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The Courage to Follow the Evidence on Transgender Care

Hilary Cass is the kind of hero the world needs today. She has entered one of the most toxic debates in our culture: how the medical community should respond to the growing numbers of young people who seek gender transition through medical treatments, including puberty blockers and hormone therapies. This month, after more than three years of research, Cass, a pediatrician, produced a report, commissioned by the National Health Service in England, that is remarkable for its empathy for people on all sides of this issue, for its humility in the face of complex social trends we don’t understand and for its intellectual integrity as we try to figure out which treatments actually work to serve those patients who are in distress. With incredible courage, she shows that careful scholarship can cut through debates that have been marked by vituperation and intimidation and possibly reset them on more rational grounds.

Cass, a past president of Britain’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, is clear about the mission of her report: “This review is not about defining what it means to be trans, nor is it about undermining the validity of trans identities, challenging the right of people to express themselves or rolling back on people’s rights to health care. It is about what the health care approach should be, and how best to help the growing number of children and young people who are looking for support from the N.H.S. in relation to their gender identity.”

This issue begins with a mystery. For reasons that are not clear, the number of adolescents who have sought to medically change their sex has been skyrocketing in recent years, though the overall number remains very small. For reasons that are also not clear, adolescents who were assigned female at birth are driving this trend, whereas before the late 2000s, it was mostly adolescents who were assigned male at birth who sought these treatments.

Doctors and researchers have proposed various theories to try to explain these trends. One is that greater social acceptance of trans people has enabled people to seek these therapies. Another is that teenagers are being influenced by the popularity of searching and experimenting around identity. A third is that the rise of teen mental health issues may be contributing to gender dysphoria. In her report, Cass is skeptical of broad generalizations in the absence of clear evidence; these are individual children and adolescents who take their own routes to who they are.

Some activists and medical practitioners on the left have come to see the surge in requests for medical transitioning as a piece of the new civil rights issue of our time — offering recognition to people of all gender identities. Transition through medical interventions was embraced by providers in the United States and Europe after a pair of small Dutch studies showed that such treatment improved patients’ well-being. But a 2022 Reuters investigation found that some American clinics were quite aggressive with treatment: None of the 18 U.S. clinics that Reuters looked at performed long assessments on their patients, and some prescribed puberty blockers on the first visit.

Unfortunately, some researchers who questioned the Dutch approach were viciously attacked. This year, Sallie Baxendale, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University College London, published a review of studies looking at the impact of puberty blockers on brain development and concluded that “critical questions” about the therapy remain unanswered. She was immediately attacked. She recently told The Guardian, “I’ve been accused of being an anti-trans activist, and that now comes up on Google and is never going to go away.”

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