Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes. Photo: Matthew Syres
PARENTS and carers of the disabled are regularly doctor shopping and going abroad to have their children sterilised illegally, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Under Australian law, only the Family Court or a guardianship tribunal can authorise the irreversible medical procedure.
But national Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes said anecdotal evidence suggested unauthorised non-therapeutic and forced sterilisation were still common in Australia.
Mr Innes is seeking to have the practice criminalised, with penalties as harsh as imprisonment.
Mr Innes recently wrote a letter to the Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon saying current laws had failed to protect women and girls with disability from non-therapeutic and forced sterilisation.
While exact figures on non-therapeutic sterilisation within the health sector are difficult to obtain, Mr Innes said the commission had attempted to gather data on the practice but had only managed to collect figures from New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.
The data collected shows permission was granted for 12 procedures over the past five years, including one in New South Wales for a child under 16.
Mr Innes said the commission suspected many more procedures were carried out without court consent.
''I'm seeking the criminalisation of forced sterilisations,'' Mr Innes said.
''It should be a criminal offence for any adult to be sterilised without consent and for any child at all, apart from life-saving circumstances.''
But Mr Innes said the he would also seek a broader public awareness campaign on the issue.
''You've got to do more than criminalise it, that's just the legal remedy.
''There's got to be a lot of public education to support families to realise there are other alternatives to sterilisation, there's various methods of menstrual management that are reversible.
''Sterilisation is at the extreme range of the spectrum, there are a whole range of alternatives that ought to be considered first.''
The plea comes after the Senate Community Affairs Committee recently announced an inquiry into the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of people with disabilities in Australia.
Inquiry architect, Queensland Liberals Senator Sue Boyce - who has a daughter with Down syndrome, said menstrual management and preventing pregnancy appeared to be the major reasons families and carers sought to sterilise their disabled charges.
''We want to get at the values that are underlying what we're currently doing and, by doing that, demonstrate that perhaps we should stop doing it,'' Senator Boyce said.
''We want to tease out some of the reasons it happens and open the whole topic up.''
The Senate inquiry is receiving submissions on the issue.