According to the Intersex Society of America, it is difficult to estimate how many intersexuals (people with a combination of male and female sexual characteristics) are born every year; however, by their statistics it is a significant amount. Intersexuals may be born with obvious deviations from the male/female physical norm, or secondary sexual characteristic of the apperent opposite gender may make themselves known at puberty.
The usual response to a child being born with no clear gender is to surgically alter them so that they conform to either male or female physical features (usually whichever gender they have more characteristics of). Likewise, if sexual characteristics of the opposite sex appear at puberty, surgery is used as the immediate “answer”. In the case of babies, it is obviously the parent’s choice on whether to have gender re-assignment surgery - it is also often the case when such difficulties emerge at puberty, as children’s decisions (or even sometimes their permission) is not asked nor their informed consent given - for example, this quote from an article in the Psychologist (warning, .pdf file) http://www.bps.org.uk/_publicationfiles/thepsychologist/0804intersex.pdf :
As well as the ethics of forcing a person into a gender role without their permission, there’s also the problem that surgery to remove/alter sexual characteristics can lessen or even remove all ability for sexual pleasure at all, permanently. And if that child grows up and decides that they associate more with the opposite gender - yet more surgery awaits them, to undo what has been done to them and more.
On the other hand, what other options are there?
A child could be assigned a gender, but not given surgery. Clearly though, this can also cause problems - how can you explain to a child when they’re older that they’re different from other boys/girls? And how would they be able to deal with the inevitable bullying and teasing that will occur if/when others find out about their physicality? While they still have their ability and drive for sex that is often denied to others who were operated on, what chance will they have to actually find someone who is accepting of their unique situation? (I’m not saying it’s impossible, but much rarer - especially for teenagers - to be that emotionally mature).
And then there’s another option - don’t have surgery performed, and don’t assign the child to male or female, but a third gender. Problem is, of course, that now everyone will know of their condition. A third gendered person would face many difficulties - how do they name their sexuality? Are they straight, or gay? Bi? How many new gender categories should we create for intersexuals - one for every condition? There are so many variations, we may end up with ten or more added genders (i’m not saying this is a bad thing, just more complicated and confusing for all concerned). And what about their legal status? Are they counted as which of the two genders they show more characteristics of? Are they allowed to marry a partner of their choice? How awful would be the societal stigma?
So here’s the debate. Four basic questions:
Should intersexual babies be assigned a gender (male or female) at birth, and raised as that gender?
As part of this, should they be operated on at birth to make them conform physically to that gender?
Should parents be allowed to make the decision on surgery, at birth or at puberty, that will drastically affect that child’s future?
Generally, what would you consider to be the best governmental and legal policies with regards to intersexed people, in relation to their rights and in comparison to “normal” men and women?