For many parents, ultrasound or delivery room news involves a definitive “Congratulations, it’s a girl!” or “You have a boy!” However, for some parents, even after birth, a child’s sex is harder to determine as the baby has characteristics from both sexes. Here is the definition of “intersex” for those unfamiliar with the term, courtesy of the Survivor Project:
“‘Intersex’ is the word that describes those of us who, without voluntary medical interventions, possess bodies that doctors can’t neatly classify as male or female. This includes people who have chromosomal sex other than XX (female) or XY (male), or primary or secondary sex characteristics that defy the medical definitions of male and female.”
Intersex, the state of being somewhere between male or female at birth, has a lot of ethical questions surrounding it – namely, how does a parent determine which sex a child is? How does a parent choose which genitalia to keep? Is that even a decision a parent should make for a child?
In a recent court case where a child underwent surgery to reassign genitalia to be female, the intersex child identifies with the male sex. Mindy Townsend sums up the background information:
“M.C. was identified as male at birth, but was later determined to have “ambiguous genitals,” including both male and female reproductive organs. In 2006, when M.C. was only 16 months old and in the care of the state of South Carolina, the state decided – without any medical need – to assign a sex. Before M.C. was able to make his gender determination for himself, the South Carolina tried to make it for him.”
You have to feel for this child. He had his physical gender chosen for him by the state of South Carolina – even though having “ambiguous genitals” was not at the time creating a medical problem for him. He was otherwise (and is otherwise) healthy saving this one cosmetic issue.
The problem is that genitalia alone do not determine the expression of an individual’s physical gender. Other relevant characteristics include an interaction between genes and brain chemistry. Until a child becomes old enough, it may not be clear as to how the body will express sex and gender characteristics.
In the above case, his adoptive parents initiated a lawsuit, and the lawsuit will go through the courts.
It would seem, at least in this case, that waiting to see how gender is expressed in a young child as that child grows is prudent.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on whether and/or when sex should be determined in cases of intersex in the comments section.
HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED
- Pledge to avoid the use of terms like “Hermaphrodite,” “Ambiguous genitalia” and the like. “Hermaphrodite” is as outdated as some of the terms previously used to describe various members of the LGBTTIQQA community.
- Become involved with the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA).
- Be aware of the recommendations of the ISNA for children with intersex.