Intersex embodiments, ontologies, and the human rights system

A paper on intersex embodiments in the human rights system, and ontologies of intersex. The paper discusses the idea that different models of intersex have different goals and consequences.

This is a paper I wrote as part of my Masters in Bioethics program, at the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, Sydney University School of Medicine. It is published here as a working paper.

It provides an overview of aspects of the human rights system relevant to people with intersex traits and, because I was writing for a clinical lecturer, I had to justify my use of non-clinical language. This means that it also contains an initial analysis of three ontologies of intersex: three models that reflect how intersex is regarded and classified, and (all too briefly) some implications that follow from those models.

The human rights system recognises universal rights to dignity, and freedom from discriminatory treatment and harmful practices. Intersex is contested, including regarding the relevance of human rights frameworks. Medicine currently frames intersex as disorders of sex development, queer theory often frames intersex as a third sex, while an intersex human rights movement problematizes social and medical norms. When medical treatment of intersex infants, children and adolescents aims to mitigate stigmatisation, it is founded in discriminatory treatment. Attempts to refine and improve clinical practices remain experimental, lacking consensus, and so parents’ abilities to validly consent are constrained. Clinical responses to human rights claims show greater interest in the preservation of clinical freedom and parental rights than in reform, while the claims of intersex-led civil society organisations are increasingly recognised as valid. Implementation of reforms to ensure that clinical practices meet human rights norms remains challenging.

The language is designed to be relevant to the course, responding to a specific question within a specific word limit, and it was submitted in June 2016. I expect to return to some of this analysis – notably the ontological analysis and the impact of different models of intersex – in a research project in early 2017.

The paper is 4,392 words excluding citations.

Download the paper in PDF format.