Intersex Children Allowed in Germany

Tradition demands that a child is born as a boy or a girl. Tradition ignores the fact that one in 2,000 children is born with characteristics of both sexes in varying degrees. Germany's government and parliament have listened to these people. It is now to become Europe's first country to allow babies with characteristics of both sexes to be registered as neither male nor female. There are good reasons for doing this, and some consequences that have yet to be sorted out.

The move by Germany's parliament will allow parents to leave the gender of their child blank on birth certificates. This will in effect create a new category of "indeterminate sex". The move intends to remove pressure on parents to make on the spot decisions about which sex to assign on their newborn. It will allow a slower approach and help to prevent parents' wishful thinking to overrule the child's preference.

As many as one in 2,000 people have and often show characteristics of both sexes. They are known as "intersex" people with a mixture of male and female chromosomes. Severe cases show genitalia with characteristics of both genders. In classical times, they were known as hermaphrodites; some cultures highly revered them as representatives of the gods; others saw them as demons come to earth to do evil.

The difficulty for parents lies in the laws that insist on registering a child within days of its birth with the appropriate authorities. With the strict traditional view that there are either boys or girls, they have to make an immediate choice in or the other direction often to the detriment of the child's physical and mental health.

Having made that decision on marginal information and often influenced by their own wishful thinking (we always wanted a boy), surgery is done on the baby within hours of that decision. The only aim of that surgery is to turn the child's physical characteristics to conform with the decision of the parents as to its preferred sex. Further aggravation stems from the fact that these surgeries are often only partial successful and only point as far as possible in one direction or the other.

German parliament has been following up on a review of cases that revealed great unhappiness in children undergoing such procedures. In one case, a person with genitalia defying clear sex definition was repeatedly subjected to surgery. Many years later, that person said: "I am neither a man nor a woman. I will remain a patchwork created by parents, doctors, and officials, bruised and scarred."

German passports currently list the holder's sex as M for male or F for female. The interior Ministry announced that they will be upgraded to reflect the change in law to show a third designation, X, for intersex passport holders.

At the moment, it remains unclear what impact the change will have on German marriage and partnership laws. Currently, laws define marriage as a union between a man and a woman; civil partnerships are reserved for same-sex couples. German parliament will have to go over their books there and the ensuing discussions might become highly interesting and probably revealing.

For a minority ignored for centuries, suppressed and ridiculed by self invented religious groups, and exposed to 'healing' by fundamentalists, the German move could prove pivotal; at least in progressive Europe. Backwaters like the United States will probably take another couple of hundred years to understand these medical issues.

Further reading