PHILADELPHIA – A multidisciplinary approach is needed to care for gender-diverse transgender adolescents interested in fertility preservation, Leena Nahata, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
especially in the absence of longitudinal data, said Dr. Nahata, medical director of the fertility and reproductive health program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio. “We’re trying to counsel these youth and their parents about long-term outcomes of hormone therapies. However, despite the lack of data, not treating them also is not a viable option.”
Another concern among transgender individuals, Dr. Nahata said, is a high risk of mental health issues. Approximately one-third of transgender individuals experience depression, and between one-third and one-half have suicidal ideation or attempted suicide.
“It’s important to realize that these risks are not inevitable,” she said. Support from parents, peers, and social groups; engaging with the health care system; and having access to puberty suppression, gender-affirming hormones, and surgery are protective outcomes for mental health concerns. “It’s because of this that so many of us feel obligated to move on with treatments even in a setting of a lack of data.”
According to 2017 guidelines from the Endocrine Society on gender-dysphoric and gender-incongruent persons, patients can begin gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists at Tanner Stage 2 of puberty (J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2017 Nov.). Before starting treatment, a mental health provider should confirm gender dysphoria or incongruence, and determine whether the patient has “sufficient mental capacity” to understand the long-term consequences of treatment with gender-affirming hormones such as estrogen and testosterone because the effects are partially irreversible, including a potential loss of fertility. Most pediatric patients will have this ability by 16 years old, but some programs across the country begin treatment between 13.5 years and 14 years of age, said Dr. Nahata. One consideration of beginning GnRH agonists and then moving directly to gender-affirming hormone therapy, there may not be an opportunity to explore fertility preservation.
Dr. Nahata acknowledged the data for the long-term effects of testosterone and estrogen on fertility is “murky,” but despite a lack of data, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine released an ethics statement in 2015 affirming that transgender patients “have the same interests as other persons in having children and in accessing fertility services for fertility preservation and reproduction” and pediatric providers “should offer fertility preservation options to individuals before gender transition” (Fertil Steril. 2015 Sep 9.).
There also is mixed evidence that transgender individuals take advantage of fertility preservation services, whether offered or not. Two studies from Belgium that surveyed transgender individuals on parenthood preferences found 54% of adult trans men had a desire for children and that 38% of adult trans men and 51% of adult trans women would consider fertility preservation if it was an option. However, Dr. Nahata said a retrospective study from her own group of 50 adolescent trans males and 23 adolescent trans females found 99% of the cohort was counseled on fertility preservation, but only 3% (2 patients) attempted fertility preservation, and both were trans females (J Adolesc Health. 2017 Jul.).
Another study examining use of fertility preservation in trans females in the Netherlands by Brik et al. found a much higher use of fertility preservation, with 38% of patients attempting cryopreservation after counseling (J Adolesc Health. 2019 May.). “It’s unclear whether this is a regional difference or whether things are actually shifting over a short period of time,” said Dr. Nahata.
Attitudes about fertility preservation among gender-diverse transgender youth also impact its use in this patient population. A survey of transgender youth found less than 40% preferred adoption to biological parenthood, but said their feelings might change as time passes. However, more than half wanted more information on their family-building options. For other transgender youth aged 12-19 years, having children was their “lowest life priority,” compared with having friends, their health, and other issues in their lives, said Dr. Nahata.
In a 24-item survey Dr. Nahata and her team administered to 44 trans nonbinary adolescents, the most common reasons for not seeking fertility preservation were feelings of being too young, not wanting to be a parent or have a biological child, not wanting to delay treatment, and not being able to afford the cost of fertility preservation.
“This just speaks to the complexities of counseling in this population, and the importance of having a multidisciplinary team to see these youth and families to do more comprehensive counseling,” she said.
Dr. Nahata reported no relevant conflicts of interest.