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UN Condemns “Normalization” Surgery for Intersexuality

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT) just released a statement condemning the medical profession’s nonconsensual treatment of intersexuality. Although intersexuality—which surfaces as “ambiguous” external genitalia, sexual organs and/or as sex chromosomes that deviate from normative expectations—rarely poses a health threat, the medical profession continues to perform irreversible surgeries on babies and young children to “normalize” genitalia under the guise that these procedures will save one from enduring a life full of shame.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

18th February 2013 01:30

Alessia Valenza

However, there is ample evidence from feminist scholars that these normalization surgeries harm more than they help individuals with intersex traits. Sociologist Sharon Preves made this explicitly clear a decade ago in her book Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self. More recently, anthropologist and bioethicist Katrina Karkazis has offered even more proof in her book Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience.

Given that the SRT is responsible for investigating and reporting to the UN on questions of human torture, it is telling that these medical practices are being recognized under such purview. The SRT’s powerful position throughout the world leaves us optimistic that these surgeries will get the public criticism they desperately need.

Committed to human rights, the SRT invited Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC), a leader in the fight for intersex rights, to testify on the medical treatment of intersex. The hearings resulted in the SRT’s formal stance against irreversible, involuntary and nonconsensual medical interventions. To quote the SRT’s report, “These [genital-normalizing surgeries] are rarely medically necessary, can cause scarring, loss of sexual sensation, pain, incontinence and lifelong depression and have also been criticized as being unscientific, potentially harmful and contributing to stigma.” AIC’s Executive Director, Anne Tamar-Mattis, described this recognition as “a very significant development.”

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