Australia Moves Closer to Ending Harmful Intersex Surgeries

The Australian Human Rights Commission issued a report today analyzing the persistent practice of medically unnecessary non-consensual surgeries on children born with variations in their sex characteristics. The commission urged authorities to protect children’s rights to informed consent, and to legally regulate the operations.

Around the world since the 1950s, people born with variations in their sex characteristics, sometimes called “intersex,” have been subjected to harmful medically unnecessary “normalizing” surgeries. Surgeons popularized these cosmetic surgeries on infants to remove gonads, reduce the size of the clitoris, or increase the size of the vagina.

But these procedures are not designed to treat a medical problem, and there is no evidence they help children “fit in,” which some surgeons say is their aim. The operations carry high risks of scarring, loss of sexual sensation, incontinence, and psychological trauma. Some surgeries can sterilize the person, which an Australian Senate Committee condemned in 2013.

Intersex advocacy groups, as well as a range of medical and human rights organizations, have been speaking out. Despite growing consensus that these surgeries should end and progress globally banning medically unnecessary intersex surgeries, some parents continue to face pressure from surgeons to choose these operations when their children are too young to participate in the decision.

Influential United Nations human rights committees have criticized Australia for its failure to protect people from these harmful procedures.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch, along with Intersex Human Rights Australia and others, submitted a letter to the Human Rights Commission’s consultation.

Its new report calls on the government to develop rights-based standards of care for children born with variation in their sex characteristics. It urges legislation to regulate the surgeries, limiting them only to when the patient has consented or where they are “required urgently to avoid serious harm” and “the risk of harm cannot be mitigated in another less intrusive way, and intervention cannot be further delayed.”

Momentum for change in Australia is afoot. Federal and local governments should urgently consider the commission’s recommendations and ensure that children born perfectly healthy – just a little different – are free to make decisions about their own bodies.