian clinics were offering that much information - it's more likely to be medical information," Dr Tonti-Filippini said. "When you get into that sort of detail it's a trade, and in Australia there's a very strong reluctance to trade around these things. "There are some basic respect issues involved when you start selling people's sperm, or eggs for that matter. "The idea that you can be conceived by some sort of trade is not one that most Australians would support."

About one in six Australian couples is infertile. Donor Conception Support Group spokeswoman Leonie Hewitt believed the online commercial sperm trade was thriving. "I've heard of it being done, and my concern would be what happens when that child grows up and wants to know its identity and medical history," Ms Hewitt said. "It's not just semen, it's eggs as well." Ms Hewitt said she knew of a Sydney couple who had imported sperm from Sweden and said hopeful couples had been bringing it in from Britain for years. She called for a national donor register similar to Victoria's.


Exposure could help kill judicial arrogance

PUBLICITY, rather than a new system of appointing judges, is the best way of eliminating judicial activists, according to a leading conservative lobby group. Once the extent of judicial activism on the nation's courts is revealed, governments will realise they need to exercise far more care in appointing judges, said Samuel Griffith Society secretary John Stone. "Labor governments have appointed most judicial activists, but Liberals have also appointed activists because they were asleep at the wheel," Mr Stone said. He said Saturday's disclosure in The Weekend Australian about the extent of support on the bench for judicial activism would do more to address the problem than a new appointment system.

He was responding to recent research showing that a significant number of the nation's top judges believe they are entitled to step in and make new laws when parliament fails to deal with difficult issues. The judges have revealed their support for judicial activism in more than 80 confidential interviews with visiting American academic Jason J. Pierce that were never expected to be published in Australia. Mr Pierce's research, which has been published in the US, has revealed a deep divide in the Australian judiciary between those who back activism and those who see it as illegitimate.

Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said he was not surprised by Mr Pierce's findings, particularly in relation to the High Court under former chief justice Anthony Mason. "A number of commentators have drawn attention to the view of some judges of the need for a more activist approach because of alleged parliamentary inertia," Mr Ruddock said. "What is new is the extent to which a number of judges - albeit anonymously - have affirmed that this approach has been taken."

However Mr Ruddock, like Mr Stone, did not favour changing the system of selecting judges in order to make it easier to identify activists. "I do not think any system attempted abroad such as contested election, parliamentary confirmation or government-of-the-day-appointed judicial commission would alter an individual judge electing to take a so-called activist approach in the future," Mr Ruddock said.

Mr Stone said the publication of Mr Pierce's interviews had revealed a degree of arrogance by activist judges that was beyond belief. One High Court judge told Mr Pierce: "Perhaps it's illegitimate to pull the rabbit out of the hat, but it is nice to see it emerging."

Mr Stone said this approach indicated that law schools were failing society by producing a significant number of lawyers who believed it was their responsibility to step in and displace parliament when difficult issues were left unaddressed. "The sheer presumption of these people is breath-taking," said Mr Stone, whose organisation defends federalism and the original intent of the Constitution. He said the only effective way of addressing the problem was by ensuring it received a extensive public attention. "That will alert governments to what these people are about."

Mr Stone said activism was still on the rise within the judiciary, even though it had been addressed on the High Court by recent appointments. "The real danger is at lower levels. The Victorian Supreme Court and Court of Appeal are a standing indictment" of the activist approach favoured by state Attorney-General Rob Hulls," said. "Hulls is a nightmare."


Oil rigs are good for wildlife!

Oil rigs are tiny outposts of the manmade world in the massive wilderness of the open ocean. So at the end of their working lives should they simply be dismantled and removed? A Sydney academic has weighed into the debate over the future of dozens of rigs around the Australian coast, arguing that in certain cases it may be better for the environment to keep decommissioned oil facilities in place as breeding grounds for fish and other marine life.

David Booth, a researcher with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and a professor with the University of Technology, Sydney, says scientists have found what appear to be new species living around the rigs. ``There's 50 or 60 rigs that will be decomissioned in the next decade or so,'' Booth said. ``Some of them are in areas that are biological deserts and they act as little oases. ``In other cases, removing the rig could be damaging to the environment. ``In other cases total removal may be the way to go.''

His opinion comes as the federal government prepares to hand down an issues paper on the future of the rigs which is likely to spark further debate. There are scores of rigs around the Australian coast, with most located off Western Australia's coast and in Bass Strait. Some companies are looking at establishing new rigs off South Australia. Typically rigs in Australian waters rest in between 50 and 1000 metres of water. Below 30 metres is considered by scientists to be the deep sea.

Booth is involved in a project called SERPENT under which international researchers are able to use the facilities aboard oil rigs to study life on the ocean floor. Funding comes jointly from the federal government and oil companies.

Researchers use rig cameras to study the sea floor and remotely-operated vehicles to deploy instruments and traps. Booth said scientists in locations in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Asia had located a host of new creatures, some of which appeared to belong not only to new species but whole new families of life.

With many Australian rigs now reaching the end of their life span, Booth said there were tough decisions to me made about the future of the facilities. While requiring oil companies to completely remove their rigs and return the ocean floor to its previous state might seem to be the most environmentally-friendly option, he said a case by case approach was more appropriate. One option might be to leave the rigs in place in their entirety so as not disturb fish life. They could also be used for commercial purposes such as fish farms.

Another option might be to remove all fittings and push the rigs over, allowing them to be used as artificial reefs. However, this would impact on fish living on the upper reaches of the rigs. If total removal was the preferred option, rigs could be towed away and scrapped.


"Soft" educational options booming

The next generation of the state's skilled workers is abandoning the critical subjects needed to equip them for lucrative jobs in mining and defence. The number of students completing key Year 12 courses - including physics and maths - is dramatically declining, according to latest figures from the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia. In physics alone, completions last year sank below 2000 - 600 fewer than a decade ago - during a period when the number of students completing their high school certificate increased from 9000 to 12,000.

Fewer students undertook mathematical studies - completions were down by 500 in just three years - while student numbers in chemistry, information technology, specialist mathematics and geology have also dropped. The decline has extended to Flinders University, which has axed five maths staff because of a lack of interest in the subject.

The alarming downturn has prompted federal Finance Minister Nick Minchin to consider encouraging the study of science and maths by lowering university fees for these subjects.

SA Chamber of Mines and Energy chief executive Jason Kuchel said the state's mining industry alone would need an extra 14,000 people in the next seven years. "What really disappoints us is that schools do not reinforce to students that, if they want to keep their options open, they need to do maths and science in school - particularly in years 11 and 12," Mr Kuchel said.

The State Government wants to boost defence jobs from 16,000 to 28,000 within a decade.

Outer Harbor-based shipbuilder ASC, which will build three air warfare destroyers for the navy, last year launched a long-term recruiting campaign in schools for 1000 shipbuilding jobs. The SA Chamber of Mines and Energy also is campaigning in schools.

The state strategic plan targets a $2 billion defence industry by 2013, and $4 billion worth of mining and processing by 2014. But declines in subject enrolments almost exactly mirror the courses required to equip students for these sectors. Geology completions fell to just 60 last year, compared with 243 in 1996, and Information Technology numbers went from 815 to 155. Specialist Maths completions dropped from 1552 in 1999 to 1121, while Chemistry numbers were at 2217, compared with 2704 in 1998.

Flinders University vice-chancellor Anne Edwards said the university had previously announced it might not be able to continue an engineering faculty, saying "you can't make students study what they don't want to study". "It's a national emergency - we all recognise that - it's a national problem," she said.

University of Adelaide senior physics lecturer Dr Rodney Crewther blamed the decline on low numbers of qualified science teachers. The State Government in January announced targets committing the Education Department to increasing the number of students achieving a Tertiary Entrance Rank in maths, physics or chemistry by 15 per cent within three years.

Senator Minchin, a former science minister, said government intervention was needed. "Some have suggested changing HECS fee levels but there's no evidence that it is the cost of the courses that is the determinant of whether someone does or doesn't do a course," he said. In February, Labor leader Kevin Rudd announced a plan to halve fees in maths and science courses


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