Tamil Nadu’s state government has passed an executive order that bans any unnecessary sex-change surgeries on intersex babies. The state is the first in India and Asia to ban such procedures. It is the second place worldwide to ban these surgeries, after Malta in 2015.
What is Intersex?
Teen Vogue got it right when they wrote, “Gender isn’t binary”. And, “bodies aren’t binary either”. The terms ‘transgender’ and ‘intersex’ are often used interchangeably. However, there is a distinct difference between these terms. And so, this confusion needs to be cleared. ‘Transgender’ is used to refer those who identify with a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth. However, ‘intersex’ isn’t the same. Those who are born as ‘intersex’ have variations in their reproductive anatomy. These variations in sexual anatomy do not fit the typical biology that defines a male or female.
For a better understanding of ‘Intersex’ read: What Is Intersex?
Hence, sex-change or ‘normalising’ surgeries, as some would call it, are common among those who are born as intersex. But is it a necessary procedure among intersex infants?
Tamil Nadu bans unnecessary ‘sex-selective’ surgery
Research suggests that ‘normalising’ surgeries can have a negative long-term impact on an intersex child. It could result in both mental as well as physical damage on the individual. Hence, the Tamil Nadu state government took a big step by banning unnecessary ‘sex-selective’ procedures on intersex children, unless the situation is life-threatening.
The landmark ban was passed in response to an order that was passed by the state’s high court in April. The order states that intersex children “must be given their time and space to find their true gender identity”, as reported by Pink News. According to a Ministry official who did not want to be named,
“The (government order) was issued as per the high court’s directive to protect intersex children from these so-called normalising surgeries.”
-As reported by Reuters
About 1.7 percent of people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit the social expectations of being male or female. Hence, these surgeries make the individual conform with the ‘gendered social norms’. Furthermore, some believe that the surgery will make the individual’s life easier while easing parental distress.
Related Read: Do You Know What These LGBTQIA+ Terms Mean?
Can we consider the consent of the parent as the consent of the child?
According to Human Rights Watch, most of the times, variations in an intersex child are “medically benign natural variations of human anatomy”. Thus, they do not require surgery. The only exceptions are rare cases wherein, for example, the child has exposed internal organs, is unable to menstruate or urinate.
A committee formed by the Directorate of Medical Education (DME) will decide if a case is life-threatening. The panel shall consist of an endocrinologist, a pediatric surgeon or urologist, a social worker or intersex activist and a government representative.
According to Pink News, the government argued that “The consent of the parent cannot be considered as the consent of the child”. According to Reuters, about 10,000 intersex infants are born in India yearly. However, infanticide, abandonment, and mutilation are common.
Why the need for a surgery ban
In an interview with The Print, Intersex activist Gopi Shankar said,
“In a country where female infanticide is prevalent, one cannot say that there is no intentional killing of intersex infants. Children who undergo sex selective surgeries tend to kill themselves when they feel they are trapped in wrong bodies.”
He continued that while even procedures on animals have protocols in place, there’s “no such thing for intersex infants”. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of specialists for intersex operations, making the ban even more important. The DME official who did not wish to be named said,
“The state lacks special skills required for such complex surgeries. Not all physicians and urologists are trained adequately for intersex operations. There have been complications in most cases. The government’s order should also be an opportunity to involve ourselves in more research and training.”
-As reported by The Print
Intersex is diagnosed under 46 different classifications. But they are often problematic. The DME official said that Hypospadias, for example, is usually diagnosed as intersex. However, there is only a 10 percent chance for such a condition to be defined as intersex. Furthermore, according to the official, researches have shown that there seems to be no proven benefit from such cosmetic corrective procedures.
Other states should follow Tamil Nadu’s footsteps
In Tamil Nadu, medical insurance schemes cover sex-selective surgeries. In the past 3 years, the state’s government hospitals have recorded more than 300 intersex surgeries.
Considering the potentially harmful impact it can have on a child, and the lack of specialists to conduct such operations, it is understandable as to why the state has decided to introduce the order. The official said that other states in the country should follow Tamil Nadu’s footsteps.
Source Credit: Human Rights Watch, Pink News, Reuters, Teen Vogue, The Print.