Colombia: High Court Restricts Intersex Genital Mutilation

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Joint Press Release: ISNA, IGLHRC, NCLR

For Immediate Release: October 26, 1999

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- The Constitutional Court of Colombia recently issued two decisions (SU-337/99, May 12 1999 and T-551/99, Aug 2, 1999) which significantly restrict the ability of parents and doctors to resort to the scalpel when children are born with atypical genitals. These surgeries -- also known as IGM, or Intersex Genital Mutilation -- have been widely practiced for over 40 years in most industrialized countries. In the US experts estimate that at least five children are cut every day. "Here in the US, doctors who perform IGM continue to reject the voices of those harmed by the surgery. Current laws do not protect us," noted Cheryl Chase of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA).

This is the first time that a high court anywhere has considered whether IGM is a violation of human rights.

Colombia's Constitutional Court went further than the pressing issue of IGM. The Court recognized that intersex people are a minority which enjoys the constitutional protection of the State against discrimination, and that every individual has a constitutional right to define his or her own sexual identity. The Court concluded both decisions with the same emphatic exhortation:

Intersexed people question our capacity for tolerance and constitute a challenge to the acceptance of difference. Public authorities, the medical community and the citizenry at large have the duty to open up a space for these people who have until now been silenced [...] We all have to listen to them, and not only to learn how to live with them, but also to learn from them.

"We hope that human rights activists around the world will follow the Court's mandate," stated Sydney Levy of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "Mutilation is torture any way you look at it."

The Court's decision came after an exhaustive, year-long investigation, in which it weighed arguments by doctors and parents -- who insist on surgery to make babies "normal" -- against opposition to the practice by those harmed by IGM, including an amicus brief by ISNA. "The Court noted that this is not a medical decision, but a judicial and ethical decision. Ethicists in the US have uniformly denounced IGM as unethical, but until US courts act, American doctors will continue to perform IGM on 2,000 children every year," noted Chase.

In addition to the Colombian Constitution, the Court also based its holding on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to Shannon Minter, staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, "the Court recognized that children are persons entitled to human rights, not simply the property of parents and/or the state. By holding that parents must place the well-being and best interests of their child above social prejudice, the Court affirmed the inherent dignity and worth of all children, including those who are gender variant." The US is not a signatory of the Convention.

More information on the decisions is available in "Colombia High Court Limits Surgery on Intersexed Infants," by Julie Greenberg, Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, at www.isna.org/Colombia.

ISNA works to create a world free of shame, secrecy, and genital mutilation for people born with atypical sex anatomy. For more information, visit our web site at http://www.isna.org

IGLHRC's mission is to protect and advance the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.

NCLR is a lesbian, feminist, multi-cultural legal resource center dedicated to creating a world in which all lesbians can live fully, without fear of discrimination.

Sentencia SU-337/99

Sentencia No. T-477/95