South Africa Human Rights Commission Investigates Intersex Interventions

Classification: News


Intersex children must be protected from temptation of parents to ‘fix’ them surgically.

December 01, 2004

By Wendell Roelf

A law on corrective surgery for children with ambiguous genitals - intersex children - was under consideration, the SA Human Rights Commission said yesterday.

“We are looking at the practice of surgery; do we need legislation to regulate this area, who should decide, when must the decision be taken?” said Judith Cohen, parliamentary officer for the commission.

The commission held a seminar on intersex children yesterday, asking whether gender “normalisation” surgery was in the best interests of the child.

Cohen said the department of justice was also considering amendments to the equality legislation to include intersex in the definition of sex.

She said debate about intersex children should take place in a human rights framework, particularly when these children challenged the worldview that
almost exclusively recognised male and female gender.

Dr Ariane Spitaels, a paediatrician in the University of Stellenbosch’s faculty of health sciences, said it was necessary to reconsider surgery performed shortly after birth. “The cut is final and irreversible,” she said.

Spitaels said doctors and parents usually did not know before birth if a child was intersex.

She said parents usually worried about what would happen when the child reached puberty, what their child’s sexual orientation would be, and whether the child could have children of its own one day.

Sally Gross, founder of the Intersex Society of South Africa, who was classified as male at birth and known as Selwyn, said the issue concerned human diversity and human rights.

“My struggle … is quite simply to be seen as a human being and not as a walking, talking pathological specimen,” she said.

Gross, who escaped gender reassignment surgery, said the temptation to fix things quickly with surgery was a mistake, and legislation was needed to regulate surgery.

Human rights such as the right not to have one’s body violated should be fostered. Surgery, however well-intentioned, could be a violation of such rights.

Most of the gender normalisation surgery performed was feminisation, and the procedure to keep open a pseudo-vagina was “hellishly painful” for adults, let alone for toddlers.

“Surgery must be measured against hard objective criteria; is this necessary to preserve life or physical health? If not it should not be possible in law
to perform that surgery.”

Gross said South Africa had possibly the world’s highest prevalence of intersex children, with uncorroborated figures suggesting a national population ratio of 1:500, or about 90 000 individuals.

Closing the seminar, commission chairman Jody Kollapen said the preamble to the constitution spoke about freeing the potential of each person, and asked whether surgery curtailed this potential.

“We have a long way to go, and this is an important step,” said Kollapen, committing the commission to further engage with issues of discrimination and human rights related to intersex children and adults.

©2004 The Cape Times & Independent Online (Pty) Ltd.