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Brandon Taranto receives a tattoo during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Aug. 14, 2020, in Sturgis, S.D. (AP) Brandon Taranto receives a tattoo during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Aug. 14, 2020, in Sturgis, S.D. (AP)

Brandon Taranto receives a tattoo during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Aug. 14, 2020, in Sturgis, S.D. (AP)

Grace Abels
By Grace Abels June 14, 2023
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 14, 2023

If Your Time is short

• Pence said he favors barring minors from receiving gender-affirming care, even if their parents and doctors agree that it was the right course. One justification he used was that laws bar minors from receiving tattoos.

• However, two-thirds of U.S. states allow minors to get tattoos if their parents consent.

• Medical experts say the comparison isn’t sound: Tattoos are mostly cosmetic, while gender-affirming care is based on scientific research and in many cases is considered medically necessary.

Twice in the past few weeks, former Vice President Mike Pence has offered a model for determining whether minors should be able to receive gender-affirming care: the laws that govern whether minors can get a tattoo.

Pence, who is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, raised the idea in a May 24 Scripps News interview. 

"Look, you can't get a tattoo under the age of 18 in most states in the country," Pence said. "And this idea that we would allow children to go through either chemical or surgical transition treatment really before they've come of age, before they have a full appreciation for the decisions that they make and the long term consequences — I've supported measures in my home state and around the country that would simply ban gender-transition treatment for young people. And I think that's in our children's best interests."

Pence said the law has "always limited what children under the age of 18 are able to do, whether it's (to) get a tattoo, whether it's (to) enter into a contract. And even criminal law deals with minors, in most cases, in different ways. So, I think there's justification for protecting our kids very, very broadly."

He repeated the comparison in a June 7 CNN town hall, saying, "There's a reason why you don't let kids get a tattoo before they're 18, right?"

When questioned by the moderator, Dana Bash, Pence said he would favor barring minors from receiving gender-affirming care even if their parents and doctors agreed that it was the right course. 

"The state has the obligation to see to the safety and health and well-being of the people in the state," he said.

There are some issues with Pence’s analogy.

First, Pence misstated the nature of consent laws for minors seeking tattoos. Second, tattoos are an aesthetic choice, while most medical organizations consider gender-affirming care medically necessary and even lifesaving. 

What age laws govern the ability to get a tattoo?

There is no federal law on minimum age for tattoos; states govern the issue. We checked with experts and they agreed that state laws fall broadly into three categories.

  • In 27 states, the law does not specify the minimum age for a tattoo but allows minors to be tattooed as long as they have received a parent or legal guardian’s consent and/or have a parent present for the tattoo session.

  • Five more states set the minimum age for a tattoo at 14 or 16, as long as a parent consents and/or is present.

  • The remaining 18 states and the District of Columbia do set a firm minimum age of 18 for receiving a tattoo, without specifying that a parent can consent to allow a minor to receive one.

In other words, Pence’s bright line of age 18 — above it, you can get a tattoo, below it, you can’t — prevails in about one-third of states. However, in the other two-thirds of states, minors can receive tattoos with parental consent. 

Jessica Silbey, a Boston University law professor, said parental consent for minors has a long history beyond the question of tattoos.

"Minors can have medical treatment with consent of their guardian," Silbey said. "That’s why we sign health forms for schools and attend doctor's appointments with our children."

Other cosmetic procedures that are not always medically necessary, including rhinoplasty and breast augmentation, may be available to minors with parental consent, experts said.

Even in cases in which parents refuse to allow their child to receive a medical procedure, such as blood transfusions, children usually have a chance to make their case through the legal system.

"Under the constitutional right to bodily autonomy, a minor can petition a court for a bypass," she said. It is usually allowed, she added, especially when surgery will alleviate pain and relieve illness.

Comparing tattoos and gender-affirming care

Unlike a tattoo, gender-affirming care is not just a cosmetic procedure. 

It is an individualized approach to health care that works to support a person’s gender identity. Gender identity refers to someone’s internal sense of being a man, woman, something in-between or neither, and is different from biological sex.  

For many people, their sex and gender are the same, but people who are transgender have a mismatch between the two. This incongruence can cause distress called gender dysphoria, which can include discomfort with one’s body, specifically the parts that signal biological sex. Some may feel their bodies have betrayed them and, in some cases, discomfort with their bodies can lead to self-harm or depression. 

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s standards of care note that gender-affirming care is more than just transition-related medical treatments such as hormone therapy or surgeries.

It can include social transitioning — using a preferred name or wearing certain clothes. As children age, it can extend to medical treatments. Younger adolescents can be prescribed puberty blockers, and older adolescents can receive hormonal therapies and, in rare cases, surgery. 

Those types of emotional and social affirmation — which also include creating a safe space to explore gender identity — are important elements of pediatric gender-affirming care, said Jason Rafferty, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Gender Identity Program said invoking tattoos in such a context ignores that "tattoos generally aren't medical care."

"At a basic level, we're comparing evidence-based medically necessary care to body art," Keuroghlian said.

Numerous studies have found a link between access to gender-affirming care and improved mental health for young people experiencing gender dysphoria.

"I’m not aware of comparable medical evidence or applications for tattoos," Keuroghlian said.

In its correspondence with PolitiFact, Pence’s team argued that tattoos can be reversed, while changing a minor’s sex cannot be. 

Gender-affirming surgeries are typically reserved for adults but can be recommended for older adolescents case by case, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The World Professional Association of Transgender Health’s Standards of Care also does not specify a specific age cutoff for surgical intervention, instead providing "a detailed framework to help providers assess the needs of patients at different developmental stages of life," according to the association’s president, Dr. Marci Bowers.

Bowers called Pence’s comparison "misleading and misguided," and said it "trivializes the in-depth, individualized and deeply personal importance of gender identity to an individual’s well-being."

Bowers said, "We want to ensure every transgender person receives the developmentally appropriate and individualized care that is best for them and their level of maturity." While there are some examples of minors receiving gender reassignment surgery, they are not the norm.

Other transition care available to adolescents, including gender-affirming hormones are partially reversible. But the most common medical treatment for minors, puberty blockers, are categorized by the American Academy of Pediatrics as reversible. 

Experts said that although deciding to get a tattoo is often impulsive, choosing to seek gender-affirming care requires intention, time and planning and, for minors, parental consent and involvement. 

"Health professionals and parents work together to help transgender young people get the care that meets their unique needs," said Bowers. 

Dr. Michelle Forcier, a pediatrics professor who specializes in gender and sexual and reproductive health at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, said Pence’s rhetoric also serves to diminish gender-affirmative health care’s importance. "To compare gender affirmative care to someone choosing a tattoo …  is a miscarriage of comparison and metaphor."

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Our Sources

Mike Pence, transcript of CNN town hall, June 7, 2023

Mike Pence, interview with Scripps News, May 24, 2023 (accessed via Nexis)

Ink-Match, "How Old Should I Be To Get A Tattoo: A State-By-State Guide,"  April 19, 2021

Endocrine Society, "Transgender Health," December 16, 2020

American Academy of Pediatrics, "Ensuring Comprehensive Care and Support for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children and Adolescents," October 1, 2018

American Medical Association, "AMA to states: Stop interfering in health care of transgender children," April 26, 2021

PolitiFact, "What the Equality Act debate gets wrong about gender, sex," March 4, 2021

American Psychiatric Association, "What is Gender Dysphoria?" August 2022

Psychology Today, "The Evidence for Trans Youth Gender-Affirming Medical Care," January 24, 2022

Journal of the American Medical Association "Mental Health Outcomes in Transgender and Nonbinary Youths Receiving Gender-Affirming Care | Adolescent Medicine," February 25, 2022
American Academy of Pediatrics Journal, "Pubertal Suppression for Transgender Youth and Risk of Suicidal Ideation," February 2020

PLoS One Journal, "Access to gender-affirming hormones during adolescence and mental health outcomes among transgender adults," January 12, 2022

Journal of Adolescent Health, "Association of Gender-Affirming Hormone Therapy With Depression, Thoughts of Suicide, and Attempted Suicide Among Transgender and Nonbinary Youth," December 14, 2021

New England Journal of Medicine, "Psychosocial Functioning in Transgender Youth after 2 Years of Hormones," January 19, 2023

Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology, Well-being and suicidality among transgender youth after gender-affirming hormones, 2019

Mayo Clinic, "Feminizing hormone therapy," February 21, 2023

Mayo Clinic, "Masculinizing hormone therapy," February 21, 2023

Planned Parenthood, "I want to transition. How old do you have to be to get HRT?​​​​," April 24, 2023

Office of Population Affairs, "Gender-Affirming Care and Young People," accessed June 12, 2023

World Professional Association for Transgender Health, "Standards of Care-8," accessed June 12, 2023

PolitiFact, "Transition-related surgery limited to teens, not 'young kids.' Even then, it's rare," Aug. 10, 2022

PolitiFact, "Is all gender-affirming care for children ‘experimental’? Experts say no," Jan. 17, 2023

PolitiFact, "Gender affirmation is linked to improved mental health. There’s no evidence it drives youth suicide," March 8, 2023

PolitiFact, "‘Gender dysphoria’: What it is, what it isn’t and how history has changed its view," May 22, 2023

Interview with Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Gender Identity Program, June 8, 2023

Interview with Dr. Michelle Forcier, pediatrics professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, June 8, 2023

Email interview with Brian Elzweig, associate professor of business law at the University of West Florida, June 8, 2023

Email interview with Jessica Silbey, Boston University law professor, June 8, 2023

Email interview with Doug Farquhar, director of government affairs for the National Environmental Health Association, June 8, 2023

Email Interview with Dr. Marci Bowers, President of the World Professional Association of Transgender Health. June 9 -13, 2023

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