Leslie Cannold

MELBOURNE, Australia–The international good feelings from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games should not mask the strong undercurrent of anti-woman emotion in the furor touched off by a single woman’s desire to become a mother.

The woman went to court in the state of Victoria seeking the right to in vitro fertilization treatments. She lost but won on an appeal to the federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. For the second time in as many years, the commission ruled that Victoria’s Infertility Treatment Act violated Australia’s law barring discrimination on the basis of marital status.

In response to the case, the government recently has sought to dilute that very law: the Federal Sexual Discrimination Act, which forbids the denial of goods or services to women on the basis of their marital status.

The test case centered on Lisa Meldrum, a single Melbourne woman in her late 30s who sought infertility treatment after trying for several years without success, both in de facto partnerships and outside of them, to become pregnant. The commission’s findings determined that clinics and hospitals upholding the Infertility Treatment Act, which permits only married women and those living in de facto relationships to access treatment, were guilty of discrimination against single women like Meldrum on the basis of marital status. Single lesbians and those in partnerships willing to call themselves single also stood to benefit from the ruling.

When Meldrum’s doctor Ian McBain announced he would commence treating her immediately, a political storm erupted that shows no signs of abating.

A few days after the ruling, the government announced plans to amend the Sexual Discrimination Act to enable the states to restrict women’s access to infertility treatment on marital status grounds.

Prime Minister John Howard weighed in on the debate by announcing his belief that all children should have a “reasonable expectation” of being raised by both their mother and their father, while his former high-profile deputy decried public subsidization of the “childbearing whims” of lesbian women.

And on October 18, the High Court announced that the court’s full bench would hear an application from Australia’s Catholic bishops seeking to have the decision quashed.

Feminist commentators have expressed concern about a number of aspects of the government’s handling of the issue.

For example, the government’s proposed amendments to the sex discrimination law were announced and drafted without any consultation with Susan Halliday, the federal sex discrimination commissioner. More important, the absence of an American-style Bill of Rights in Australia, makes an attack on the law, one of the few ways in which Australian women can articulate and defend their right to equal treatment under the law, a profound threat to women’s rights.

Few have listened to what Lisa Meldrum was–and was not–saying about her decision to pursue sole motherhood using donor sperm. Noted Meldrum: “All young girls dream of a husband, a house and a family, but it’s just not the way it is for everybody and it wasn’t that way for me. And this is what it has come to.”

Meldrum is not alone. My research suggests that while most women who expect to mother but wind up childless come to accept and enjoy life without children, a small number are unable to relinquish their dream of motherhood. In my study of circumstantially childless women, this small group wants “the whole package”: marriage and motherhood. But, having failed to find a partner, or one willing to have children, these women despair of giving up their dream of motherhood too.

Such women have thought long and hard about whether they can be “good” mothers raising a child alone. They’ve considered male role models and time and financial management issues. They’ve anguished over the sort of relationship they feel is important for their child to have with their biological father and how to provide it.

Several women ultimately decided against sole motherhood because they wanted their child to have a relationship with the biological father, and couldn’t find a man willing to donate sperm or to do so with a willingness to have a continuing relationship with the child. Women who push ahead with their plans to mother do so because they believe they have found good solutions to what they accept are vital issues facing mothers and children born from donor sperm.

While the controversy has been depicted as a battle of rights, “moral panic” would be a far more accurate description. At the core is the growing social and economic autonomy of women and the declining role of men in the formation of families.

A conservative commentator lambasted Meldrum and other single women for the “me, me” nature of their desire to mother. The charge is that women’s new control of sometimes considerable resources has turned them from their rightful 1950s role as promoters of the interests and desires of others: men and children.

At the heart of this panic is the subconscious realization that it has always been women’s economic dependency–not their naturally selfless natures–that led them to accept social roles that relegated them to being means to other people’s ends.

Even more anxiety producing is the (mistaken) belief that what Meldrum was asserting in her court action–and what the court was affirming in its decision–was that men are unnecessary in the important business of forming families. The worry is that women’s economic independence and advances in reproductive technologies have led increasing numbers of women to conclude that men (as people, not sperm donors) are incidental to the having and raising of kids.

But while the evidence shows that most women want men to be real players in the family, it also suggests a gap between what women expect from male partners and what men are willing and able to provide. Because middle-class women no longer have to marry for money, they are increasingly rejecting men unable or unwilling to provide them with emotional companionship and to share the domestic load. There is growing evidence that increasing numbers of men would prefer a new car to a new baby, and up to one-third may be reluctant or unwilling to undertake the commitments of a stable relationship, much less those of fatherhood.

What all this suggests is that as women have become choosier about their life partners, fewer men are even putting their hands up for the job.

This tension–between what women want and what men can and want to provide–is at the heart of the current debate. We all must resist attempts to arrest our anxiety by taking pot shots at sole mothers and search, instead, for the more lasting calm that comes from finding solutions to the right questions.

Leslie Cannold is the author of “The Abortion Myth: Feminism, Morality and the Hard Choices Women Make” (Wesleyan University Press, 2000). Her doctoral dissertation is on circumstantial childlessness.