science of us

New California Bill Would Protect Intersex People From Unnecessary Surgeries

Photo: Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images

A new bill introduced to the California state legislature by Senator Scott Weiner, if passed, will be the first to protect intersex kids — about 1.7 percent of the population — from medically unnecessary procedures (like clidorectomies) which aim to align their bodies with binary gender norms well before an age at which they could reasonably consent.

Patients of these procedures, as recently reported by the Human Rights Watch, have often suffered psychological and medical problems as a result. A 2005 human rights report recounts the story of an American patient who was forced to undergo a clitorectomy at three months old so, doctors said, she “wouldn’t grow up with gender identity problems, become a lesbian, or commit suicide.”

Though such surgeries have grown less common over time, and are condemned by the United Nations and World Health Organization, they’re not yet illegal — and the California bill (SCR-110) doesn’t propose an outright ban. There are cases in which surgery may be warranted; being born without a urinary opening, for instance, is life-threatening, and as such, advocates support surgical intervention. Instead, the bill aims to delay medically unnecessary procedures until such time as intersex people can decide for themselves if they want them.

This is particularly important in cases when the surgery might assign a gender to babies born with both assigned-male and assigned-female characteristics, says Kimberly Zieselman, executive director of interACT, the largest intersex advocacy group. “In cases where these surgeries may be also surgically assigning a gender or assigning a sex on assumed gender — that’s obviously even more crucial, there’s even more need for a wait-and-see approach because a baby or a young child cannot tell you what their gender identity is nor can they tell you what they want their body to look like,” Zieselman told ThinkProgress.

The bill has already passed in the California state senate, and, thanks to changing cultural norms and broader cultural conversation about gender and identity, Senator Weiner expects it to pass in assembly this fall. He told ThinkProgress: “Society’s understanding of gender and the gender spectrum and the reality that kids express their own gender — that understanding has grown significantly in last five, ten years.”

New California Bill Aims to Protect Intersex Rights