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Belgian children's hospital criticised for 'corrective' surgery on intersex teen

08:49 30/03/2023

Queen Fabiola University Children's Hospital (Huderf) in Brussels has come under sharp criticism for performing a "corrective" operation on an intersex teenager.

The teenager – who is now an adult – says they felt "pressured and manipulated" into the surgery, Het Nieuwsblad reports.

The Belgian government is now looking at ways to regular operations on intersex minors.

Coralie Smeers from the Walloon Brabant town of Tubize was born with sexual characteristics that are not typically male or female, something that occurs in between 0.05% and 1.7% of the human population.

Smeers was diagnosed at the age of 15 with MRKH syndrome, in which a woman's vagina or uterus is completely or partially missing.

After visiting Huderf in the Brussels neighbourhood of Laeken, Smeers said a vaginoplasty surgery (in which a vagina is constructed) was performed.

“They used my body for an experimental operation,” Smeers told Het Nieuwsblad.

“My condition had no effect on my health. They pressured and manipulated me. Surgery was presented as the ultimate solution – if I wanted to have a future as a woman, I had to have that surgery.”

But Smeers was only 15 at the time.

“I didn't know anything about sexuality yet. I had never had an amorous relationship. They made me believe that female sexuality consisted of being able to be penetrated.”

While Smeers was told it was a risk-free operation, complications followed that left her in a wheelchair.

Smeers then went to court, which ruled in her favour.

“The medical team never explained to Coralie Smeers that it was possible to live perfectly well without a vagina,” the Brussels appeals court stated in its ruling.

“It was premature to proceed with such a rare, heavy and complex operation. And at the very least, it was necessary to provide psychological support, which did not happen.”

There is currently no specific regulation around the treatment of underage intersex persons in Belgium, but health minister Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) and state secretary for gender equality Sarah Schlitz (Ecolo) are working on a draft law by this autumn.

“It will no longer be possible to perform an intervention on an intersex minor without that minor's explicit consent,” said Magda De Meyer of the Schlitz cabinet.

“A youth psychiatrist must evaluate the judgmental competence of the minor. In addition, we also want to write the right to psychological support into the law.”

The United Nations has repeatedly called on Belgium to “ban unnecessary operations on intersex children if they can be safely postponed until when children can give informed consent”, saying that these gender surgeries are too often performed on young children to “normalise” them.

Smeers hopes that sharing their experience will help put an end to the practice.

Written by Helen Lyons