OPINION: The UK should ban surgery on intersex children

by Baroness Liz Barker | Liberal Democrats
Monday, 9 September 2019 13:40 GMT

A four-month-young baby holds the hand of her father in Eichenau near Munich April 9, 2012. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The United Kingdom should protect the rights of people with Variations of Sex Characteristics and ban unnecessary surgeries on VSC children

Baroness Barker is the LGBT+ spokeswoman in the House of Lords for the British Liberal Democrat party

Variations of sex characteristics (VSC) intersex is an umbrella termed that describes people born with bodies that do not fit the typical definitions of male or female. There are no reliable statistics on how many VSC intersex people exist, but one thing is certain – they have no legal protection.

For many decades, infants born with VSC intersex have undergone surgery to align their bodies with the sex their parents deem most appropriate. Some parents consent to these invasive procedures on medical advice when under pressure to register the birth.

Often when people hit puberty it becomes apparent that the surgery was either merely cosmetic or caused pain and suffering, which can often endure for many years.

People who are VSC intersex describe what happens to them as infant genital mutilation (IGM). Many suffer life-long health problems and many cannot trust health professionals, finding any involvement with the NHS so traumatic that they avoid contact until any illness they have becomes intolerable.

Earlier this year, in its sixth report on Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the UN Committee Against Torture made two main recommendations.

First, that the parents or guardians of intersex children receive impartial counselling services and psychological and social support, including information about deferring any decision on unnecessary treatment until they can be carried out with the full, free and informed consent of the person concerned.

Second, that anyone who has been subjected to such procedures without their consent and which result in severe pain and suffering, should be able to obtain redress, including the means for rehabilitation.

Medical professionals often justify their advocacy of paediatric surgery by arguing that VSC intersex children will be laughed at in school. These days, when safeguarding schoolchildren of all ages is taken seriously and excellent initiatives such as the NSPCC’s Talking PANTS rules are available to protect the bodily integrity of all children – particularly from sexual abuse – such arguments seem weak.

I have listened to VSC intersex people talk about what was done to them and many of the stories are harrowing. While the NHS continues to be happy to perform paediatric surgery, there is no overall care strategy or guidelines for medical practitioners.

Urologists, endocrinologists, emergency medicine practitioners receive no training and have no specialists to whom they can turn for advice. VSC intersex patients give examples of inappropriate questioning or being made to feel like freaks – that is simply inexcusable.

This year, the government conducted a call for evidence about the needs of VSC intersex people and the results of this will be known shortly.

This week, I am asking a question in the House of Lords, the British upper house of parliament, about the protection of the human rights of VSC intersex people of all ages. They experience discrimination in many ways, in employment, education, sports and access to public services.

The government could address many of these issues by strengthening equality law in the area of protection of sex characteristics.

Other countries, most notably Malta, have changed their equalities legislation to protect the human rights of VSC intersex people. Moreover, the government of Malta, which included amongst its ministers a paediatric surgeon, made surgical intervention on children (or IGM) illegal.

The nations of the United Kingdom should do likewise without delay.

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