Would You Change Your Intersex Baby?

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If you had a baby that was born with both sex parts, what would you do? Would you want to immediately treat it as a problem and have it fixed, making sure that the child was assigned one gender from birth? Most would do exactly that and most have done exactly that when faced with this issue, which isn't all that uncommon.

Roughly 1 in 2,000 children born each year are neither male nor female. They are born intersex, which is an umbrella term that refers to a group of about 60 conditions that fall under the diagnosis of disorders of sexual development (DSD).

When that happens, doctors used to examine the genitals, determine which was the "correct" set, and then perform surgery accordingly. But now that ideas about gender are shifting, there is a little less clarity and doctors worry more about things like infertility and depression as the child grows.

For many, it's proving very confusing and upsetting, and those who were reassigned as children have struggled mightily. Jim Bruce was one of those children. He was born with XY male chromosomes but ambiguous genitals. Doctors were not sure that he could live a happy life as a male and so they reassigned him with surgery to be a her and gave him female hormones as he aged, yet he never felt female.

Later, he found out the truth, sought his medical records, and started identifying as male. Dr. Arlene Baratz is a Pittsburgh breast radiologist who has two intersex daughters. She told ABC News:

Our chromosomes don't tell us who we are. We expect XX is pink and a girl and XY is blue and a boy, but we know from children with gender identity conditions that is not always the case, even when their bodies are perfectly typical.

So what is a parent to do? Maybe if we all relax a little and accept that this is not so uncommon, we could accept that gender is actually much more fluid than we think. What is so wrong with not really knowing whether to buy pink or blue bed sheets? Obviously, this is infinitely more complicated than merely what bed sheets to buy, but the truth is we as a culture need to get a little more comfortable with the idea of gender as a fluid thing.

Most children will be the sex they're born in, but some won't. And maybe waiting longer and not removing tissues is a wiser, more humane thing to do. Even though it will surely make most parents uneasy. That is understandable, but it isn't enough of a reason to surgically alter a person.

Although most children do accept their gender assignment, there need to be more check-ins and the children need to know they were born a little different. Still, maybe the trend toward waiting on surgery is a better way of dealing with it. Sure, it may cause a little discomfort for the parents and the general population, but eventually, it could lead to a happier existence for the many children who are born this way and that is obviously the goal.

Surgery is irreversible and would be a far worse mistake to make early on in a child's life.

Do you think children should be assigned a sex immediately?

 

Image via sarahemcc/Flickr

baby development, baby health

24 Comments

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Mamab... MamabearC

Wow, what an extremely difficult choice, I can't even begin to imagine what I would do in this situation...

Lynette Lynette

I would let them keep all their parts till they can tell me what they want to do/be.

nonmember avatar devotedmom

when my 14 month old daughter was born, the hospital pediatrician informed us that they thought she had some slightly virilized genitals. during the period of time that they were doing chromosomal and other testing, we had to face the possibility that she might not internally be a she, and had to decide what to do if that were the case. it was heart wrenching to even think about, knowing that either way she was likely to face hardships. in the end, we decided we would have let her identify herself with one gender or the other. In the end, many appointments with many different doctors eventually told us she was 100% female and completely "normal"...her genitals were just likely swollen from the birthing process. To know that some parents are faced with those same tests and processes, but get very different results, makes my heart ache...not because those babies aren't "normal", but because any decision with that kind of weight can't be made lightly, and i KNOW it can't be easy. however, you love your child no matter WHAT, i think to let them develop how they do naturally IS normal, whether they identify with their external appearance or not.

Jeann... JeannieMS

I don't have an intersex child so I'm not speaking with much knowledge or experience, but it seems to me that the most humane approach would be to "assign" a gender so the child has a pronoun, but let the child later in life choose his or her own gender and any surgery. Start off with something so the child has something more than "it". I'm sure some would disagree but your three year old deserves to be a kid without gender decision pressure and curious questions as to his / her identity

Proud... ProudSingleMum

I'd go with the chromosomes. If XX, then girl; if XY, then boy. The one person said 'It's not so easy", which I wouldn't say EASY, but it IS biology. If you have XX chromosomes, you are a girl...you may not LIKE that at some point in time...but biologically it is what you are. So, if in this situation, I'd make the decision early on.

butte... butterflymkm

I think I would wait at least until I knew for sure what functioned correctly and what didn't. I wouldn't want to make the child into a girl if the girl could not feel her vagina or whatever as I have read sometimes happens. I'm not sure if that means you would have to wait until puberty or not. Honestly I think it has to be a case by case basis.

Chris Baunach

I would try to wait as long as possible before I started referring to my kid as a boy or girl. In my family, gender lines are blurred anyway, so there will be discussion, regardless. I believe I would start to get a sense of the baby's gender-leanings, and go with that. I just don't know for sure. It's a tough place to be in, and I wouldn't want to make it tougher for the kid by NOT "assigning" a gender right off the bat, but I wouldn't want to force anything.

I do know this:
No surgery, until the kid is really wanting this.

Counseling to help our family through the rough parts.

Celebration of the kid :)

Kersten Kersten

This would be such a hard situation, but what I think I would do is find out what the child is genetically.  I would refuse any surgery, but use the chromosomal information to "assign" the child a gender, because I think it may be more damaging for the child not to have a chance to identify with one sex or the other.  This may be more difficult if the child was chromosomally one sex and looked extremely like the other sex, though.

Stephanie Cramer

When I was taking my Intro to Human Development class, our professor brought in a woman who was intersexed. It's important to remember that not ALL intersexed people have 'normal' genetics. This woman had XXXY sex chromosomes, but there are a lot of other variations. A girl in my class asked us what we should do if we ever had a child who was intersexed. She told us that the absolute worst thing you could do was to try to define who your child is at birth.
Obviously, when they're little it's not much of an issue. They're not going to remember their first three years. When they get older, she told us to buy both 'boy toys' and 'girl toys' and it would start helping you figure out which gender they actually identify with.
The bottom line is, your child is the only one who actually knows. You can go by chromosomes, or by what 'works' or by which genitalia is more present, but the chance that you could be wrong, and the consequences that could have, should be more than enough for any parent to just leave things alone.

Rhonda Hall Chatterly

Wouldn't it be nice if it were as simple as finding out if the chromosomes were XX or XY? There are more combinations than this for intersexed people. There is everything from OX to XXY to XYY to XXXY and on and on....
But I have to agree that a child should not be surgically assigned a sex. I have heard of people who are quite outraged to have the choice already removed from them. Remember...Doctors don't know everything...that's why they practice!

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