Don’t Let the Doctor Do This to Your Newborn

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
June 26 2014 11:44 AM

Don’t Let the Doctor Do This to Your Newborn

Baby.
By all means count the fingers.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Imagine you are in recovery from labor, lying in bed, holding your infant. In your arms you cradle a stunningly beautiful, perfect little being. Completely innocent and totally vulnerable, your baby is entirely dependent on you to make all the choices that will define their life for many years to come. They are wholly unaware (at least, for now) that you would do anything and everything in your power to protect them from harm and keep them safe. You are calm, at peace.

Suddenly, the doctor comes in. He looks at you sternly, gloved hands reaching for your baby insistently. “It’s time for your child’s treatment,” he explains from beneath a white breathing mask, shattering your calm. Clutching your baby protectively, you eye the doctor with suspicion.

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You ask him what it's for.

“Oh, just standard practice. It will help him or her be recognized and get along more easily with others who've already received the same treatment. The chance of side effects is extremely small.” This raises the hairs on the back of your neck, and your protective instinct kicks your alarm response up a notch.

“Side effects?”

The doctor waves his hand dismissively. “Oh, in 1 or 2 percent of cases, we see long-term negative reactions to this,” he says with a hint of distaste. “It leads to depression, social ostracism, difficulty finding or keeping a job. Those with negative reactions often become subject to intense discrimination in society. Suicide is not uncommon.” At your look of alarm, he smiles again, reassuringly. “But as I said, this happens in very few cases. The overwhelming likelihood,” he says as he cracks his knuckles, “is that this will make life simpler and more comfortable for your child to interact with others.” He tries to assuage your concerns, but cold equations, percentage points, and population counts dance in your mind.

“Is it really necessary? If we don't take the treatment, will my baby get sick?” 

The doctor flashes a paternalistic smile. “No, no ... but your child would lose the social advantage this treatment offers. If you choose not to take it, others who have may not accept your child as easily. Virtually every child receives it, so it would be very unusual not to,” he says matter-of-factly. “This is a standard practice. People just wouldn't understand why you didn't go along with it,” he says, casting a judgmental glance.

Would you consent to this treatment for your child? A good chance for improved social privilege, with a comparatively tiny risk of negative (albeit potentially catastrophic) consequences? Or would the stakes be too high: Russian roulette with your baby's life?

It's a strange hypothetical scenario to imagine. Pressure to accept a medical treatment, no tangible proof of its necessity, its only benefits conferred by the fact that everyone else already has it, and coming at a terrible expense to those 1 or 2 percent who have a bad reaction. It seems unlikely that doctors, hospitals, parents, or society in general would tolerate a standard practice like this.

Except they already do. The imaginary treatment I described above is real. Obstetricians, doctors, and midwives commit this procedure on infants every single day, in every single country. In reality, this treatment is performed almost universally without even asking for the parents' consent, making this practice all the more insidious. It's called infant gender assignment: When the doctor holds your child up to the harsh light of the delivery room, looks between its legs, and declares his opinion: It's a boy or a girl, based on nothing more than a cursory assessment of your offspring's genitals.

We tell our children, “You can be anything you want to be.” We say, “A girl can be a doctor, a boy can be a nurse,” but why in the first place must this person be a boy and that person be a girl? Your infant is an infant. Your baby knows nothing of dresses and ties, of makeup and aftershave, of the contemporary social implications of pink and blue. As a newborn, your child's potential is limitless. The world is full of possibilities that every person deserves to be able to explore freely, receiving equal respect and human dignity while maximizing happiness through individual expression.

With infant gender assignment, in a single moment your baby's life is instantly and brutally reduced from such infinite potentials down to one concrete set of expectations and stereotypes, and any behavioral deviation from that will be severely punished—both intentionally through bigotry, and unintentionally through ignorance. That doctor (and the power structure behind him) plays a pivotal role in imposing those limits on helpless infants, without their consent, and without your informed consent as a parent. This issue deserves serious consideration by every parent, because no matter what gender identity your child ultimately adopts, infant gender assignment has effects that will last through their whole life.

We see more and more and more high-profile stories about transgender people in the news. The shame and the mysticism surrounding them is fading at an exponential rate, as public consciousness matures from the depths of exploiting puerile stereotypes and bigoted joke depictions of the trans experience into a more complex awareness of, and sensitivity to, the humanity and emotions of non-cis people. Every parent today knows there is a chance their child might be transgender. A small chance, perhaps, but a chance higher than zero.

If a child of any minority status (be it sexual, racial, ability, religious, etc.) is subjected to slurs or physical harassment at school, we do not view the emotional and physical injuries as the unfortunate but inevitable result of that child's minority status. Rather, we correctly lay the blame where it belongs, on the wrong actions of hateful bullies whose wilful decisions were responsible for causing the pain.

Only a cruel parent would punish their son by making him wear a dress in public, or punish their daughter by shaving her head. That's psychological abuse. But for gender nonconforming kids, that's the everyday reality of their lives. We know transgender people are far more likely to be depressed, with a heartbreaking 41 percent rate of suicide attempts, nearly nine times the social average. That's not evidence of mental illness, it's evidence of trauma and distress. They're not miserable because they're transgender, they're miserable as the result of being assigned the wrong gender at birth.

Infant gender assignment is a wilful decision, and as a maturing society we need to judge whether it might be a wrong action. Why must we force this on kids at birth? What is achieved, besides reinforcing tradition? What could be the harm in letting a child wait to declare for themself who they are, once they're old enough (which is generally believed to happen around age 2 or 3)? Clearly, most children will still turn out like we'd expect, but it's unlikely the extra freedom would harm them. On the other hand, we do know the massive harm caused to some children by the removal of that freedom.

As a parent or potential parent, would you love your children less if they are transgender? Would you love them more if they aren't? If you answered those questions with the decency and compassion that go hand-in-hand with unconditional parental love, then I ask you to please take that thought process one step further and consider the intense psychological harm it might cause your child before you allow the doctor to decide for both of you whether your baby will be a boy or a girl. Sure, it usually works out for the best—but sometimes, it goes horribly wrong. Just because an infant may survive being left alone in a car on a hot day, while the parent runs to the store, doesn't mean that parent made the right decision—in fact, they made a dangerous decision and just got lucky with the outcome.

Is it better to play the odds, or play it safe? Think carefully. Infant gender assignment might just be Russian roulette with your baby's life.

Christin Scarlett Milloy is a human rights activist, writer, and web developer based in Toronto, Canada.

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