Revisiting the Limits of Professional Autonomy: The Intersex Rights Movement’s Path to De-medicalization

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Social movements that seek to change biomedical policy face the particularly challenging task of effectively contesting the scientific and normative basis used to justify medical professional practices in the present. Such is the case of the intersex rights movement, which fights to change the medical standard of genital-normalizing surgeries in infancy.1 To change conventional medical policy, the movement is required not only to establish that such treatments are infringing on rights to bodily integrity and autonomy, but it also must invalidate the scientific ground on which the current treatment protocol is established. This Article analyzes and compares medical and legal activism, which are the two main approaches to achieving change in the intersex rights movement. This Article argues that medical activism leads to a substantial democratization of the policy-making process, and legal activism helps politicize the standard of care and stirs a public discussion over its legitimacy. While both medical and legal activism challenge existing medical standards, the costs of cooptation to the movement's ideology are not comparable. Activists who chose legal avenues remained loyal to their baseline agenda, whereas activists who chose to collaborate with the medical establishment made greater ideological compromises. I suggest that this is because unlike medical advocacy, legal activists make arguments based on justice and social values. Furthermore, this Article argues that the legal sphere serves a critical function to challenge professional norms because it supports political change in an allegedly apolitical arena.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-54
Number of pages54
JournalHarvard Journal of Law & Gender
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • SOCIAL movements
  • LEGAL status of intersex people
  • MEDICAL policy
  • MEDICAL standards


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