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Should surgery on intersex children be banned?

The gender-neutral door to the bathroom at the endocrinology wing at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles.
The gender-neutral door to the bathroom at the endocrinology wing at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles.
Leo Duran/KPCC

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People who are intersex, meaning their reproductive anatomy doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female, often undergo surgery to “correct” their anatomy as infants, before they’re able to consent to the decision.

This practice is facing increased pushback: in June, three former U.S. surgeon generals wrote a letter saying it was not necessary and on Tuesday, InterACT and Human Rights Watch released a report disparaging the practice and calling on Congress to “ban all surgical procedures that seek to alter the gonads or genitals of children with atypical sex characteristics too young to participate in the decision, when those procedures both carry a meaningful risk of harm and can be safely deferred.”

Up to 1.7 percent of people are born with intersex traits, making them about as common as people with red hair.

Proponents of the ban say operating on intersex babies can create involuntary sterilization and further medical conditions, and that instead, the child and family should be provided access to therapy and support. Surgeries can be cosmetic in nature and are done to satisfy heteronormative standards, rather than medical need – a vaginoplasty to allow for penetrative sex, or a procedure that would allow a boy to pee standing up, for example. There’s also the risk of parents or doctors assigning the child the wrong sex.

Opponents argue that parents make big medical decisions on behalf of their children all the time. And having an intersex child often presents a complex medical decision that requires the input of parents and doctors, and that a blanket ban is intrusive and prohibitive. And there are many intersex children that undergo surgery and grow into happy adults, who are glad to leave those procedures in their childhoods.

We gather a roundtable to discuss the ethics and medical repercussions of the proposal. Should surgery on intersex children be banned? If you’re intersex or know someone who is, what do you think? And if you’re a parent, what do you think of curtailing this procedure?


Hida Viloria, founding director of the Intersex Campaign for Equality and author of “Born Both: An Intersex Life” (Hachette Books, 2017); s/he tweets @HidaViloria

Ilene Wong, M.D., adult urologist at Academic Urology, a private practice, she is on the board of InterACT, and advocacy group for intersex youth, and author of novel “None of the Above;” under the pen name I.W. Gregorio

Laurence Baskin, M.D., Professor of Urology and pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals