The Promise to Do Better: A Reflection on the Fight for Intersex Rights in Medicine
As children, we learn, albeit on a smaller scale, many of the fundamental skills we need to navigate the world. We are taught how to share, to treat others with kindness and respect, and crucially, we are taught how to apologize. Choruses of “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again” fill the soundtrack of our days, and we undoubtedly sound like broken records. Yes, we make a lot of mistakes, but we do our best not to make the same ones twice. As adults, we continue to call on much of what was taught to us at a young age, often times without conscious effort. Unfortunately, this is not always true when it comes to making meaningful apologies.
This idea has weighed on my mind with the recent passing of Intersex Awareness Day and the focus on several notable apologies from the medical field addressing past wrongdoings that have harmed the intersex community. Intersex Awareness Day is recognized on the 26th of October and marks the anniversary of the first public demonstration by intersex individuals in the US (1996). They protested the accepted practice of performing unnecessary genital surgeries on infants and children in order to better match them into binary sex categories. The prevailing argument is that these children could not and cannot provide meaningful consent, and the only procedures that should be performed in this case are those that are medically necessary. In the decades since this demonstration, many individuals and several larger bodies have spoken out against the harm inflicted upon the intersex community by the healthcare system. However, it wasn’t until this year (nearly a quarter of a century after the first public demonstration) that Lurie Children’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital announced actual changes to their policies on performing genital surgeries on intersex children.
These decisions could be a catalyst in the fight for intersex rights, prompting other hospitals and policymakers to follow suit. That said, it is important for us to realize that advocates aren’t just protesting for an admission of guilt. An apology isn’t simply a statement of regret or a request for forgiveness. A true apology is a promise to do better, and the only way to do better is to know better. Knowing better means taking responsibility for past actions and learning from them. Although we are slowly making progress in the realm of recognizing past mistakes, we are nowhere close to where we need to be when it comes to learning from these mistakes and taking action to rectify them, evidenced by the fact that the first study on intersex adults in the United States wasn’t published until October of 2020.
At this very moment, we are on the cusp of truly meaningful change for the intersex community. This is a pivotal moment in which the decisions of the medical community have the potential to propel us down a path of righting past wrongs and ensuring that they do not happen again. While these monumental announcements are reason to celebrate, they are not the end of the road. In terms of forgiving and forgetting, we may see a day when the medical community has enacted significant change that warrants forgiveness, but we ought never to forget these, or any other, injustices committed. A forgotten history is a soon repeated one.
The scope of wrongdoing in our healthcare system is vast, and I would be naïve to believe that the collection is finite. There will always be growth to be had and progress to be made. In that journey, we will make mistakes, but it is our responsibility to acknowledge those mistakes and learn from them. We must know better, and we must promise to do better.
 Intersex Awareness Day History. (2020, October 24). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from https://interactadvocates.org/intersex-awareness-day/  Luthra, S. (2020, October 22). Boston Children's Hospital will no longer perform two types of intersex surgery on children. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/10/22/intersex-surgery-boston-childrens-hospitals-decision-watershed-moment-rights/3721096001/  Rosenwohl-Mack, A., Tamar-Mattis, S., Baratz, A. B., Dalke, K. B., Ittelson, A., Zieselman, K., & Flatt, J. D. (2020, October 9). A national study on the physical and mental health of intersex adults in the U.S. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0240088