Growing Pushback Against Surgically “Fixing” Intersex Children

Mark and Pam Crawford, who are suing due to the damage done to their adopted son by sex reassignment surgery. (Courtesy WIS via New York Daily News)
Mark and Pam Crawford, who are suing due to the damage done to their adopted son by sex reassignment surgery. (Courtesy WIS via New York Daily News)

According to the National Institutes of Health, one out of every 2,000 kids is born with genitals that cannot be clearly identified as male or female. Until recently, the default solution was to perform sex assignment surgery to make an infant’s genitals appear more normal. But in light of a welter of evidence that this procedure does more harm than good, there have been growing calls over the last two decades to either heavily restrict these procedures or ban them altogether.

The dangers of sex reassignment surgery came to national attention last year, when Mark and Pam Crawford filed twin federal and state lawsuits with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center alleging that the South Carolina Department of Social Services and doctors in Charleston and Greenville violated the rights of their adopted son, “M. C.,” by sexually reassigning him as a girl named “S” when he was 16 months old. He had been removed from his biological parents in 2005 due to concerns that his mother had neglected him and his father had abandoned the family. Shortly after his birth in 2004, it was discovered that M had been born with both male and female organs. Ultimately, doctors decided to make him a girl in April 2006.? When the Crawfords, who live near Columbia, took custody of M that summer, they raised him as a girl, following the example of his foster parents. This continued when they formally adopted him in December 2006. However, he has always shown strong signs of identifying as a boy, and has been living as a boy since 2012–with the full support of his adopted parents, classmates, pediatrician and the members of his synagogue.

The lawsuits make for horrifying reading. They allege that the doctors performed the surgery even though they themselves had determined that there was no compelling reason to surgically turn him into a boy or a girl. They were well aware that it was far too early to determine the gender of someone with M’s condition. They also never conducted a hearing to find out whether the surgery would be in M’s best interest and never told SCDSS, who was M’s legal guardian at the time, of the potentially catastrophic risks of this surgery. They also fault SCDSS for not making an effort to ensure that the surgery was indeed in M’s best interest.

While the Crawfords’ suit is the first of its kind in the United States, people who have had this surgery have been coming forward with stories of the traumatic effects they have suffered since the 1990s. Besides the obvious problem of arbitrarily assigning someone a gender that they don’t feel is appropriate at such a tender age, people who have had this surgery report reduced sexual sensation, damaged genital tissue and (in extreme cases) sterilization. They also feel an overall sense of having been mutilated.

The opponents of this surgery have a strong argument in their favor–the experiment long touted as proof of its success been exposed as a colossal failure. Back in 1966, Bruce Reimer were diagnosed with phimosis, a condition that prevents the foreskin of the penis from retracting. After a botched circumcision attempt destroyed his penis, Bruce’s parents took him to John Money, a psychologist who believed that gender identity can be learned by the time a child is three years old. Money convinced Bruce’s parents that given the circumstances, they would be better off raising Bruce as a girl. In 1967, 22-month-old Bruce was surgically reassigned as a girl, Brenda. For several years, Money touted the surgery as a success. However, in 1997, sexologist Milton Diamond, one of Money’s longtime rivals, dropped a bombshell–it had not even begun to work. It turned out that Brenda had spent most of her youth fighting against her imposed femininity. After years of being told she was only going through a phase (per Money’s orders), she had only learned the truth about what happened to her when she was 14. Soon afterward, Brenda decided to identify as a boy again, this time calling himself David. By 1997, he had undergone surgery to convert back to being male biologically. However, he never really recovered psychologically, and committed suicide in 2004. For more on Bruce/Brenda/David’s ordeal, read an article John Colapinto wrote about him at Slate here.

Despite such compelling evidence, it has been hard to hold doctors to account because of the long history of medical intervention. Indeed, the Crawfords’ case only went forward because M was a ward of the state at the time, and was being treated at state-run hospitals. A victory for the Crawfords, however, would make doctors and hospitals think twice about greenlighting this surgery. The Crawfords say that M’s teen years are going to be severely bumpy, but hope that this suit will go a long way toward preventing this from happening to any other child.

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Darrell Lucus.jpg Darrell Lucus is a radical-lefty Jesus-lover who has been blogging for change for a decade. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.