Intersex people face stigmatisation and discrimination from birth, particularly when an intersex variation is visible. In some countries (particularly in Africa and Asia) this may include infanticide, abandonment and the stigmatization of families. Mothers in East Africa may be accused of witchcraft, and the birth of an intersex child may be described as a curse.
Intersex infants and children, such as those with ambiguous outer genitalia, may be surgically and/or hormonally altered to fit perceived more socially acceptable sex characteristics. However, this is considered controversial, with no firm evidence of good outcomes. Such treatments may involve sterilization. Adults, including elite female athletes, have also been subjects of such treatment. These issues are recognized as human rights abuses, with statements from UN agencies, the Australian parliament, and German and Swiss ethics institutions.Intersex organizations have also issued joint statements over several years, including the Malta declaration by the third International Intersex Forum.
Implementation of human rights protections in legislation and regulation has progressed more slowly. In 2011, Christiane Völling won the first successful case brought against a surgeon for non-consensual surgical intervention. In 2015, the Council of Europe recognized for the first time a right for intersex persons to not undergo sex assignment treatment. In April 2015, Malta became the first country to outlaw nonconsensual medical interventions to modify sex anatomy, including that of intersex people.
Other human rights and legal issues include the right to life, protection from discrimination, standing to file in law and compensation, access to information, and legal recognition. Few countries so far protect intersex people from discrimination.
Research indicates a growing consensus that diverse intersex bodies are normal—if relatively rare—forms of human biology, and human rights institutions are placing increasing scrutiny on medical practices and issues of discrimination against intersex people. A 2013 first international pilot study. Human Rights between the Sexes, by Dan Christian Ghattas, found that intersex people are discriminated against worldwide:
Intersex individuals are considered individuals with a "disorder" in all areas in which Western medicine prevails. They are more or less obviously treated as sick or "abnormal", depending on the respective society.
Multiple organizations have highlighted appeals to LGBT rights recognition that fail to address the issue of unnecessary "normalising" treatments on intersex children, using the portmanteau term "pinkwashing". In June 2016, Organisation Intersex International Australia pointed to contradictory statements by Australian governments, suggesting that the dignity and rights of LGBTI (LGBT and intersex) people are recognized while, at the same time, harmful practices on intersex children continue.
In August 2016, Zwischengeschlecht described actions to promote equality or civil status legislation without action on banning "intersex genital mutilations" as a form of "pinkwashing". The organization has previously highlighted evasive government statements to UN Treaty Bodies that conflate intersex, transgender and LGBT issues, instead of addressing harmful practices on infants.
Legal prohibition of non-consensual medical interventions
Regulatory suspension of non-consensual medical interventions
Physical integrity and bodily autonomy on intersex not legislated
Intersex people face stigmatisation and discrimination from birth. In some countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, this may include infanticide, abandonment and the stigmatization of families. Mothers in east Africa may be accused of witchcraft, and the birth of an intersex child may be described as a curse. Abandonments and infanticides have been reported in Uganda,Kenya,south Asia, and China. In 2015, it was reported that an intersex Kenyan adolescent, Muhadh Ishmael, was mutilated and later died. He had previously been described as a curse on his family.
Non-consensual medical interventions to modify the sex characteristics of intersex people take place in all countries where the human rights of intersex people have been explored. Such interventions have been criticized by the World Health Organization, other UN bodies such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and an increasing number of regional and national institutions. In low and middle income countries, the cost of healthcare may limit access to necessary medical treatment at the same time that other individuals experience coercive medical interventions.
Several rights have been stated as affected by stigmatization and coercive medical interventions on minors:
In countries around the world, intersex infants, children and adolescents are subjected to medically unnecessary surgeries, hormonal treatments and other procedures in an attempt to forcibly change their appearance to be in line with societal expectations about female and male bodies. When, as is frequently the case, these procedures are performed without the full, free and informed consent of the person concerned, they amount to violations of fundamental human rights...
States must, as a matter of urgency, prohibit medically unnecessary surgery and procedures on intersex children. They must uphold the autonomy of intersex adults and children and their rights to health, to physical and mental integrity, to live free from violence and harmful practices and to be free from torture and ill-treatment. Intersex children and their parents should be provided with support and counselling, including from peers.
Although not many cases of children with intersex conditions are available, a case taken to the Constitutional Court of Colombia led to changes in their treatment. The case restricted the power of doctors and parents to decide surgical procedures on children's ambiguous genitalia after the age of five, while continuing to permit interventions on younger children. Due to the decision of the Constitutional Court of Colombia on Case 1 Part 1 (SU-337 of 1999), doctors are obliged to inform parents on all the aspects of the intersex child. Parents can only consent to surgery if they have received accurate information, and cannot give consent after the child reaches the age of five. By then the child will have, supposedly, realized their gender identity. The court case led to the setting of legal guidelines for doctors' surgical practice on intersex children.
In April 2015, Malta became the first country to outlaw non-consensual medical interventions in a Gender Identity Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act. The Act recognizes a right to bodily integrity and physical autonomy, explicitly prohibiting modifications to children's sex characteristics for social factors:
14. (1) It shall be unlawful for medical practitioners or other professionals to conduct any sex assignment treatment and/or surgical intervention on the sex characteristics of a minor which treatment and/or intervention can be deferred until the person to be treated can provide informed consent: Provided that such sex assignment treatment and/or surgical intervention on the sex characteristics of the minor shall be conducted if the minor gives informed consent through the person exercising parental authority or the tutor of the minor.
(2) In exceptional circumstances treatment may be effected once agreement is reached between the Interdisciplinary Team and the persons exercising parental authority or tutor of the minor who is still unable to provide consent: Provided that medical intervention which is driven by social factors without the consent of the minor, will be in violation of this Act.
The Act was widely welcomed by civil society organizations.
In January 2016, the Ministry of Health of Chile ordered the suspension of unnecessary normalization treatments for intersex children, including irreversible surgery, until they reach an age when they can make decisions on their own. The regulations were superseded in August 2016.
On 22 April 2019 the Madras High Court (Madurai Bench) passed a landmark judgment and issued direction to ban Sex-Selective Surgeries on Intersex Infants based on the works of Gopi Shankar Madurai. On August 13, 2019 the Government of Tamil Nadu, India has issued a Government Order to ban non-necessary surgeries on the sex characteristics of babies and children in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu with 77.8 Million people, this regulation is exempted in the case of life-threatening situations.
A law that provides for a general ban on operations in children and adolescents with 'variants of gender development' ('Varianten der Geschlechtsentwicklung') was passed in the German parliament on March 25, 2021. According to a report in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt, the law is intended to strengthen the self-determined decision-making of children and adolescents and avoid possible damage to their health. Surgical changes to gender characteristics should only take place - even with the consent of the parents - if the operation cannot be postponed until age 14. The Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists requires the mandatory participation of a counsellor with experience on intersex in an assessment before a possible intervention. While supportive of progress, the law that was finally passed was also criticized by the Organisation Intersex International (OII) Germany, OII Europe, and Intergeschlechtliche Menschen, because of the existence of exceptions.
In 2015, the Council of Europe published an Issue Paper on Human rights and intersex people, remarking:
Intersex people's right to life can be violated in discriminatory “sex selection” and “preimplantation genetic diagnosis, other forms of testing, and selection for particular characteristics”. Such de-selection or selective abortions are incompatible with ethics and human rights standards due to the discrimination perpetrated against intersex people on the basis of their sex characteristics.
A handful of jurisdictions so far provide explicit protection from discrimination for intersex people. South Africa was the first country to explicitly add intersex to legislation, as part of the attribute of "sex".Australia was the first country to add an independent attribute, of "intersex status".Malta was the first to adopt a broader framework of "sex characteristics, through legislation that also ended modifications to the sex characteristics of minors undertaken for social and cultural reasons.Bosnia-Herzegovina listed as "sex characteristics"Greece prohibits discrimination and hate crimes based on "sex characteristics", since 24 December 2015. Since 2021, Serbia also prohibits discrimination based on "sex characteristics". Since 2022, Chile bans discrimination based on "sex characteristics" under Law 21,430.
An Australian survey of 272 persons born with atypical sex characteristics, published in 2016, found that 18% of respondents (compared to an Australian average of 2%) failed to complete secondary school, with early school leaving coincident with pubertal medical interventions, bullying and other factors.
A 2015 Australian survey of people born with atypical sex characteristics found high levels of poverty, in addition to very high levels of early school leaving, and higher than average rates of disability. An Employers guide to intersex inclusion published by Pride in Diversity and Organisation Intersex International Australia also discloses cases of discrimination in employment.
Discrimination protection intersects with involuntary and coercive medical treatment. Maltese protections on grounds of sex characteristics provides explicit protection against unnecessary and harmful modifications to the sex characteristics of children.
In 2013, it was disclosed in a medical journal that four unnamed elite female athletes from developing countries were subjected to gonadectomies (sterilization) and partial clitoridectomies (female genital mutilation) after testosterone testing revealed that they had an intersex condition. Testosterone testing was introduced in the wake of the Caster Semenya case, of a South African runner subjected to testing due to her appearance and vigor. There is no evidence that innate hyperandrogenism in elite women athletes confers an advantage in sport. While Australia protects intersex persons from discrimination, the Act contains an exemption in sport.
In Germany in 2011, Christiane Völling was successful in a case against her medical treatment. The surgeon was ordered to pay €100,000 in compensatory damages after a legal battle that began in 2007, thirty years after the removal of her reproductive organs.
On August 12, 2005, the mother of a child, Benjamín, filed a lawsuit against the Maule Health Service after the child's male gonads and reproductive system were removed without informing the parents of the nature of the surgery. The child had been raised as a girl. The claim for compensatory damages was initiated in the Fourth Court of Letters of Talca, and ended up in the Supreme Court of Chile. On November 14, 2012, the Court sentenced the Maule Health Service for "lack of service" and to pay compensation of 100 million pesos for moral and psychological damages caused to Benjamín, and another 5 million for each of the parents.
In the United States the M.C. v. Aaronson case, advanced by interACT with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was brought before the courts in 2013. In 2015, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed the case, stating that, "it did not “mean to diminish the severe harm that M.C. claims to have suffered” but that a reasonable official in 2006 did not have fair warning from then-existing precedent that performing sex assignment surgery on sixteen-month-old M.C. violated a clearly established constitutional right." In July 2017, it was reported that the case had been settled out of court by the Medical University of South Carolina for $440,000, without admission of liability.
In 2015, Michaela Raab filed suit against doctors in Nuremberg, Germany, for failing to properly advise her. Doctors stated that they "were only acting according to the norms of the time - which sought to protect patients against the psychosocial effects of learning the full truth about their chromosomes." On 17 December 2015, the Nuremberg State Court ruled that the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg Clinic pay damages and compensation.
With the rise of modern medical science in Western societies, many intersex people with ambiguous external genitalia have had their genitalia surgically modified to resemble either female or male genitals. Surgeons pinpointed the birth of intersex babies as a "social emergency". A secrecy-based model was also adopted, in the belief that this was necessary to ensure “normal” physical and psychosocial development. Disclosure also included telling people that they would never meet anyone else with the same condition. Access to medical records has also historically been challenging. Yet the ability to provide free, informed consent depends on the availability of information.
Some intersex organizations claim that secrecy-based models have been perpetuated by a shift in clinical language to disorders of sex development. Morgan Carpenter of Organisation Intersex International Australia quotes the work of Miranda Fricker on "hermeneutical injustice" where, despite new legal protections from discrimination on grounds of intersex status, "someone with lived experience is unable to even make sense of their own social experiences" due to the deployment of clinical language and "no words to name the experience".
According to the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, few countries have provided for the legal recognition of intersex people. The Forum states that the legal recognition of intersex people is:
firstly about access to the same rights as other men and women, when assigned male or female;
secondly it is about access to administrative corrections to legal documents when an original sex assignment is not appropriate; and
thirdly, while opt in schemes may help some individuals, legal recognition is not about the creation of a third sex or gender classification for intersex people as a population, but instead is about enabling an opt-in scheme for any individual who seeks it.
In some jurisdictions, access to any form of identification document can be an issue.
Like all individuals, some intersex individuals may be raised as a particular sex (male or female) but then identify with another later in life, while most do not. Like non-intersex people, some intersex individuals may not identify themselves as either exclusively female or exclusively male. A 2012 clinical review suggests that between 8.5-20% of persons with intersex conditions may experience gender dysphoria, while sociological research in Australia, a country with a third 'X' sex classification, shows that 19% of people born with atypical sex characteristics selected an "X" or "other" option, while 52% are women, 23% men and 6% unsure.
Depending on the jurisdiction, access to any birth certificate may be an issue, including a birth certificate with a sex marker.
In 2014, in the case of Baby 'A' (Suing through her Mother E.A) & another v Attorney General & 6 others , a Kenyan court ordered the Kenyan government to issue a birth certificate to a five-year-old child born in 2009 with ambiguous genitalia. In Kenya a birth certificate is necessary for attending school, getting a national identity document, and voting. Many intersex persons in Uganda are understood to be stateless due to historical difficulties in obtaining identification documents, despite a birth registration law that permits intersex minors to change assignment.
Access to the same rights as other men and women
Recognition before the law means having legal personhood and the legal protections that flow from that. For intersex people, this is neither primarily nor solely about amending birth registrations or other official documents. Firstly, it is about intersex people who have been issued a male or a female birth certificate being able to enjoy the same legal rights as other men and women.
Some countries like Australia and New Zealand exempt female genital mutilation laws from intersex people. and the laws may exist but may not be enforced in some other countries like the United States.
Access to a birth certificate with a correct sex marker may be an issue for people who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth, or it may only be available accompanied by surgical requirements.
The passports and identification documents of Australia and some other nationalities have adopted "X" as a valid third category besides "M" (male) and "F" (female), at least since 2003. In 2013, Germany became the first European nation to allow babies with characteristics of both sexes to be registered as indeterminate gender on birth certificates, amidst opposition and skepticism from intersex organisations who point out that the law appears to mandate exclusion from male or female categories. The Council of Europe acknowledged this approach, and concerns about recognition of third and blank classifications in a 2015 Issue Paper, stating that these may lead to "forced outings" and "lead to an increase in pressure on parents of intersex children to decide in favour of one sex." The Issue Paper argues that "further reflection on non-binary legal identification is necessary":
“People tend to identify a third sex with freedom from the gender binary, but that is not necessarily the case. If only trans and/or intersex people can access that third category, or if they are compulsively assigned a third sex, then the gender binary gets stronger, not weaker”
/ Opt in only for Washington D.C., California, New York City, Ohio (with a court order only), New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah (with a court order only), Washington State, New Jersey, and Colorado. In October 2021, the very first US Passport with a gender X was issued by a court order for an individual. From April-11-2022, gender X becomes officially available and recognised for any validly issued US Passport holder.
Exemptions regarding sport and female genital mutilation
Policies vary depending on jurisdiction Requires sexual reassignment surgery and permission from at least 2 medical practitioners within both NSW and QLD only. Appropriate clinical treatment (or just 1 doctors permission) within WA, SA, NT and the ACT. "Self-determination" within TAS and VIC.
(Passports) Opt in at federal level, state/territory policies vary
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^"Zakon o zabrani diskriminacije | Crna Gora | Paragraf Lex". www.paragraf.me. Article 19 ("Any discrimination, unequal treatment or unequal position of a person or group of persons on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and / or intersex characteristics is considered discrimination."). Archived from the original on 2020-08-04. Retrieved 2020-11-08.
^"Norway". Rainbow Europe. Archived from the original on January 5, 2017. Retrieved April 29, 2021.