OPINION: ‘Do no harm’ : Keep hands off intersex bodies

Ruth’s childhood was riddled with surgeries and doctor’s appointments, but she never knew why. When she asked doctors, they never answered. It wasn’t until she hemorraged while having sex decades later that she began to discover the truth. It took breaking into her childhood endocrinologist's office to see she was born with characteristics of what doctors call male and female bodies. 

Though Ruth’s story started in the ‘60s, intersex babies — those whose genitalia, chromosomes or hormones vary from what we typically consider to be male or female — are still going under the knife to make their bodies better align with what society considers to be male or female bodies. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology, 35 of 37 infants born with “moderate to severe genital atypia'' had genital surgery. 

Operations are based on the assumption that looking “different” might cause distress. The key word here is might, as there is insufficient evidence to support this. However, evidence does show the irreversible surgery these individuals often undergo causes physical and emotional harm, according to a report from the Human Rights Watch

There is a giant risk when messing with one’s body that is not your own. According to Human Rights Watch, the risk of assigning a child the sex that does not align with their gender identity can be as high as 40 percent. In cases where gonads are removed, the individual is likely to have fertility issues and a loss of sexual sensation, another thing taken away from them without their consent. Furthermore, the child is signed up for a lifelong commitment to hormone therapy, medical exams and potentially repeated surgeries. 

Those who are supposed to know best can be the most misleading: doctors. Of the 17 parents interviewed for the Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report, nearly all of them said they were told medically unnecessary surgeries were “urgent.” However, the only thing urgent was the need to look “normal,” but, if a body is natural, isn’t it “normal” enough? Even though this report gives us hope that things are changing, many have already suffered being looked at as oddities by doctors, having their bodies placed on display to other so-called professionals. We can’t guarantee a child will be bullied for looking “different” than other kids, yet we all understand how uncomfortable it is to have doctors examine intimate parts of our bodies. Now, imagine that on steroids. That’s bound to cause trauma, and as we hopefully know by now, trauma compounds over time. 

The solution is simple: leave the child alone. If it’s not life-threatening and the decision is made solely on making a child appear “normal,” why alter something that doesn’t need to be altered? Fear of bullying is cited often, as discussed above, but even those born with non-ambiguous genitalia, chromosomes and hormones (i.e. those babies society considers “normal”) are not automatically shielded from bullying. In all cases, an infant’s body at birth is completely natural, and in this way, everybody’s body is a normal body. So don’t keep perpetuating that just because someone appears different than our socially-constructed norm they need to be “fixed.” Until the child forms their own gender expression and expresses a like or dislike for their body, there is no need to interfere.

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