My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for 24 March 2020

by ray goodlass

Bigots must stop weaponising religious faith

My column this week begins with the cancellation of Wagga’s LGBTIQ Mardi Gras parade, but it leads towards a major issue – levels of discrimination still existing in Australia, and then on to an impending law that will legislate the right to discriminate.

Though the cancellation of the parade was a sad if necessary solution to a major health crisis it reminded me that much more was at stake beyond an excuse to dress up and party.

The campaign for LGBTI rights is by no means over. The plastering of the Wagga CBD with stickers in the week leading up to the parade violently expressing extreme hostility to trans people is an indication of how much further we have to go. Its cruelty was doubly distressingly given that Wagga’s Mardi Gras is organised by Holly Conroy, a very strong and proud trans woman.

The successful attacks on safe school programs and gender free bathrooms are other examples.

I have also become all too aware in recent weeks that the heterosexual community here in Wagga is also suffering from discrimination, for a month-long investigation by The Saturday Paper into abortion access in the city of Wagga Wagga found it is almost impossible for a woman to get an abortion locally – in part due to “ doctors’ fear of professional and personal backlash from the town’s deeply religious community.”

Jan Roberts, who helped found the Wagga Women’s Health Centre 40 years ago, blames not only the town’s strong Catholic community for the lack of reproductive services, but also an influx of doctors from other Christian denominations, for creating “a more conservative medical world here”. Ms Roberts is deservedly the recipient of this year’s Wagga City Council Peace Award.

Neither of Wagga’s two hospitals, nor its private day surgery, provides surgical terminations to women who want one for social, financial or personal reasons. Very few local GPs prescribe the MS-2 Step – two tablets to induce a medical abortion – which can be used up to nine weeks into the pregnancy.

This brought to mind something that could make matters even worse: the federal government’s proposed Religious Freedom Bill.

During the Sydney Mardi Gras parade I proudly marched with the Greens float, where our placards read “Don’t give bigots a licence to discriminate: No Religious Freedom Law”.

A revised bill is due to come before federal parliament soon, but as columnist Van Badham wrote recently in the Guardian Australia “The government of Australia is pushing a so-called religious discrimination bill that has nothing to do with religion. It excludes it and discriminates”. Indeed it does.

The religious discrimination bill will allow schools, employers and the medical profession to discriminate against LGBTIQ people and women. Advocacy organisations have made the point that under the bill’s proposals, hospitals and healthcare providers could abrogate medical responsibility towards LGBTQIA+ patients and simply refuse them healthcare, citing naught but the will of a self-designed god.

“Specifically, they say this could have an impact on transgender people accessing hormone therapies or lesbian couples wanting fertility treatment,” a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald said.

The religious discrimination bill is a Trojan horse that undermines the few gains that have been made. The Human Rights Law Centre called it “the biggest threat to reproductive healthcare access in decades”. Various state laws already enfranchise doctors a right to conscientious objection in regard to abortion, but oblige the doctor to make a referral elsewhere so patient care is not compromised. The new bill will remove this obligation.

Should a doctor cite ‘religious belief’, the existing professional duty to provide referrals or information to women seeking reproductive healthcare services or products, would be undermined. The whole country could easily become like Wagga.

Furthermore, not only do Wagga’s strongly conservative religious doctors not perform abortions, they weaponise their faith to prevent other doctors performing this important aspect of a woman’s reproductive rights. The religious freedom bill will enshrine that weaponisation as law.

And let’s not forget that our state MP, Joe McGirr, voted against the abortion law reform bill in state parliament late last year.

This is bigotry in practice, and it is something we should all be resisting with all our might.