Parents should also know that doctors are likely to seek from them consent for "normalizing" genital surgeries when the child
is still very young, because many doctors believe that this will make the parents' distress end and will prevent the child from
feeling any distress. In fact, these surgeries carry great risks, including risks to genital sensation (which the child will
need later for a healthy sex life), continence, fertility, and life. The risks should not be downplayed, particularly in
consideration of the fact that "normalizing" surgeries are not medically necessary for physical well being. A nurse told me
recently of one baby girl who ended up in intensive care on a ventilator because of complications from an elective "normalizing"
surgery. Many parents have expressed to me disappointment in the surgeries after having discovered that the surgeries can't
really give their child "normal" looking genitals. Some surgeries require that parents do follow-up care that parents may find
very troubling. For example, "vaginoplasties" which lengthen or build vaginas out of skin or pieces of colon often require that
parents regularly dilate the new vagina with a lubricated dildo. Several mothers have told me that, if they had understood that
that was what would be involved in home follow-up care, they would have waited until their child was old enough to consent to
and do the dilations herself. Parents also need to know that the few follow-up studies available show that "normalizing" genital
surgeries done in infancy or early childhood seem to have a poor long-term success rate. That is why more and more doctors are
recommending that parents put off these surgeries until puberty, when the surgeries tend to be more successful and when children
can provide input on the decision-making process. It is also why parents should press doctors to explain to them exactly what
scientific follow-up studies can or can't tell them about the success of these interventions.
Parents should also be aware that legal scholars have recently shown that parents of children with intersex conditions are
often not fully informed before they consent to "normalizing" surgeries. In the recent past they have not been told, for
example, that the claim that gender comes from nurture has fallen into serious question, and that doctors cannot actually know
what gender a child will end up feeling. As a consequence some parents have consented to have their micropenis boys turned into
girls, only to discover later that studies by Dr. William Reiner at Johns Hopkins University have shown that many children born
with micropenis ultimately take on the male gender identity regardless of having been raised as girls with surgically
"feminized" genitalia. Parents have also not been adequately informed about which procedures were essentially elective. Finally,
parents have not been advised of what was and was not known about the long-term effects of this system of treatment.
It is important that parents of children with intersex conditions press doctors to tell them the exact diagnosis once the
doctors know it. This will enable the parents to do their own research, and to find other parents with similar experiences, as
well as understand their options. Parents of children with intersex conditions--indeed, parents of any child with a complex
condition--should ask for copies of the child's medical records on a regular basis. According to an article in December 2001, in
the British Medical Journal, "a paternalistic policy of withholding the diagnosis is still practiced by some clinicians" in
intersex cases. These physicians mistakenly believe that shielding parents from exact diagnoses in intersex cases protects
parents and children from unnecessary harm. A few also mistakenly believe this practice is ethical and legal; it is neither.
A recent article in the British Journal of Urology notes that photographs taken of them as children and later published in
medical journals and textbooks have unintentionally harmed some people with intersex conditions. Parents should guard against
unnecessary photographing of their children as well as unnecessary display to medical students and residents, particularly as
the child becomes old enough to understand and remember these incidents. While teaching hospitals will be inclined to use the
opportunity of caring for a child with intersex for educational purposes, parents should resist any encounter that does not
directly benefit their child, given the risks. The trauma to parents and child that can arise from repeated display of a child's
genitalia to strangers should not be underestimated.
When facing the possibility of intersex, parents should know that every child can and should be assigned a gender as boy or
girl and that doing so does not require any surgery. Gender assignment is accomplished for every child (intersexed or
not) through the social and legal labeling of a child as boy or girl. In intersex cases, doctors and parents can work together
to try to figure out what gender a child is likely to feel given that particular child's anatomy and physiology, given what
doctors know from scientific studies of outcomes in similar cases, and given how the parents see that child's gender. The
parents will have to recognize that there is a small but real chance that gender assignment may not hold, that the child may
express the other gender later, and that this is why it is best to leave the child's anatomy intact as much as possible.
Removing parts doesn't remove the possibility that the child may change gender later; it only makes it a lot harder for the
child to do what she or he wants or needs later.
When parents are making decisions on behalf of a child with intersex, they should keep in mind what the sociologist Suzanne
Kessler has shown: Kessler asked a group of men whether, if they had been born with "micropenis," they would have wanted to be
turned into girls, and she asked a group of women whether, if they had been born with large clitorises, they would have wanted
to have their clitorises surgically shortened. The vast majority of men said they would rather grow up with micropenis than as
girls. The vast majority of women said they would have wanted to have their large clitorises left alone. But asked what they
would choose for a child in the same situation, many said they would opt to turn micropenis boys into girls and would opt
for cosmetic surgeries on girls' large clitorises. The reason behind the different answers is the compassion we all feel for
children. We all want to protect children from hardship. But the key to keep in mind is what the child would likely want for
himself or herself. Kessler's study as well as interviews with adults with intersex (both those who were subject to
"normalizing" surgeries and those who were raised without "normalizing" surgeries) indicates that the vast majority of people
want their parents to let them decide for themselves whether to risk health, appearance, genital sensation, continence,
fertility, and life. Putting off the surgeries until at least puberty allows the child to have input on the decision, and it
seems to provide for better outcomes as well as providing for the possibility that surgical techniques and outcome data will
improve in the interim.
Finally, parents should know that intersex does not have to be treated with shame and secrecy. The social (and sometimes also
the medical) system by which we treat parents of "different" children as pitiful or shameful is a system that harms those
parents and children. Intersex is a natural variation--we see it in all animal species and throughout history. People with
intersex can grow up as healthy boys and girls, men and women. Their best shot at doing so is when their parents are not made to
feel ashamed of themselves or their children. Unfortunately, "normalizing" procedures like cosmetic genital surgeries sometimes
inadvertently make parents and children feel unnecessary shame. Many adults I know with intersex conditions feel that their
parents' decision to change their genitals for cosmetic reasons means that their parents saw them as freaks, even though that
isn't what their parents intended. Dealing openly with intersex is the best defense against the shame-game. Parents should
therefore have access to professional and peer support as they learn to talk with their child about intersex in an open, honest,
and accurate manner. Parents will also find that connecting their child to peers with intersex will allow their child another
opportunity to talk openly about the challenges of living with intersex. Talking this through undoes the shame and secrecy that
pretty much everyone involved agrees has historically been the most harmful aspect of intersex.
No one is suggesting that in cases of intersex we "do nothing." But parents need to know that intersex is primarily a
psychosocial concern, and that it is therefore best treated with substantial and continuous psychosocial support, professional
and peer. The bottom line is that children with intersex conditions and their parents deserve honesty, respect, and support. But
we are not yet at the point where that is automatically provided. We all need to do our part, as doctors, parents, neighbors,
and teachers, to demystify intersex and see to it that parents of children with intersex conditions know the same pride and joy
of parenting as others.
Back to page one.
For more information see www.isna.org.
Alice D. Dreger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Michigan State University
Chair of the Board of Directors, Intersex Society of North America
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