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Oct 17, 2012

Doctor divides uni: gay student told to seek hormone testing

Students and staff at the University of Canberra are divided over the actions of a Catholic doctor at the university medical centre who refuses to prescribe contraception and suggested a gay student have a hormone test.

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A doctor at the University of Canberra medical centre told a gay student he could seek hormone treatment to cure his same-sex attraction.

The incident has divided university students and staff, with the student involved to launch an appeal against the university for its support of the doctor’s actions. The doctor is also well known in the university community for refusing to prescribe contraception due to her Catholic beliefs.

Just last month a NSW doctor from the Exclusive Bretheren church was banned from practising after he prescribed a testosterone-lowering drug to a young gay man in order to “cure” his homosexuality. In early October the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy deemed it “unethical” to try and convert patients to heterosexuality.

“I’m trying to do something now, because I really don’t think we should be waiting until a student kills themselves or something else,” the politics student told Crikey.

In August 2011 the student visited Dr Rehana Dutton at the university’s Health and Counselling Centre, after hearing from other students that Dutton refused to prescribe contraception. “I went in primarily just to find out what the Billings and rhythm methods were,” the student, who is the former general secretary of the University of Canberra students association, told Crikey. “And then I thought, if she cares this much about contraception, there’s a chance she might also be homophobic as well. I brought up I was same-sex attracted to see what would happen and that’s when things got weird.”

The student tells Crikey that when he told the doctor that he’d been experiencing “thoughts about men” and asked whether these thoughts were natural, Dutton queried whether he had been feeling depressed. After the student pressed further on whether his same-sex attraction was normal, the student says that Dutton told him the evidence was inconclusive and she suggested a hormone imbalance may be to blame.

According to the student, she then wrote a referral for a hormone test, and suggested a hormone treatment such as implanon — a female contraceptive inserted under the skin — might be effective. Dutton also suggested he speak with a priest and gave the student the number for CatholicCare, a Church-based social services organisation.

A few months earlier Nicole Rytir, who was a psychology honours student at the university, had been to see Dutton and requested a prescription of the contraceptive pill during her consultation, unaware of Dutton’s stance on contraception. As soon as Rytir mentioned the pill prescription, Dutton told her she’d have to see another doctor. “She was calm but quite stern,” said Rytir. “She was not very open or willing to discuss it with me.” Rytir says once the pill was mentioned, “she didn’t want to discuss anything else with me”.

Rytir then had to wait in reception until another doctor was available. She tells Crikey that while she was comfortable getting the pill prescription, if it was her first time or she was less confident, then “I probably would have been quite off put”. A sign in the reception centre now warns students that Dutton does not give out contraception, yet Crikey has heard of several incidents of students being unaware of this until they asked Dutton for contraception.

After the event, Rytir decided to put in a complaint to the university. The politics student also filed an official complaint, supported by letters from psychologist Paul Martin and University of Canberra law lecturer Bruce Arnold, who both condemned Dutton’s actions in viewing homosexuality as a disorder that needed treatment.

When Arnold emailed his letter of support in September 2011 to university registrar Bruce Lines (who was conducting the investigation into the complaints about Dutton), Lines replied:

“If the advice described was indeed provided by the practitioner than it is of course completely inappropriate and unacceptable in a university environment; in fact in any environment. I would be very concerned if this report was confirmed to be true.”

Yet when Lines sent the politics student and Rytir his official response on behalf of the university in December 2011, his reaction was a little different. Lines noted that university medical practise should be “secular and non-judgemental” but that a number of complicated competing considerations meant that Dutton would not be asked to apologise or begin prescribing contraception and encouraging safe-sex practises, as the politics student had requested. The response to the politics student and Rytir from registrar Lines states:

“The Director of Health and Counselling Centre, who is a practising medical doctor and an employee of the university, was asked to review your complaint. From the information she has been given, she has formed the opinion that there is no evidence that Dr Dutton has acted inappropriately from a treatment perspective.”

Jenny Weekees, the director of the Health and Counselling Centre, has not returned Crikey‘s calls for comment.

The university’s response also notes that the Medical Board of Australia’s Code of Good Medical Practice states that medical professionals have the right “to not provide or directly participate in treatments to which you conscientiously object”, directly relating to Dutton being allowed to not prescribe contraception.

Lines also noted the university had considered “Legal advice obtained by the university regarding its contractual obligations with Dr Dutton”. Her licence agreement is due to expire at the end of this year.

Lines is currently on leave and was unable to be contacted. A University of Canberra spokesperson told Crikey: “The medical practitioners in the Health and Counselling Centre are private practitioners and are not employed by the university. The medical practitioners provide services on the university’s premises under the terms of a licence agreement. The only medical practitioner employed by the university is the Director of the Health and Counselling Centre.”

The president of the student association, James Pace, says he has homosexual friends that have seen Dutton and say she never pressured them for a hormone test or suggested there was anything wrong with them. He says a number of Catholic students have expressed their relief at having a doctor who was like-minded and could help them receive medical advice around their religious beliefs, and that Dutton was just one of a number of doctors that students could see.

“We don’t feel that we should discriminate against her because of her faith,” said Pace. He thinks there is a group of students who want to remove the doctor from campus and that by going to visit Dutton and mentioning same-sex attraction, they were “trying to trap her into something”.

The politics student denies he wants Dutton fired. “It’s not an issue for me that she’s still on campus, I’m perfectly happy for her to stay,” he told Crikey. “What I’m not perfectly fine with is the fact that she’s making prescriptions and giving advice with no medical basis.”

He says his biggest concern is for any student struggling with their sexuality who may visit Dutton, get told they could have a hormonal imbalance and get placed on hormone treatment in the hope of “fixing” their same-sex attraction. “That can do severe damage,” said the politics student.

The University of Canberra spokesperson added that “students are advised to contact the ACT Health Services Commissioner if they wish to pursue a matter involving a private practitioner”.

Amber Jamieson —

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

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28 thoughts on “Doctor divides uni: gay student told to seek hormone testing

  1. msmith

    One of the problems surrounding this issue is that the worst outcomes aren’t necessarily for confident openly gay adults, yet they’re generally the only people who speak out on the topic. The negative outcomes are spread far wider, for people who aren’t part of the openly gay ‘community’ and therefore don’t have anyone to speak up for them. IF you’re confident with your sexuality, AND reasonably educated about basic sexual health issues, AND able to shop around for a good doctor, you can get the health services you need, no problems. They’re not the people most at risk here. If the president of the student association asked his known homosexual friends whether they’d have issues with the doctor, he’s missing the point. They should be more concerned with youngsters who haven’t come out yet, and maybe even haven’t acted on their desires at this stage, and also those of their ‘straight’ friends who indulge in secret same-sexual activities on the side (more common than anyone cares to admit).
    Young people coming to terms with their sexuality are obviously vulnerable in many ways, and with non-openly-gay patients who keep their same-sex activity secret from their friends & family, this kind of false moralising from doctors can only make it even less likely that they’ll seek appropriate sexual health advice. I don’t see how a doctor can be said to be doing their job if they start each day with the belief that they don’t owe these people the same level of care they offer everyone else.
    If a compromise is needed, maybe they could place a large sign in the front of the office stating that ‘Dr X does not see patients regarding family planning/sexual-health/sexuality issues, except on a Christian faith-based basis’, with the proviso that another doctor is also always available at the same practice. Though personally, I’m not sure why any doctor who isn’t prepared to show the proper respect to all patients is still working in 2012. Surely the best health outcome for the patient is paramount, or else why be a GP?

  2. anneenna

    Is the writer of the article advocating for a type of secularism that represses the expression of strongly-held beliefs in the public sphere?

    I prefer a secularism in which freedom of religious beliefs coexists alongside freedom of sexualities, and in which people can publicly express their beliefs and dialogue with each other with an open-minded puzzlement of why they might identify in certain ways.

    It sounds like the woman was upfront about her position on contraception – (which while I disagree with it, is scientifically substantiated -as far as science can substantiate such things- and practiced successfully by many people) and actually gave an answer about the ‘natural’ question which is in line with most scholarly (scientific and humanities-based) suspicion of the whole category of ‘the natural’- you can never be conclusive about what is natural, and besides, appealing to the ‘natural’ is an essentialist crutch that does not help find new insights in an argument.

    I think referring him to Centacare was not wise however since he never identified himself as Catholic so it’s inappropriate for her to do that.

    One of the things I support is encouraging an open-ended evolution of religions in response to debates in broader society. If you demonise publicly identifying religious people, you create an us vs them situation that often closes down the space for internal debate and the expression of diverse identities. It’s a live and sensitive question within the Catholic church at the moment that the hierarchy has failed to give much humane direction to, however other people have been rethinking this stuff- how to rethink sexuality and have an ethical orientation to these questions. Can you make space for a fumbling, bumbling progress in this domain or are you going to essentialise her belief system? Are you going to make her a sacrificial lamb whose story does not further any dialogue within catholicism?

    Furthermore it sounds like the student in question did not identify as gay in the appointment- he did not see his thoughts as part of him, and wanted her to give that advice. How would you distinguish this from someone who wanted gender reassignment hormones?