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Saturday, September 22, 2018

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A rational approach to transgender discussion


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Issues of morality are thorny because people disagree on the fundamental precepts. People rank moral values in different orders. Some place individual freedom above all, while others value peace as the paramount moral end.

Such discrepancies are why people often regard those with whom they disagree as morally inferior. How could a good person want to legalize drugs or prohibit abortion?

Judgment of this sort arises only when one cannot empathize with people who view the world from a different moral lens. Despite widespread disagreement in all things moral, all rational actors can agree on brute facts, here defined as contextual information, with or without a concomitant explanation.

For example, while people weigh the competing values of human prosperity and environmental change, incontrovertible facts show that the prevalence of undernourished people decreased by 42 percent from the years 1990 to 1992 and 2012 to 2014, and the planet’s average surface temperature will rise about two degrees Celsius by the end of the 20th century.

Brute facts, especially coupled with the correct explanation, augment the moral adjudication of all rational actors.

The topic of transgender children has recently risen to the public consciousness. In 1989, the Gender Identity Development Service received two referrals. In 2015, that number grew over two orders of magnitude, and included 300 children under 12. Differing moral vantage points result in the judgments described above. 

In one case, conflict arose over a 14-year-old girl adopting a male name in an effort to move toward a new gender identity. While the child’s mother disapproved, the relevant authority supported the girl’s decision.

“The rights of the parents are being eroded, especially those who have traditional Christian values. It is leaving parents to feel intimidated,” the mother said.

On the other hand, Dr. Norman Spack, a pediatric endocrinologist, urges that society give self-identifying transgender children hormone-blockers after puberty, and eventually cross-sex hormones. He said the current suggested minimum age to be given such strong hormone doses, 16, is cruel.

This tension between the conservative wait-and-see perspective and the liberal do-it-now attitude can be resolved.

Once brute facts and their proper explanation are understood, we will know exactly which children should be given the appropriate transgender treatments. The positions of both the parent and the doctor would give way if we completely understood the basis of transgender people. It would be easy to vindicate or refute the Christian mother’s resistance to her child’s name change and Spack’s claim that delayed hormone treatment is cruel.

There would be no room for moralizing in the face of certainty. Just as we have progressed in treating physical ailments by understanding their underlying causes and explanations, so too will the proper medical solutions for transgender children depend on understanding the genetic and neurological basis of transgender people.

In the meantime, uncertainty implies that at least one of two errors are inevitable: Some individuals will inappropriately receive transgender treatment, and some individuals will face pressure to remain unchanged despite their genuine transgender status. While the suffering incurred by each of these errors is a problem, the former is surely far worse.

To claim that mistaken gender transition is of the same magnitude as facing obstacles — not including discrimination —  in implementing such a transition is moral relativism of the worst kind. As we acquire more and more brute facts, both errors can be diminished, and eventually they will be eradicated entirely with correct explanations.

Until then, we face the uncomfortable truth that catastrophic mistakes will be made. But there is a trade-off between the two errors. An overly rash approach will result in children facing the rest of their lives mistakenly altered. An overly conservative approach will bring suffering to those children who are genuinely transgender for a few additional years until they are deemed old enough to make such a life-changing decision. The latter option is the mistake society must bear.

Guest columnist Logan Chipkin is an ecology and evolution graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]

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