Feature

Docs spurn state attempts to criminalize treatment of transgender kids


 

Many US endocrinologists are crying foul as a growing number of state lawmakers are attempting to enact legislation that would prohibit, and in some cases criminalize, medical treatment for minors with gender dysphoria.

As of press time, 13 states had introduced such bills, and legislators in two additional states said they were drafting bills. So far, one — in South Dakota — was defeated in a Senate committee, and another, in Florida, was essentially tabled without being enacted.

They all have a common goal of preventing minors from receiving puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, or gender-affirmation surgery.

“These things are being proposed based on a lot of misinformation,” said Stephen Rosenthal, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and a past president of the Pediatric Endocrine Society.

Lawmakers “are not looking at the scientific evidence that supports current clinical practice guidelines,” Rosenthal, who treats transgender children, told Medscape Medical News.

And “People just aren’t really understanding the harm that regulating this kind of medicine would do,” stressed Cassandra Brady, MD, assistant professor of pediatric endocrinology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Memphis, Tennessee.

The bills come at a time when gender identity clinics for minors around the world have seen a significant uptick in cases. And, as widely reported by Medscape Medical News, some clinicians have begun to question whether treatment decisions are outpacing science.

Queries about use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones have embroiled the United Kingdom’s only publicly funded Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) in controversy, for example, with five clinicians resigning last year over concerns about overuse of the treatments.

And earlier this month, the UK National Health Service (NHS) announced an independent review of services including the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones in youth with gender dysphoria.

Meanwhile, the topic has ignited debate in Sweden, where a report from the Board of Health and Welfare confirmed a 1,500% rise between 2008 and 2018 in gender dysphoria diagnoses among 13- to 17-year-olds born as girls, as detailed by The Guardian.

Indeed, there is some indication of a so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” in born females who say they wish to become males and some clinicians have said this represents a “social” phenomenon.

But guidelines from US clinical organizations – including the American Academy of Pediatrics issued in 2018, the Endocrine Society as reported by Medscape Medical News in 2017, and the US Professional Association for Transgender Health (USPATH) – all support the use of medical treatment in adolescents with gender dysphoria who have received mental health evaluations from appropriately trained professionals.

More data needed but evidence to intervene is compelling

Joshua Safer, MD, FACP, FACE, executive director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, New York City, says the data “even if it’s rudimentary, are convincing that there is a biological component to gender identity.”

Attempts to manipulate gender identity in people who are born intersex, for example, have uniformly failed, he noted.

Yet it’s still not known what causes gender identity – whether it might be a result of a cluster of genes or a bundle in the brain, or some other biological process – said Safer, who treats transgender adults, but not children, and is also a coauthor of the aforementioned Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline on Endocrine Treatment of Gender Dysphoric/Gender Incongruent Persons.

This is an area for future research, he noted.

Nevertheless, “The data for interventions for transgender people ... is compelling,” he added, noting evidence for improved mental health morbidity among those gender-questioning people who have medical interventions.

“Those data are modest at this point and we need better data, but they do all move in the same direction,” he asserted.

Meanwhile, a large group of around 1,800 parents of transgender and nonbinary children have called on legislators to withdraw the proposals in an open letter organized by the Human Rights Campaign.

“We know better than anyone what our children need in order to thrive: access to best practice, evidence-based gender-affirming healthcare,” the parents write.

“These healthcare decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, in careful consultation with a medical team, and with the goal of reducing the physical and emotional distress experienced by many transgender children,” they continue.

“They should not be made by politicians who think they know better than medical professionals,” they add.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has also condemned state efforts “to block access to these recognized interventions,” it said in a statement.

Proponents of laws speak of harms

Most of the state proposals portray medical interventions as harmful to minors.

Missouri’s proposed legislation labels surgical or hormonal treatment for a child under age 18 “abuse or neglect”; a physician or anyone who assists or provides for the child would be charged with a felony.

One of the first bills was introduced in South Dakota in January. House bill 1057 would have charged clinicians providing gender-affirming care in anyone under age 16 with a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine.

The bill was defeated in the Senate after the South Dakota State Medical Association and several other physicians, families, and adolescents testified against the proposal, according to the Argus Leader.

The Endocrine Society applauded the failure and noted in a statement that it “supports physicians’ ability to provide the best evidence-based treatment to their patients,” and that “these decisions should be made by the family and physician, and not dictated by policymakers.”

Jack Turban, MD, a resident physician in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, who conducted a pivotal study of some 26,000 transgender adults showing that early administration of puberty blockers led to lower odds of lifetime suicidal ideation, also expressed dismay over the bills in an opinion piece for the New York Times.

“The potential benefits of providing gender-affirmative care typically outweigh the minor risks associated with treatment,” wrote Turban.

“State legislators need to educate themselves about these young people and their medical care before introducing legislation that will hurt them,” he added.

Few states seem to have approached clinicians for feedback

In Tennessee, lawmakers have approached some clinicians at Vanderbilt and have appreciated the feedback they’ve received so far, said Brady.

But that may be an exception. It seems that few medical organizations have been consulted in the crafting of bills in the other states: Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in Ohio and Utah also are drafting proposals.

Physicians could be charged with a felony in Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, and reportedly, in the Ohio proposal under development.

The bills have been introduced at the behest of some conservative groups that doubt the existence of gender dysphoria or who have questions about treatment: the Eagle Forum, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Kelsey Coalition.

In a recent tweet clarifying its position on state efforts, the Kelsey Coalition said it “supports all bills that protect children, even those that may provide criminal penalties, because we believe these medical interventions should never be performed on children.”

“However, we do not support state bills that are not victim-led or used for political gain,” they added.

Existing knowledge imperfect but treatment indicated for some

The bills have also garnered support from some endocrinologists who have raised concerns about puberty blockers and other medical treatments for gender dysphoria.

One is Michael K. Laidlaw, MD, a Rocklin, California–based endocrinologist who has not treated transgender people but frequently writes about the subject, most recently calling the use of puberty blockers “a public health emergency.”

Laidlaw joined several other clinicians who do not treat transgender people in testifying in favor of the South Dakota bill.

Last year, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News, Laidlaw, along with others, criticized the Endocrine Society’s 2017 Clinical Practice Guideline on Treating Dysphoric/Gender-Incongruent Persons in a letter to the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

They stated that there is no lab, imaging, or other objective test to diagnose someone as transgender and that “the consequences of this gender-affirmative therapy are not trivial and include potential sterility, sexual dysfunction, thromboembolic and cardiovascular disease, and malignancy.”

Laidlaw told Medscape Medical News at the time that “If we’re talking about [transgender] adults [who have gone through puberty of their biological sex] and who can make a decision, if they have been truly notified of the risks and benefits [of cross-sex hormones] and have also had psychological evaluation, and they decide, ‘This is still the right course for me,’ then I don’t have any objection.”

But considering the use of cross-sex hormones in children and adolescents is “quite a different story,” he contended.

In May 2019, Rosenthal, Safer and colleagues responded to Laidlaw’s letter in the same journal, stating that for the right person, puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones are appropriate, and that medications can improve mental health outcomes.

“We agree that research to validate the safety and efficacy of all forms of treatment is desirable,” they wrote, noting some of that research is underway.

“However, we believe physicians would fall short in their duty of care if they withheld hormonal treatment of gender dysphoria/incongruence in pubertal youth, when indicated, given the existing state of knowledge, imperfect though it is.”

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