May 15, 2024

UK doctors fear toxic abuse over their research on trans issues 

Fallout from the Cass review of transgender medical treatment in the UK continues. The Guardian interviewed doctors and researchers who complained that mere discussion of their research could often trigger virulent abuse. 

In her report, which was released last week, Professor Hilary Cass said that “The surrounding noise and increasingly toxic, ideological and polarised public debate has made the work of the Review significantly harder and does nothing to serve the children and young people who may already be subject to significant minority stress.”

Some doctors said that participation in the debate could endanger their reputations or expose them to abuse and unfair criticism. 

“In most areas of health, medical researchers have freedom to answer questions to problems without fear of judgment,” Dr Channa Jayasena, a consultant in reproductive endocrinology at Imperial College London, told The Guardian. “I’ve never quite known a field where the risks are also in how you’re seen and your beliefs. You have to be careful about what you say both in and out of the workplace.”

Sallie Baxendale, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at UCL’s Institute of Neurology, published a paper which questioned the impact of puberty blockers on brain development. It was savagely criticised. “I’ve been accused of being an anti-trans activist, and that now comes up on Google and is never going to go away,” Baxendale said. “Imagine what it’s like if that is the first thing that comes up when people Google you? Anyone who publishes in this field has got to be prepared for that.”

“The bad-mouthing and the social media destruction of people’s reputation and careers is so damning,” an academic who wished to remain anonymous said. “Professional people are worried about how they will be characterised on social media and cannot express dissent without it resulting in very aggressive, inappropriate behaviours. It’s causing people to stop talking and just move away from it and not get involved.”

She added: “This isn’t how good scientific debate happens – it happens when people can talk honestly and without fear.”

Younger researchers will be deterred from entering the field, says Sallie Baxendale. “It’s tough, I think most people would just walk away. Why risk your reputation? There are many people early in their careers, and I do not blame them one bit, who would not be prepared to accept that,” she said.