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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Intersexuality, Human Rights, and the Colombian Constitutional Court’s Notion of Gender


In case SU-337 of 1999, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that it could not accept a mother’s consent on behalf of her eight-year-old intersex child for genital reconstruction surgery, part of the standard treatment regimen for intersex children in Colombia, as in the U.S. The Court came to its decision after consulting Colombian and international experts and evaluating their contributions in the light of the Colombian Constitution and international human rights treaties. Indeed, the decision approximates a debate between two competing opinions about intersex treatment, and ultimately notions of gender, both rooted in the United States. The Court first presents the opinion of the Colombian medical community, which it finds bases its treatment on the work of John Money, a U.S. psychologist. Then the Court considers the scholarship and testimonies of intersex activists and academics, mostly based in the U.S., and determines that they generally oppose medical intervention for intersex children who are too young to consent. A close reading of SU-337 reveals that these two competing camps of opinion on intersex management also present contrasting notions of gender. The Court’s own notion of gender, as it arises in this case, is a formulation of aspects from the two sides, and is thus highly international. “Notion of gender” in this paper entails ideas of what gender is and how it comes about for/in a person. Following a further introduction to the details of the case and intersexuality, the paper delineates aspects of the medical establishment’s notion of gender, the intersex activists and scholars’ opposed notion, and finally, the Court’s own notion.

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