“People just can’t comprehend” – Tasmanian farmer, Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson. ABC News: April McLennan

Robert Wilson, photographed by April McLennan, ABC News


Thank you so much to Robert Wilson and Simone-Lisa Anderson, and reporter April McLennan, for this news story by the ABC.

Chicken farmer Robert Wilson first noticed that his body was different at age 8, but had his first surgery just 3 days after he was born. This has left him with lifelong health issues:

Mr Wilson said the surgery performed on him as a child has led to ongoing health problems, leaving him frustrated at the lack of health services and support available in Tasmania.

“The local doctor didn’t want to know about it,” he said.

“So, I went to another one at the surgery and she was a gynaecologist and she sent me to the [Launceston] General.

“I went round to the General and I think it was show and tell.”

Mr Wilson said after spending 14 hours at the Launceston General Hospital he was sent home without help.

We sadly note the strawman and ambiguous arguments made by the Tasmanian president of the Australian Medical Association:

But some medical professionals believe surgery is necessary despite concerns around child consent. The Tasmanian president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Helen McArdle said only essential surgery should be performed on children.

“If surgery is required to enable appropriate functioning, as opposed to gender reassignment, then it may be that we shouldn’t wait until a child is 18 to undertake the consent, because that could cause a lot of health problems in the meantime,” Ms McArdle said.

“If say a boy can’t go to the toilet appropriately, then it may be that the surgery is necessary for medical reasons.”

Our responses to these arguments:

  • no-one argues against the proposition that “sometimes surgery is necessary”.
  • opponents of unnecessary early surgeries do not argue that youth need to “wait until a child is 18”. Most children will develop the capacity to give informed consent before then.
  • the repeated statement that surgery is to enable “appropriate functioning” appears deliberately ambiguous. This argument about function is a common trope in clinical reasoning. It refers not to an argument about whether or not the child can urinate, it refers to an argument that boys need to be able to stand to urinate. This argument has its basis in a gender stereotype, and the language about “appropriate” functioning and toilet use appears intended to make this belief seem objective.
  • the argument that early surgeries are “gender reassignment” appears to be supposing that a child assigned male is not a boy until after surgery. IHRA and a multitude of other organisations assert that this surgery is not required to reinforce sex of rearing. Surgical options can wait until an individual can provide personal informed consent.

We support the words of Intersex Peer Support Australia Tasmanian representative Simone-Lisa Anderson, who said “said everyone should be able to choose what happens to their bodies”:

“Unfortunately, the harms that happen because of these normalisation surgeries are life-long,” Ms Anderson said.

“When they’re older and they can choose, there’s a lot better outcomes, there’s less life-long issues, there’s less psychological issues because they got to choose.”

We were pleased to put April McLennan in contact with Simone-Lisa, and we can make similar connections for intersex people and media across Australia.

More information

Read the ABC news article by April McLennan

Alice Dreger has written on the rationale of being able to stand to pee, for example, in a 2014 journal

We regularly write and speak in response to poor argumentation for unnecessary surgeries, including in our 2018 submission to an inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission. These issues also formed part of a video-recorded 2020 debate between bioethicists (including IHRA’s Morgan Carpenter) and paediatric surgeons.