Published May 19, 2008
Boston’s Children’s Hospital bills itself as the hospital for children — and now it’s also the hospital for children who want a sex change, a procedure some critics are calling “barbaric.”
Dr. Norman Spack, a pediatric specialist at the hospital, has launched a clinic for transgendered kids — boys who feel like girls, girls who want to be boys — and he’s opening his doors to patients as young as 7.
Spack offers his younger patients counseling and drugs that delay the onset of puberty. The drugs stop the natural flood of hormones that would make it difficult to have a sex alteration later in life, allowing patients more time to decide whether they want to make the change.
Spack also offers some teenagers hormone therapy, a drastic step that changes the way they grow and develop. While the effects of drug treatments can be stopped, long-term hormone therapy can be irreversible, causing permanent infertility in both sexes.
For some, that trade-off is worth it. Transgendered children are deeply troubled and have a “high level of suicide attempts,” Spack told the Boston Globe. “I’ve never seen any patient make [a suicide attempt] after they’ve started hormonal treatment,” he said.
Spack would not grant an interview to FOXNews.com and the Boston’s Children’s Hospital declined to respond.
But not all doctors are convinced, and some say the treatments do much more harm than good.
“Treating these children with hormones does considerable harm and it compounds their confusion,” said Dr. Paul McHugh, University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkins University. “Trying to delay puberty or change someone’s gender is a rejection of the lawfulness of nature.”
McHugh said gender reassignment for children harkens back to the dark ages, when choir boys were castrated to retain their high-pitched voices. "It’s barbaric,” he said.
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a legal charity affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, says that transgender disorder is a mental disorder, not a medical one, and that it should be treated with behavior modification, not hormones or surgery.
“Just as you don’t give liposuction to an anorexic, you don’t do sexual reassignment surgery on men who think that they are women and vice versa,” Staver said.
“At some point in childhood," McHugh said, "many children role play as the opposite sex, but it is a social, not a medical issue.”
But other doctors say there is a transgender “gene.”
Dr. Irene Sills, an physician and Senior Professor of Pediatrics at the State University of New York, has treated 15 transgender children in the last 6 years, and considers the condition innate as a result of her study.
“We have had a case of identical twins that seems to disprove [other] theories,” she told FOXNews.com. “The twin girls were brought up in exactly the same environment, but by the age of 3, one of them kept insisting that she was a boy and kept mimicking masculine dress and behavior.”
Sills reported that her patients and their families have all been pleased with her therapy and support. She said she never asks families to sign a waiver before treating their children. “I trust our procedures and I trust my patients,” she said in an interview.
But some experts expect legal challenges to mount in the face of further treatment. According to Austin Nimocks, senior legal counsel for the conservative Alliance Defense, parents and doctors may not be safe from litigation if children are made sterile due to hormonal treatments — even if they do sign waivers.
“We will eventually start to see such parents and doctors sued and possibly arrested for what is essentially child abuse,” Nimocks told FOXNews.com.
Still, some think transgender medical therapies for children, which have been used for many years in Europe, Asia and Australia, may soon gain more acceptance in the U.S.
“Most medical professionals know very little about transgender treatments for children, so I do grand rounds at hospitals to educate them,” said Stephanie Brill, co-author of “The Transgender Child,” which will be published in June. “The doctors are very receptive, so I believe that we will see transgender medicine become much more prevalent over the next decade.”
Yet even as such procedures are introduced to a wider public and offered to younger patients, it remains to be seen whether proponents of the procedure will find much support.
“Just because modern medicine can accomplish certain things does not mean that these procedures should be done,” said Nimocks. “That’s the mindset of a Dr. Kevorkian, and he wound up in jail.”
Hillary Viders and Joseph Abrams contributed to this story.