Health and Wellness

First hospital in the US apologizes for performing cosmetic genital surgery on intersex children

A baby
Photo: Shutterstock

A children’s hospital just became the first in the nation to apologize for performing cosmetic surgery on intersex babies.

“We empathize with intersex individuals who were harmed by the treatment that they received according to the historic standard of care and we apologize and are truly sorry,” said the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in a statement this week.

Related: UN says forcing intersex athletes into medical interventions violates human rights

Intersex refers to people who are born with body parts associated with both male and female bodies and can sometimes have ambiguous genitalia.

In many cases, doctors perform surgeries on the babies to make their genitalia look less ambiguous, even when not medically necessary. They often defend the practice by saying that the child will fit in better growing up.

But they often don’t know the gender identity of the child they’re operating on and the surgery can often have negative side effects, including incontinence, sterilization, and nerve damage, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The World Health Organization, the United Nations, and Amnesty International have condemned the practice.

Lurie Children’s Hospital’s website, according to HRW, used to promote surgeries to “reduce the size of a large clitoris” and “help correct girls’ anatomy.”

Advocates for intersex people have marched in front of the hospital since 2017.

One of the organizers, Sean Saifa Wall, said that his undescended testes were removed as a teenager when doctors told his parents that they would turn cancerous if not removed. There is little evidence of a cancer risk, though, according to an HRW report.

Wall told Buzzfeed LGBTQ that doctors “do not see intersex people as human.”

“When you dehumanize someone, it’s very easy to commit acts of violence against them,” he said. “This is what has happened. Because doctors do not see intersex people as normal and capable of having feeling, they’re able to continue doing this.”

In its statement, Lurie Children’s Hospital said it recognizes “the painful history and complex emotions associated with intersex surgery and how, for many years, the medical field has failed these children.”

“Early genital surgery to make genitalia appear more typically male or female… was harmful and wrong,” the statement said.

The statement says that “irreversible genital procedures” with the “sole goal of changing the appearance of genitalia” will “not be performed until patients can participate meaningfully in making the decision for themselves.”

Kyle Knight of HRW said that the surgeries remain common to this day, despite condemnation from intersex people.

“Very few intersex kids are escaping surgery still,” he said, pointing to a 2016 study of 37 intersex babies under the age of two, where 35 of them were forced to undergo cosmetic surgery on their genitals.

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