The term ‘intersex’ refers to a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male. It is estimated that up to 1.7% of the world’s population is born with genetic, chemical, or anatomical features that fall somewhere between what is typically identified as male or female. Since the 1950’s, doctors have performed “corrective” surgeries on intersex people.
These procedures may cause a number of harmful consequences including scarring, chronic pain, urinary incontinence, loss of sexual sensation or function, psychological damage and incorrect gender assignment. Last year, Amnesty International revealed that in Denmark and Germany, babies born with atypical sex characteristics face up to five surgeries before they turn a year old. The United Nations has called the practice “a human rights violation that occurs without the informed consent of young patients”.
If the statistics are anything to go by, it is estimated that over 5000 people in Ireland are intersex, and yet they are offered limited protections in Irish law. Earlier this year, the EU expressed concern that “medically irreversible and unnecessary sex assignment surgery and other treatments are being performed on intersex children.”
Crumlin Children’s Hospital reportedly sees two or three new disorders of sexual development (DSD) cases each year.
Dr Colm Costigan spoke to the Irish Examiner in 2016, about the ways in which intersex infants born with an enlarged clitoris are treated in Ireland:
“If it’s mild, we try not to do much in the way of surgery. These children need cortisone therapy for life. Once cortisone treatment begins, there’s improvement in the appearance of female genitals. The child is reassessed after a few months to see if surgery is needed to reduce clitoris size.”
Costigan also spoke about how surgery of intersex children occurs less frequently now:
“As time goes on and people with DSD grow up, we realise the consequences of radical surgery. Results from the earlier surgeries weren’t as good as hoped.”
Kitty Anderson, the co-chair of the Organisation of Intersex International spoke about the need for increased awareness of the issues relating to intersex people in Ireland:
“It is core that the medical treatments that are performed on us are discriminatory to us on the grounds of our sex. We do know this is still going on in Ireland. It’s going on basically everywhere in Europe. I know of Irish intersex people, but I know that nearly none of them are out as being so. Ireland is a small community, so coming out is much more difficult than in a larger community.”
On top of medically unnecessary surgeries, intersex people face stigma in Ireland today. Anderson explains the complexities around coming out: “For intersex people, you could say, there is less of an upside to coming out. You’re coming out about what your body is like, and you might be in a relationship. Your partner might know. So you are living with the gender you identify with, and there isn’t really this sort of push to come out. That’s a factor that makes it more difficult I think for a lot of intersex people to come out.”
As it stands, TENI is the only organisation in Ireland that is actively lobbying for increased rights for intersex people in Ireland. TENI has called for an end to “the imposition of genital normalising surgery” on children born with ambiguous genitalia.
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