Sex assignment (sometimes known as gender assignment) is the determination of an infant's sex at birth. In the majority of births, a relative, midwife, nurse or physician inspects the genitalia when the baby is delivered, and sex is assigned, without the expectation of ambiguity. Assignment may also be done prior to birth through prenatal sex discernment.
Sex assignment at birth usually aligns with a child's anatomical sex and phenotype. The number of births where the baby does not fit into strict definitions of male and female amount to roughly 1.7%, of which 0.02% are due to visibly ambiguous genitals. Other reasons include atypical chromosomes, gonads or hormones. These conditions are collectively called intersex and may complicate sex assignment. Reinforcing sex assignments through surgical or hormonal interventions is often considered to violate the individual's human rights.
The act of assignment carries the implicit expectation that future gender identity will develop in alignment with the physical anatomy, assignment, and rearing. In the large majority of cases, the child's gender identity matches their sex assignment. If sex assignment and gender identity do not align, the person may be transgender or gender non-conforming (GNC). The sex assignment of an intersex individual may also contradict their future gender identity.
Assigned male at birth (AMAB): a person of any age and irrespective of current gender whose sex assignment at birth resulted in a declaration of "male". For example, when an attending midwife or physician announces, "It's a boy!" Synonyms: male assigned at birth (MAAB) and designated male at birth (DMAB).
Assigned female at birth (AFAB): a person of any age and irrespective of current gender whose sex assignment at birth resulted in a declaration of "female". For example, when an attending midwife or physician announces, "It's a girl!" Synonyms: female assigned at birth (FAAB) and designated female at birth (DFAB).
Intersex, in humans and other animals, describes variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies". These may complicate the sex assignment of a newborn and can result a phenotypical sex assignment that is inconsistent with normal genotype.
Transgender people have a gender identity, or gender expression, that differs from their assigned sex. Transgender people are sometimes called transsexual if they desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another.
The discernment of an infant's sex was, until recently, almost universally considered an observation or recognition of an inherent aspect of a baby. The rationales for sex assignment and consequential registration appear to have been little questioned. A Dutch report on gender registration states that sex registration was introduced in 1811 as an intrinsic component in population registration, due to gender-specific rights and responsibilities, such as military conscription. Many discriminatory provisions in legislation no longer exist, but the provisions remain for rationales that include "speed of identification procedures".
Assignment in cases of infants with intersex traits, or cases of trauma
Observation or recognition of an infant's sex may be complicated in the case of intersex infants and children, and in cases of early trauma. In such cases, sex assignment is generally taken to require medical treatment to confirm that assignment, but this is disputed in part due to the human rights implications of such treatment.
Intersex broadly denotes the presence of atypical sex characteristics: at least some aspect of the genitalia, internal organs, secondary sex characteristics, gonadal tissue, or chromosomes is more typical of the other sex. When the external genitalia appear to be in between, they are described as ambiguous.
Cases of trauma include the famous John/Joan case, where sexologist John Money claimed successful reassignment from male to female at age 17 months of a boy whose penis was destroyed during circumcision. However, this claim was later shown to be largely false. The subject, David Reimer, later identified as a man.
In approximately 1 in 2,000 infants, there is enough variation in the appearance of the external genitalia to merit hesitation about appropriate assignment by the physician involved. Typical examples would be an unusually prominent clitoris in an otherwise apparently typical girl, or complete cryptorchidism in an otherwise apparently typical boy. In most of these cases, a sex is tentatively assigned and the parents told that tests will be performed to confirm the apparent sex. Typical tests in this situation might include a pelvic ultrasound to determine the presence of a uterus, a testosterone or 17α-hydroxyprogesterone level, and/or a karyotype. In some of these cases a pediatric endocrinologist is consulted to confirm the tentative sex assignment. The expected assignment is usually confirmed within hours to a few days in these cases.
In a much smaller proportion of cases, the process of assignment is more complex, and involves both determining what the biological elements of characteristic sex may be and choosing the best sex assignment for the purposes of rearing the child. Approximately 1 in 20,000 infants is born with enough ambiguity that assignment becomes a more drawn-out process of multiple tests and intensive education of the parents about sexual differentiation. In some of these cases, it is clear that the child will face physical difficulties or social stigma as they grow up, and deciding upon the sex of assignment involves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of either assignment. Intersex activists have criticised "normalising" procedures performed on infants and children without their informed consent.
In European societies, Roman law, post-classical Canon law, and later Common law, referred to a person's sex as male, female or hermaphrodite, with legal rights as male or female depending on the characteristics that appeared most dominant. Under Roman law, a hermaphrodite had to be classed as either male or female. The 12th-century Decretum Gratiani states that "Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails". The foundation of common law, the 16th Century Institutes of the Lawes of England described how a hermaphrodite could inherit "either as male or female, according to that kind of sexe which doth prevaile." Legal cases where sex assignment was placed in doubt have been described over the centuries.
With the medicalization of intersex, criteria for assignment have evolved over the decades, as clinical understanding of biological factors and diagnostic tests have improved, as surgical techniques have changed and potential complications have become clearer, and in response to the outcomes and opinions of adults who have grown up with various intersex conditions.
Before the 1950s, assignment was based almost entirely on the appearance of the external genitalia. Although physicians recognized that there were conditions in which the apparent secondary sexual characteristics could develop contrary to the person's sex, and conditions in which the gonadal sex did not match that of the external genitalia, their ability to understand and diagnose such conditions in infancy was too poor to attempt to predict future development in most cases.
In the 1950s, endocrinologists developed a basic understanding of the major intersex conditions such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), androgen insensitivity syndrome, and mixed gonadal dysgenesis. The discovery of cortisone allowed survival of infants with severe CAH for the first time. New hormone tests and karyotypes allowed more confident diagnosis in infancy and prediction of future development.
Sex assignment became more than choosing a sex of rearing, but also began to include surgical treatment. Undescended testes could be retrieved. A greatly enlarged clitoris could be amputated to the usual size, but attempts to create a penis were unsuccessful. John Money and others controversially believed that children were more likely to develop a gender identity that matched sex of rearing than might be determined by chromosomes, gonads, or hormones. The resulting medical model was termed the "Optimal gender model."
The view of gender as a purely social construction, and gender identity as a result of nurture rather than nature reached widespread acceptance, at least in liberal, progressive, and academic portions of Western society. The primary goal of assignment was to choose the sex that would lead to the least inconsistency between external anatomy and assigned psyche (gender identity). This led to the recommendation that any child without a penis or with a penis too small to penetrate a vagina could be raised as a girl, taught to be a girl, and would develop a female gender identity, and that this would be the best way to minimize future discrepancy between psyche and external anatomy in those infants determined to be genetically male (i.e. XY genotype) but without a penis that meets medical norms (e.g., cloacal exstrophy), and also in those like in the John/Joan case who lost it to accidental trauma in early infancy.
From the 1960s, pediatric surgeons attempted and claimed success with reconstruction of infant genitalia, especially enlargement or construction of vaginas. The recommended rules of assignment and surgery from the late 1960s until the 1990s were roughly:
- Any XX infant, no matter how virilized, should be raised as a girl to preserve the chance of future fertility. A large, protruding clitoris should be reduced in size with a nerve-sparing recession or reduction rather than simple amputation.
- Any undervirilized XY infant should be raised as a boy if the penis could be expected to be large enough to stand to urinate and to insert into a vagina for coitus. If it was too small or atypically formed (e.g., cloacal exstrophy) for these functions, it was recommended that the baby be assigned as female, any gonads removed, a vaginal opening surgically constructed, and estrogen provided at puberty.
- An infant with mixed chromosomes (e.g., mixed gonadal dysgenesis or true hermaphroditism) could be raised either way depending on appearance of genitalia and size of phallus.
- Gender identity is set by 2 years of age and reassignment after that age should not be attempted unless requested by the patient.
- Non-disclosure of the intersex condition to the individual on whom sex assignment treatment was conducted.
Since the 1990s, a number of factors have led to changes in the recommended criteria for assignment and surgery. These factors have included:
- Public disclosure by intersex individuals and organizations about unsatisfactory sexual function or incongruent gender identity, and criticism of infant surgery for "psychosocial rationales".
- In 1997, the rest of David Reimer's story, referred to above as John Money's John/Joan case, was made public. He was the boy who had lost his penis to a botched circumcision at 8 months in 1966, was reassigned from boy to girl at 18 months with further surgery to remove testes and estrogen treatment beginning at age 12. Although John Money had described the reassignment as a success in the 1970s, Reimer went public with his account of continuing to have a male gender identity despite the reassignment to a female sex of rearing. At age 15, Reimer reverted to living as a male. At age 38, he committed suicide.
- A large proportion of XY infants born with cloacal exstrophy and raised as female from early infancy have requested reassignment to male gender in late childhood and adolescence.
Clinical recommendations in the 2000s for assignment changed as a result:
- Raise nearly all XX infants with functional ovaries as female. The only rare exception would be completely and unambiguously virilized XX infants with CAH, who might be raised as male with genital surgery deferred.
- Raise most ambiguous XY infants with testes as male unless the external genitalia are more female than male, marked androgen insensitivity is present, and testes are absent or non-functional. Raise as male any XY infant with unambiguous micropenis. Raise as male any XY infant with functional testes and normal androgen sensitivity but atypically formed or absent penis.
- Raise infants with mixed gonadal tissue, true hermaphroditism, or other chromosome anomalies as the sex most consistent with external genitalia, since gonads are usually nonfunctional.
- Gender identity is set by 1–2 years of age and reassignment after that age should not be attempted unless requested by the patient.
These recommendations do not explicitly necessitate surgical or hormonal interventions to reinforce sex assignments, but such medical management persists worldwide, utilizing rationales such as the mitigation of parental distress and trauma, reducing the likelihood of stigma, making a child feel more "normal", and improving marriage prospects.
Controversies over surgical aspects of intersex management, have often focused on controversies regarding indications for surgery and optimal timing. However, intersex and human rights organizations have criticized medical models as they are not based on the consent of the individuals on whom such irreversible medical treatments are conducted, and outcomes may be inappropriate or poor. Anne Tamar-Mattis, for example, states that, "The true choice is not between early and late [surgery], but early surgery versus patient autonomy. Human rights institutions now refer to such practices as "harmful practices".
However, while surgical interventions remain experimental, and clinical confidence in constructing "normal" genital anatomies has not been borne out, medically credible pathways other than surgery do not yet exist. Changes to clinical recommendations in the current millennium do not yet address human rights concerns about consent, and the child's right to identity, privacy, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, and physical integrity.
In 2015, the Council of Europe recognized the right for intersex persons to not undergo sex assignment treatment, identifying issues with the pathologization of intersex bodies as inherently disordered. In April 2015, Malta became the first country to recognize a right to bodily integrity and physical autonomy, and outlaw non-consensual modifications to sex characteristics. The Act was widely welcomed by civil society organizations.
Reassignment of sex or gender
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Sex reassignment is a change in gender role or identity after an original sex assignment in infancy. This may occur in several types of circumstances.
- An early reassignment may be made to correct a clear error. The most common example of this is when a newborn is assumed to be a boy and assigned as such despite absent testes. If at 1–4 weeks of age it is discovered because of newborn screening, a salt-wasting crisis, or investigation of the cryptorchidism that she has ovaries, uterus, an XX karyotype, and CAH, the child is likely to be reassigned as female. When virilization is complete and unambiguous, reassignment may be declined or deferred. Any reassignment after the first month or two is no longer considered an "early reassignment".
- There have been cases where a male infant has been reassigned to female at several days, weeks, or months of age because of an irreparable birth defect of the genitalia or loss of the penis due to trauma or other accident. This is no longer recommended by most experts in the field because of the publicity surrounding similar failed reassignments which became public in the 1990s, such as that of David Reimer.
- There have been cases where a child with an intersex condition has rejected a sex of rearing, asserted an opposite gender identity, and requested reassignment. Examples of this have occurred in adolescents with several forms of CAH and 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.
- The most common type of reassignment occurs when a child or adult with no detectable intersex condition assumes a different gender identity, and either requests or asserts the recognition of their new asserted gender. Such a person is described as transgender. Therapy and/or surgery may be performed in adulthood and, since the 2000s, adolescence to align their body with their gender identity. People who seek these processes often form a subset identity among transgender people known as transsexual, albeit not all may identify as such.
Challenges to requirements for sex assignment
In recent years, the perceived need to legally assign sex is increasingly being challenged. A report for the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice states "Gender increasingly seems to be perceived as a ‘sensitive’ identity feature, but so far is not regarded, nor protected as such in privacy regulations". Australian government guidelines state that "departments and agencies that collect sex and/or gender information must not collect information unless it is necessary for, or directly related to, one or more of the agency's functions or activities"
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