By Vivienne Porzsolt
The outcome of a case currently before the Human Rights Commission in Canberra could have a huge impact on the status and welfare of women.
"For women's health and women's health centres, the consequences could be catastrophic", says Dr Dorothy Broom, an expert adviser in the case with a background of 20 years' research in women's health. She is also author of Damned If We Do, a history of women's health centres in Australia.
The case, brought initially by Dr Alex Proudfoot, a senior health officer in the Commonwealth Department of Health, challenges the right of government or any other body to set up health services specifically to meet the needs of women. Even a service entirely staffed by volunteers could be deemed discriminatory if the complainants succeed. Other targeted services, like those for Kooris, the elderly and children, could also be in danger.
Proudfoot initially laid a complaint of discrimination with the Human Rights Commission in 1990, when the federal minister of health announced the National Women's Health Program. The Human Rights Commission refused to investigate the complaint, but Proudfoot obtained a Federal Court order forcing it to act.
In mid-1991, the Canberra Women's Health Centre was formally notified of the complaint by the Human Rights Commission and asked to make submissions. The centre is funded under the National Women's Health Program and didn't even exist at the time of the initial complaint.
By now, the Canberra Women's Health Centre, the ACT government and the ACT Board of Health were also named as respondents. The case has placed enormous strain on the financial and human resources of the centre.
Initially, the centre shared legal representation with the ACT government and Board of Health and the Commonwealth Department of Health, but early in hearings held in November 1991 it became clear that the interests of the parties were not identical, though they overlapped.
Since the initial complaint by Proudfoot, two more complainants have emerged: Jack Smith, a computer manager for the ACT government and Dr Roger Henderson, an anaesthetist. It is not clear why the commission has agreed to accept the various complainants' legal standing, since they don't appear to have been disadvantaged, nor do they appear to share similar circumstances.
If the case succeeds and funding of women's health services is found to be discriminatory, "this could apply to all women's health centres, even private, fee-for-service operations, even those staffed by volunteers", Dr Broom told Green Left Weekly. "It could even be declared unlawful for women to organise in their own time to help other women in their own way." The very existence of women's health centres is at stake.
"If Proudfoot were lobbying for men's health services, there would be no quarrel with him whatever, absolutely none", Broom says. "What he is doing is an entirely negative and destructive attack on services that are clearly wanted and needed by women and do not harm men by their existence."
If women's health centres are declared illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act as it stands, Dr Broom believes it would take a complete overhaul of the act to correct the situation.
Donations towards the heavy legal costs of the Canberra Women's Health Centre may be sent c/- Dr Dorothy Broom, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University, GPO Box 4, Canberra ACT 2601.