Human Rights Watch calls for an end to nonconsensual surgeries on intersex children

Out Leadership partner organization Human Rights Watch and intersex rights group InterACT have partnered to publish “‘I Want to Be Like Nature Made Me’: Medically Unnecessary Surgeries on Intersex Children in the US,” a groundbreaking investigation into the physical and psychological damage caused by medically unnecessary surgery on intersex people, who are born with chromosomes, gonads, sex organs, or genitalia that differ from those seen as socially typical for boys and girls.

When a child in the US in born intersex, doctors typically perform surgeries on the child’s internal sex organs, which can cause lifelong suffering and trauma. Doctors who perform these surgeries do so aiming to help children grow up “normal,” conforming to society’s predominant gender binary.

Given the young age of the children, these surgeries occur without the patient’s consent, and the results are irreversible. Nerves that are severed cannot regrow, and childrens’ genitals can be scarred and lose sensation. Psychological trauma is another common side effect.

1.7 % of children are born intersex. “The medical community has made progress in intersex care in recent decades, but medically unnecessary irreversible surgeries on children and infants remain common,” writes Kyle Knight, researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The pressure to fit in and live a ‘normal’ life is real, but there is no evidence that surgery delivers on the promise of making that easier, and ample evidence that it risks causing irreversible lifelong harm.”

Recently, the United Nations has amplified pressure on countries to ban medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children. Whether a country bans medically unnecessary surgery for intersex infants is one of the ten criteria Out Leadership factors into the Business Climate Scores included in its CEO Briefs.

“Doctors need to frame it in a different way, so parents know there is no urgency. Parents should also be given the full spectrum of choices, including waiting for a period of time, talking to other parents who have gone through this with their children, or connecting with adults who have the same intersex traits as the baby. Then, they can gather information for themselves to help them help their child make a decision,” intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis told  Human Rights Watch.

Read a Q&A from Human Rights Watch.