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Boy or girl?

Study looks into treatment of intersex children

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From the 1950s children born in Switzerland with no clear biological gender were given surgery or hormones to assign them a gender. A scientific review in Zurich aims to shed more light into this dark chapter of medical history.

The review comes at a time when transgender and intersex issues have been gaining increased importance both in Switzerland and worldwide.

Around 40 children of indeterminate sex are born in Switzerland a year, according to official statistics.

The University Children's Hospital Zurich is conducting a review of the treatment of children with differences of sex development (DSD children) at the hospital during the period 1945-1970. Work started on October 1, 2016, and will take two years. Funding is being provided the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), it was announced on Monday.

The review will develop the work of a pilot study from 2014, prompted by the demands of the self-help organisation zwischengeschlecht.org for a historical review of treatments undergone by intersex people in Switzerland.


It has criticised the hospital in the past, saying it had carried out unnecessary treatments, especially operations in the genital areas, without full permission. “It’s important to us that the past is reviewed and reappraised so that the wrong done to these children is considered,” zwischengeschlecht’s Markus Bauer told Swiss public broadcaster SRF.

Rita Gobet, head of urology at the Children's Hospital, welcomed the study and said that intersex children had not always been treated correctly in the past. It was originally thought that it would be better to push a child towards a certain gender direction from birth onwards through medical intervention, she said. This is known to be the wrong approach. “In this sense, mistakes have been made,” she told SRF.

The study will take on board the views of everyone involved, including those affected and the healthcare professionals involved in diagnosis or treatment. A medical historical analysis of patients' medical records will also take place.

The Children's Hospital in Zurich has been regarded as an international pioneer in research into differences of sex development and the treatment of DSD children since the 1950s, the SNSF said.

Public interest

“This is a very timely study because the whole question of transgender is extremely current and it’s a matter of public interest,” Paul Schubert, president of the Humanities and Social Sciences division at the SNSF Research Council, told swissinfo.ch.

The children who underwent these treatments are now adults and have a lot of questions, he added. There has been an awful lot of suffering.

“Before we can even talk about how things should be done now, we should look back what was done and why and this can only be done with a scientific study,” he said.

Neighbouring Germany became the first European country in 2013 to allow babies with characteristic of both sexes to be registered as neither male nor female. Parents are allowed to leave the gender blank on birth certificates. This is to reduce pressure on parents to decide on treatments at birth.

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