California asks court to block prisoner's sex-reassignment surgery
Hands cling to jail bars (Shutterstock)

California officials have asked an appeals court to block a judge's order requiring the state to pay for the sex-reassignment surgery of a prisoner, arguing in court papers that the inmate has no medical need for the operation.

Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, 51, who was born male but identifies as a woman, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1987. She is seeking to become the first inmate in state history to undergo gender-reassignment surgery.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled in April that by refusing to provide for the operation, the state was violating the constitutional rights of Norsworthy, who is serving a life sentence at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California.

The California Attorney General's Office has appealed the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Tigar, who is based in San Francisco, has refused to put his ruling on hold while the case runs its course.

In court papers filed on Monday, attorneys for the state asked the higher court to temporarily block the surgery pending appeal.

They contended that the appeal would be meaningless if the operation goes forward. Moreover, prison authorities would need to take special measures to prevent threats and assaults against Norsworthy by other inmates if she were to undergo the surgery, the state argued.

Norsworthy has received counseling and medical treatment, including hormone therapy, for her gender dysphoria for more than 15 years, and "no treating physician has ever determined that reassignment surgery is medically necessary," state attorneys wrote in their motion.

The court battle over Norsworthy's request for gender reassignment comes as transgender issues gained renewed prominence since Olympic champion Bruce Jenner declared in a television interview last month that he identifies as a woman.

The American Psychiatric Association defines gender dysphoria as the phenomenon in which a person's gender identity is at odds with his or her anatomical gender from birth.

The cost of providing gender reassignment surgery for a prison inmate could run up to $100,000, including expenses related to hormone treatment and other preoperative care, special security and transportation, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver's office overseeing medical care for California prison inmates.

Norsworthy, who was born under the name Jeffrey, is scheduled for a parole hearing on May 20, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.