Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

End Human Rights Abuses of Intersex and Transgender People

Report calls for ban of forced genital-normalizing surgeries and sterilizations

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT) issued a report this month about practices that are justified as health care, but that actually constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The report breaks new ground with its acknowledgment that torture and human rights violations can take place within medical settings, that it is not merely a historical problem, and that the LGBTQI community is often targeted for such abuses.

Section 88 of the 23-page report reads,

"The Special Rapporteur calls upon all States to repeal any law allowing intrusive and irreversible treatments, including forced genital-normalizing surgery, involuntary sterilization, unethical experimentation, medical display, “reparative therapies” or “conversion therapies”, when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned. He also calls upon them to outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances and provide special protection to individuals belonging to marginalized groups."

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Forced sterilization has previously been recognized as a human rights violation that most severely affects women from marginalized populations. The Open Society Institute’s (OSI) 2011 report, Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide, has been an invaluable resource in that effort. It specifically brought attention to the coerced sterilizations of Roma women, women living with HIV, and women with disabilities, and noted that medical personnel are rarely held accountable for these human rights abuses. OSI’s publication helped inform the SRT’s report on all of these groups and is referenced throughout.

The recognition that transgender and intersex people are also disproportionately targeted for coerced sterilizations has previously received less attention and is an important addition to the SRT’s new report. The inclusion of a transgender perspective may well be thanks to Micah Grzywnowicz, an activist who has been fighting against the human rights abuses of transgender people for years. Sex reassignment surgery and sterilization remain requirements for legal gender recognition in most countries around the world today (including 20 American states and 29 European countries).

The inclusion of people with intersex conditions in the SRT’s report is due in large part to Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC), an organization that fights for the civil rights of children born with variations of sex anatomy. Intersex children are often subjected to involuntary genital-normalizing surgery and sterilization without their informed consent in an attempt to "fix" their sex. AIC was thrilled to see this practice recognized as a human rights abuse in the final report, and has high hopes for what may come next.

"This is a very significant development. The SRT is an influential voice in setting international human rights norms, and governments around the world will look to this report in creating their own laws and policies."

Both AIC Executive Director Anne Tamar-Mattis and Micah Grzywnowicz will attend the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in early March to continue to educate human rights officials on the abuses that the LGBTQI community faces around the world.

A lack of conformity to traditional gender norms should not be grounds for dehumanizing treatment. Though the mere existence of this report does not ensure that forced genital normalizing surgeries and sterilizations will end globally, the setting of a new international standard is important. It provides a valuable tool for activists, and will increasingly pressure states to honor the human rights of all of their citizens.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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