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Biden Officials Pushed to Remove Age Limits for Trans Surgery, Documents Show


Health officials in the Biden administration pressed an international group of medical experts to remove age limits for adolescent surgeries from guidelines for care of transgender minors, according to newly unsealed court documents.

Age minimums, officials feared, could fuel growing political opposition to such treatments.

Email excerpts from members of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health recount how staff for Adm. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services and herself a transgender woman, urged them to drop the proposed limits from the group’s guidelines and apparently succeeded.

If and when teenagers should be allowed to undergo transgender treatments and surgeries has become a raging debate within the political world. Opponents say teenagers are too young to make such decisions, but supporters including an array of medical experts posit that young people with gender dysphoria face depression and worsening distress if their issues go unaddressed.

In the United States, setting age limits was controversial from the start.

The draft guidelines, released in late 2021, recommended lowering the age minimums to 14 for hormonal treatments, 15 for mastectomies, 16 for breast augmentation or facial surgeries, and 17 for genital surgeries or hysterectomies.

The proposed age limits were eliminated in the final guidelines outlining standards of care, spurring concerns within the international group and with outside experts as to why the age proposals had vanished.

The email excerpts released this week shed light on possible reasons for those guideline changes, and highlight Admiral Levine’s role as a top point person on transgender issues in the Biden administration. The excerpts are legal filings in a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama’s ban on gender-affirming care.

One excerpt from an unnamed member of the WPATH guideline development group recalled a conversation with Sarah Boateng, then serving as Admiral Levine’s chief of staff: “She is confident, based on the rhetoric she is hearing in D.C., and from what we have already seen, that these specific listings of ages, under 18, will result in devastating legislation for trans care. She wonders if the specific ages can be taken out.”

Another email stated that Admiral Levine “was very concerned that having ages (mainly for surgery) will affect access to care for trans youth and maybe adults, too. Apparently the situation in the U.S.A. is terrible and she and the Biden administration worried that having ages in the document will make matters worse. She asked us to remove them.”

The excerpts were filed by James Cantor, a psychologist and longstanding critic of gender treatments for minors, who used them as evidence that the international advisory group, referred to as WPATH, was making decisions based on politics, not science, in developing the guidelines.

The emails were part of a report he submitted in support of Alabama’s ban on transgender medical care for minors. No emails from Admiral Levine’s staff were released. Plaintiffs are seeking to bar Dr. Cantor from giving testimony in the case, claiming that he lacks expertise and that his opinions are irrelevant.

Admiral Levine and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment, citing pending litigation.

Dr. Cantor said he filed the report to expose the contents of the group’s internal emails obtained by subpoena in the case, most of which remain under seal because of a protective order. “What’s being told to the public is totally different from WPATH’s discussions in private,” he said.

Dr. Marci Bowers, a gynecologic and reconstructive surgeon and the president of WPATH, rejected that claim. “It wasn’t political, the politics were already evident,” said Dr. Bowers, who is a trans woman. “WPATH doesn’t look at politics when making a decision.”

In other emails released this week, some WPATH members voiced their disagreement with the proposed changes. “If our concern is with legislation (which I don’t think it should be — we should be basing this on science and expert consensus if we’re being ethical) wouldn’t including the ages be helpful?” one member wrote. “I need someone to explain to me how taking out the ages will help in the fight against the conservative anti-trans agenda.”

The international expert group ultimately removed the age minimums in its eighth edition of the standards of care, released in September 2022. The guidelines reflected the first update in a decade and were the first version of the standards to include a dedicated chapter on medical treatment of transgender adolescents.

The field of gender transition care for adolescents is relatively new and evidence on long-term outcomes is scarce. Most transgender adolescents who receive medical interventions in the United States are prescribed puberty blocking drugs or hormones, not surgeries.

But as the number of young people seeking such treatments has soared, prominent clinicians worldwide have disagreed on issues such as the ideal timing and criteria for the medical interventions. Several countries in Europe, including Sweden and Britain, have recently placed new restrictions on gender medications for adolescents after reviews of the scientific evidence. In those countries’ health systems, surgeries are only available to patients 18 and older.

The email documents were released by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, in a challenge to the Alabama ban brought by civil rights groups including the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of five transgender adolescents and their families.

Transgender rights groups have turned to the courts to block laws, like Alabama’s, that have been approved in more than 20 Republican-controlled states since 2021, but the courts have been split in their rulings.

On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a challenge to Tennessee’s ban on youth gender medicine, which makes it a felony for doctors to provide any gender-related treatment to minors, including puberty blockers, hormones and surgeries. The petition, filed by the Department of Justice, cited the WPATH guidelines among its primary “evidence-based practice guidelines for the treatment of gender dysphoria.”

Additional emails cited in the new court filings suggest that the American Academy of Pediatrics also warned WPATH that it would not endorse the group’s recommendations if the guidelines set the new age minimums.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mark Del Monte, chief executive of the American Academy of Pediatrics, pointed out that the medical group, which represents 67,000 U.S. pediatricians, had not endorsed the international guidelines because it already had its own in place.

He said the academy had sought to change the age limits in the guidelines because the group’s policies did not recommend restrictions based on age for surgeries.

Last summer, the pediatrics academy reaffirmed its own guidelines, issued in 2018, but said that it was commissioning an external review of the evidence for the first time.

The numbers for all gender-related medical interventions for adolescents have been steadily rising as more young people seek such care. A Reuters analysis of insurance data estimated that 4,200 American adolescents started estrogen or testosterone therapy in 2021, more than double the number from four years earlier. Surgeries are more rare, and the vast majority are mastectomies. or top surgeries. In 2021, Reuters estimated that 282 teenagers underwent top surgery that was paid for by insurance.

Gender-related surgeries for minors have been a focal point for some politicians. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican of Florida, has argued that surgeons should be sued for “disfiguring” children. In Texas, where parents of transgender children have been investigated for child abuse, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has called genital surgeries in adolescents “genital mutilation.”

The final WPATH guidelines state that distress about breast development in particular has been associated in transgender teenagers with higher rates of depression, anxiety and distress.

“While the long-term effects of gender-affirming treatments initiated in adolescence are not fully known, the potential negative health consequences of delaying treatment should also be considered,” the guidelines state.

“Gender-affirming surgery is valued highly by those who need these services — lifesaving in many cases,” Dr. Bowers said.


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