Controversy brewing over transgender children's access to puberty blockers

The mother of a transgender child says the sheer numbers of transgender children getting puberty blockers could end up as the biggest scandal in our medical history.

Like their name suggests, they're taken to temporarily halt the onset of puberty, often by kids weighing up whether to transition from one gender to another.

But critics say the medical profession is far too ready to offer puberty blockers and they dispute the Ministry of Health's claims they're safe and reversible.

However one expert who works with transgender children says the drugs are actually lifesavers.

When they saw her body at birth, Mindy's parents thought she was a boy - but as far back as Mindy can remember, she knew she was in the wrong body.

"Completely strongly, I don't have any doubts at all," she says.

She transitioned socially to being a girl when she was eight and has been taking puberty blockers since she was ten, an injection every three months.

"They've been incredibly important. Without them I wouldn't be in the mental state that I am now."

Now after a legal fight, even her birth certificate shows she's a girl and she says she's noticed no side effects.

"I need medical treatment to make sure that I am a normal teenager but that's ok it just let me be who I am," she says.

Puberty blockers can be given to children up to the age of sixteen who display what's called 'gender dysphoria'. They feel they're in the wrong body, and while they decide, the drugs pause the onset of adult characteristics.

"My voice hasn't deepened," Mindy says. "It just keeps me from turning into what I don't want to be."

Mindy says puberty blockers have been "incredibly important".
Mindy says puberty blockers have been "incredibly important". Photo credit: Newshub

Later, they can be prescribed sex-change hormones and the vast majority who've taken puberty blockers go on to take them.

But one mother of a transgender child says more research needs to be done about the long-term effects of puberty blockers.

"Well it could end up being the biggest scandal in our medical history if this treatment continues without valid research that actually says this is an effective way to treat the distress in these children," she says.

Mindy told Newshub she went to several psychologists before being prescribed puberty blockers.

But this mum's child, while they didn't take puberty blockers until they were 16, was offered the option almost straight away.

"The doctor had met my child on that day and within ten minutes had offered puberty blockers," the mother says.

She fully supports her transgender child. It's the medical profession she questions.

"I spend a lot of my time shaking my head and at times I feel I'm in some weird dystopian future so yeah I can't understand," she says.

The mother of a transgender child is concerned about the accessibility of puberty blockers.
The mother of a transgender child is concerned about the accessibility of puberty blockers. Photo credit: Newshub

The Ministry of Health maintains puberty blockers are safe and reversible but its British counterpart the NHS doesn't.

It says little is known about the long-term side effects, the psychological effects or how it affects the development of the teenage brain or children's bones.

The issue even ended up in the UK courts, with the Tavistock court case, taken by 23-year-old Keira Bell, who'd de-transitioned. The court's decision makes it more difficult for anyone under sixteen there to go on puberty blockers.

"I'm delighted at the judgement of the court today. It was a judgement that will protect vulnerable people, I wish it had been made for me before I embarked on the devastating experiment of puberty blockers," Bell said following the verdict.

Otago University paediatrician Dame Sue Bagshaw has treated scores of children with gender dysphoria.

"Whenever anything's social it's also political, and that's what I put that down to - is very much some ideology conflicting with what we're trying to do to help these people," she says.

And while these drugs are the same ones used to chemically castrate male sex offenders in other countries, she's not concerned.

"I don't have too much problem because they're reversible. That's the main message I'd love you to get across is that these drugs are reversible," she says.

US paediatrician Dr Julia Mason has a different view.

"They're a very powerful medicine. They act in the brain stem to stop all of the sex-related hormones," Dr Mason tells Newshub.

She worries that confused children are going down rabbit holes online and making rash decisions about their gender.

"And start to see that you know this is the explanation for everything. If I do this it will solve all my problems and they can really become very convinced very quickly if they spend some time online," Dr Mason says.

Dr Mason is concerned most medical professionals simply accept when a child affirms their gender, however young.

"It is internal, it is immutable and it's unchanging and so if a child tells you that they're transgender then you're done. You just have to affirm them. And I do think this is crazy," she says.

Dame Sue disagrees.

"I think a child of 12 or 13 definitely knows their mind. They might not have a mind that agrees with the adult mind but they definitely have a mind," she says.

Dame Sue says puberty blockers give children time and a safe place even if - as she acknowledges - we don't yet know the long-term impact on brain development.

"I'd rather keep them alive so they don't suicide and get into alcohol and other drugs than wait and go 'oh dear we're too late'," she says.

Dame Sue thinks she's saving some of their lives.

"Because they're so intense in their emotions they feel like if they don't get acknowledged life's over, it's not worth living."

British campaigners, however, used the opposite argument when fighting the Tavistock case - that there was evidence girls taking puberty blockers were more suicidal.

"We've got unhappy kids and instead of telling them it gets better we're telling them 'I see that you're unhappy and the doctors are going to fix you. The doctors are going to change your sex, and we can't," Dr Mason says.

The Ministry of Health told Newshub because each person's gender expression is unique it's unable to provide figures on the number of gender transitions and detransitions each year but stands by its advice that puberty blockers are safe and reversible.

Pausing puberty with drugs has been contentious from day one. Some experts say it's safe. Others disagree. The debate will continue, hopefully guided by the best science and what's best for the children.