Gaslighting in Victoria

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In mid 2016, OII Australia made a submission to the United Nations Committee against Torture documenting human rights violations against intersex people in Australia. Since around that date, the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria has systematically removed evidence of human rights violations, including psychosocial justifications for surgeries such as “marriage” prospects, and statements that the birth of an intersex infant is distressing for parents and staff, leading to early surgeries.

We, and the United Nations, and multiple other human rights institutions, regard such so-called “corrective” practices as human rights violations.

In February 2013, the Department published a decision making framework for the treatment of intersex infants, children and adolescents. It contained reference to a number of “psychosocial rationales” for medical intervention including, on page 19:

risk of social or cultural disadvantage to the child, for example, reduced opportunities for marriage or intimate relationships…

The text about marriage was removed in mid 2016. The document is still dated February 2013 with no acknowledgement of an update. A quotation of the original can be found in the October 2013 Senate report on the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia, in paragraph 5.4.

In early 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services updated its online Neonatal eHandbook. At least from May 2016, a page on ambiguous genitalia in neonates made the following statements:

Ambiguous genitalia in neonates … is rarely anticipated and can be a source of great distress for parents, delivery room and nursery staff … a medical emergency …

Corrective surgery is usually undertaken within the first year of life … Very early surgery at under six months of age is less commonly performed than in the past

The document making these statements is dated 16 October 2015.

Between 7 and 19 April 2017, the page was updated to remove that text, while retaining the same revision date, 16 October 2015. (Printing the page to PDF shows the review date. The date is also preserved on the parent web page.)

Because OII Australia has documented these materials previously, and widely published and spoken about our concerns with them, this raises epistemological and ethical issues. By retaining previous dates of revision, the Department is denying the existence of the previous content. By not changing the revision dates, the Department suggests that our words and documentation cannot be trusted. This delegitimises the reporting of human rights violations. This is a form of gaslighting.

Further, removing the documentation of a policy or practice does not mean that the policy or practice has ceased. It just makes it harder to document such practices.

We welcome honest, properly documented and evidenced changes to clinical practices to recognise the human rights of infants, children and adolescents with intersex variations.

UPDATE: We understand that the immediate document control issue may now be in hand as a result of our reporting. However, these interim updates have occurred outside usual procedures, illustrating haste, and a sense of embarrassment at the human rights violations that OII Australia has documented and reported in submissions, conferences and meetings. We repeat, these optical changes occur without evidence of any change in practice.

More information

Decision-making framework:

Department Neonatal eHandbook pages on ambiguous genitalia (PDF copies of original pages):