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involuntary sterilisation: senate report a step forward for intersex rights


Good things come to those who wait. For intersex Australians, the months and months it has taken the Federal Senate to compile a report into the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people has come to fruition.

The senate was compelled to investigate the issue following a report into the forced sterilisation of girls and women with a disability, to which Intersex Australia (OII) made several submissions. As a result, gender normalisation and sterilisation of intersex people without informed consent and medical necessity is set to become a thing of the past.

Intersex is a chromosomal or anatomical variation of sexual characteristics affecting about one in 2000 people. As a result, intersex people exhibit both male and female secondary sexual characteristics. An intersex person, therefore, does not fit into the West’s rigidly defined concepts of biological sex – female or male – which society deems the norm.

Australian legislation and policies have recently seen an awareness of the issues facing its intersex population. The country was the first (and remains one of only two) to not require a male or female distinction on government documents, instead allowing intersex individuals to opt into gender ‘X’. In August this year, discrimination legislation was effectively broadened to include protections for intersex people – again, Australia became the first nation in the world to do this. But this inquiry into the forced sterilisation and gender normalisation of intersex people is perhaps an even bigger step forward.

Intersex people experience what OII deems homophobia, but not as the majority of Australians would recognise.

‘[It’s] stigmatisation not because of our identities but because of our bodies,’ OII says, detailing the issues pertaining to gender normalisation.

As a result of the taboo associated with intersex – generally speaking, society wants us to portray a certain femininity or masculinity and expects our genitals to line up with this – many intersex children are subjected to genital normalisation. Parents have been cited to fear for their children in terms of suffering insensitivities to gender difference, the possibility of “gender confusion” for their child and even slim marriage prospects.

Without their child’s will – and often due to duress by medical doctors – parents have their intersex children subjected to genital normalisation and involuntary sterilisation. As OII highlights, this is a blatant human rights breech, as enlarged clitorises are reduced, shallow vaginas deepened and testicles and ovaries removed. The procedures just mentioned, however, are the tip of the iceberg, with a number of variations meaning a number of anatomical “corrections” doctors have felt they must make. Despite the physical impact on intersex people’s bodily integrity, the side effects of these procedures are not 100 per cent clear, as research into the area has mixed results. Nonetheless, it is evident that some intersex people will experience negative sexual and psychological effects from undergoing these procedures.

The Senate discovered the true nature of genital normalisation and involuntary sterilisation, as was suggested by OII.

‘Normalisation surgery is more than physical reconstruction,’ the Senate’s report reads. ‘The surgery is intended to deconstruct an intersex physiology and, in turn, construct an identity that conforms with stereotypical male and female gender categories.’ This is reflective of the stigma intersex people face in their everyday lives.

There are definitely several wins for intersex people in the Senate’s admonishing report. The Senate believes doctors who call the anatomical variations of intersex a ‘disorder of sexual development’ are ill informed. By requiring doctors to use the term intersex, this will challenge medical opinion on procedures and protect intersex people from such institutional discrimination.

The Senate effectively bans surgical reconstruction or removal of parts of an intersex person’s genitals where there is not an inherent health risk (e.g. cancer). As such, procedures must now be deferred until a person can give free and informed consent. Undoubtedly an enormous protection comes where an intersex child or adult cannot give informed consent: the Senate wants these matters (where parents are pushing to have their child’s genitals butchered) seen before the Family Court.

The Senate also wants to see its intersex constituents taken care of within a human rights framework. It has been recommended that the government provide funding for multidisciplinary medical teams to help with intersex healthcare, which the Senate deems necessary.

This is to be well received as the Australasian Paediatric Endocrine Group and Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital noted in their submissions to the inquiry that there is typically little investigation into the outcomes of genital normalisation surgeries for intersex individuals, nor is there often adequate follow up care.

‘We wish to live in a society where we are not obliged to conform to sex and gender norms, where our biological distinctiveness is not treated as if it’s shameful, or errant,’ OII says of its goals.

It seems the Senate wishes for as much. With such recommendations, one can only hope the discrimination and human rights breeches of intersex people’s bodily integrity can come to an end.

A copy of the report is available for download from the Senate’s website.

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