Ms SHEED (Shepparton) (15:33): I rise to make a contribution in support of the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Amendment Bill 2021. I was in my parliamentary office on Tuesday evening when debate commenced on this bill, and I was so impressed to hear the contributions that were made by the member for Lowan and in particular by the Minister for Women. The minister shared her very personal experiences of attempting to achieve a pregnancy through assisted reproductive treatment (ART) processes. The anxiety, the stress and the devastating emotional pain associated with multiple treatments were shared in a frank and forthright manner and reflect the experiences that I have heard from so many women over the years. So many women have stories to tell about their reproductive journeys. And it is not just women’s business always; it is very often a very shared journey that partners go through to achieve a pregnancy that may be so wanted.
I have lived a lot longer than a lot of people in this house, and so in my lifetime I have seen the remarkable advances in women’s health and in reproductive capacity through assisted reproduction. I was married in 1974 and had my first child in the mid-1980s after years of wanting to be pregnant but not and struggling with endometriosis, just by sheer luck falling pregnant. The notion of how that would occur, were I not able to, was a very significant feature of those early years in my marriage. I wanted children, we wanted a family, and it was starting to look like that might be a problem.
In those very early days there was very little prospect of a treatment such as we are talking about today. I watched in wonder as the first IVF child was born in 1980. There were headlines; it was truly an amazing thing. It was almost the stuff of science fiction that such a thing could happen. I watched in 1988 when the first surrogate child was born, when Maggie Kirkman asked her sister, Linda, to carry her baby and the child, Alice, was born. These things were truly so amazing.
Over the years the technology in relation to reproductive treatment really roared ahead of the law, and it took the law quite a while to catch up and to start regulating it. After the birth of Maggie Kirkman’s first child, Alice, the law was immediately changed to make it illegal, so it took some time for a whole range of procedures and rules to be developed around it to put in place the safety net, I suppose, for the notion of surrogacy to proceed. So all these developments have been quite remarkable, and they have come with a lot of difficulties along the way. I think for all of us who know women who have been on that journey, we have seen how arduous it can be. It has never been better described, in my mind, than by the Minister for Women on Tuesday night.
The advances in women’s health more generally have also been remarkable. I think it is really worth thinking about the fact that back in the 1970s and 80s finding a woman doctor to go to was a rarity—and in regional areas so much more so. Finding the sort of treatments that you might have wanted in a regional area was just so difficult and so often intrusive and unpleasant in every way. So many people travelled to the city to get the treatments they wanted, whatever that might be. Just accessing the contraceptive pill, in the early days, was something that was very difficult for young women to achieve—hormonal treatments for conditions like endometriosis, the loss of miscarriage. All these sorts of issues surrounding women’s health used to seem such difficult things. And while they are, emotionally, the access to the sorts of services that we have now is really outstanding, and I think we have women’s health clinics throughout Melbourne. We even have a small one in Shepparton. I think the opportunities that that has provided in terms of giving access to the sorts of services that women and girls want have been just fantastic.
So this bill seeks to strengthen the current laws and to make assisted reproductive treatment more accessible and inclusive, and it provides that necessary framework in a world that now is just remarkable in terms of what can be achieved. I was really pleased to hear from the second-reading speech given by the minister that this will make reproductive treatment opportunities available in regional areas. Now, the cost of access to treatments such as ART is always added to enormously if you have to travel to Melbourne, if you have to stay for a few days, if you are going through all the processes that are required. So the opportunity for people living in regional communities to be able to access it close to their home, to be able to go home after they have had a treatment, is an opportunity that will be very welcome, and it will expand the opportunities for many people who perhaps give up much earlier than they would have otherwise because of the cost and because of the inaccessibility.
The range of people who will be able to undertake the procedures is also being widened, and it will include nurses and other properly trained health professionals. They will be able to carry out artificial insemination under the supervision or direction of a doctor in an assisted reproductive clinic. While this no doubt will present challenges, it is hoped that some of our major regional centres will be able to take it up, that it will become more widely available and that, I suppose, effectively more clinics of this nature will appear in smaller regional areas.
But I do fear and I want to comment on the fact that we have a massive shortage of doctors looming in regional areas—doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. Everyone out there in regional areas is well aware of this, and it has been exacerbated by an ageing workforce, particularly among general practitioners but also just from the closed borders over the last 18 months. Regional areas have had the huge benefit of overseas doctors being brought into the country and serving time in regional areas, called areas of need, until such time as they may well then choose to go back to the city. I was recently approached by the Murray City Country Coast GP Training body for a briefing on just this issue, and that was in the context of the training programs that are undertaken for regional GPs in regional areas likely being transferred out of the regional training organisations that currently exist—and that was one of them in Victoria—back to the colleges and possibly to more city-based areas. Their concern is that of the 900 supervising GPs that are out there, many of them in regional areas, and the 600 trainees who go through that program, there will be a falling off of numbers at a time when we can absolutely least contemplate that happening.
So many practices—and I talk about Shepparton here—have a lot of old GPs. They are much loved, they have been around for a long time and some of them wanted to retire two or three years ago but are still going because they cannot sell their practice; they cannot even find someone to come in and take over their practice. It is a really serious situation that nobody has addressed properly. There have been programs introduced through universities to get country kids into medicine, to do medicine. These universities are not meeting their quotas, and they are not achieving the outcomes that they talk about. The ideal is there, but the reality is not occurring. I fear that with this assisted reproductive treatment program that could become available, that could be so much more widely available, the paucity of GPs, doctors, specialists and all these allied health professionals in our regional areas may lead to it not occurring in a really fair and equitable way. I hope that the minister will really look to doing something about this and provide some opportunities for this to be dealt with in a way that will ensure that accessibility. Victoria has been at the forefront, and this bill really just puts into place the protections that are needed.