Having a Democratically controlled California state legislature does not guarantee passage of progressive legislation. But the shoulder-shrugging killing of a human rights bill that LGBTQ lobbying group Equality California marked as a top priority should jolt LGBTQ and allied voters into an awareness that even endorsed Democrats require ongoing scrutiny.
When out State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced his Intersex Autonomy bill, SB 201, last year, cosponsored by Equality California, interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth and the ACLU of California, it seemed like the logical extension of Wiener’s SCR 110, passed in Aug. 2018. The resolution denounced medically unnecessary surgeries for intersex children that Human Rights Watch recognized as a human rights issue. The international human-rights organization applauded passage of Wiener’s resolution, saying it “signals the state’s respect for people born with variations in their sex characteristics.
“California’s leadership on the protection of intersex children’s rights is not only an expression of solidarity and dignity, but a reminder that doctors take an oath do no harm,” Kyle Knight, a Human Rights Watch researcher and author of two reports on intersex issues, said in a statement to NBC News. “Medical professional associations should draw a hard line saying that unless surgery is medically necessary, intersex children have the right to grow up and participate in the decision to undergo surgical procedures.”
The United Nations agrees. “Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that don’t fit typical definitions of male and female. In many countries, intersex children are subjected to repeated surgery and treatment to try to change their sex characteristics and appearance, causing terrible physical, psychological and emotional pain – and violating their rights,” says the UN’s Free & Equal campaign, which recognizes Oct. 24 as Intersex Awareness Day.
“Intersex children don’t need to be ‘fixed;’ they are perfect just as they are! The United Nations is calling on governments and parents to protect intersex children from harm.”
In fact, the UN convened its first meeting in Sept. 2015 to discuss medical intervention on the genitalia of intersex babies as a human rights violations similar to the outrage of female genital mutilation.
Buzzfeed News reported on Sept 19, 2015:
“The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights meeting, held in Geneva, builds off a 2013 report by the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture calling on the world’s nations to outlaw ‘genital normalizing’ surgeries on intersex individuals.
This week’s meeting also discussed human rights violations such as infanticide and widespread discrimination that occurs against intersex people around the world. But the issue of how to end the practice of intersex surgeries was front and center.
“Too many people assume, without really thinking about it, that everyone can be fitted into two distinct and mutually exclusive categories: male or female,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, in his opening remarks.
“Such violations are rarely discussed and even more rarely investigated or prosecuted,” Hussein said. “The result is impunity for the perpetrators, lack of remedy for victims, and a perpetuating cycle of ignorance and abuse.”
An estimated 1 in every 2,000 babies are born with traits that doctors would classify as intersex, though some experts say the real number is even higher.
When these babies are born, in the U.S. and elsewhere, it’s common medical practice to operate on them to make their genitalia appear more typically male or female.
The surgeries have been the subject of fierce debate for several decades. Many activists argue that they are medically unnecessary, based on social fears about ambiguous genitalia, and can cause physical or psychological harm — all without the patient’s consent. For this reason, many activists refer to the surgeries as “intersex genital mutilation,” drawing a comparison to the cultural practice of female genital mutilation that has been outlawed in many countries.”
Not everyone agreed. “These are social interventions on your genitals — if we’re going to use that language about Africa, we’re going to have to use it here,” Alice Dreger, a historian of medicine and intersex patient advocate, told BuzzFeed News. “The parallel that they’re done for social reasons is very clear. But it’s going to be very difficult to convince most doctors that the surgeries constitute a human rights violation.”
Wiener, Equality California and the ACLU of California side with interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth. “The bill does not prohibit treatment or surgery when it is medically necessary; it will simply delay elective surgeries often performed on babies in an attempt to ‘normalize’ their bodies until they have the ability to make their own informed decision,” at least until age six when children start more intense self-awareness, Equality California said in a press release.
Advocates also drew the distinction between the needs of the transgender and intersex communities.
“Transgender has to do with your gender identity. Whereas intersex has to do with your biological characteristics,” says Emily in a Buzzfeed-produced video.
“Often intersex people get surgeries that they don’t want and transgender people have to fight for surgeries they do want,” Cypher says in the video.
“These surgeries should be performed only with informed consent by the person whose life will be permanently impacted,” Wiener told NBC News in a statement. “A baby cannot provide that consent.”
He added: “These surgeries can have significant negative impacts on people’s lives, particularly if the gender chosen by the physician and parents is different from the child’s ultimate gender identity.”
Wiener turned SB 201 into two-year bill last year in response to concerns expressed by the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee, where it was first heard as part of oversight and regulation of the medical profession. He also modified the bill this month but the amendments failed to appease the California Medical Association and other doctors’ groups “that vehemently opposed the legislation as a threat to their expertise and the safety of some of the patients they serve,” the Sacramento Bee reported.
“SB 201 treats every child the same, ignoring the potential impact of treatment,” Hillary Copp, a pediatric urologist at UCSF, told the Bee. “We’re not for or against surgery and we’re not performing the surgeries that are being insinuated. We’re offering all medical treatment options and when we’re unsure of diagnoses, the majority of times, we are not offering surgery.’
Committee chair Sen. Steve Glazer –backed by Sens. Richard Pan, Jerry Hill and Bill Dodd — said that while the issue of sex-assignment surgery must be addressed, “SB 201 would have consequences that…could violate the medical community’s pledge to ‘first, do no harm,’” the Bee reported.
On Jan. 13, without negotiation or compromise on further amendments, the committee killed the human rights bill by a vote of 4 to 2. Democratic Sens. Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton, a member of the LGBT Legislative Caucus, and Connie Leyva of Chino voted in favor of SB 201 while Sens. Glazer, Ling Ling Chang (Republican Vice Chair) and Bob Archuleta abstained, presumably to avoid having an anti-LGBTQ/ anti-human rights vote on their records. Sens. Dodd, Hill, Pan and Republican Scott Wilk had no such qualms and voted NO.
“I’m very disappointed that the Committee voted down this civil rights bill,” Wiener said. “Intersex people deserve legal protection, and we are committed to ensuring that protection under California law. Today’s vote was a setback, but this is only the beginning. We aren’t giving up on protecting intersex people from non-consensual, invasive, dangerous surgery. As with many civil rights struggles, it sometimes takes multiple tries to prevail. We will be back.”
“Four members of the California Senate Business and Professions Committee voted today to continue allowing pediatric surgeons to cause documented, irreversible harms against children born with diverse sex traits,” said Kimberly Zieselman, Executive Director of interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, after the Jan. 13 vote. “Our fight for bodily autonomy is far from over. I’m heartened by the conversations SB 201 started, and by the increased awareness and concern for harmful medical interventions on intersex children.”
“We are deeply disappointed in the committee’s decision not to affirm the legislature’s respect for the bodily autonomy and human rights of this marginalized population of children,” said Elizabeth Gill, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of California. “California already prohibits certain other practices with high risks of irreversible harm from taking place during childhood. SB 201 would have been in line with this approach and helped center care on the needs of patients themselves, not the ‘normalization’ of their bodies.”
But Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur nailed what really happened. “Today, California stumbled as a leader on human rights and LGBTQ equality,” he said. “Today’s vote by the California Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee means that the Golden State will continue to subject infants every year to medically unnecessary, harmful and often irreversible procedures aimed at ‘normalizing’ their bodies. We’re grateful to Senator Wiener for leading California — and the country — on this important issue, and we urge senators who voted against protecting human rights today to learn from his example. This fight is not over, and we remain committed to this legislation and ensuring that California affirms and respects the bodily autonomy of all people.”
Will there be any consequences? Equality California has already endorsed incumbent Glazer in his reelection bid for Senate District 7.
But might Equality California’s PAC revisit that endorsement after Glazer’s abstention – which is tantamount to a NO vote? The organization has withdrawn endorsements in the past over a key vote.
Also to consider is the interesting note that three days before the committee killed the intersex human rights bill, the California Medical Association contributed $50,000 to an independent expenditure supporting Committee Chair Glazer’s reelection?
And Glazer has a progressive challenger in Marisol Rubio, is a scientific researcher, health care provider and disability advocate who is worth a serious look.
After all, though the California Democratic Party could achieve no consensus on a candidate for Senate District 7 at their Nov. convention, she beat Glazer handily at a pre-convention conference a month earlier.
“Glazer finished second in his district in Saturday’s endorsement voting, well behind Marisol Rubio, founder of San Ramon Progressives and a disabled rights activist. The vote was 52% to 34%, with the rest voting for no endorsement,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
On Jan. 16, Rubio received the endorsement of the East Bay Stonewall Democrats.
The fact that – without allowing for the opportunity to negotiate amendments – a Democratically-controlled committee in the California Legislature killed a human rights bill protecting intersex children in 2020 should be a wake up call to all equality-minded voters.
This article has been corrected to indicate that Ling Ling Chang and Scott Wilk are Republicans.