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The mom of a transgender teen is fighting for the rights of children like hers across America — not by aiming to stop bullying or increase equal access to public bathrooms, but for Medicaid to begin covering “life-saver” medical treatments that physically halt puberty in its tracks.
“Most children who are transgender face more challenges than their peers. One of the most heartbreaking is having to suffer through a puberty that does not mirror their affirmed gender. The answer is to have Medicaid cover puberty blockers for these children,” writes Robynn Bell, the mom behind a Change.org petition asking President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins to allow Medicaid to cover such treatments. In just two weeks, the petition has collected more than 4,400 signatures.
So what exactly are puberty blockers? They are injected medications that work by blocking the brain’s release of the hormone-stimulating proteins that produce secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts and menstruation in women or facial hair and an Adam’s apple in men.
Bell’s daughter, now a junior in high school, was “one of the lucky ones,” she notes, as she was able to start the treatment of Lupron “just in time,” when she was 13. “As a result, she did not have testosterone flowing through her young body. Her voice didn’t change, she didn’t develop an Adam’s apple or other physical changes that would have devastated how she saw herself. Because she didn’t have to spend as much energy on hating her body (though she still hates her genitals), she has been able to concentrate on school, putting her consistently on the honor roll…”
Such coverage of Lupron is not unheard of. Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state to cover it under Medicaid (while a handful of others, including Massachusetts and Vermont, cover transgender care for adults through their Medicaid plans).
The effect of puberty blockers is fully reversible — as well as supported as a best practice for transgender children by the Endocrine Society, the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. In 2014, a Dutch study of 55 youth diagnosed with gender dysphoria who take puberty blockers found that they were just as happy, if not happier, than their peers.
“Since puberty suppression is a fully reversible medical intervention, it provides adolescents and their families with time to explore their gender dysphoric feelings, and [to] make a more definite decision regarding the first steps of actual gender reassignment treatment at a later age,” that study’s lead author, Dr. Annelou de Vries, explained at the time.
Side effects of the puberty blockers include a loss of bone density and infertility. Others, according to the makers of Lupron, include, “pain; acne; injection site reactions, including pain, swelling, and abscess; rash, including a painful rash with fever, blisters/sores, and facial swelling; vaginitis/vaginal bleeding/vaginal discharge; increased weight; altered mood; general pain; headache; fluctuating emotions; and hot flushes/sweating.” Others argue that, since use of the medication is relatively new, there’s no way to know about possibly dangerous long-term effects; a recent article in Endocrine News pointed to increased risk of endometrial cancer.
Still, Lupron has been used for years in children to help pause early onset puberty. It’s also used to treat prostate cancer and fibroid tumors. Now, say transgender health providers, it’s providing a vital way to give a child more time to come to a decision about their gender identity — something that’s especially important considering the high risks of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide among transgender youth.
“More than 50 percent of Transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday,” notes Bell, the mom behind the petition (who did not respond to a request for comment made by Yahoo Parenting through Change.org). “These statistics come from the national Youth Suicide Prevention Program. We know these numbers are even higher for our transgender children of color.” She continues, “I am not saying that this is a panacea for all our transgender children’s problems. I am, however, saying that this medication, Lupron Depot, is a life-saver for many of our children. The current cost for this medication is exorbitant, over $2,600 per month, and most insurances don’t cover any portion of it.”
Supporters of the petition note that they are signing because it’s important to support transgender youth. “What could be worse than one more obstacle to overcome in the path to being who you truly are,” notes a signer in California. From Tennessee, another wrote, “Children should be able to be happy. It’s hard enough for children to go through childhood, nonetheless, a transgender child! Let’s save our kids. All of them. Let them be who they are as a child and watch them flourish as an adult!” And from Kansas, simply, “Every person deserves to be who they are.”
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