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The Human Relationships Commission:



Anne Deveson

"WHAT do you think?" the Royal Commission on Human Relationships asked the people of Australia, about family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships.

The response was remarkable. "They brought not just their problems but also positive suggestions," said Anne Deveson, one of the commissioners.

"Many expressed delight that an organization which they considered a government body was actually asking them what they felt, instead of telling them what to do."

ASKED about the facts of life, parents

and grandparents of the so-called good old days often said, "What you don't know can't hurt you."

The sad thing was, it often did. And as evidence in the Royal Commission on Human Relationships indicated, ignorance still hurts, to the extent of threatening the lives of many young people.

The three commissioners were Justice Elizabeth Evatt (Chairman), Chief Justice of the Family Law Court, Dr Felix Arnott, Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, and Anne Deveson, journalist and broadcaster.

When they asked the Australian community about their opinions and experiences on a wide range of human relationships, they were faced with issues that have been "swept under the rug" for generations.

Even as the report was about to be released, after more than two years' intensive research and documentation, there were nervous rumours about how it would bring about the downfall of family life, and increase permissiveness.

"Permissive?" said Anne Deveson later.

"It seems to me the one thing we should be permissive about is knowledge."

The Royal Commission could not instantly change laws. It offered sugges-

tions and recommendations for discussion

that might lead to a new consideration of some of society's deepest problems.

"Surely what we are trying to achieve," said Anne, "is a society where people are able to make responsible decisions based on knowledge rather than myth."

One of the areas of the report which reflects a great deal of anxiety among parents and teenagers is teenage sexuality.

It pointed to "a level of teenage sexual activity which cannot be ignored" and evidence that young, single people have a low rate of effective contraception and a "very high proportion of unwanted pregnancies and abortions."

The report says: "There are many people who believe sincerely that to acknowledge and accept teenage sexual behaviour and to extend contraceptive services to young people is to invite and even to encourage promiscuity and immorality.

"We do not believe that this is a

majority view."

Evidence suggested that ignorance and inaccessibility of information, advice and service contributed to teenage abortions and illegitimate births, and also left them more vulnerable to the risks of early sexual experience.

Shyness was part of it, too. One teenager said in a letter to the commission: "I am only 15 and haven't much brains but I think that a good idea would be for the government to set up a postal con- traceptive service for people who are too shy to attend family planning clinics or ask

their chemists or doctors."

The research showed that parents were

preferred as sources of sex information for adolescents; and reading, while the least liked, was considered by boys to be the most accurate. Friends, the most inaccurate.

For girls, experience proved the most accurate, significant in itself, and perhaps unfortunately harsh.

Said Anne Deveson: "I think you learn more from your parents than perhaps anyone else around you. Schools can only

do so much.

"As Dr Felix Arnott has pointed out, one would hope for education programmes that involved parents, children and the


'Is society saying

that a grown-up

woman can have

an abortion

but it shouldn't

be available

to minors as well'

"It's no use educating the children at school and have them go back not being able to talk with their parents — having the parents feeling threatened, feeling that authority has been taken away from them.

Parent education programmes have been recommended in the report through P and C associations, infants, primary and secondary schools, voluntary associations and hospitals (as part of pre- and post-natal classes). Work already in these areas tended to be fragmented, and concentrated in major cities. Finance was inadequate for extension.

Also, sexuality should be regarded as a proper subject for medical study, the report

Dr Felix Arnott

Justice Elizabeth Evatt


recommended, referring to doctors in training.

Anxieties about the family vanishing under society's changes are put to rest by the commissioners. The commission accepted that "family" encompassed many different life styles — "a varying range of people living together in relationships of

commitment." It was concerned whether the family in Australia was receiving the support it needed to fulfill its main role, caring and nuturing the young.

Evidence showed that public opinion in Australia was increasingly in favour of liberalizing abortion laws.

The commissioners did not consider that, easier access to abortion would be seen as a substitute for effective contracep- tion. Also, "the persons best placed to

assess the need for an abortion are the woman herself and her doctor." It did not

mean that the commission supported

"abortion on demand."

Consent to abortion was one of the

most sensitive areas of the report when it

was first discussed.

"The girl concerned has already had sexual intercourse," the commission deliberated. "The issue is whether she should have the child or have an abortion.

"The younger the age, the less ready she is to take on the responsibilities of


The commission felt that counselling was essential and that girls under 16 should be encouraged to involve their parents.

But, "provided she is capable of understanding and making a responsible decision and has had access to proper and thorough counselling, (our view is that) it is for the girl to decide whether to have the abortion or give birth to the child."

Anne's thoughts on the difficult area of teenage abortion include: "If a girl does not wish her parents to be contacted, or if it

is not possible to contact them, then if we say she should not have the abortion because she is not mature enough, we are instantly requiring her to have a child.

"Is that what society is really saying? — that a grown-up person can have an

abortion, but it shouldn't be available to minors?"

Stories that emerged through the commission's research in the area of child

abuse provided an enlightening insight into the train of events in people's lives.

"You can see so many points along the line where tragedy could have been averted," said Anne.

'If we neglect the

needs of violent families, violence

is likely to

persist from this


to the next one'

"Start with the child who grows up in sexual ignorance, whose mother teaches her to be frightened of men 'because they only want one thing from you.

"She is expected to perform well in school for that family, with high grades.

Because she cannot, she feels a failure.

"The child goes on to become pregnant at 16. She has been having intercourse since 15 because she wants someone to love her.

"She doesn't use contraception because she doesn't know anything about it. She marries the boy because the parents make


"And she doesn't have a son, the one

thing that might have absolved her guilt in the eyes of the family, and the boy's family."

If there was someone qualified to counsel available early in the career of such a girl, her problems might be recognized and the train of events stopped,

said Anne.

"She finally has three children, and a second marriage. She has a pathetic desire to love the children but great feelings of rejection towards the third child — a frightening hostility.

"Her calls for help go unrecognized. "Nonsense, dear, you were so good with the other two, a baby health sister reassures her, and a doctor prescribes tranquillizers.

"The picture unfolds . . . finally the woman does damage her child."

The commission studied this sort of

problem in the light of whether there were sufficient back-up services for family and  

single mothers: whether government should intervene with resources, finance, and facilities.

The question of how certain issues should be dealt with by police and courts was examined by the commission and again emerged as a controversial field.

There were aspects of private morality,

said commission chairman Justice Elizabeth Evatt, which should remain the preserves of the individual.

The question of whether consent was given to certain sexual acts, and whether it was by people of responsible age, is important to the report's considerations.

Above all, the report looks at means of dealing with the social and family implications of various relationships, and not just at the criminal aspects. At the same

time, it does not advocate that offenders be

allowed to go free.

Sometimes, it observes, the conducting of a prosecution and the involvement in it

could be more harmful to a child, for

instance, than the original offence.

These aspects are debated in detail in the report, and should be seen in a total


Emphasis in commission recommenda- tions on rape cases was on protecting the victim from the aftermath, including the trial procedures. Special police squads should include women members, and all should be specially trained in psychology

and crisis intervention.

Where domestic violence was the case,

the report called for education of police and lawyers in referring men charged to counselling or treatment.

"If we neglect the needs of violent families." the commission's report says, '"violence is likely to persist from one generation to the next."