‘Puberty blockers’ were lifesaving for my daughter – all young people deserve a shot at happiness

New research shows the negative effect the ruling of the Bell v Tavistock case has had on hundreds of families and young people suffering from gender dysphoria. The High Court’s decision must be overturned

<p>Families are suffering as a result of the recent ruling on ‘puberty blockers’&nbsp;</p>

Families are suffering as a result of the recent ruling on ‘puberty blockers’ 

For most of us, the Bell v Tavistock ruling was just another news story. You may not even know what it was. But for a small group of British families, it meant everything.

Bell v Tavistock was with the High Court between October 2019 and December 2020. After 14 long months, judges ruled it was highly unlikely that transgender young people would be able to consent to their own treatment. These young people will now have to go to court for permission to access medical treatment. In essence, the court decided the law knew better than clinical experts, the parents of the young person, and the young person themselves, because let’s be clear here, no young person under 18 is prescribed this treatment without clinical approval, the young person’s competent consent, and the parents’ consent.

This medication, commonly called “puberty blockers”, is given to patients for a variety of reasons – to delay puberty if it starts unusually early, or to treat endometriosis and some cancers. For many transgender young people, it is nothing short of a lifeline: sparing them the distress of having to go through the wrong puberty, and giving them the time and headspace to discuss their options with trained professionals. Puberty blockers are not new, my daughter was prescribed them when she was 13 years old. She is now 27, and is clear that for her, they were essential and lifesaving.

At Mermaids, we support thousands of young people and their families. Most of them need to live as themselves, and that means living in a gender that is different from how they were labelled at birth. For some of these people, medical care is the only way they can be comfortable and live as themselves. We know that the process to access medical care is long and arduous – there is more than a two-year wait, followed by appointment after appointment, an average of 10 in total, where individuals are repeatedly assessed and questioned to make sure they are absolutely sure of the direction they want to take.

Most young people using our services are adamant they need to transition. Almost all of them will socially transition, which means changing their names, pronouns and the way they present themselves to the world. For some that social transition will be followed by support from the Gender Identity Development Service. They do this with the support of their family, because their parents know, as I did with my daughter, that allowing your child to express themselves as who they really are is so important to their happiness

In most cases, these young people have never met a single transgender individual in their lives – and in many cases, they have not even heard the word transgender before learning it was the word that described their own experiences. The gender identities of these young people are ones they feel deeply and express consistently. Being forced to move through the world as the wrong gender is a source of real distress – most people reading this would feel distressed if they were forced to live as a gender they are not.

Mermaids, in partnership with Goldsmiths university, Gendered Intelligence, and the LGBT Foundation, surveyed the families we work with to see whether the Bell v Tavistock ruling has impacted them. We received responses from 206 carers and parents in total, and we were saddened, but not surprised, to learn that for the vast majority of these families, the impact was swift and negative.

More than eight out of 10 parents and carers said the impact of the ruling had a direct negative impact on their families. Nine out of 10 said the ruling has had a negative impact on their mental health, with half saying the impact had been “very negative”. Seven out of 10 parents and carers said the judgment has had a negative impact on their child’s mental health. Many have not told their children yet, for fear of how this ruling and subsequent NHS guidelines amendment will affect their child. We’re aware of families whose healthcare appointments have already been cancelled, right in the middle of a long-term treatment programme, which had taken years to access. “I feel abandoned by the NHS,” one parent told us.

As a parent who had to fight to get timely treatment for my own daughter, the outpouring of grief and pain has been difficult to read. The panic, fear and distress expressed by the parents and carers who completed the survey cannot be underestimated.

No other medical care for young people has been subject to this kind of scrutiny. It begs the question of what comes next, which other forms of healthcare are at risk of being eroded under the guise of concern?

Tavistock plans to appeal the ruling in the case, and, frankly, an appeal can’t come soon enough. The vast majority of transgender children who take puberty blockers become transgender adults, who are free to pursue their careers, fall in love, walk their dogs and live contentedly. 

Whatever our beliefs, most of us want our children to grow up happy and fulfilled. All young people deserve this chance – and that means giving them and their parents the ability to make decisions about healthcare. For some families, this healthcare is related to their gender. The High Court’s decision must be overturned.

Susie Green is CEO of Mermaids, a UK based charity that supports children and young people with gender variance, and their families. Susie has been a member of Mermaids for 15 years, and has been nominated as a Role Model in the National Diversity Awards 2015

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