Should Doctors Operate On Intersex Babies?
M.C. was born with ambiguous genitalia, a rare condition that doctors addressed with surgery. Now, in a landmark lawsuit, M.C.’s parents are challenging the medical mainstream: Why does a surgeon decide what sex a child should be?
Pam Crawford first saw M.C. nine years ago, on an adoption website for kids with special needs. The photo showed a toddler in a chair, curly black hair pulled tight into pigtails, staring at the camera with a dead-serious expression. A short bio noted that the 18-month-old didn’t like getting her fingers sticky and that she needed a family to help realize her full potential.
While many of the other kids on the site had visible health problems, Pam was unclear what this baby’s special needs could be. “Here was just this perfect little girl,” Pam said recently.
When she called the South Carolina Department of Social Services to find out more, she learned that M.C. was born with a rare condition that produced a patchwork of male and female anatomy.
At birth, M.C.’s external genitalia included a 2-centimeter penis, a small vaginal opening, an undescended testicle on the left side, both ovarian and testicular tissue on the right side, and blood testosterone levels deemed normal for male babies of the same age. The technical name for this condition is “ovotesticular disorder of sexual differentiation.” Some of M.C.’s medical records used the more archaic term: “true hermaphroditism.”
Roughly 1 in every 2,000 babies in the U.S. are born, like M.C., with a range of traits that fall somewhere along the wide spectrum between male and female. Some doctors argue that the number of these so-called intersex babies is even higher — as many as 1 in 100 — depending on what biological markers are used to draw the line where nature hasn’t.
For babies with M.C.’s condition, doctors look at genetic, hormonal, and anatomical factors likely to play a role in whether the baby will grow up to identify as a boy or a girl. Then, if the parents agree, they’ll often perform surgery to make their anatomy fit that gender assignment.
In 2012, the most recent year that data is available, surgeons at U.S. hospitals performed various intersex procedures at least 2,991 times on children under 18 years of age, and 1,759 of those surgeries were on children younger than 5.
But many intersex patients, parents, legal experts, and bioethicists are opposed to surgical fixes, which they argue are often medically unnecessary, riddled with consent issues, and physically and psychologically harmful.
One of these critics is Pam. After hearing about M.C.’s condition, the first thing she remembers saying was, “Oh, I hope they haven’t done a surgery!”
But they had. Just two months before she saw that first photo, surgeons had removed all of M.C.’s male anatomy. “We were just like, OK, let’s deal — we’ll deal with what we gotta deal with,” Pam said. Two months later, they brought home a baby girl.
Now M.C. is a 10-year-old boy. (And because M.C. identifies as male, this article will refer to him with male pronouns.) As he begins the anguish of adolescence, Pam and her husband, Mark, are waging a landmark lawsuit against the hospitals and state guardians who decided to put their son through sex-assignment surgery.
The trial, slated for November, is the first public lawsuit to come out of a long-running scientific debate: Should intersex babies be operate
d on to make them “boys” and “girls”?
For decades, medical professionals have performed genital surgeries on intersex babies in the name of allowing them to lead more normal lives — knowing whether to pee in the boys or girls restroom, being able to eventually reproduce as either a man or a woman, and, in rare cases, removing the risk of dangerous tumors. They claim that the majority of people who undergo surgery, as well as their parents, never look back.
But in a cultural moment when trans celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock are shining a spotlight on the fact that gender isn’t a simple binary, intersex advocates are fighting to get that same recognition.
Surgeries on intersex babies, these advocates argue, often cause the very shame and stigma that they claim to prevent later on in life, all in the name of sticking to social expectations around sex and gender. Let babies grow up, they say, and then decide for themselves how — and whether — to change their bodies in such dramatic ways.
Read the rest of the stunning BuzzFeed article by clicking HERE