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Hospital apologizes for performing genital surgeries on intersex infants, vows to ban them

The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago apologized to those harmed by medically unnecessary genital surgeries.
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.Jeff Schear / Getty Images for Ann and Robert H. Lurie Hospital of Chicago

A prominent children’s hospital publicly apologized Thursday for performing cosmetic genital surgeries on intersex infants and pledged to end the practice.

“We recognize the painful history and complex emotions associated with intersex surgery and how, for many years, the medical field has failed these children,” the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago said in a statement. “We empathize with intersex individuals who were harmed by the treatment that they received according to the historic standard of care, and we apologize and are truly sorry.”

The apology, signed by the hospital’s CEO and three head physicians, comes after activists, over a yearslong campaign, called on the institution to ban cosmetic genital surgery on intersex infants, which is irreversible. The signatories also committed to “evolving” their policies going forward and stated that the hospital would not perform such surgeries unless medically necessary or with willful consent from fully informed patients.

“Historically care for individuals with intersex traits included an emphasis on early genital surgery to make genitalia appear more typically male or female,” the statement, published Tuesday, continued. “As the medical field has advanced, and understanding has grown, we now know this approach was harmful and wrong.”

“Intersex” is an umbrella term that refers to individuals born with sex traits or reproductive anatomy that do not fit the conventional categories of male and female. Approximately 1.7 percent of the population fits into this broad category, according to research cited by the intersex advocacy group InterACT.

Intersex activists have long advocated for a ban on medically unnecessary genital surgery for intersex infants. They have argued that the historically common practice — intended to “help” these individuals better fit into society — denies them the legal right to consent to the procedure. According to the Human Rights Watch, 1 in every 2,000 children “is different enough that doctors may recommend surgical intervention to make the body appear more in line” with a conventional male or female.

Along with intersex justice organizations, multiple civil and human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, have long condemned these procedures as unnecessary, saying that there is no evidence such practices help individuals better function in society.

Many who were forced to undergo these surgeries report lifelong harm, including higher risks of scarring, loss of sexual sensation and psychological trauma.

While the hospital has not disclosed how many such procedures had been performed over the years, it did state that it had not performed a clitoroplasty on a child or infant in five years.

Intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis, who was subjected to cosmetic genital surgery at the Lurie Children’s Hospital, was in disbelief after hearing the news.

“Today, what matters is the autonomy of future intersex people and patients,” Pagonis said at a virtual news conference on Thursday. “We couldn’t do the whole country, we couldn’t get Congress to agree with us, but we knew that we could do it at one hospital where it happened to me and so many other people.”

“I’m here to say that we did that, we did that!” Pagonis said.

Pagonis, who identifies as nonbinary and intersex, founded the activist group Intersex Justice Project with fellow intersex activist Sean Saifa Wall. One of the project’s goals was to end these practices across the country, specifically at the Lurie Children’s Hospital, where Pagonis underwent a clitorectomy as a child.

Three years ago, the organization launched a campaign demanding the hospital end this practice, staging multiple protests at its front doors, starting the social media hashtag #EndIntersexSurgery, and organizing phone and emailing campaigns to express members’ concerns.

This watershed moment is only a taste of victory, Wall said Thursday at the news conference.

“We are one step closer to ensuring a world where intersex children can live free from harm,” he said.

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