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ABC Q&A FactCheck: Lyle Shelton’s claims on transgender people suicide risk doesn’t stack up

Video: Segment on ABC TV's Q&A featuring Lyle Shelton, 29 February 2016. [Source: ABC TV via YouTube]

The Conversation website has done a fact check on a claim made by the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton.

Lyle Shelton, on ABC TV’s Q&A program on 29 February 2016, said:

Studies that have been done of transgendered people who have had sex reassignment surgery, people who have been followed for 20 or so years have found that after 10 years from the surgery, that their suicide mortality rate was actually 20 times higher than the non-transgendered population. So I’m very concerned that here we are encouraging young people to do things to their bodies … like chest binding for young girls … [and] penis tucking … Now this is taking kids on a trajectory that may well cause them to want to take radical action, such as gender reassignment surgery…

The ACL’s Shelton also had a go at anti-bullying programs, like the Safe School Coalition, that includes “contested gender ideology”.

Shelton also made a quick reference to John Hopkins Hospital which was not fact checked by The Conversation, in which he said:

… this is taking kids on a trajectory that may well cause them to want to take radical action such as gender reassignment surgery which even John Hopkins Hospital in the US — which pioneered this work — now no longer does.

It is a shame The Conversation didn’t explore this throw-away line, which they would have found linked to well-known anti-transgender (and anti-gay) psychologist Dr Paul McHugh.  McHugh has been debunked by many organisations including ThinkProgress.org.

The Conversation pitched a question to Shelton asking him to clarify his claims, but also analysed a later reference to a 30-year Swedish study that claims to have found that the suicide mortality rate was 20 times higher than non-trans* people.  They surmised it was most likely a reference to an article published in PLoS.ONE, Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden, authored by Cecelia Dhejne, et al.

 

What did the Fact Check find?

The Conversation reviewed the research article’s key findings, which did find that “persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population.

But the authors also found the suicide risk did not come from surgeries:

… the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality. Things might have been even worse without sex reassignment.

That’s right: things might have even been worse without surgery.

In The Conversation’s verdict on Shelton’s statement, they agreed that what he said may be true, but:

… it is also possible some viewers may have been left with the impression that the study showed sex reassignment surgery causes a higher risk of suicide later in life. That is not what the Swedish study showed. In fact, the researchers wrote that things might have been even worse without sex reassignment.

The Conversation then came to the conclusion that there is a lack of research on the topic, and Shelton’s views appear to come from just one selective study.
Study citations:

Dhejne C, Lichtenstein P, Boman M, Johansson ALV, Långström N, Landén M (2011) Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16885.

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