July 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

It is predicted that 1 in 2000 babies in the world are born with ‘indeterminate’ genitalia, where doctors are unable to confirm whether the child is neither male nor female, they are intersex. There are many different conditions in which this takes place but this is generally seen in a variation of characteristics in the genitalia, gonads or female/male chromosomes.

I am writing this blog whilst sitting in my accommodation in Vancouver, Canada where I am participating in the ‘Law on the Edge’ conference. Over the last couple of days I attended a conference presentation and later a film screening of Intersexion, concerning the rights of intersex people.

As a fairly naïve participant I was shocked to hear how common intersexuality is (more prevalent than babies born with cerebral palsy) and frankly horrified at the social and medical response to these children, which seeks to ‘correct’ them and place them within the gender binary of either male or female. Surgeons suggest surgery should be carried out on such children as soon as possible to reduce scarring in later life and ease their passage into society as identifying within a gender. However the repercussions can include the loss of sexual stimulation, infection and gender identity confusion which leads to anxiety, depression and in some cases suicide. Some will undergo a sex change operation and later develop opposite identity traits when they hit puberty, further confusing their designated gender.

So why does society find it necessary to categorise these children into a gender binary? This issue was raised at the conference and the response was for common reasons such as school sport teams, toilets, changing rooms and perhaps more importantly because wider society does not accept those who live outside of male/female categorisation. But in light of the existence of intersex people and the recent changes to New Zealand legislation which legalised marriage between ‘persons’ as opposed to male-female or same sex, the necessity of gender within society is something which is becoming increasingly fractured, a topic I intend to explore in further research.

The documentary and narrative provided by Mani B Mitchell, an intersex person from New Zealand, illustrated the pain and resentment experienced by intersex individuals at having their freedom removed by surgical operations which leave many feeling mutilated, undertaken without their consent as babies. The emphasis of the film was that babies who are born intersex should be left alone and parents should be congratulated on the birth of their healthy and normal child as opposed to scare mongered into consenting to surgery to correct something society views as abnormal. Intersex individuals should be given the choice to identify with whichever gender they choose, either socially or surgically, or to live as neither once they reach a culpable age of consent.

Legally a fascinating point raised at the conference was whether this surgery would be considered an offence under laws prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM). In the UK, the legislation governing FGM is the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which states in section 1(1) that ‘A person is guilty of an offence if he excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of a girl’s labia majora, labia minora or clitoris’ bringing intersex surgery on infants into this remit.

An exception is stated at section 1(2) which makes an allowance for surgery where it is carried out by an approved person for the necessity of their physical or mental health. Where the physical health of an intersex child is at risk there was a general consensus that surgery should be undertaken, but it was recognised in the documentary that in the majority of cases, intersex children (and later adults) can live a happy and healthy life, free from the pains of surgery. In these cases, the physical health exception is removed which leaves the exemption on grounds of mental health.

In determining necessity on grounds of mental health section 4(5) states that:
‘For the purpose of determining whether an operation is necessary for the mental health of a girl it is immaterial whether she or any other person believes that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.’
The obvious justification used by medical professionals is that societal transition would be easier if the child were physically changed to either male or female, but is this not classified as a Western custom, on the basis of what is socially acceptable? Custom is defined as ‘a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time’ a definition which seemingly places surgery on intersex infants within the context of FGM prohibition.

The Intersexion documentary was extremely touching and I recommend everyone to watch it as an education. As with most taboo subjects, ignorance can be combatted through education and increased knowledge of intersexuality. The anxiety and depression discussed within the documentary arose not from the groups existence as intersex but from the societal shame which arose from something which needs to be recognised as perfectly natural. After watching the documentary and hearing Mani’s personal narrative, it is clear that society should bare the shame for failure to recognise the position of those who are intersex and subjecting them to surgery which can only be described as amounting to genital mutilation.


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