Diane Abbott lands Labour in hot water with UK intersex community

Jane Fae May 25, 2012
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The Labour Party is in hot water with the UK intersex community, following sweeping tabloid generalisations by their Shadow Health Minister, Diane Abbott, MP.

The faux pas followed a parliamentary question from Ms Abbott to Health Minister, Simon Burns, as to the number of breast reductions carried out over the past three years on male patients.

It emerged that 17 such operations had been performed on boys aged between 10 and 19, with no further information as to why they had been carried out. This, however, did not stop Ms Abbott from expressing her view in The Sun that this “must be something to do with this country’s obesity epidemic.”

A spokesperson for the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons made it clear that is one of the least likely reasons for such surgery. ‘Man boobs’, also known affectionately as ‘moobs’, may be made up of fatty tissue or breast tissue. The two tissue types are quite different and the most likely response to an individual presenting with excess fat around the chest area is to counsel dieting.

Some development of breast tissue is a normal and temporary development in up to half of teenage boys, with breasts almost always reverting to a more stereotypically masculine silhouette after a couple of years. Exceptions may occur where an individual has excess oestrogen or is subject to one or more intersex variations. Most significant in this respect are those with Klinefelter’s Syndrome – 0.1%-0.2% of the male population – for whom development of feminine breast tissue is a natural outcome.

Members of the intersex community were less than impressed with Ms Abbott’s pronouncements on this matter. Concerns were expressed that she was unaware of intersex variation and was tacitly condoning the stigmatisation of non-normative body shape. This has frequently resulted in medical professionals advocating ‘corrective surgery’ on children as young as two years old, which in the case of conditions such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia has left women mutilated: in chronic pain, permanently incontinent and incapable of ever having a full adult sex life.

Leading intersex campaigner, Jennie Kermode, said: “Whilst politicians frequently speak out against female genital mutilation, the cosmetic alteration of intersex bodies, which can have similarly devastating consequences, tends to be ignored.

“The current government has at least acknowledged the issue and pledged to do more work to understand and remedy these and other problems that intersex people face. It would be a shame if the Labour Party, long seen as more progressive on matters of this sort, were not to match this commitment. Intersex people may have limited clout at the ballot box but deserve the same respect and protections that other members of society take for granted.”

Responding to Pink News, Ms Abbott initially objected that there was no evidence to support the contention that these operations had anything at all to do with intersex individuals. Citing an ongoing review of policy in this area by the Labour Party, she was unwilling to condemn stigmatising of intersex individuals or to oppose ‘corrective’ surgery carried out on under-age intersex boys and girls.

While the Labour Party has historically been a firm supporter of transgender rights, in drafting legislation to recognise the legal status of trans individuals in 2004 they firmly rejected claims for similar recognition of intersex individuals.

More: BAAPS, Diane Abbott, intersex, Labour party, man boobs, moobs, shadow health secretary

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