ResourcesPress Release

Unnecessary Surgery on Intersex Children Must Stop

For Immediate Release

Amidst growing concerns within the international medical community about surgical interventions on intersex children, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today called for an end to all medically unnecessary surgical procedures that seek to alter gonads, genitals, or internal sex organs of children born with atypical sex characteristics, until the child is old enough to participate meaningfully in decisions about their body and health.

The following statement is attributable to Homer Venters, MD, PHR director of programs:

“Physicians for Human Rights is deeply alarmed by the fact that children born with atypical sexual characteristics – sometimes referred to as intersex children, or children with intersex variations – are often subjected to irreversible and medically unnecessary surgeries that seek to alter their gonads, genitals, and/or internal sex organs before they are able to provide informed consent. These surgeries, which can result in sterilization and decreased sexual function, among other negative health outcomes, have been highlighted by United Nations human rights and health experts as counter to the absolute prohibition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and as compromising the human rights to physical integrity and health. From a medical ethics perspective, carrying out an irreversible and medically unnecessary surgery before a child is old enough to consent violates internationally recognized informed consent requirements, and violates the obligation to do no harm.

“Intersex-led peer support and advocacy groups have long highlighted that there is no meaningful evidence of either physical or mental health benefits to intersex children deriving from early surgery, except in those limited cases where such surgeries are medically necessary. Medical experts are increasingly acknowledging this. In July 2017, three former U.S. surgeons general wrote that they believed 'evidence [shows] that the surgery itself can cause severe and irreversible physical harm and emotional distress.' Earlier in 2017, the Committee on Bioethics of the Council of Europe noted that 'repeated systematic reviews of evidence have found no quality data confirming [the] safety and benefits for each affected child [of early surgical interventions]' and that, rather, there is evidence of harmful results of such interventions, including 'genital dysfunction, scarring, loss of sexual feeling, loss of fertility, chronic pain, and the wrong gender assignment – with irreversible excision of genital and gonadal tissues.'

“Physicians for Human Rights calls for an end to all medically unnecessary surgical procedures on intersex children before they are able to give meaningful consent to such surgeries. We also call on the World Health Organization, the World Medical Association, and all relevant national medical associations to issue detailed guidance to their members and constituencies on emerging best practices for the optimal management of the physical and mental health of intersex children and their families. Such guidance must include, specifically, a clear directive to defer medically unnecessary surgeries until an individual can provide informed consent, and to provide psychosocial support for patients and families." 

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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