Ten years since the first Parliamentary inquiry report on intersex health and well-being!

Morgan and Tony at the federal parliament in March 2014, about to hear the first Senate speeches on intersex health and human rights

Morgan Carpenter and Tony Briffa at the federal parliament in March 2014, following up on the report recommendations, and about to hear the first Senate speeches on intersex health and human rights

This year marks the first time we’ve seen legislative reform in Australia to protect people with intersex variations in medical settings, but events ten years ago paved the way for them.

Ten years ago today, on 25 October 2013, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee published its report on the ‘Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia’. As we understand it, this was the first parliamentary inquiry into intersex health and human rights anywhere in the world, and it should be celebrated for this. The report was also followed in 2014 by the first speeches on intersex health in the Senate.

  • The Committee dismissed claims that surgeries on infants and children to ensure social and familial integration are appropriate, and recognised their basis in the stigmatisation of bodily diversity.
  • It presented a strong analysis of often poorly evidenced claims about cancer risks in gonads. It criticised the intertwining of cancer rationales with psychosocial rationales. That analysis is only reinforced by new evidence that risks associated with partial androgen insensitivity have been exaggerated.
  • The Committee made recommendations calling for independent oversight of medical interventions on infants and children with intersex variations, to ensure that they conform to established human rights norms.
  • The recommendations also call for medical protocols based on continual dialogue with intersex organisations.
  • The Committee also called for resourcing for intersex community-controlled psychosocial support for individuals and family members.

The cross-party Senate team have all since retired from office, but we would like to warmly thank former Senators Rachel Siewert (chair of the committee), Claire Moore (deputy chair), Sue Boyce, and colleagues. We’d also like to thank Dr Holland, the secretary of the Committee, and other members of the secretariat for their vital contribution.

Few organisations made submissions, but the committee heard directly from intersex community organisations, disability organisations, specialist clinicians, and the Family Court. Thanks to the community organisations and individuals that made submissions – we see and thank you! Intersex Human Rights Australia (then known as OII Australia) contributed five submissions written by Morgan Carpenter (read the first here and last here), while Intersex Peer Support Australia (then known as the AIS Support Group Australia) contributed a submission written by Bonnie Hart. Volunteers from IHRA and IPSA including Gina Wilson, Tony Briffa, Sandra Perrin, Bonnie Hart and Morgan Carpenter also participated in a Senate hearing, along with Gávi Ansara appearing as a policy staffer for LGBTIQ+ Health Australia. We thank them all for their work. This is all the more surprising given that no intersex community-controlled organisations in Australia had paid staff until the end of 2016, three years later.

It’s a shame many of the Senate’s recommendations following their inquiry are yet to be realised after all this time. We continue to work on achieving basic human rights for children born with variations of sex characteristics in Australia, and call on governments and allies to work with us to protect and support intersex children and their families. – Mayor Tony Briffa, 25 October 2023.

Sadly, no Australian government implemented the recommendations and awareness of them is low. The incoming Abbott government took a while to respond, and then passed the buck to States and Territories. Our sense is that some key clinical stakeholders were able to stymie action to implement the recommendations, on the basis that they had the issues under control. We have sadly also seen a minority ridicule the idea that a Community Affairs Committee might make recommendations on health and medicine – even though it has that portfolio. In the same way that we’ve documented claims by some clinicians that misrepresent the demands of community, we’ve documented claims that the Committee sought to stop all genital surgeries on children with intersex variations – even including medical interventions with strong evidence of their necessity for physical health. Nevertheless, publication of the report marks a key moment where a parliamentary committee listened.

The years since have provided incontrovertible evidence of a continued failure of medicine to self-regulate clinical practices, and a failure of the courts to provide oversight. The Committee’s recommendations have been built on, by stronger calls for action in the Darlington Statement, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2021 report on “Ensuring health and bodily integrity, the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10, and legislative processes in the ACT and Victoria.

2013 was a landmark year for the intersex human rights movement in Australia. Earlier this year we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the intersex flag, now one of the most recognisable symbols of bodily integrity. We also saw the first anti discrimination laws passed that offered protection on the basis of intersex status. In February the UN Special Rapporteur on torture made a first call to end coerced medical interventions. Later on in the year we will celebrate ten years since the third international intersex forum and the creation of the Malta Declaration.

It must not take another ten years for people with intersex variations in Australia to finally achieve national implementation of the Committee’s recommendations, for us to realise a promise of consent, bodily autonomy, and physical integrity. It must not be another decade before community-controlled psychosocial support programs receive the funding they need to ensure their survival.

Now is the moment where your support can make the most difference, consider supporting our work this week, through our GiveOUT page.

Publication of the Committee report also marked Intersex Awareness Day on 26 October. You can also come along to our Intersex Awareness Day webinar tomorrow, and workshops by Dr Gávi Ansara next week.