Protest Demands End to Harmful Surgeries on Intersex Children

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Demonstrators gather for an #EndIntersexSurgery protest outside Weill-Cornell hospital in New York City in August 2021. 
© 2021 Matias Alvial

Protesters picketed Weill-Cornell, a private institution part of the New York Presbyterian Hospital system, earlier this month, demanding the hospital cease medically unnecessary surgeries on children born with intersex traits, and investigate a surgeon who conducts these operations.

The protest comes on the heels of New York City Council legislation mandating public education about the surgeries and the city’s public hospital system announcing they would no longer conduct the operations, describing the move as protecting children’s rights. Similar demonstrations led by the Intersex Justice Project in recent years outside a children’s hospital in Chicago led to the hospital becoming the first in the United States to cease the procedures, which have been condemned as human rights violations by United Nations treaty bodies more than fifty times.

Intersex people, or people born with variations in their sex characteristics, make up approximately 1.7 percent of the population. Surgeons popularized cosmetically “normalizing” surgeries on infants to remove gonads, reduce the size of the clitoris, or increase the size of the vagina. Intersex advocacy groups, as well as a range of medical and human rights organizations, have spoken out against the operations and called for regulation.

One type of procedure surgeons conduct reduces the size of the clitoris for cosmetic reasons. It carries the risk of pain, nerve damage, and scarring. Intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis, who underwent one of these at age four without their consent, called the operation a “clit job,” emphasizing that it should be an individual’s choice to modify their body.

As survivors of this procedure began speaking up, it became controversial. Weill-Cornell’s pediatric urology chief, Dr. Dix Poppas, in 2007 published a medical article that attempted to disprove claims of nerve damage from his clitoral surgeries by touching the genitals of girls he had operated on with a “vibratory device” and querying what they felt.

Ethicists called him out at the time, and Dr. Poppas told Human Rights Watch he had stopped that particular type of research. Nonetheless, he continues to conduct the surgeries and contributes to research on outcomes.

New York Presbyterian, in response to questions from Human Rights Watch, said, “In all circumstances we will continue to put our individual patients’ life and safety first” but did not commit to ending the surgeries at their hospitals; Dr. Poppas did not reply to a request for comment.

All hospitals should end these harmful surgeries immediately.

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