Trans children turn to dark web for puberty blockers claims Mermaids charity

Keira Bell - Paul Cooper
Keira Bell - Paul Cooper

Transgender children are turning to the dark web and overseas for puberty blockers, Mermaids has warned as it demands free access for under 18s.

The embattled charity has produced its first report assessing the impact of the landmark Bell versus Tavistock court case in 2020, in which Keira Bell, a detransitioner who regretted trans surgery, took the UK’s main gender-identity clinic to court.

The High Court ruled in favour of Bell, finding children under 16 were unlikely to be able to give informed consent to the drugs, before the Court of Appeal overturned this.

But Mermaids, which is now undergoing a statutory inquiry by the Charity Commission, claims the case was “catastrophic” and “continues to cast a long shadow over access to gender affirming healthcare in the UK”.

Young people ‘left in limbo’

In a report released last week, the charity claimed that young people were “left in limbo” when NHS England froze access to new puberty-blocker prescriptions after the case.

The report took aim at “barriers to gender-affirming healthcare” still being experienced two years later and called on health chiefs to “ensure young trans people have access to the timely and appropriate gender affirming healthcare they are entitled to”.

Following a survey of parents and carers, Mermaids claimed that soaring waiting lists for the Tavistock clinic’s Gender Identity Development Service meant “options were limited”, including to “look for help overseas or online”.

Mermaids and the Tavistock clinic have been criticised for claiming the drugs are reversible, despite NHS chiefs saying the long-term effects are unknown.

Asked by Mermaids if the Bell case changed the likelihood of them “seeking out less-secure pathways”, such as third-party private care overseas or self-sourcing medication from the internet, 38 per cent were very likely and a further 31 per cent likely or somewhat so.

“One major outcome of Bell was the impossible position it put people in,” Mermaids said. “Having to seriously consider finding alternative and possibly fewer safe ways to help their child caused immense stress for some – this included some people worrying their child may look online for gender affirming hormones.”

‘Might look to dark web for hormones’

One respondent told the survey their son “might look to the dark web for hormones”, while another said “it is now likely that they will try to get illegal drugs online”.

The report, an online survey of 234 parents carried out with Goldsmiths, University of London, said nine out of 10 people felt the judgment had a bad effect on their mental health.

Another key finding was the feeling among trans and non-binary people that the system is unfair and made them feel powerless, with 5,035 people on the waiting list in May 2022 at the Tavistock clinic and 1,066 days being the average wait for a first appointment.

In October, NHS England announced plans for tightening controls on the treatment of under 18s questioning their gender, including a ban on prescribing puberty blockers outside of strict clinical trials.

It said most children who believe they are trans are just going through a “phase”.

Dr Abby Barras, a researcher at Mermaids, said: “Despite Bell v Tavistock being permanently overturned, the repercussions of the case are still felt today, and accessing gender affirming healthcare for young trans people remains challenging, to put it mildly.”