UW hid concerns over puberty blockers in trans study amid media praise, leaked emails show

Getty Images/Drew Angerer
Getty Images/Drew Angerer

Internal emails from the University of Washington reveal how the institution stayed quiet regarding concerns about a study detailing the supposed benefits of experimental gender medicalization in trans-identified youth amid glowing media coverage.

The research study, titled "Mental Health Outcomes in Transgender and Nonbinary Youths Receiving Gender-Affirming Care," was published in February on JAMA Network Open in partnership with Seattle Children's Hospital.

The report claimed that experimental puberty-blocking drugs yield positive mental health outcomes in trans-identified teenagers. Yet critics contend that how the study framed those supposed benefits were flawed and required edits to the promotional materials used to publicize the research. 

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The university stopped promoting the study because the edits were so profound, but its communications office didn't respond to questions because it had received such fawning praise from the press. 

Emails obtained by the Seattle-based "Jason Rantz Show" on talk radio station KTTH suggest that university officials ignored "some pretty concerning claims" in the study because the news coverage was so positive. 

The data that the researchers gathered was used to claim in a press release that so-called gender-affirming care — a euphemism trans activists use that refers to administering sterilizing hormones and medically unnecessary surgeries — "dramatically reduces" depression and is "lifesaving." 

The March press release also claimed that the research team found that such interventions "caused rates of depression to plummet" in adolescents who identify as nonbinary or transgender and criticized efforts in conservative states, namely Idaho and Texas, aimed at restricting and more closely scrutinizing the experimental practices.

A Ph.D. candidate and a UW medical student also penned an op-ed in The Conversation praising the study, amplifying the claims and criticizing Republican efforts to criminalize dispensing puberty-blockers and cross-sex hormones to children and teenagers.  

At the time, the Idaho state House had passed a bill making the provision of "gender-affirming care" a felony offense, and Texas' state child safeguarding agency had begun investigating the practices as abuse, under the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

However, the study's data seemingly revealed virtually no statistically significant mental health improvement among those who received so-called gender-affirming care. The claims of the UW press release were challenged in meticulous detail by journalist Jesse Singal in an April 6 essay on Substack

"Among the kids who went on hormones, there isn't genuine statistical improvement here from baseline to the final wave of data collection. At baseline, 59% of the treatment-naive kids experienced moderate to severe depression. Twelve months later, 56% of the kids on GAM experienced moderate to severe depression," Signal wrote.

"At baseline, 45% of the treatment-naive kids experienced self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Twelve months later, 37% of the kids on GAM did. These are not meaningful differences: The kids in the study arrived with what appear to be alarmingly high rates of mental health problems, many of them went on blockers or hormones, and they exited the study with what appear to be alarmingly high rates of mental health problems." 

The leaked email correspondence shows Laura East, the UW department of epidemiology spokesperson, voicing concerns about Singal's report and that she would not be promoting the study.

"The article resulting from the inquiry was recently posted on the author's Substack, and includes some pretty concerning claims. UW Epidemiology/UW SPH/UW News will not be including this article in our media tracking/or otherwise driving traffic to this piece," she wrote. 

East said she didn't think there was any need to respond more proactively as "there is an overwhelming amount of positive coverage of the study's findings" and then went on to solicit "ideas for any other actions or messaging with the study team." 

Other UW communications officials also spoke of the positive press they had received as a reason to say nothing more and refrain from clarifying their previous statements. 

Emails also show a spokesperson for UW Medicine forwarding East's message to the UW Medicine communications manager.

"FYI, I read through his exceedingly long (very, very long) article," UW Medicine media relations manager Barbara Clements wrote to Susan Gregg, another communications director, along with the forwarded email, "which claimed the research was flawed or, at worst, made up." 

Clements added: "[B]ut given the extremely positive pick up by mainstream media, I would agree and just let this be."

Another email obtained by "The Jason Rantz Show" acknowledged that a UW Medicine video producer "originally misinterpreted the data" in the press release. As a result, the UW Medicine website changed its headline to replace the word "plummeted." 

"UW researchers recently found that gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adolescents likely decreased rates of depression and suicidality," the new headline read. 

An email from the study team led to another edit.

"I think it is important to note that this language is still not quite accurate," the email reportedly reads. "We did not observe a decrease in the rates of depression. We saw that youth who initiated PB/GAH has a lower odds of depression compared to youth who didn’t because depressive symptoms significantly worsened among youth who did NOT initiate PB/GAH. These are different (and has been particularly hard nuance to maintain re: science comm for this study). I think 'mitigate' is an appropriate word to use instead of decrease."

In a statement provided to The Christian Post, a UW Medicine spokesperson confirmed that university staff never reached out to media outlets to clarify the findings. 

“UW Medicine did not proactively reach out to any media outlet to correct the information, however, we made the correction to our newsroom website and called out that a correction had been made,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

“When we distribute press releases on research conducted at UW Medicine, we always link to the original research within the release so that media not only see how we presented the information but have access to the source information. We appreciate that the error was brought to our attention so that we could make that correction on our website and provide the updated language to any media who inquired about the study from that point forward.”

In an email to CP Thursday, Jay Richards, Ph.D., the director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said that the five-fold details emerging from Seattle are all "outrageous."

"The first is that the underlying study was poorly done," Richards wrote. "The second problem is that a respected research university would misrepresent the study. The third problem is how local and national media pushed the study as confirming the value of puberty-blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones."

"All the media would have had to do is read the study before reporting on it," he stressed. "Instead, they naively trusted the UW press release, no doubt because it confirmed their pre-existing bias. As a result, they magnified rather than challenged the errors." 

In recent years, the Heritage Foundation has hosted numerous panels resisting gender ideology in the medical arena and the broader culture.

The fourth outrageous part of the story, according to Richards, is that the university intentionally ignored criticism from independent analysts. The fifth, he said, is that UW-Medicine staff stealthily edited their promotional materials to remove its most glaring errors without ever admitting fault. 

"This is a glaring example of the press-release-to-mainstream-media misinformation pipeline that besets so much of the 'science news' when it comes to 'gender affirming' medicine," Richards said.

Internal correspondence from Seattle Children's Hospital shows its communications staff taking the same, say-nothing-more approach. 

In an email thread that included Madison Joseph, a communications specialist for SCH, Joseph wrote that if the hospital received any inquiries on social media or through the press, "we will continue to not engage."

Dr. Kym Ahrens, who co-authored the study and is a professor in the division of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital and UW Medicine, said in the email thread: "Also, if it gives too much attention to clarify at all, I am also very open to not responding."

Joseph then replied: "In my opinion, Jesse [Singal], and the reporters reaching out, all have an agenda, so anything we say will just add fuel to the fire."

"I think a short, to-the-point note, like 'UW and UW Medicine stand behind our researchers and the JAMA study' is fine, but I wouldn't go beyond that."

The leaked email correspondence comes amid greater critical attention to so-called gender-affirming care in children's hospitals across the United States. 

Earlier this month, due to videos that went viral on Twitter via the LibsofTikTok account, doctors at Boston Children's Hospital were seen speaking about "gender-affirming hysterectomies" and other operations that are performed on young people at their Center for Gender Surgery. BCH subsequently scrubbed their videos from public view amid the backlash and has said they were barraged with threats.

From 2017-2020, the BCH's Center for Gender Surgery performed 65 double mastectomies on young girls, according to a data table in The Journal of Clinical Medicine

Following the Boston Children's episode, it was revealed that Seattle Children's also performs gender surgeries, except genital surgery, on minors.

"Seattle Children's is committed to supporting transgender patients and their families in accessing gender-affirming healthcare," SCH said in a statement defending the institution's practice.   

"As an organization we have a responsibility to provide equitable healthcare for all. Likewise, Children's is committed to creating an environment that values diversity and creates safe, inclusive spaces for workforce members, patients and their families." 

The increased scrutiny also comes as the American Academy of Pediatrics has seemingly backpedaled on its 2018 statement on medicalizing trans-identified youth.

In a statement earlier this week, the AAP said in response to a Wall Street Journal editorial that challenged the organization, that it doesn't recommend "the vast majority of children" subject to "gender-affirming care" should undergo medicalization.

The AAP added that to "affirm" a child under this approach "means destigmatizing gender variance" and that "it has never been about pushing medicines or surgery."

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