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Big Story 10

Germany bans surgeries on intersex babies, but loopholes feared

BERLIN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Germany has banned unnecessary surgeries on babies who are born intersex, neither clearly male or female, but critics warned on Friday that the new law could easily be sidestepped by doctors and parents.

Lawmakers in the Bundestag parliament voted late on Thursday to join several European countries in banning cosmetic operations that seek to ensure the child ascribes to traditional notions of male and female.

From now on, a family court will have to authorise such surgeries on children diagnosed with “variations of sexual development”, a medical term often used to refer to intersex people.

About 1.7% of babies are born intersex, according to the United Nations, with a small proportion undergoing operations to bring the appearance and function of their genitalia into line with that expected of males or females.

Research suggests that unnecessary surgeries performed without children’s consent can lead to psychological damage later in life, and intersex rights campaigners broadly welcomed the ban in Germany.

“We’re very happy that there is finally a law about this, but the ban has loopholes and leaves many questions unanswered,” Charlotte Wunn, head of intersex rights group Intergeschlechtliche Menschen, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Parents and doctors could get around the new law and proceed with surgery by avoiding an intersex diagnosis, and the legislation does not stipulate penalties, Wunn and others said.

“The room for interpretation is enormous and the ban is very easy to circumvent,” said Free Democratic Party lawmaker Jens Brandenburg.

According to a study by the University of Bochum, 1,871 children under the age of 10 underwent “feminising” or “masculinising” surgery between 2005 and 2016 in Germany, which joins Malta and Portugal in banning such procedures.

Spain’s parliament is currently discussing a measure similar to the German ban, which Olaf Hiort - a professor at the University Hospital in Luebeck - said he hoped would “curb uncontrolled operations”.

He noted, however, that while there was now a ban, “there is no penalty”.

Reporting by Enrique Anarte @enriqueanarte; Editing by Helen Popper and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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