Female Genital Mutilation and Circumcision: Comparable?

Julie Marsh
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Flickr: Photo by scottfeldstein
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their policy statement on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Currently in the US, any sort of alteration to the genitalia of a minor female is illegal. However, the AAP's revised statement proposes that, as part of the effort to eradicate FGM/C, changes to "federal and state laws [would enable] pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm."

In short, the intent is that legalized FGM/C, in its most minor form and performed by a physician, would prevent parents from engaging in more extreme and potentially harmful practices of FGM/C.

The AAP defends the idea of legalizing FGM/C by noting that "pricking or incising the clitoral skin [may be] sufficient to satisfy cultural requirements. This is no more of an alteration than ear piercing." While that may be an apt comparison in terms of relative invasiveness and pain, it still makes me cringe.

On the other hand, male circumcision makes me cringe too. Watch the circumcision episode of Penn & Teller's Bullsh*t! -- it's eye-opening (and more than a little frightening).

The AAP makes a valid point on the comparison of FGM/C to male circumcision: "Health educators must also be prepared to explain to parents from outside North America why male genital alteration is routinely practiced here but female genital alteration is routinely condemned." Male circumcision is more invasive than the "ritual nick" proposed by the AAP, yet most Americans don't bat an eye at the procedure. In fact, after my son was born (and not circumcised), a nurse expressed surprise that he wasn't cut. Meanwhile, Jewish families celebrate the ritual with a gathering at home eight days after the birth.

Male circumcisions have been performed under similarly brutal circumstances as FGM/C, and like FGM/C, historical reasons cited for circumcision have included cleanliness and control over sexuality. Religious observance plays a part in both procedures as well. Those defending the AAP's revised stance have cited these points as reasons to legalize FGM/C. What's good for the gander ought to be good for the goose too.

As I see it, the difference lies primarily in the prevailing attitudes behind the two practices. Male circumcision is a religious ritual for some, and a matter of social convention for others. FGM/C is also a religious ritual for some, but one that is rooted in oppression and subjugation. Regional and international human rights organizations campaign actively against FGM/C in any form, including the medicalization of the procedure as proposed by the AAP.

Bottom line: Legalizing FGM/C, even in its most minor form, would be a step backward for human rights -- not just in developing countries, but right here in the United States.

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