Brussels hospital condemned for operating intersex teen without consent

Brussels hospital condemned for operating intersex teen without consent
Photo taken during a protest to demand an ending to the operations performed on intersex children, at the Children's Hospital Queen Fabiola (Huderf). Credit: Belga / Jasper Jacobs

A children’s hospital in Brussels was condemned by an appeals court for performing a vaginoplasty (the construction of a vagina) on an underage person that medical professionals had classed as intersex, without correctly informing the patient about her options.

The Brussels Court of Appeals ruled that the Children’s Hospital Queen Fabiola performed an unjustified surgery on the patient in January 2010. The hospital rushed the patient to receive the surgery, failed to get her and her parent’s clear consent, to tell her about intersex variations or the possible risks of the surgery, and to offer necessary psychological support, La Libre reports.

The court’s decision is a turning point for the rights of intersex people in Belgium, say a number of LGBTQIA and human rights associations, including Amnesty International and RainbowHouse Brussels.

“The medical field, which is often poorly informed about fundamental rights, still tends to want to ‘normalise’ bodies, to ‘correct’ them through medical treatment or surgeries,” they stated in reaction to the decision. “The medical interventions often cause extensive irreversible physical damage, including pain, loss of sensation, scarring from the lesions, sometimes even sterilisation, as well as psychological consequences throughout life.”

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (genitals or chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical notions of male or female bodies. The UN estimates that 1.7% of the world population is intersex, but there are no official numbers for Belgium.

Treated like a medical experiment

The court’s decision was handed in February 2023, but the plaintiff, Coralie, has recently chosen to speak out again about her traumatic experience at the hospital. In its aftermath, Coralie was left with post-traumatic stress disorder and lost the use of both of her legs.

Her court case is from events in 2009: the then-16-year-old Coralie was diagnosed with Rokitansky (MRKH) syndrome, which involves the partial or total absence of the uterus and vagina.

“As soon as the diagnosis was announced, I was seen as a curiosity by the medical community,” Coralie recalled in her public testimony. “The doctor told me he was very happy to finally have a case like mine. That I was the first in over 20 years of career.”

The doctors at Huderf never explained to her that she could live a healthy life without a vagina. In fact, a vaginoplasty was extremely rare and complicated, but they still proposed  the surgery, while assuring her that, besides the anaesthesia, no risks were involved, and she would be fully recovered in two weeks.

“For them, I was an interesting case,” said Coralie. “They wanted to use my body to perform a rare, complex and experimental surgery.”

The medical team persuaded her to get the surgery by saying she could help save other children with her condition.

Just four months later, the surgery took place. A day after leaving the hospital, Coralie returned with unbearable pains and ended up hospitalised for months. The doctors performed more surgeries due to post-operation complications and was made to go through over 20 sessions of vaginal dilatation (meaning dilators are used to stretch the vagina), which she now regards as instances of rape.

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“Bodies are mutilated and normalized to match society's and medicine's vision of a female or male body and to impose heterosexual, penetrative sexuality on them. Unfortunately, I am not an isolated case,” affirms Corlie.

In February 2021, the Belgian Parliament passed a resolution demanding that the federal government establish a legal framework to protect the physical integrity of intersex minors, which has yet to happen.

The United Nations has reprimanded Belgium three times for genital mutilations and other abuses towards intersex people, requesting it forbids these surgeries once and for all.

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