Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Protecting a Baby Born with Three Penises


This story has been circulating through media and social media a lot over the past month.
A child was born with three penises: a typically-sized one in the usual place, and two smaller ones down lower. So media and social media have been full of people going, "Wow! 3," because a lot of people find both penises and atypical bodies fascinating.
What happened to the baby? Why, doctors "excised the supernumerary phalli" and then got lots of fame and attention publishing a report that they had performed the first such procedure on a triphallic infant ever, as the "condition" is "extremely rare."
And there's been basically zero pushback. People just circulate the story uncritically. It is taken for granted that if you are born with more than the typical number of fingers or toes or penises, the "extras" must be surgically removed.
Why? A surgery performed on a child without their consent should be functional, not social or cosmetic in nature. "Extra" fingers or penises are not dangerous; on the contrary, they can give a person extra, special abilities. Twelve fingers can make for great piano playing or baseball catching. And more than one penis can provide extra functionality as well ("wow, 3!").
I strongly believe that in a situation where a person is born with a body that is atypical in a way that is not hurting them physically, a decision about whether to make their body look more "normal" must be left up to them. All of us deserve autonomy over our bodies. Some babies born with 12 fingers may grow up to feel unhappy about their atypicality, and wish to have their hands surgically normalized. Some will grow up to love their special hands, and be grateful for the way their "extra" fingers enable them to, say, play guitar.
This is even more the case when it comes to genitals. So many intersex people who have had surgery imposed on them as children grow up feeling betrayed and mutilated, as doctors advised and parents consented to surgeries that turned out not to be what the child matured to want. Our genitals are our own business. Decisions about changing them should be ours alone, never imposed on us when we are infants. Only we can know, as we mature, what will make us feel most at home in our own bodies.
This story of the triphallic boy is not just some medical curiosity tale. It is an example of an approach to genital atypicality that is unethical. And we must criticize the presumption that doctors can usurp a child's autonomy to impose aesthetic normalization on special bodies.