A landmark legal case may finally put a stop to almost half a century of bizarre medical procedures in the United States, where children's genitals have been surgically altered to fit a standardized definition of the proper sizes for penises and clitorises.
South Carolina couple Mark and Pam Crawford adopted their son M.C. when he was 19 months old, after he had been the ward of the state for a few months. Before his adoption, M.C.'s doctors and social workers decided that the infant's penis was too small or ambiguous, and determined that the best course of action was plastic surgery that would make his genitals look female. There was absolutely no medical cause for the surgery. It was purely cosmetic. Now, M.C. is 8 years old and has told his parents that he wants to be a boy. But before he was able to make this decision, doctors had surgically altered him in a way that has already caused him grief and confusion.
The Crawfords are suing the South Carolina Department of Social Services, Greenville Hospital, and Medical University of South Carolina for gross negligence and medical malpractice. According to CNN:
The suit says the surgery violated the 14th Amendment, which says that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."
The thing that's truly appalling about this case is that M.C.'s experiences are all too common.
According to many doctors during the twentieth century, a medically acceptable clitoris at birth measures .02 to .09 cm, while a medically acceptable penis at birth is 2.5 to 4.5 cm. But there are as many as 1 in 2,000 babies born every year whose genitals exist in that 1.0 to 2.4 cm gray area, or who have ambiguous testicles and labia. These babies are called intersexed. Their ambiguous genitals often result from the fact that clitorises and penises develop from the same tissues in the womb, as do labia and testicles. Plus, there is a lot of natural variation in size and shape anyway.
A note on terminology: Humans cannot be hermaphrodites, which are defined scientifically as animals that are capable of both impregnating and being impregnated.