UK equality minister says no to sex-change surgery for minors

Liz Truss MP, Minister of State for Women and Equalities. Credit: Ian Davidson Photography/Shutterstock

The United Kingdom’s Minister for Women and Equalities has announced plans to prohibit minors from undergoing any permanent procedure intended to change their gender. The policy was announced by the minister, Liz Truss MP, on April 22. 

In an appearance before the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, Truss said she was committed to “making sure that the under 18s are protected from decisions that they could make, that are irreversible in the future.”

While Truss said that adults should be free to do what they wish with their bodies, “it’s very important that while people are still developing their decision-making capabilities that we protect them from making irreversible decisions.” 

The United Kingdom has one gender clinic for children, the “Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS)” which is part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust. Tavistock, as the clinic is often referred to, has come under increasing public scrutiny because of the skyrocketing number of children, particularly young girls, who are referred for its services. 

In the year 2009-2010, a total of 72 children–32 girls and 40 boys–were referred to Tavistock. According to numbers posted on the Tavistock website, by 2018-2019, that figure had grown to 2,590, with 1,740 girls and 624 boys. Of the 2,590 referrals, all but 30 were under the age of 18. 

A total of 1,814 were under the age of 16, which is the age of medical consent in U.K. law; 171 were under the age of 10.

In the United Kingdom, a minor is technically permitted to obtain sex reassignment surgery with parental permission, although National Health Service regulations make this is rare. Far more common, however, is the distribution of “puberty blockers” and cross-sex hormone treatments, which cause the body to not develop naturally and to mimic features of the opposite gender. While puberty blockers are claimed by some to be “fully reversible,” some medical experts dispute this assertion.

Tavistock policy allows for patients as young as 11 to receive “puberty blocking” drugs. Prior to 2011, the lower age limit for these drugs was 16.

Tavistock is currently being sued by a group of former patients who have sought to reverse their sex reassignment treatments and the family members of these patients. 

Kiera Bell, a former patient at Tavistock who for a period of time identified herself as male, is one of the lead claimants in a lawsuit against the clinic. The suit, which was filed in January 2020, claims that Tavistock acted irresponsibly in its “affirmative” care model. 

Bell, who received hormonal treatments at age 17 and a double mastectomy at the age of 20, referred to the treatments she received as “a tortuous and unnecessary path that is permanent and life-changing.” 

“I do not believe that children and young people can consent to the use of powerful and experimental hormone drugs like I did,” said Bell. Bell received puberty-blocking drugs at the age of 16 after just three one-hour appointments at Tavistock. Despite being off of cross-sex hormones for about a year, Bell still has facial hair. 

“I believe that the current affirmative system put in place by the Tavistock is inadequate as it does not allow for exploration of these gender dysphoric feelings, nor does it seek to find the underlying causes of this condition,” she added. 

Bell stated that hormones and surgery do not work for everyone, and “certainly should not be offered to someone under the age of 18 when they are emotionally and mentally vulnerable.”

Response to Truss’ comments were mixed. Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price tweeted that she was “very pleased” with Truss’ speech, and said that it was a “common sense approach which upholds trans rights and protects women and children.” 

Former Tavistock GIDS employee Susan Evans said the policy proposals were “fantastic.” 

“Let’s hope this is another step towards ensuring healthy children are not unnecessarily medically transitioned,” she said. 

Transgender activist groups were condemned the remarks. 

Mermaids, an organization that supports “trans and gender-diverse children, young people, and their families, called the proposal “an extraordinary move” and accused the minister of supporting “the introduction of a new form of inequality into British medical practice.”

A statement released by the group said “We believe that transgender young people should have the same right to make important personal decisions as non-trans people.”