State of SC sued for deciding gender of, operating on, intersex baby

It’s a fascinating case.  The state of South Carolina is being sued by the adoptive parents of a now- 8-year-old child who was born intersex.  At the age of 16 months, the child was parentless, and the state decided to remove the child’s male sex organs and, in essence, make him female.  The parents are suing for making that decision for the child, they say, too soon.

“Intersex, in humans and other animals, is a variation in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, and/or genitals that do not allow an individual to be distinctly identified as male or female,” per Wikipedia.  The more familiar term “hermaphrodite” comes to mind, but according to Wikipedia, the term only defines one subset of intersex people.

(Interestingly, also according to Wikipedia, “some intersex people want to be included in LGBT groups and would prefer the term ‘LGBTI’ while others insist that they are not a part of the LGBT community and would rather that they not be included as part of the term.”)

In this case, according to WISTV.com, “at birth, the child was identified as a male because of his external genitalia, but shortly after that doctors discovered the baby had ‘ambiguous genitals’ and both male and female internal reproductive structures, according to the lawsuit.”

MC's parents, Mark and Pam Crawford.

MC’s parents, Mark and Pam Crawford.

It interesting, because you can see how many minefields the state walked into, albeit perhaps unwittingly.  At first glance, I heard about the story and immediately understood why the state would have to make some choice for the child.  I suspect the instinct, when coming upon a baby like this, is to think of the child as one would a conjoined twin.  A child with “too much,” with “double” what it should have, and thus eventually one must choose which “one” to keep.

I also suspect that intersex advocates might argue that it’s not necessary to ever choose which “one” we to keep, which one we really are, and in any case, we should see how the child develops, how the child defines itself with respect to their own gender identity – whether the child self-identifies as a boy or a girl – before considering any surgery to attempt to set that identity in stone.

The lawsuit also notes another problem: Surgery like this can have lasting consequences to the eventual adult’s sex life, in addition to other problems:

“The initial sex assignment may be at odds with the gender identity that develops,” said Anne Tamar-Mattis of Advocates for Informed Choice. “There may be diminished sexual sensation, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, loss of potential fertility, loss of the important health benefits of hormones, and psychological trauma comparable to that of child sexual abuse.”

And in fact, even though the state along with the doctors chose to make MC a girl, MC now self-identifies as a boy.  The parents consider MC their son.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is handling the lawsuit, recommended the following approach for dealing with intersex babies:

In M.C.’s condition, there is no way to tell whether the child will ultimately identify as a boy or a girl. Instead, the doctors decided to assign M.C. female and change his body to fit their stereotype of how a girl should look. As is the case here, doctors often fail to provide full information about the procedure’s risks to the child’s parents or guardians.

Although long-term outcomes of today’s genital surgeries in children have not been well-studied, many doctors and advocates recommend that children with intersex conditions be assigned a gender at birth but postpone any unnecessary surgery until they are old enough to self-identify with a gender and make their own decisions about their bodies.

I’d not realized that.  I would have been one who thought the parents, or someone, should make a decision at an early age so as not to make things more confusing or difficult for the child later on.  But that ignores the fact that gender identity isn’t necessarily imprinted on us from the outside any more than any other aspect of our identity is.  So you can’t “make” the child a girl any more than you can “make” him a boy.  You need to see which one the child is turning into on their own, then act accordingly.

Clearly, a lot more education is needed, and cases like this will help educate all of us.

The Southern Poverty Law Center did an interview with MC’s parents:


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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