Genital surgery on infants and young intersex children should be banned as it can cause them permanent psychological and physical damage, a leading human rights group has said.
US doctors recommend surgery for one in every 2,000 intersex babies, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch and advocacy group interACT. Medical procedures performed on infants include the removal of their testes or ovaries, deepening shallow vaginas and enlarging small penises.
Campaigners say procedures amount to "human rights abuse taking place in a medical setting".
The report calls for surgery to be delayed until children with ambiguous sex characteristics are old enough to decide whether they want them.
Surgery can cause lifelong pain, sterilisation, loss of sexual pleasure and significant health complications, according to the report.
A doctor told HRW that adults who had undergone surgery as children felt that they had been "mistreated and mutilated."
HRW researcher Kyle Knight said that performing sex reassignment surgery on infants is "medically unnecessary and harmful."
"The pressure to fit in and live a 'normal' life is real, but there is no evidence that surgery delivers on the promise of making that easier, and ample evidence that it risks causing irreversible lifelong harm," he said.
Besides the risk of scarring, incontinence and lack of sensation, surgery can also cause serious psychological damage, according to Kimberly Zieselman, an intersex woman and executive director of interACT.
"Despite decades of patient advocates putting the medical community on notice about the harm from these procedures, many doctors continue to present these surgeries to parents as good options," she said.
Parents of intersex children told HRW that they felt pressure from doctors to consent to surgery.
"The doctors told us it was important to have the surgery right away because it would be traumatic for our child to grow up looking different. What's more traumatic? This sort of operation or growing up a little different?" parents of an 8-year-old child born with atypical genitals said.
"Parents of intersex children are often scared and confused about how best to protect their children from stigma," Zieselman said.
127.5 million people, 1.7% of the world's population, are estimated to be intersex, according to the report. It is not known how many intersex people are living in the US due to lacking data.