'It's sterilisation, basically': The irreversible medical procedures happening to Aussie babies
Babies incapable of giving consent are having their genitals modified across Australia in life-altering, often devastating and unnecessary medical surgeries.
These procedures, aimed at "normalising" the genitals or sex characteristics of intersex children, have long been lashed by activists as well as medical professionals, who are leading a new push to outlaw the practice.
They say the surgeries – which occur in infants as young as two-months-old – are "unnecessary", "irreversible" and cause extremely distressing lifelong side effects.
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An umbrella term to define people born with hormonal, chromosomal or anatomical variations of sex characteristics, intersex refers to the "I" in LGBTIQ+.
These Aussies, many of whom have lived through the procedures, say they've been left scarred for life.
A large part of the problem is a lack of proper research, Morgan Carpenter, Executive Director of Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA) explained.
"A lot of the all the clinical research is really aimed at justifying early surgeries," Carpenter told 9news.com.au.
"So there is very little longitudinal data, no systemic data that shows long-term adult effects.
"I mean, doctors themselves told the Senate 10 years ago that they have particular concern about post-surgical sexual function and sensation.
"So, the lack of data in this space is helping to sustain these medical practices. "
Carpenter, who is intersex, said that the loss of sexual function, including the inability to orgasm, is just one of a number of harmful side effects of these "corrective" surgeries.
"These procedures can include things like a gonadectomy, so, the removal of gonads, which is a term for organs like testes and ovaries," Carpenter said.
"It's sterilisation, basically.
"Other surgeries that happen involves include feminising genitals and the creation of surgery to alter a vagina.
"There are infants in Australia who undergo vaginoplasties…and there are also masculinizing surgeries as well.
"There are other people who suffer from functional issues, such as like a narrowing of the vagina or the urethra, which can impair sexual function, but also in impair urination, as well."
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Many intersex people have also reported fertility problems, urinary tract issues – including incontinence - and in some rarer cases, incorrect gender assignment in people who have had their sex decided for them at birth.
Some of those who have lived through the procedures also require ongoing medical treatment and repeat surgeries over the course of their lifetime.
While it is parents making the decisions for their children, who often believe they are acting within the infant's best interest, it can cause complex family issues down the line.
"Typically parents are trying to do the right thing; parents love their kids," Carpenter said.
"Parents often hear from doctors, that they need to do these procedures to look after their kids.
"Doctors say that parents are distressed and surgery on a child is a solution to that, but we argue that actually, psychological and psychosocial support would really help instead."
Back in March, the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce proposed laws to protect intersex people from medical procedures modifying their sex characteristics without their consent.
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It's one of just a few places in the world to take such action.
Across the country, the only other region considering any similar response is Victoria, where, In 2021 the government commissioned Equality Australia to develop proposed legal changes.
Ghassan Kassisieh, Legal Director at Equality Australia told 9news.com.au that he's spoken personally with many Aussies left crushed by these choices made for them as babies.
"I think the first thing to note is that there's a really large number of variations, and they're characterised by people whose physical sex characteristics aren't typical for male or female bodies," he said.
"There's decisions being made for babies, that assumes that in things like the gender of the child, that the child will want to have this procedure performed to 'normalise' their body – when the consequences of that procedure might be, for example, impacts on their sexual function.
"We've spoken with a number of people…some people were really, really unhappy about the decision having been made for them.
"They would have made a different decision if they were given the ability to do so.
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"They're being made on behalf people, when we just don't know what what this child will grow up to be…and that's why you can delay those procedures, until the person's old enough to make those decisions."
Kassisieh said that though there were some who weren't overtly bothered by the treatment, "on the whole" most prefer autonomy.
"Some people weren't upset by the decisions having been made, they would have made the decisions themselves," he said.
"But on the whole, the people that we spoke to really wanted that agency, that ability to decide what happens to their bodies.
"We think everyone deserves to decide what happens to their own bodies, and to achieve that, we should have a oversight mechanism that ensures that only procedures that are necessary, go forward.
"And those procedures that are not, wait until the person can make a decision for themselves."
Kassisieh added that Equality Australia are pushing for reforms across Australia to "ensure that people can't make decisions for other people" when it comes to "modifying their sex characteristics" in circumstances where it's not medically necessary to do so.
In 2015, Malta became the first country on the European continent to pass a law banning any kind of surgery or procedure on an intersex minor without their consent.
Since then, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Spain and Portugal have followed suit.
In addition, 50 countries later signed a UN statement in 2021 calling for concrete measures to protect intersex people from medical interventions.
Counselling and referral services for LGBTIQ+ individuals are available through QLife on 1800 184 527 or online.