According to a new report in the journal Pediatrics, a the number of kids–some as young as 4 years old–who believe they were born the wrong sex are seeking sex-change treatments. It’s an issue that brings up a lot of controversy, but more and more doctors and parents are agreeing that changing the sex of children and teens can be the right thing to do. The question is: Are these kids too young to make that decision and undergo such a life-altering treatment?
An estimated 1 in 10,000 children are labeled with “gender identity disorder”–a condition where they have brain differences equal to the opposite sex. In the study, 97 girls and boys were analyzed who sought sex-change treatment–the youngest of whom was just 4 years old. In children who undergo sex-changes, it typically involves psychological counseling until puberty begins–usually around age 11 or 12. Then children are given puberty-blocking drugs (which run an estimated $1,000 a month) to halt the body’s development.
The drugs, which have been approved for delaying puberty in kids who start maturing too soon, are given until the child turns 18. Apparently, kids will more easily pass as the opposite gender, and require less drastic treatment later, if puberty is blocked and sex-hormones are started early. At this point, he or she is deemed mature enough to decide if they want a permanent sex change surgery (where the sex organs are changed). Of the 97 in the study, only one opted out of permanent treatment.
According to the report, if children feel “trapped” in the wrong body and without hope, they can sometimes resort to self-mutilation to try to change their anatomy. They are also more prone to verbal and physical abuse from their peers and more likely to suffer stress, depression and even suicide attempts. Experts say these problems typically disappear in kids who have the treatment and are allowed to live as the opposite sex.
Although not everyone agrees. Dr. Margaret Moon, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s bioethics committee said the motives of the parents and children need to be closely examined before any kind of treatment is offered. Sadly–and shockingly, some kids may be gay and then coerced into treatment by their parents who are more comfortable with a sex change than having a homosexual child.
All of this raises a lot of ethical questions. Like, at what age should kids be allowed to start this hormone therapy? And what are the short- and long-term physical and mental consequences of switching genders? And what happens to the social life and peer treatment of a boy in elementary school who becomes a girl in middle school?
Unless you have been in this situation, it’s hard to speculate and judge what is or isn’t the right choice. That’s why it’s crucial that parents are their child’s best advocate and they work with an open-minded, and skilled team of doctors and psychologists to ensure that any procedures are done safely and for the right reasons. But I think we can all agree that 4 years old is much too young.
Tell us what you think.