Earlier this year the Human Rights Commission issued The Prism Report, a paper on people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. The Prism Report claims to be about human rights but it is badly flawed in its treatment of existing rights, particularly in ignoring the existence of women and the impact the Prism recommendations will have on the need for safety and fairness for women. Speak Up For Women has submitted a response to the HRC outlining the key areas where the report is undermining the rights of women.
Response to the Human Rights Commission’s PRISM Report by Speak Up For Women
This document is a response to the PRISM report (‘the report’) produced and disseminated by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.1 According to The Human Rights Commission’s website, statutory duties related to its role includes the responsibility to:
Advocate and promote respect for, and an understanding and appreciation of, human rights in New Zealand society;
Encourage the maintenance and development of harmonious relations between individuals and among the diverse groups in New Zealand society;2
However, the content of the PRISM report misrepresents human rights law and contributes to rhetoric which is already contentious and pits groups and individuals against each other. It is the view of Speak Up For Women that the report has not addressed issues central to the subject matter and lacks the public consultation necessary for it to guide policy. The report is ultimately incomplete, serves to obfuscate the law, and recommends wide-sweeping social changes without proper consideration of existing legislation and the values of New Zealanders.
The problem of definition
That there has been insufficient public consultation is evident in the definitions outlined in the report. The definitions of words are important as they are how we orientate ourselves in our societies and communicate. One of the most important functions of words are to outline the boundaries we place around our society in order to understand ourselves, keep ourselves safe, and punish those who commit crimes. Understanding the definitions of key terms and maintaining their consistency is paramount to ensuring our legal system functions fairly and effectively. The current trend to overreach and redefine words based on the experiences of a small minority of people in activist communities – as this report has done – is a threat to our ability to use laws to protect populations, prevent crime, and uphold human rights.
The glossary of terms at the end of the PRISM Report is at odds with the glossary of terms set up by the United Nations Equality Glossary. The report avoids definitions of both gender and sex in favour of obscure definitions under three separate headings.
The definition of sex is most problematic where it states:
“All babies are assigned a sex at birth, usually by a visual observation of external genitalia”.
The term ‘assigned’ is inaccurate and confusing. Referring to public scientific knowledge used to underpin global understanding of human biology and medicine would have assisted the committee in writing the report in more accurate and less politicised language. It is a distortion of the English language to say sex can be ‘assigned at birth’ and it is at odds with the United Nations Equality Glossary (2017) that defines sex as follows:
“The physical and biological characteristics that distinguish males and females.”
Wider consultation on the matter of post-natal observation of babies would have elucidated that sex is usually detected in utero with no need to rely on a visual inspection. It is commonplace for pregnant women to have their foetus’ chromosomes tested only a matter of weeks after conception. Alternatively, they can ascertain the sex via an ultrasound. For this reason, the report appears wilfully misleading, and puts forward a definition of sex that is out-of-step with common societal understanding.
The expression “assigned at birth” also lacks scientific basis. The term ‘assign’ is commonly understood to mean allocate. However, sex is ultimately determined by biology. The mechanisms for which are well-known and have been taught at schools and universities worldwide. It is necessary to reflect on why “assigned” was considered appropriate language here. The proliferation of its use in relation to sex has emerged from activist circles whose expressed purpose is to erase the boundaries – and therefore the unique rights and protections – between the sexes. In light of this, it is highly inappropriate that a human rights commission would chose to adopt the language of a small, but noisy lobby rather than that which governs our material reality in existing laws and scientific understanding.
The glossary of terms in the report, if adopted, could shift New Zealand law outside of the comity of the United Nations. Instead, it is our recommendation that New Zealand policy makers adopt definitions set up by United Nations Equality Glossary (2017). In particular, we suggest the following: read more