Why ‘gender-affirming care’ is a Thalidomide scandal 2.0

Why ‘gender-affirming care’ is a Thalidomide scandal 2.0

By Stephanie Bastiaan

Just a few short months ago, the Australian Government issued an overdue apology to the victims of the Thalidomide medical scandal for its role in failing to protect unborn babies affected by their mothers taking Thalidomide as a remedy for morning sickness.

In his speech, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described it as "one of the darkest chapters in Australia's medical history."

In the late 1950s, German drug manufacturer Grünenthal introduced Thalidomide to the global market as a treatment for insomnia, anxiety and a range of other ailments. Despite the lack of safety data, Australia rolled out Thalidomide as a safe, over-the-counter drug in 1960 through the UK pharmaceutical chain, The Distillers Company Biochemical. Studies on foetal exposure to teratogens (chemicals that affect babies in utero) began in 1905, and links between drugs and foetal malformation had well and truly been established by 1952. 

Legal documents show that by 1960, Grünenthal had been hiding the devastating side effects of infant death and severe physical defects, including the loss of limbs and damage to internal organs, for nearly two years, including in the families of its employees. 

Although Distillers were warned in April 1961 about the harmful side effects on babies, they continued to lobby the Australian Government to have the drug added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. It wasn't until Australian Obstetrician Dr William McBride published a letter on his findings in the medical journal The Lancet, some seven months later, that the drug was pulled from the market. By then, over 10,000 babies born had been affected worldwide. It is unknown how many died in utero. 

In response to the Thalidomide scandal, the Australian Government established the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee, now known as the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates drugs in Australia today. 

Albanese's apology rings hollow with the eerie silence from our political leaders and many parts of the media following the stunning revelations in the recently leaked WPATH files (followed last week, by the NHS’ ban on puberty blockers for children in the UK). It is clear Australia is engulfed in another diabolical medical crisis that will supersede Thalidomide, and our political leaders and health departments are intentionally ignoring it. 

WPATH, which stands for World Professional Association for Transgender Health, claims its mission is to "promote evidence-based care, education, research, public policy, and respect in transgender health." Their influence has increased dramatically since 2020, coinciding with the boom in ‘gender-affirming’ medical treatments. In 2023, they were quoted in over 200 publications, and although we are only a quarter of the way through 2024, those figures are on track to double. 

They produce the "Standards of Care" for gender dysphoria, adopted by Australia and other countries around the world, which they say are "a professional consensus about the psychiatric, psychological, medical, and surgical management of gender dysphoria". These so-called standards of care promote the use of puberty blockers, opposite-sex hormones, and amputation surgeries on minors and have been adopted by gender clinics throughout Australia.

Rather than vindicate medical ‘gender affirmation’ treatments, the leaked files provide further alarming evidence that Australia urgently needs an inquiry.

In the leaked files, one surgeon blames "aggressive attacks from the right" for hospitals in the US restricting surgery on children under 18 in response to a doctor's query on facilitating vaginoplasty surgery to remove a 14-year-old boy’s penis who “started transition” (to become a girl) at the age of four. 

In another conversation, a doctor is chastised by another member of WPATH for withholding hormone treatment on a patient with PTSD, depression and suspected schizoid personality disorder on the recommendation of the referring psychiatrist. Discussions and queries on the adverse side effects of drugs and treatments experienced by patients highlight the lack of knowledge and science behind the treatments they are prescribing.

Discussions between WPATH members in the leaked files also note hormones as a likely cause of liver cancer in two patients, one of whom died as a result. Outrageously, the WPATH "Standards of Care" claim 'no increased risk' of cancer from 'gender-affirming hormones', despite a 2019  Dutch study establishing a 46-fold increase in the risk of breast cancer in men taking estrogen while studies in 2020 and 2023 establish the increased risk of liver cancer in women on testosterone.

Drugs for medical ‘gender affirmation’ treatments are often prescribed off-label in Australia. This means they have been approved for use within Australia for specific treatments or diseases but not for ‘gender-affirming’ treatment. For example, Zoladex and Leuprorelin have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to treat cancer but are currently being used as puberty blockers in children despite no approval nor safety data available for doing so.  

The Federal Government's Health Secretary, Professor Brendan Murphy, has rejected calls for greater oversight of drugs used for medical ‘gender-affirming care’, and has also acknowledged the department does not keep records on how many children are being prescribed off-label drugs for ‘gender-affirming’ treatment.

Australia's lack of data collection makes it difficult to assess just how quickly transition regret is rising, but it's another point of contention that WPATH acknowledges in the leaked files.

Considering 'gender-affirming care' is offered to children as young as three in line with WPATH's recommendations and that breast amputation surgery for girls as young as 13 is allegedly being permitted in Australia, there needs to be an intervention and an investigation. 

The Australian Government failed to ensure Thalidomide was safe before authorising it and then waited seven months too long to withdraw the drug once the side effects became known. As a result, hundreds of babies and their families were needlessly injured. The same thing is now shamefully happening with medical ‘gender-affirmation’ practices. 

In his Thalidomide apology, Albanese said: "As we express our sorrow and regret, we also acknowledge the inescapable historical facts—the fact that even after the grave dangers of this drug were known, importing thalidomide was not prohibited, selling it was not banned, products and samples in surgeries and shops were not comprehensively recalled or entirely destroyed." 

Prime Minister, there will be another speech expressing sorrow and regret. The devastating question is, how many victims and their families will the apology be for?  

Australia urgently needs an inquiry into medical ‘gender affirmation’ practices now. 

Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women’s Forum Australia

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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