The Family Court in Australia has granted a female-to-male transgender 17-year-old permission to have his breasts removed. Unsurprisingly, the case is not without controversy.
The teenager, codenamed Alex, has known for years that he was not destined to live as a woman. The Age reports that as a child, Alex believed everyone in the world was male, and was very upset to learn the truth about his gender. Alex had a troubled past; his father died when he was only five, and when Alex was 10, his mother turned him over to the state, saying that she feared her daughter was "a follower of the devil." When he was 12, Alex went to Family Court to request permission to go on hormone medication to suppress the bodily changes that would come with puberty. He also began wearing diapers to school in order to avoid visiting the girls' bathroom.
In late 2007, Alex appeared in Family Court once again, to seek permission to have his breasts surgically removed. Chief Justice Diana Bryant authorized the mastectomies for Alex, and, in a recent interview with The Age, she explained the reasoning behind this decision. Australian law requires judicial permission for any medical procedure on a minor that is not intended to treat a bodily malfunction or disease. Bryant said she weighed the arguments against allowing the procedure, and believed that it was in the best interests of the minor to perform the surgery, especially since if Alex was forced to wait until he was 18, he would no longer qualify for support from state social services. "Overwhelmingly, the evidence was that it was in his interests. And I made that order. I wanted to make it quickly so that he could have the operation straightaway," said Bryant.
However, some do not agree with allowing minors to make these sorts of life-altering decisions. Medical ethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini argues that since science has not found a biological cause for gender identity disorder, the causes of the condition were probably environmental, and thus subject to change with time. "Genetically, there doesn't seem to be anything different about them," he said. He continued: "What you are trying to do is make a biological reality correspond to [a] false belief." Tonti-Filippini worries that performing gender reassignment surgery puts individuals at "major risk" for suicide. He also cited a Melbourne man who underwent gender reassignment surgery when he was 22, and is now suing the doctors because he regretted the decision. In Tonti-Filippini's opinion, "sex-change operations are just a form of mutilation."
Fortunately for Alex and others like him, the courts had a more progressive take on his condition. After listening to the testimony of several psychiatrists, Bryant decided that no matter what caused Alex to identify as male, he wasn't about to change his tune anytime soon. When asked whether she thinks the court may be leading, rather than reflecting, community values, Bryant said:
"Yes, probably. But only because people don't have to consider it before it happens. If you had a general debate in the community, I suspect you'd get a reasonably conservative view.
But if people were put in the position where they had to decide about a particular case, then I think the majority of people would come to the same conclusion - just on the basis of the evidence, and the level of absolute human unhappiness, and the opportunity to make a real change to somebody's life for the better. That's what it's about."
[Image via Flickr]