Columbia couple sues state over toddler’s sexual-reassignment surgery

jself@thestate.comMay 14, 2013 

— Mark and Pam Crawfords’ 8-year-old adopted child recently declared that he is a boy.

It was a change the Columbia couple said they saw coming for their child, who was born with both male and female internal sex organs and “ambiguous genitalia.” However, when the child was 16 months old and in foster care, surgeons removed the child’s penis and testicular tissue in an effort to assign him to the female sex.

Now, seven years later, the Crawfords are suing the state Department of Social Services and physicians and state employees who were involved at that surgery, arguing it was medically unnecessary and denied their child – who they call only “M.C.” in lawsuits to protect his privacy – the constitutional right to make decisions about his own body.

“The state took something very special away from our son, and for no reason except for adults’ inability to deal with people who are born different,” said Pam Crawford, who adopted M.C. a few months after his surgery.

“We hope to put other doctors, hospitals and state agencies on notice that they cannot mutilate children without being held accountable for the damage they cause,” Mark Crawford said.

The Crawfords’ lawsuits, filed Tuesday in state and federal courts, are the first of their kind in the nation, said Ken Suggs, a Columbia-based attorney, who joined the Crawfords and other civil-rights advocacy groups to announce the suits.

The federal suit names as defendants three physicians and several named and unknown Social Services employees who, the lawsuit alleges, violated M.C.’s constitutional rights when they approved and carried out the surgery.

The other lawsuit is a state medical malpractice lawsuit against Social Services and the hospitals – the Greenville Hospital System and the Medical University of South Carolina – where the doctors providing M.C.’s care worked. The malpractice suit alleges the doctors repeatedly discussed in M.C.’s medical records that the child could be raised as either a boy or a girl and “that there was no medical necessity to remove any of his genital tissue.”

One doctor named as a defendant wrote in a medical journal that performing surgery to feminize the child’s sex could be “catastrophic” if the child later identified as a boy.

But the doctors moved forward with the surgery, without consulting an ethics board, the lawsuit says.

A spokesperson with the state Department of Social Services said Tuesday that agency does not comment on pending litigation. MUSC and the Greenville Hospital System also issued statements saying the hospitals would not comment on the pending litigation.

The Crawfords are suing for damages to be determined by the courts.

Advocates step forward

M.C. was one of two premature twins born in Greenville on Nov. 20, 2004, each weighing less than 2 pounds. Weeks after their birth, the twins’ mother stopped visiting them in the hospital. She was nearly impossible to reach by phone, a Department of Social Services report noted. Their father wasn’t around, either.

The twin girl died.

M.C., who spent 21/2 months in the Greenville Hospital System, was born with intersex condition, which affects one of every 2,000 children. Pam Crawford said that condition presented doctors with a “social emergency, not a medical emergency,” that spurred them to determine a sex for M.C. despite the chance that he might reject it later.

Intersex condition describes about 60 specific conditions, reflecting a “range of sex” characteristics that people are born with, said Anne Tamar-Mattis, director of Advocates for Informed Choice, a legal advocacy group for children born with variations of sex anatomy.

In recent years, more members of the intersex community have been coming forward to advocate for children born with the condition, Tamar-Mattis said. In part, that is because sexual assignment surgeries carry risks, including the potential loss of fertility, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain and psychological trauma, she said.

Sean Saifa Wall, 34, of Atlanta, was born with intersex condition. At a news conference Tuesday in Columbia, Wall said he was “spared genital surgery,” but his mother was told he was a girl at birth and raised him as her daughter.

Wall said he grew up with a sense he was a boy, but he experienced pushback from family when he tried to assert that identity, receiving hormone treatments and undergoing surgery at 14 to remove his testicles.

Wall later made the decision to live as a male and now advocates for others, speaking “for the many who cannot speak, living with the shame, isolation and secrecy that surrounds intersex condition,” he said.

Mark Crawford, M.C.’s father, said the Columbia couple has “anxieties about how we raise” M.C. and his future but is committed to providing him the love and support that he needs. The community, including M.C.’s classmates, have been accepting, he added.

“We want parents of a child born with an intersex condition to know that it is OK not to make a rushed decision and not to yield to the pressure from doctors to alter your child’s body,” he said. “Your child ... will be OK and will be the best person to make those decisions when they are old enough. It is their right.”

The Greenville News contributed to this article.

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