Professor John Whitehall, foundation chair and professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Western Sydney, has warned against a rising phenomenon of treating gender confused children with medicalisation and surgery.

“150-200 years ago we gave up treating mental illness by surgical intervention,” Dr Whitehall said at the Forum on the Family in Auckland last month.

These days, he observed, more and more parents of children thought to have gender dysphoria are seeking to delay their child’s puberty with chemical blockers, with a view to having sex-change surgery later on.

“A mother becomes so enmeshed, so enthusiastic, so committed that she becomes a cheerleader for this process, driving the child to become the poster boy of the school, if not of the media,” he said.

The mantra often repeated in cases in Australia and in other parts of the world, is that the process “is safe and entirely reversible”, a claim that isn’t true, Dr Whitehall said.

Dr Whitehall cited a 2009 study by scientists in universities in Glasgow and Oslo on the effect of puberty blockers on the behaviour and brains of sheep. What the scientists found was that there was an effect in the limbic system “in which over a hundred genes were up regulated and 200 were down regulated”.

Dr Whitehall explained the limbic system in the brain coordinates emotion, behaviour, judgement, thinking and executive functions. He said when the lambs were made to walk through a maze, those which were given the puberty blocker couldn’t work out the maze. Effects like confusion and skittishness were observed and the animals never got over their being changed.

“And so while these doctors are convincing our courts that these blockers are being reversible, that is not true. Major work being done around the world shows that that is not true and that there is a lasting impact on the way that the limbic system works,” he said.

He said Dr Kenneth Zucker, a leading Canadian psychologist with a focus on gender dysphoria, advocated for “watchful waiting”.

“Zucker was by no means anti-homosexual. He said that of those who do not grow out of it, then they will have a homosexual orientation. And he argued, surely that is better than the medicalisation and surgicalisation that is involved in making them cross-sex,” Dr Whitehall said. Dr Zucker was sacked as Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for his advocacy.

Dr Whitehall said there is positive news, however, in this area.

“The bible of psychiatry, the diagnostic and scientific manual of mental health, says that 85 to 90 per cent of these children will in fact, re-orientate to their natal sex through puberty,” he said.

In the meantime, Dr Whitehall suggested using Dr Zucker’s strategy if children show signs of gender dysphoria.

“Be kind. Be gentle. If they really insist on wearing a dress, that’s fine, but you put some limits. You are using certain kind boundaries with the full expectation that a majority will grow out,” he said. “Constrain it lovingly in full expectation that statistics is on your side.”

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