The Intersex Debate: Does a Surgeon Have the Right to Assign a Newborn's Sex?
"I knew that I wasn't a girl," said Jim Bruce, a person born with male chromosomes but ambiguous genitals. This meant doctors couldn’t determine his sex based on a quick look at his genitals. Their conclusion? Jim would never live a satisfactory life as a man.
Jim is known as a person who is intersex. Intersex is a term that describes a person who doesn’t have traditional male or female reproductive or sexual anatomy. Soon after Jim’s birth in the late 1970s, doctors suggested it would be best for his parents to raise him as a girl. To give him the best female life possible, doctors surgically removed his testes and external organs.
After years of not feeling like a girl, Bruce sought out his medical records when he was 19. What he discovered shocked him. "I was sterilized at birth — and no one ever told me," he said.
Bruce soon decided to change his name and to live life as a man.
Understanding Gender Identity
For most of recent human existence, everyone from doctors to the average person believed gender was something that was determined by sex. Furthermore, that gender was something that could be created and forced upon a person.
Though we’re still far from understanding everything about sex and gender, we’ve learned that the ideas mentioned above are anything but accurate — sex doesn’t dictate gender, and you can’t assign someone’s gender by treating them a certain way (like giving a child you want to be a girl dolls and putting them in dresses).
Who Has the Right to Determine Sex?
Bruce’s situation is anything but abnormal. Intersex people are more common than you may think, making up roughly 1 - 2 percent of the world’s population. While that may seem small, percentage-wise, it equates to roughly 152 million people.
The main issue people discuss when talking about intersex children is who should determine the child’s sex? For years, the belief was that doctors and parents should be the ones to decide. Now, more and more people believe that the child should have a say once they get older.
The Solution? Assign a Gender, Wait for Surgery
The ultimate goal is to make life for intersex people better and easier to understand. Parents with intersex children are now encouraged to assign their child a gender, but wait until their child is older to discuss surgical options with them. Parents should also:
- Be honest with their child about their intersex identity.
- Seek out different types of information from different sources.
- Respect their child’s decision.
- Respect their child’s autonomy.