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Intersex children subject to ‘invasive’ surgery to ‘normalise’ their sex, reports Amnesty International

By Ross Semple

Intersex children in Germany and Denmark are being forced into “unnecessary, invasive and traumatizing medical procedures” to ‘normalise’ their sex, according to a report by Amnesty International.

The report, titled First, Do No Harm, asserts that outdated gender stereotypes are used by doctors to justify “non-emergency, invasive and irreversible surgical interventions” on intersex children.

Intersex is a term used to denote individuals with variations of sex characteristics such as chromosomes, genitals and reproductive organs.

Using case studies from Germany and Denmark, the report found that children with variations in sex characteristics were subjected to potentially risky procedures such as: operations to hide an enlarged clitoris; vaginal surgery, or vaginoplasty, which may involve multiple surgeries over time on young children to create or enlarge a vaginal opening; and gonadectomies – the removal of the gonads (including ovarian or testicular tissue) – which are irreversible and result in a need for lifelong hormone treatment.

Laura Carter, a researcher on sexual orientation and gender identity at Amnesty International, says: “These so-called ‘normalising’ procedures are being carried out without full knowledge of the potentially harmful long-term effects they are having on children.

“We’re talking about incisions being made to sensitive tissue, with life-long consequences, all because of stereotypes about what a boy or girl should look like. The question is whose benefit is this for, because our research shows it has been an incredibly harrowing experience for individuals.”

Sometimes these medical procedures are required in order to protect the life or health of a child, but not in every case.

One such case involved ‘H’, a person from Denmark who spoke to Amnesty International under the condition of anonymity. H underwent a hypospadias surgery at the age of five. The procedure involves the re-positioning of the urethra to the tip of the penis, which is done to create a penis that is considered functionally and cosmetically normal.

H found out about the surgery years later when looking through old medical journals. “When I think about what happened, I get upset, because it wasn’t something for anyone else to decide – it could have waited,” H said.

“I get sad when I think about the fact that it is considered necessary to operate on these children, only because other people think it should be done.”

Amnesty International states that this approach to the treatment of intersex children in the two countries “fails to protect the human rights of children, including the right to a private life and right to the highest attainable standard of health. ”

“The Danish and German authorities are failing in their duty to protect these children. With the current lack of medical research and knowledge in this area, life changing and irreversible decisions should not be being made when the child is too young to have a say in what is being done to them,” said Laura Carter.

The group is calling on governments and medical professionals to ensure that no intersex child is subject to any invasive procedure unless it’s an emergency. Amnesty International is also urging medical professionals to receive training on gender and body diversity in order to stop the perpetuation of “harmful gender stereotypes”.

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