Allowing 16-year-olds to change gender risks ‘opening floodgates’ to irreversible surgeries, SNP told

·4 min read
Nicola Sturgeon's party has unveiled plans allowing people from the age of 16 to change their legal gender through self-identification, without a clinical diagnosis or medical evidence. - Andy Buchanan
Nicola Sturgeon's party has unveiled plans allowing people from the age of 16 to change their legal gender through self-identification, without a clinical diagnosis or medical evidence. - Andy Buchanan

SNP plans to lower the age at which Scots can legally change their gender to 16 risk “opening the floodgates” to allowing teenagers to access irreversible gender reassignment surgeries on the NHS, campaigners have warned.

New figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show there have been at least 51 cases in which trans males, born as females, under 18 have been approved for double mastectomies in Scotland over a six year period to April last year.

The teenagers are sent to hospitals in England, where they undergo further assessment for “specialist chest reconstruction”. In theory, those as young as 17 can undergo the procedure, and children as young as 16 have “referred for assessment for surgery.”

The For Women Scotland campaign group, which obtained the figures, accused the Scottish NHS of attempting to cover up the extent of the practice, after it initially claimed no-one under 18 had been approved.

They also warned that lowering the age at which people can legally change their gender from 18 to 16, which the Scottish Government plans to do, could see many more young people approved for surgeries which they may live to regret.

Trans rights campaigners have said it is important for young people to be able to access “timely” medical interventions, such as puberty blockers, and are pushing for gender reassignment surgery to become available in Scotland.

The Scottish Government said a “small number of young adults” had been referred for chest surgery at 17, but said that it was “unlikely” it would be carried out before an individual turned 18.

However, it refused to say whether plans to lower the age at which someone can change their gender would mean that 16-year-olds would become eligible for gender reassignment surgery in future.

Trina Budge, director of For Women Scotland, said many other countries, including England, were “sensibly rolling-back on invasive and non-reversible treatments” for young trans people. She claimed it was “shocking to see Scotland heading in the opposite direction by referring so many girls under the age of 18 for double mastectomy surgeries”.

Ms Budge added: “No physically healthy child should ever be locked into a pathway of puberty blocking drugs and wrong-sex hormones, leading to the removal of breasts at the age of 16.

“Lowering the age at which gender can be changed to 16 will inevitably open the floodgates for many more teenagers to request elective surgeries to match their new legal status.”

In a response to a Scottish Government consultation, 56 per cent of 17,000 respondents backed lowering the age at which it is possible to legally change gender to 16, with 42 per cent opposed.

Bodies including the Scottish Catholic Church argued against the change, saying it could lead to more young people to access life-changing surgery before they had the maturity to do so.

“Individuals under 18 years of age cannot buy cigarettes, buy alcohol in licensed premises or get a tattoo,” a submission from the Bishops Conference of Scotland said.

“Yet the Scottish Government is open to the possibility that these same young people have the maturity to make a permanent legal declaration on their gender which could lead to a decision to undergo irreversible surgery or non-surgical interventions, with scant knowledge of what this means for their long-term health and wellbeing.”

Liz Truss, the UK minister for women and equalities, who was last week appointed Foreign Secretary, said last year that under 18s in England would be blocked from having gender reassignment surgery. However, a spokeswoman for NHS England said the current minimum age for gender surgeries in England currently remained 17.

Plans to develop surgical services for trans people in Scotland, which would mean they would no longer need to travel to English hospitals, were under development but have been postponed due to the pandemic.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Under the oversight of their clinical team a small number of young adults have been referred for chest reconstruction surgery at 17. However, further assessments required prior to surgery mean that, in practice, it is unlikely the procedure would take place before an individual is 18.

“Gender reassignment surgery is a specialised field primarily carried out under a four nations contract managed by NHS England. The criteria for referral to surgery under this contract is detailed in the NHS England Gender Identity Services for Adults (Surgical Interventions) service specification.”

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