CV NEWS FEED // LGBTQ activists argue that the fact of intersex people (individuals who are born with ambiguous genitalia or even XXY gender chromosomes) proves that there are more than two sexes, but Catholic experts in bioethics refute that claim.
According to bioethicists at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) in Philadelphia, intersex individuals can know their biological sex through chromosome testing and should live accordingly. Regarding medical or surgical intervention to make these individuals’ bodies reflect their inherent sex, however, the bioethicists said that the Church itself does not have specific teachings or guidelines.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, the Director of Education at the NCBC, said the word “intersex” can lead to confusion. In his 2016 article for the NCBC, Pacholczyk wrote that “‘intersex’ is an imprecise term. It can describe a range of situations in which a person is born with an internal reproductive anatomy or an external sexual anatomy that is not in accord with the typical expectations for femaleness or maleness.”
In an interview with ABC News, Sean Saifa Wall, a self-proclaimed “Black queer intersex activist and scholar,” said that he was born with partial androgen sensitivity syndrome. In this condition, a male infant is not able to respond to androgens, which include testosterone, and therefore has undeveloped male genitalia. Wall said he was born with atypical genitals and his mother decided to raise him as a girl. When he was 13 years old, Wall’s mother decided to have his undescended, undeveloped testicles surgically removed and had him put on feminizing hormones.
“Receiving my medical records and really learning about what happened to me without my thorough informed consent… made me really angry,” Wall told ABC in an interview.
Wall’s story is similar to other intersex people’s accounts of having a gender surgically assigned to them when they were children or even infants. Wall told ABC that he has since decided to use male pronouns, but “identifies” as “intersex,” rather than as male.
Pacholczyk wrote, however, that identifying as “intersex” is not an option since there are only two sexes.
“Intersex situations represent cases in which a person is either male or female, but has confounding physiological factors that make them appear or feel as if they were of the opposite sex, or maybe even both sexes,” he wrote. “Put another way, intersex individuals may be ‘drawn away’ from their intrinsic male or female sexual constitution by various anatomical differences in their bodies, and by opposing interior physiological drives and forces,” he explained:
This can be further complicated because of strong cultural forces that contribute to the confusion by sanctioning a paradigm of complete malleability in human sexual behaviors that militates against an understanding of sex-based “hard-wiring.”
Pacholczyk said that cases of complicated chromosomes, such as Klinefelter syndrome, where males (with XY chromosomes) are born with an extra X chromosome, can make it difficult to discover true sexual orientation based on either genitalia and genetics. However, though individuals with Klinefelter syndrome seem to have the chromosomes to become genetically either male or female, they do not get to choose which gender they want to be, according to Pacholczyk. Biologically, the presence of a Y chromosome denotes “male,” regardless of the simultaneous existence of the two X chromosomes that usually mean “female.”
Though it may be difficult, Pacholczyk pointed out that based on Church teaching on sexuality,
We must carefully acknowledge, nurture and accept our given embodied sexual nature as male or female. Willfully denying or acting against that given nature will constitute little more than a prescription for disillusionment and dishonesty.
Dr. John Brehany, Executive Vice President at the NCBC, told CatholicVote that while the Church doesn’t have a specific teaching on intersex people (as it does with “transgender” issues), it’s important to remember to treat everyone with the same dignity.
“There’s clearly a lot of confusion about sex and gender identity today – along with that confusion I think there are people who are proposing solutions and courses of action that are questionable,” Brehany said:
I think that the first thing Catholics could do is to treat every human person with dignity, no matter how out of the ordinary they are. They’re made in the image and likeness of God by virtue of their very human identity and they’re called to be with God in heaven. That’s the first and most important thing to remember.
I think in addition to treating them with dignity, Catholics can always encourage [intersex people] to grow in relationship with God. At a minimum, we’re all called to have a relationship with Christ, to believe what he says, to grow, and to follow his teaching.
In terms of medical treatment for intersex children, Brehany said that it’s impossible to make a universal statement on the subject, since every case is different.
“I don’t think you would find at the level of magisterial teaching from the pope or a council a specific guideline on that,” he told CatholicVote.
I think that is something that is subject to prudential medical judgment. In general, the Church would say that if there is a medical intervention well-ordered to overcoming disease or dysfunction, it’s not against church teaching—as long as you proceed with great care and respect certain other moral goods like informed consent. I think in the past when some doctors performed gender assignment surgeries on children, some of them either made up their own minds about what they were going to do based on feasibility or what they thought at the time and didn’t always present a full account of options or risks.
According to ABC News, although conservative lawmakers in several states have recently introduced bills to protect children’s healthy bodies from being mutilated in “gender-affirming” surgeries, the bills leave room for intersex surgeries to be performed on minors. The condition for surgeries provided to intersex minors, however, is that the surgeries attempt to remedy conditions that “don’t fit the typical definitions of male and female.”
These conditions that might require surgery are incredibly rare. The United Nations says that experts estimate 1.7% of the world’s population to be intersex, but Stats for Gender, an organization committed to providing real statistics on gender issues, estimates that only 0.018% of people are truly intersex.
Brehany, who agreed with the smaller statistic, explained that: “What people may be including in that number [1.7%] is the development of some secondary sex characteristics outside the norm or average,” He continued:
If you hear a number like that, you should go to the source and read what they’re counting. I think if you count some of the classic chromosome and gene disorders the number is a lot smaller.
Though these surgeries are rare, intersex activists like Wall argue that intersex surgeries should be completely banned, since they are essentially “assigning” a gender that an infant or child cannot choose for himself.
Advocates for banning intersex surgeries argue that the choice is made by parents or medical professionals because of homophobia or because of attempts to prove that there are only two genders.
Intersex activists instead argue that intersex children should instead be left to “choose their gender” once they are older and can make an “informed decision.” Yet many “transgender” activists argue that a minor can choose to irrevocably “change his gender” through “gender reassignment” surgeries at the same ages at which they argue a minor should not be allowed to undergo intersex surgeries.
“This is not protecting children at all,” Wall said, according to ABC. “We have to acknowledge that what we have done to intersex people, what we have allowed to happen is unjust. And it’s a flagrant violation of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity.”