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.
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,” politics student James Kent told Crikey.
In August 2011 Kent 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,” Kent, 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.”
Kent 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 Kent had been feeling depressed. After Kent pressed further on whether his same-sex attraction was normal, Kent says that Dutton told him the evidence was inconclusive and she suggested a hormone imbalance may be to blame.
According to Kent, she then wrote a referral for a hormone test, and suggested a hormone treatment such as implanon — a female contraceptive inserted under the skin — may be effective. Dutton also suggested he speak with a priest and gave Kent 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. Kent 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 Kent 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 Kent had requested. The response to Kent 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”.
Kent 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 Kent.
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”.