Greece voted to ban consensual surgeries on intersex adolescents this week, making it the latest country to take action against the practice.
A new law approved by the Hellenic Parliament on July 19 bans doctors from performing surgeries to “correct” the genitalia of intersex youth under the age of 15. Case-by-case exceptions will be made in instances where a young person or their parents has sought a court order to move forward with the surgery.
Prior to the parliamentary vote, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis personally urged lawmakers to support the legislation.
“I was truly saddened by the mistakes of the past that led to dramatic situations, because we were lacking the knowledge and courage,” Mitsotakis, who is up for reelection next year, said in comments reported by Reuters.
The legislation was supported by the intersex advocacy groups Intersex Greece, Oii Europe and interACT. Intersex Greece Secretary-General Rinio Simeonidou, whose child is intersex, added that outlawing procedures that activists have warned can be harmful and life-altering would be “a truly historic moment for all intersex children in Greece” in a speech to parliamentarians this week.
Opponents of surgeries on intersex youth say that medical procedures intended to make the genitalia of children born neither male or female can create life-long damage. Surgeries like vaginoplasty and phalloplasty performed before a young person is old enough to consent to the treatment can result in urinary pain, sexual problems, infertility and PTSD as an adult. There is also the likelihood that the sex assigned by doctors—which is usually female—will not correspond to the patient’s gender identity.
According to the legislation, doctors who perform such operations in violation of the law face fines and even a potential prison sentence. Specifics of the penalties are not clear.
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups celebrated the bill’s passage. While ILGA-Europe noted in a public statement that the new law “may not solve all the rights violations experienced by intersex people in Greece,” the organization called the effort an” excellent start,” adding that it “emphatically affirms that intersex rights are human rights.”
“We welcome this landmark bill and hope other countries will follow this example soon,” ILGA-Europe said in an Instagram post.
Currently, just a handful of other countries have enacted laws that delay surgeries for intersex adolescents until they are old enough to understand the procedure—including Albania, Germany, Malta and Portugal. Many of those laws have been criticized, however, as not going far enough: Germany’s ban, for instance, requires infants to be formally declared as intersex before the procedure is disallowed.
And even countries that have outlawed non-consensual surgeries on intersex youth have struggled to curtail the practice entirely. Although Malta became the first nation in the world to ban these procedures in 2015, an ILGA-Europe report found that they were still being performed five years later.
Globally, it’s estimated that approximately 1.7 percent of people are born intersex—totalling a population of over 100 million people.
The intersex surgery law is part of Greece’s five-year gender equality plan—in which the country is seeking to address its often spotty record on LGBTQ+ rights. While discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity in areas like housing and employment is illegal, its recognition of same-sex relationships stops at civil partnerships. Full marriage equality has yet to be legalized.
In recent years, Greece has moved toward further progress by ending discriminatory barriers preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood and prohibiting conversion therapy.
Greece’s ban on gender identity and orientation change efforts, enacted in May, was met with some controversy: the law provides a loophole for the LGBTQ+ “cure” therapies to continue if the patient consents to the practice. Critics have charged that “no one can truly consent to abusive conversion practices,” as the U.K. advocacy group Stonewall Equality said in a statement at the time.