DOJ must investigate and prosecute those behind children's hospital harassment campaign, medical groups say

Updated on Oct. 3 at 1:40 p.m.

Provider groups penned a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland today calling for the Department of Justice to take a harder stance on harassment campaigns targeted at pediatric hospitals and staff that provide gender-affirming care services.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Children’s Hospital Association told the attorney general "there is elevated and justifiable fear among families, patients and staff" resulting from bomb threats, protestors, phone calls and emails. While hospitals have ramped up their security in conjunction with law enforcement, some providers have needed 24/7 security due to messages sent to their personal accounts.

“Individuals in all workplaces have the right to a safe environment, out of harm’s way and free of intimidation or reprisal,” AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., M.D., said in a statement accompanying the letter. “As physicians, we condemn groups that promote hate-motivated intolerance and toxic misinformation that can lead to grave real-world violence and extremism and jeopardize patients' health outcomes.

The "intentional campaign of disinformation" promoted by "a few high-profile users on social media" have increased pressure on healthcare workers and, in several cases, have also led to disruptions in care, they wrote. 

The groups said they have also called on tech companies to clamp down on these practices but that it's time for the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute all responsible entities.

"In one hospital, a new mother was prevented from being with her preterm infant because the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was on lockdown due to a bomb threat," the organizations wrote in their letter. "...These coordinated attacks threaten federally protected rights to health care for patients and their families."

At least 21 children's hospitals have been targeted by name in the social media harassment campaigns, leading 18 of those to modify their online information regarding gender-affirming care for young patients, STAT recently reported

“Whether it’s newborns receiving intensive care, children getting cancer treatments or families accessing compassionate care for their transgender adolescents, all patients seeking treatment deserve to get the care they need without fear for their personal safety,” AAP President Moira Szilagyi, M.D, said in a statement. “We cannot stand by as threats of violence against our members and their patients proliferate with little consequence. We call on the Department of Justice to investigate these attacks and social media platforms to reduce the spread of the misinformation enabling them.”

Updated on Aug. 29 at 12:00 p.m.

Children's National Hospital is the latest organization in the crosshair of a harassment campaign due to what the pediatric care provider said is misinformation regarding its gender-affirming care services. 

The Washington, D.C., children's hospital said in an email to Fierce Healthcare that it has been targeted by "a large volume of hostile phone calls, social media messages and emails" since a recording was posted on Twitter in which two phone operators appear to incorrectly tell a caller that a minor would be eligible to receive a gender-affirming hysterectomy.

"None of the people who were secretly recorded by this activist group deliver care to our patients," the hospital said. "The information in the recording is not accurate."

Children's National Hospital said it has never provided gender-affirming surgery to a patient under the age of 18—which would require a court order in Washington, D.C.—and does not provide hormone therapy prior to the onset of puberty. 

The recording of the calls was published Thursday afternoon by "Libs of TikTok" and, as of Monday, the has more than 1 million views. The account was also active in the online condemnation of Boston Children's Hospital and other major pediatric care providers that were accused in recent weeks of performing gender-affirming surgeries on minors.

These hospitals' reports of subsequent harassment campaigns have drawn condemnation from provider groups and law enforcement alike (see below). 

On Aug. 16, Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) issued a statement sharing that its organization “has been the target of a large volume of hostile internet activity, phone calls and harassing emails including threats of violence toward our clinicians and staff.”

Similar campaigns have also targeted Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Phoenix Children’s Hospital, each of which also offers gender-related care programs for patients, the AP reports.

The alleged attacks followed repeated social media posts critical of BCH’s Gender Multispecialty Service Program. Citing videos no longer published by the hospital, the post alleged that the hospital performs genital surgeries on minors.

BCH said those claims are “incorrect” and that patients must be 18 years of age and “capable of consenting for themselves” before receiving hysterectomies and other genital surgeries related to gender-affirming care.

BCH’s Gender Multispecialty Service Program was founded in 2007 as the country’s first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program and now sees patients ranging from three to 25 years of age, according to its website.

Its listed services include primary care, therapy, assessment and plastic surgery, among others. The Boston Globe reports that the program does perform breast surgery on those older than 15 years of age “in certain circumstances and with parental consent.”

Chief among those making the genital surgery claims was “Libs of TikTok,” a Twitter account previously criticized for “outing” and encouraging harassment of LGBTQ+ employees across several industries. The account wrote in posts to more than 1 million followers that the hospital was “carving out” the reproductive systems of children.

Right-leaning states and politicians have also taken issue with gender-affirming care. Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott instructed his state’s child welfare agency to investigate those providing the services for abuse against children, while Florida’s health department plans to restrict Medicaid insurance coverage for several gender dysphoria treatments later this month.

BCH said it is working with law enforcement “to protect our clinicians, staff, patients, families and the broader Boston Children’s community” from the alleged attacks. The hospital has removed all entries from the “Meet our Team” section of the Gender Multispecialty Service’s website and said it “will continue to take all appropriate measures” going forward.

U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Rachael Rollins said in a statement that the alleged threats against BCH were “disturbing” and that the department is pursuing all leads it receives on “hate-based criminal activity.”

“Children deserve an opportunity to thrive and grow as their own authentic selves,” she said. “Parents/guardians and healthcare providers who support them in that journey should be allowed to do so free of threats and harassment. I want to make it clear that the Department of Justice will ensure equal protection of transgender people under the law.”

The Massachusetts Medical Society also released a statement condemning the attacks against BCH, saying that the “"unjust and hateful threats not only contradict the Medical Society’s assertion that healthcare is a basic human right, but also reflect the harmful effects of the creation and dissemination of misinformation."