Thursday 25 May 2017

How different are female, male and intersex genital cutting? Brian Earp's and my article in last week's The Conversation

Last week, my bioethicist colleague Brian Earp and I published an article in The Conversation asking how different are female, male and intersex genital cutting.

We frame our article around the recent indictment of three members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam on charges of “female genital mutilation” (FGM) in the US state of Michigan, and the decision by one of Norway's major political parties to back a measure to ban childhood male circumcision.

In Western countries, popular attitudes towards these procedures differ sharply depending on the child’s sex. But in our article we ask whether the supposedly clear distinction between these different forms of genital cutting stand up to scrutiny. 

Having concluded that they do not, we argue that moral considerations should instead centre around medical necessity, autonomy, and respect for the bodily integrity of all children – regardless of their sex or gender. 

We outline three practical advantages to this approach: 

1) It deflects accusations of sexism by recognising that boys and intersex children – just like girls – are vulnerable to genital alterations that they may later come to seriously resent.

2) It reduces the moral confusion that stems from Western-led efforts to eliminate only the female “half” of genital cutting rites in communities that practice both male and female forms in parallel.

3) It neutralises accusations of cultural imperialism and anti-Muslim bias by avoiding racially tinged double standards

This is because the same moral concern would apply to medically unnecessary genital cutting practices that primarily affect white children in North America, Australasia and Europe, as to those affecting children of colour (and immigrants) from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

As we explain in our article, adopting such an approach does not necessarily mean “banning” all pre-consensual forms of non-therapeutic genital alteration. History shows that attempting to pass strict legal prohibitions before cultural readiness can backfire, creating intense resistance among those who are dedicated to modifying children’s genitals for whatever reason, and often driving such practices further underground. 

Rather, there are many levers that societies can pull to discourage unethical practices: the law is only one among them, and not necessarily the most desirable or effective. Some authors have proposed step-wise regulation of medically unnecessary childhood genital cutting, along with community engagement and education, as alternatives and/or supplements to formal prohibition. 

As Brian and I conclude, whatever specific policies are implemented, it is clear that fundamentally different treatment of female, male and intersex children, in terms of their protection from non-therapeutic genital alteration, will become increasingly difficult to justify in the years to come.

To read our article in full, please click here. We welcome your comments.