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Childhood’s end

A medical vanguard aims to arm children against their own nature

Artillery Row

If you were a doctor, how far would you go to alleviate the suffering of children and teenagers? Would you bypass the regulatory authorities governing your profession? Would you break the law? If your actions triggered multiple investigations and penalties, would you remain resolute in your conviction that you had done nothing wrong?

Dr Helen Webberley believes she is on the right side of history. Her reasons for thinking so are worth exploring.

In 2015 she set up a web page to help people with gender dysphoria. This was inundated by putative patients seeking puberty blockers and hormones. Many were adolescent. One was 12 years old. These activities soon attracted the attention of the General Medical Council and the Health Inspectorate Wales. By the end of 2018, her medical licence was suspended and she had a criminal conviction.

Dr Webberley supplied his patients with the drugs they requested. Even if they were nine years old

But she was not deterred. She established the website GenderGP in order to continue providing these services. GenderGP has been on a peripatetic journey via Malaga and Hong Kong to find a permanent home beyond the UK. It has now become a global operation supplying hormones to a young international clientele.

The co-founder of GenderGP is her husband, Dr Michael Webberley. He has just been found guilty by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) of multiple clinical failures in a “pattern of substandard care”. These include prescribing testosterone when it was not clinically indicated and failure to conduct adequate patient assessment. The Tribunal Chair notes that in every single case, Dr Michael Webberley supplied his patients with the drugs they requested. Even if they were nine years old. He never suggested alternative treatment. The penalties he will receive are yet to be decided.

Dr Helen Webberley has a Manichean interpretation of these events. She describes being at the vortex of an existential crisis. The adolescents seeking her online help are in danger of self harm or worse, and the spectre of suicide means action is imperative. She was determined to act.

Her analysis is predicated upon moral and medical certainty. This is affirmative care. It means accepting the self-diagnosis and drug demands of those making them, even if they are children. What need is there for caution when there is no ambiguity? When you are on the right side of history, why hesitate?

Meanwhile in America, the academic social psychologist and renowned author, Jonathan Haidt, wonders what is fuelling the troubling upward trajectory of depression and suicide in Gen Z girls. Particularly those living in Anglosphere countries like the US, Canada, the UK. Why are young girls in the wealthiest countries on the planet, living in the most prosperous period in human history, so depressed?

Haidt notes that the deterioration in this generation of girls’ mental health tracks closely with the rise of social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram, the platforms which dominate the landscape of adolescent girls.

Haidt argues that these platforms expose them to a brutal arena where their insecurities and the ruthless judgement of their audience is amplified, causing psychological damage. W.B. Yeats wrote of “a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun”. Is that what social media feels like for some of these “iGen” girls? Sitting in suburban bedrooms, isolated, atomised transfixed by the blue light of the screen.

In this brave new world, children no longer need to “suffer” puberty. It will be optional

It takes great courage to speak publicly in a hostile environment about the negative consequences of “affirmative care”. Keira Bell demonstrates that. If you are a mixed race child with divorced parents growing up in a small provincial town, this can produce feelings of alienation, as anyone who shares this background knows. Keira Bell had a turbulent childhood, and puberty increased her psychological distress. When Keira sought help, she was set upon an “affirmative pathway” of breast binding, testosterone and eventually surgery. She has spoken eloquently about the profound regret she feels about these events and has legally challenged the Tavistock Clinic for encouraging and facilitating her to embark upon a destructive, unnecessary journey.

How do the evangelical advocates of “affirmative care” explain the traumatic experience of Keira Bell and the increasing numbers of young women like her?

Dr Webberley and her supporters hope that the outcome of the MPTS will be a vindication of her methods and a catalyst for radical change in child health care. She believes she’s a pioneer, fighting to establish new territory. This brave new world is one where children no longer need to “suffer” puberty. It will be optional. If a nine-year-old or a six-year-old self-diagnoses a discongruity between her corporeal self and her innate identity, the NHS should act on her instructions and issue a prescription.

The head of the Tribunal, Angus MacPherson, appears to endorse this binary narrative. Webberley is at the “vanguard” of change, while the impliedly ossified old guard of the medical establishment should embrace her “enlightened” vision of the future.

The etymology of “vanguard” is rooted in warfare. It described the troops who formed the spearhead of an army marching into battle. This is an unfortunate linguistic heritage for praising those who advocate a radical paradigm shift not only in the medical treatment of children, but in the definition of childhood itself. What does that imply for children’s capacity to consent?

When the “children of tomorrow”, to use Webberley’s phrase, sit in judgement on this period of history in fifty years’ time, what will their verdict be? Will they salute Dr Webberley and those who marched with her as saviours? Will they garland her with encomiums? Or will they look back at all of us with anger and incredulity as they struggle to understand how we let this happen. Were we blind to the collateral damage or just indifferent?

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