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California bill to ban unnecessary surgeries on intersex children stalls

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State Senator Scott Wiener withdrew his bill to ban medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children after there was insufficient support in the Legislature. Photo: Courtesy Senator Wiener's office
State Senator Scott Wiener withdrew his bill to ban medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children after there was insufficient support in the Legislature. Photo: Courtesy Senator Wiener's office  

A California bill to ban medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children has once again stalled in a state Senate committee. Its backers will now assess whether to try and pass the legislation in 2022.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) had resubmitted his legislation Senate Bill 225, known as the Bodily Autonomy, Dignity and Choice Act, in January with the hope of moving it out of the Legislature this session. He had worked with intersex advocates and LGBTQ rights groups to revise it from previous versions, such as indicating a precise age for when such surgeries could be performed.

Thus, this year's bill would have required parents and doctors to postpone elective surgery on intersex children until they are 6 years of age and can take part in making such a medical decision. It was later amended to designate the age at 12 years old. Nevertheless, the legislation again failed to muster enough support to pass out of the Senate's Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development.

Scheduled for a hearing before the committee Monday, Wiener made the decision to withdraw it and shelve it until next year. As it is a two-year bill, state legislators can still take up SB 225 in January should its backers decide to move forward with it next year.

"We've sadly come to the conclusion that we do not have enough support in the Senate Business and Professions Committee to pass SB 225. As a result, we are not presenting the bill in the committee today as planned," stated Wiener. "We have the option of taking the bill up for a committee vote in January 2022, and we will assess going forward how to proceed."

Three years ago Wiener was able to get his legislative colleagues to pass a nonbinding resolution that called for doctors to postpone performing surgeries on intersex individuals until they are able to give their informed consent. He did so in order to educate lawmakers and the public about the issue prior to moving forward with an official ban of most such procedures.

Since 2019, Wiener has tried to get a legislative ban passed by his colleagues to no avail. His Senate Bill 201 died last year in light of fierce opposition from medical groups in the state. Both the powerful California Medical Association opposed Wiener's bill, as did the Societies for Pediatric Urology.

Approximately 1-2% percent of people are born with variations in bodily sex characteristics. Intersex is an umbrella term for differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy. People are born with these differences or develop them in childhood. There are many possible differences in genitalia, hormones, internal anatomy, or chromosomes.

Physicians will perform sex assignment and genital modification surgeries on intersex infants in order that they can be classified as either male or female. The procedures can entail infant vaginoplasties, clitoral reductions, or the removal of gonadal tissues.

Those opposed to the practices point out that the medical intervention can result in extreme scarring, chronic pain, incontinence, lost sexual sensation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and incorrect gender assignment. Both Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization have condemned performing surgeries on intersex infants, while the United Nations deems doing so akin to torture.

"SB 225 had strong support from the intersex community, the LGBT community, children's rights groups, reproductive justice organizations, and affirming medical providers, but disappointingly, lobbying by some opposition groups within the medical community has once again allowed intersex children to remain vulnerable to harmful and unnecessary surgical interventions on their healthy, lovable bodies," stated interACT Executive Director Kimberly Zieselman, an intersex woman. "Practices that put these children at risk of harm are unethical and unacceptable, and we at interACT won't stop fighting for intersex bodily autonomy."

Wiener expressed disappointment that California lawmakers have not been able to put restrictions on such procedures. In his statement to the Bay Area Reporter, Wiener said he was unwilling to further amend his bill in order to win support for it as he felt doing so would weaken the protections for intersex youth he has been seeking.

"Given that this legislation has stalled in the Business and Professions Committee for three years in a row, we do have concerns about whether this LGBTQ+ civil rights bill can ever pass through the committee in a form that protects all intersex people," stated Wiener. "The proposed committee amendments, unfortunately, would likely exclude a large majority of intersex people from the bill's protections. I'm deeply committed to the fight to protect intersex children from harmful and medically unnecessary genital surgeries, and we are not giving up."

UPDATED 4/5/2021 with comment from intersex advocacy group interACT.

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