Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Declines Inmate’s Request for Sex Reassignment Surgery

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., June 11, 2018 (Erin Schaff/Reuters)

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a convicted murderer’s appeal to receive gender reassignment surgery, leaving in place a lower court’s ruling in favor of the Texas prison officials who refused the inmate the procedure.

The court rejected the appeal of a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling by transgender inmate Vanessa Lynn Gibson, formerly known as Scott Gibson, who claimed the prison’s refusal to grant the surgery violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

Gibson, 41, who was born male but has lived as a woman since age 15, was convicted and sent to prison for aggravated assault in 1995 and two years later convicted of murdering another inmate.

The inmate, who is eligible for parole in 2021, has engaged in self-harm and has attempted suicide three times, stemming in part from gender dysphoria, which Gibson was diagnosed with in 2014.

Gibson was provided with hormone therapy but denied a request to be considered for gender reassignment surgery. Lawyers for Gibson argued in court filings that the gender dysphoria, which causes their client to feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, is life-threatening in this case. However, Texas does not have a policy governing “irreversible surgical intervention” for inmates, the state said.

“A state does not inflict cruel and unusual punishment by declining to provide sex reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate,” Judge James Ho said in the Fifth Circuit’s decision, adding that “the necessity and efficacy of sex reassignment surgery is a matter of significant disagreement within the medical community.”

Ho also noted “no other prison has ever provided” gender reassignment surgery.

Democratic presidential candidates including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former 2020 candidate Senator Kamala Harris have advocated for spending taxpayer dollars on sex-reassignment surgery for prison inmates.

The Supreme Court did not comment on its decision not to consider the case.

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