Unnecessary Surgery on Intersex Babies ‘Catastrophic’

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Roughly 1.7 percent of babies could be considered intersex. Many of them undergo unnecessary and often harmful surgery — typically just to “fit in” with social expectations.

A 160-page report by the Human Rights Watch and interACT looks into the harm caused by these medically unnecessary surgeries, titled “‘I Want to Be Like Nature Made Me:’ Medically Unnecessary Surgeries on Intersex Children in the US.”

“The devastation caused by medically unnecessary surgery on intersex infants is both physical and psychological,” Executive Director of interACT Kimberly Zieselman said. “Despite decades of patient advocates putting the medical community on notice about the harm from these procedures, many doctors continue to present these surgeries to parents as good options.”

These operations go underway while the babies are far too young to make the decision themselves. Doctors often perform surgery on the baby’s gonads, internal sex organs and genitals, usually resulting in some form of physical and psychological harm.

“The genital surgeries done on intersex children can result in loss of sexual sensation and ongoing pain,” the report reads. “The procedures are irreversible, in that tissue or organs that are removed cannot be replaced, nerves that are severed cannot be regrown, and scar tissue can limit options for future surgery.”

When doctors perform surgery on babies too young to identify their own gender identity, they also run the risk of surgically assigning the wrong sex. Further, surgery to remove gonads could result in sterilization without consent, which could require lifelong hormone replacement therapy.

“The medical community has made progress in intersex care in recent decades, but medically unnecessary irreversible surgeries on children and infants remain common,” said researcher at Human Rights Watch and report author Kyle Knight. “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.”

To read the full report, visit HRW.org.


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