‘Top’ Surgery for Trans Youth: Advance or Dangerous Medicine?

Is the gender-affirmative treatment approach an example of “medicine continuing on its progressive march of improving human life” or “a manifestation of dangerous medicine that…will cause more harm than benefit to vulnerable youths?” wonders an Australian psychiatrist in a newly published letter that addresses the controversial procedure of masculinizing chest surgery — a double mastectomy — in young people with gender dysphoria (GD).

Alison Clayton, MBBS, explores the evidence for masculinizing chest surgery and looks back at examples of “dangerous medicine” in the past century while looking forward, wondering how future medics will retrospectively view gender affirmative treatment, especially so-called “top” or masculinizing chest surgery, which is in actual fact a double mastectomy, in a letter published November 22 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“It is surprising that clinicians and researchers claim chest surgery for GD youth is an evidence-based intervention, rather than acknowledging it is an experimental treatment that requires more rigorous and human research ethics committee [HREC] approved research,” she writes.

“The medical profession needs to consider whether, in its championing of the gender-affirmative approach for GD youth, it is also acting brashly and making mistakes that will negatively impact some young people for the rest of their lives,” she continues.

Clayton, after many years of experience as a psychiatrist, has recently returned to post-graduate research into the history of 20th-century psychiatry at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Meanwhile, the authors of a viewpoint published online today in JAMA Surgery, agree with Clayton on the issue of a lack of long-term studies on which to base decisions, particularly when it comes to insurance coverage for gender surgeries in the United States.  

Nnenaya Agochukwu-Mmonu, MD, and colleagues recommend use of the coverage with evidence development (CED) approach, which would, they say, provide a “rigorous evidence base for gender-affirming interventions and surgery while simultaneously allowing access and provisional coverage for these services.”

Threefold Increase in Gender-Affirming Surgeries in Past Decade

There has been a threefold rise in the rate of gender-affirming surgeries in the United States in the past decade, which can be attributed to increased recognition of gender dysphoria, decreasing social stigma toward these individuals, greater clinical experience, and expanding insurance coverage, according to Agochukwu-Mmonu, of the Department of Urology, NYU School of Medicine, New York City, and coauthors.

Clayton meanwhile notes that of the increasing number of adolescents being referred for treatment for gender dysphoria in the Western world, most were born female and many have “a history of psychiatric illness or neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Many of these youngsters also show a “high demand” for surgical removal of breasts, she adds, noting that this operation is being undertaken as routine treatment in patients as young as 13, with some clinicians arguing that “this surgery is an evidence-based intervention that improves mental health outcomes and that it is discriminatory for it not to be available.”

She also notes that “chest dysphoria” is “a recently created term meaning discomfort with one’s breasts.” The term “breast” is therefore largely absent in publications talking about this surgery as it “may cause distress for transgender males,” to quote one source, Clayton says, and “this seems part of a broader pattern of removing this term from clinical language,” according to another article on the subject.

Clayton also says, “There are only a handful of published studies focusing on the potential benefits of masculinizing chest surgery,” and notes that these mostly report on surgery for individuals younger than 21 years old.

Significant Methodological Flaws in Existing Research

One study of 14 postsurgical youth (nine of whom were under 18 years) found that “all reported high aesthetic satisfaction and most self-reported low complication rates and improvement in mood.”

Another cross-sectional retrospective survey looked at 68 postsurgical transmasculine youth (72% of the eligible postsurgical population); 49% had surgery when younger than age 18, with the youngest being age 13 and the oldest age 24. At the time of the survey, only 14% of participants were more than 2 years postsurgery. The postsurgical participants were found to have reduced chest dysphoria (the outcome) compared with a convenience and nonmatched comparison sample of nonsurgical transmasculine youth.

And a 2021 qualitative study of 30 transmale youth — about half of whom had undergone chest surgery — concluded that the postsurgical cohort experienced “tremendous” benefits in chest dysphoria and a range of psychological outcomes.

On this particular study, Clayton notes that “in my opinion, they did not provide enough detail for the reader to make an informed judgment regarding this latter claim.”

She goes on to discuss genital surgery, sometimes called full gender-affirming surgery (or “bottom surgery”), and says proponents of these operations point out that the main objections to them in minors is to “surgical sterilization and people get super worked up about that…it is a barrier we have to overcome and I think we are going to.”

Clayton asserts that it seems “this barrier is already being overcome, as it has been reported that in the United States genital surgery is being undertaken on gender dysphoric minors as young as 15 years old.”

Reflecting on the available evidence, Clayton highlights the significant methodological flaws that limit the extent to which surgery can be linked to short-term improved mental health outcomes and adds that information on long-term outcomes and rates of regret is unavailable.

She also asserts that the research fails to assess “a role for psychological interventions which could be utilized, as a least-harm intervention, until maturity is reached.”

Historical Examples of Experimental Medicine

Clayton goes on to draw parallels with experimental medicine performed on homosexuals in the 20th century, highlighting the medical and surgical interventions, which included metrazol convulsive therapy, chemical castration with estrogens, surgical castration, clitoridectomy, brain operations, and aversive electrotherapy.

She also refers to the historical practice of hormonal treatment for “tall girls” and “short boys” between the 1960s and 1980s. Hormones were given to young people who did not have any medical reason underpinning their stature but were distressed, and society considered their height to have a negative social impact.

“With the encouragement of physicians and school nurses, enthusiastic media promotion, and pharmaceutical companies’ advertising, parents sought hormonal interventions,” she writes, adding that, at the time the hormones were considered safe but long-term adverse effects emerged, including impaired fertility and increased risk of cancers.

“This seems another part of the story of medicine acting to reinforce society’s sex stereotypes, and for some patients it came at disastrous personal cost,” writes Clayton.

The gender-affirming approach is based on endorsing the adolescent’s stated gender identity with minimal questioning and “that they should be supported to undertake social transition, medical transition, masculinizing chest surgery, and, some also argue, genital surgery,” she writes.

Objectors to this approach pinpoint the “limited and low-quality evidence base for the benefits” but also “the irreversible and long-term adverse impacts of these treatments on fertility and sexual function, as well as on bone, brain, and cardiovascular functioning.”

Current Studies of Gender-Affirming Surgeries Lack Standardization

In their viewpoint, Agochukwu-Mmonu and colleagues state that use of a CED would not only help provide an evidence base but would also ensure better-informed policy access and coverage decisions to help standardize approaches to gender surgery in the United States.

Currently, they note, “Studies examining the mental health benefit for patients undergoing gender-affirming surgeries include measures that lack standardization, evaluate different interventions (ie, surgeries are rarely done with concurrent hormone administration), include dissimilar patient populations, and use different study designs.”

This difference in study design leads to variation in reported outcomes. Although many studies have shown benefit, others report that patients have unrealistic expectations or experience regret, Agochukwu-Mmonu and coauthors conclude.

CED provides an option that would enable informed decisions. “It allows the deliberate use of innovative therapies, explicit integration of transgender and nonbinary patient input, and ongoing systematic evaluation aimed to identify specific patient groups who would or would not benefit from their use.”

This leads back to Clayton’s central question around whether the gender-affirmative approach is a medical advance or dangerous medicine.

“Why are these experimental interventions, with inherent risks and scarce, low-quality evidence for benefits, being implemented outside HREC-regulated clinical trial settings?'” she wonders.

Clayton has declared no conflicts of interest.

Arch Sex Behav. Published online November 22, 2021. Full text

JAMA Surg. Published online December 1, 2021. Full text

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