Last week, the New York City Council passed a bill mandating the city’s health department to develop educational materials about how so-called “normalizing” surgeries on children born with variations in their sex characteristics are medically unnecessary and risk lifelong harms.

People rally to end intersex surgeries in New York, October 27, 2018. © Voices4 via Instagram

This groundbreaking bill, which passed by a vote of 45-2, was authored by Council Member Daniel Dromm. “This legislation not only signifies a major step forward for the principle of informed consent but also aims to reduce the unfortunate stigma that still exists,” Dromm said in a press release. “The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will create a new outreach campaign, which will incorporate the input of several organizations and experts.”

Intersex people — or people born with variations in their sex characteristics — make up approximately 1.7 percent of the world’s population. Since surgeons popularized cosmetically “normalizing” surgeries on infants to remove gonads, reduce the size of the clitoris, or increase the size of the vagina in the 1960s, these practices have become widespread. Since the 1990s, intersex advocacy groups, as well as a range of medical and human rights organizations, have spoken out against the operations and called for regulation. One former New York City health commissioner, herself a pediatrician, called for the same in 2019.

Despite growing consensus that these surgeries should be a thing of the past, parents continue to face pressure from some surgeons to choose medically unnecessary operations when their children are too young to participate in the decision. In 2016 and 2017, I interviewed parents across the United States, including in New York, who described how  surgeons urged them to elect these procedures for their perfectly healthy children. Why? Because the surgeons argued that children would be stigmatized if they looked different.  

New York City has taken an important first step in supporting parents by providing accurate, affirming information about their children’s health to counter the misinformation and bigotry evident in what some surgeons present as medical advice.