The right to adult incest

Today brings this rather surprising news story from South Australia:

A South Australian woman has given birth to her father’s daughter after the couple had sex. John and Jenny Deaves reunited 30 years after Mr Deaves separated from Jenny’s mother. Jenny was 31 and just two weeks after meeting, father and daughter had sex. “John and I are in this relationship as consenting adults,” Mrs Deaves told the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes tonight. “We are just asking for a little bit of respect and understanding.” Their nine-month-old daughter Celeste, shown on TV, appears fit and healthy.

The couple appear to have confessed to a crime under South Australia’s Criminal Law Consolidation Act:


Any persons who, being related, either as parent and child or as brother and sister, have sexual intercourse with each other shall be guilty of incest and liable to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding seven years.

Indeed, they were actually convicted of this crime this year and were sentenced to a good behaviour bond.

But there’s a major problem here: Australia’s toughest human rights law, the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act 1994 (Cth), which says:

4 (1) Sexual conduct involving only consenting adults acting in private is not to be subject, by or under any law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, to any arbitrary interference with privacy within the meaning of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Those who recall the debate about the Commonwealth law in 1994 will also recall that the question of adult incest was very much discussed at the time (though, alas, the relevant discussion in the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, not to mention the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, do not seem to be available online. The internet, it seems, only began in 1995.)

Section 4 and Charter s. 13(a), of course, both promote the privacy right in Article 17 of the ICCPR. However, importantly, in stark contrast to the Charter, the Commmonwealth’s Act overrides all other laws (with the likely exception of subsequent Commonwealth laws, but those don’t seem to be in play here.) Moreover, the Act cannot be retroactively repealed (thanks to a High Court decision about s. 109 of the Constitution, which governs the interaction between federal and state laws.) So, if s4(1) overrides the South Australian law on incest, then not only did this couple act lawfully, but they also can continue to do so – despite the bond – at least until the Commonwealth parliament repeals or amends its Act.

Wow. But there are two burning (legal) questions. First, is the Commonwealth Act constitutional? The High Court was asked this question in Croome v Tasmania [1997] HCA 5 but never got to resolve it because the Tasmanian parliament repealed the laws (on sexual conduct against ‘the laws of nature’) that was at issue in that case. The Court did, however, rule that Croome, by confessing to Tasmanian police that he had had sex with a man, had standing to challenge the law (even though he was never prosecuted.) The SA couple pbviously have standing. Indeed, the news reports say that the police are ‘closely monitoring’ them. Ew.

Second, what effect does s4(1) have on the South Australian Act? Let’s see: the couple evidently engaged in sexual conduct; they are both adults; they certainly sound like they consented – and that’s what the sentencing jduge found – and they (presumably) acted in private (despite being a little more public about it after the fact than some). This leaves two subsidiary questions: (a) would a prosecution under s72 interere with their privacy, within the meaning of Article 17 of the ICCPR? It would certainly intefere with the couple’s sex life, but I guess you have to wonder whether everyone’s sex life – even their consensual sex life done in private – is always private. (b) and would any such interference be ‘arbitrary’? That raises, of course, the very tricky issue of whether – leaving aside the horror of sexual acts performed on children – there is actually anything much wrong with incest. The three usual suspects are (i) morality; never a strong argument for a breach of rights; (ii) a suspicion of coercion; arguably dispelled here because the couple only met recently (at least on on some accounts.) The Advertiser has some expert blathering about ‘genetic sexual attraction’. (iii) harm for any offspring. There is certainly off-spring here and, according to the sentencing remarks, an earlier child of the couple died from genetic defects. The current child – the only one apparently conceieved in South Australia – seems fine. But there’s also the (somewhat self-fulfilling) spectre of stigma.

If the South Australian law is contrary to the Commonwealth Act, then a similar problem arises under ss. 44(1) and (3) of Victoria’s Crimes Act:

44. Incest
(1) A person must not take part in an act of sexual penetration with a person whom he or she knows to be his or her child or other lineal descendant or his or her step-child. Penalty: Level 2 imprisonment (25 years maximum).
(3) A person who is aged 18 or older must not take part in an act of sexual penetration with a person whom he or she knows to be his or her father or mother or other lineal ancestor or his or her step-father or step-mother. Penalty: Level 6 imprisonment (5 years maximum).

(Interestingly, under Victoria’s law, the father and daughter would get significantly different – and arguably discriminatory – penalties.) Moreover, there is also an argument that ss. 44 (1) and (3) are incompatible, in part, with Charter s. 13(a). The latter, of course, won’t stop a prosecution, but may attract a declaration of inconsistent intepretation. In their new text, Evans and Evans argue that such declarations should not be made where a Victorian law is overriden by a Commonwealth law in any case. I disagree. The Victorian law, to the extent of any inconsistent with the Commonwealth law, simply becomes inoperative and will be revived (albeit not retroactively) as soon as the Commonwealth law is repealed. As the High Court correctly ruled in Croome, laws on the books – even unenforced ones – can infringe on people’s human rights, and hence the Charter (though whether s44(1) & (3)’s interference is incompatible with the Charter is another matter.)

One thought on “The right to adult incest

  1. Flawed arguments for the legalisation of consensual adult incest.

    It has been suggested, that stopping incestuous couples from having inbred children, is equivalent to prohibiting those with known genetic disorders, from reproducing imperfect offspring. This infers that those who deplore incestuous reproduction are aligned with Nazi type, anti special-needs extremists.

    This is not the case. There is an appalling failure of logic in this argument.

    People who carry genetic disorders have absolutely no way of avoiding the situation they find themselves in.
    Many couples responsibly choose not to reproduce when they know that there is a risk that their children will suffer a congenital disease such as spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, down syndrome, haemophilia etc. This is not because they hate such children. Many of these couples are already caring for one or more child with such an affliction. Although they clearly love and care for these children they are painfully aware that such suffering is better not repeated.

    Conscientious parents, naturally do everything in their power to promote and safeguard the health and well being of their children. For many this starts even before conception, taking vitamin supplements avoiding alcohol and drugs, and abandoning other personal pleasures for the sake of the health of their unborn. Throughout much of nature, parenting is the most extremely selfless activity, in which adult creatures work relentlessly in order to promote the survival of their young.

    It has been estimated that up to 50% of the children conceived by closely related couples suffer abnormalities. Deliberately choosing to create such children is clearly not the behaviour of caring loving parents. It actually amounts to the reckless self-indulgent endangerment of children. Even their apparently healthy offspring have a higher risk of problems occurring in their own children. Some congenital diseases are believed to be the result of inbreeding; this is why they are prevalent in the aristocracy where marriage to relatives was used to keep wealth in the family.

    Consensual incest between adults, has been presented as being a “victimless crime”. This is absolute nonsense. The considerable anguish and stigma that incest causes to family and friends can perhaps be passed off as resulting from society’s taboo. But the real suffering, that such couples deliberately condemn many of their children to, is utterly inexcusable.

    There are a multitude of harmless “perversions” which some people enjoy, usually in private. What differentiates them from dangerous sexual perverts, is the issue of doing harm to others. This sick minority, are willing to hurt other people in order to gratify their deviant lusts. This definition includes reproductive incestuous couples, alongside rapists and paedophiles.

    Surly, the protection of children is a vital precept of civilization. Societies that decide to decriminalise incestuous relations between near kin have a duty to protect the potential offspring of such unions. It has been argued that contraception has disconnected sex from reproduction. This is untrue as no contraceptive is absolutely foolproof even when used conscientiously. It would therefore seem reasonable that even in the most liberal countries, incestuous unions should only be legal if one or both persons are sterilised.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s