The consultation on the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 closes next week. This is an issue which has been the subject of a febrile public debate, lining up trans activists against supporters of women’s rights. It is a debate which, at times, has been hostile, aggressive, and even resulted in violence.
The issue has split political parties, not least the SNP, where a growing number of senior figures such as Joanna Cherry MP are now prepared to speak out against the direction being followed by the Scottish Government. It is not just in the SNP that there are dissenting voices – prominent Labour women like Johann Lamont and Elaine Smith have been vocal in raising their concerns about moving to a system of self-identification of gender, and the implications that this will have for women-only spaces.
Despite these concerns, Scottish ministers seem determined to press ahead with reform, with the responsible Cabinet Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, indicating in a recent media interview that the Government was still committed to legislation in this area. Astonishingly, this comment was made whilst the consultation is still open for responses, suggesting that it is little more than a sham exercise.
One aspect of the wider debate is the issue of gender dysphoria and confusion in children and young people, which was the topic of a seminar held in the Scottish Parliament last week. This was hosted by the SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, who has shown great courage in being prepared to take on her own Government on these issues.
Speaking at the seminar were Dr David Bell, a past president of the British Psychoanalytic Society and consultant psychiatrist in the adult department of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, the same trust which also runs the Gender Identity Development Service for young people, Glasgow GP Dr Margaret McCartney, who promotes evidence-based medicine, and Sinead Watson, a young woman who underwent a transition to become a man which she now regrets.
One fact in this highly contested policy that is beyond doubt is that we are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of children reporting with gender dysphoria – an increase of more than 700 per cent since 2013. This is, according to Dr Bell, “a cultural phenomenon of enormous proportions”. And yet, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the belief that a child is born into the wrong body.
Many children reporting with gender dysphoria have a variety of serious and complex problems, including mental health issues, but the default response to any child reporting with gender dysphoria is to pursue an “affirmative agenda”, in other words to push them down the route of transition, without questioning the underlying causes for their condition.
This affirmative agenda can lead, in time, to the prescription of puberty blockers, to hormone treatment, and then to irreversible surgery. Little is known about the long-term health effects of puberty blockers, and indeed NHS England has just announced the creation of a new independent expert group to examine the evidence around the long-term impact of these drugs being used on un-diseased bodies.
Gender choice ‘sycophantically affirmed’
What we are dealing with here, according to Dr Bell, are immature minds which cannot fully grasp the consequences of their actions, and the lifetime impact of the decisions that they will take at a young age.
It is, in his words, “a terrible betrayal of children to believe that they have the capacity to choose their gender”. Just as we would never respond to a young person with an eating disorder by affirming them in their belief that they were overweight when they were in reality dangerously undernourished, so we should not be affirming young people with gender dysphoria in their body choice.
Dr McCartney referred to studies which suggested that the great majority of young people with gender dysphoria would, by the time they reach their 20s, have reverted to being comfortable in their birth gender.
This was the lived experience of Sinead Watson, who was starkly critical of the Scottish Government’s plans to remove the requirement for medical diagnosis before obtaining a change in gender. As a young woman, she had testosterone injections for four years and had undergone a double mastectomy, all of which she now deeply regrets.
She was, in her own words, “obsessively and sycophantically affirmed” in her gender choice, when she should have been challenged by medical professionals, and offered counselling and support. This is a young person whose life has been ruined because those were required to have her best interests at heart utterly failed to protect her.
A fashionable, but unscientific ideology
The question was asked last week as to where are the agencies which are supposed to be protecting children from harm? Where are the charities focussed on protecting the interests of children? Where are the Children’s Commissioner and the Scottish Human Rights Commission in all this? Are they so terrified of being labelled as “transphobic” that they are refusing to become involved while children’s lives are being damaged?
It seems that in this area we have abandoned evidence-based, scientific policymaking in favour of a fashionable ideology, and as a result we risk doing irreparable harm to the lives of hundreds of children.
While the issues in relation to children are not directly connected to changes to the Gender Recognition Act, clearly there is a crossover between the two. The UK Government has called a halt to proposed GRA reforms while the science and evidence in this whole area is considered more carefully.
Surely, with a whole chorus of voices from the worlds of science, medicine, and across the political spectrum being raised urging caution, it is time that the Scottish Government now followed suit?
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife