Any time the issue of FGM (female genital mutilation) hits the news in the United States, people typically respond with revulsion. Follow the discussion about this issue far enough and you’re also likely to come across the idea that FGM is wrong, and *male* children should not have their genitals cut either (“male circumcision”, referred to here as MGM). After all, cutting a baby boy’s genitals hurts. It removes part of their genitals.
This comparison can really get people worked up:
It’s not just the ‘peanut gallery’ of internet commenters claiming FGM and male circumcision are either *totally* alike, or *completely* not the same; even professionals in the ethics field and activists working against FGM vary in their stance.
Is this a black and white issue where they are either the same exact thing, or completely different? Or is there more nuance when we begin to compare? What’s the moral and ethical standard that should be applied to this dilemma?
Where’s the Argument?
Many opponents of FGM argue that associating MGM with FGM is not applicable. They make this argument by noting the following:
- FGM has no proven health benefits.
- The girls FGM is performed on do not consent but are old enough to remember the trauma of the experience.
- FGM can affect pregnancy and sex later on.
- Many men are happy with their circumcisions.
- Many women are circumcised for reasons associated with superstitious beliefs that are demonstrably false.
However, a cursory glance will show that these reasons also apply to MGM:
- the “health benefits” touted by male circumcision advocates are hotly contested, with many worldwide voices claiming that research in support of male circumcision is at best well-intentioned but culturally biased and at worst purposefully misleading.
- boys on which MGM is performed are also too young to understand what is going on and cannot consent to the procedure.
- MGM has been shown to negatively affect men’s and women’s experience of sex.
- many men are unhappy with their circumcisions.
- MGM is often performed not for any viable medical reason, but instead for religious or traditional reasons.
- FGM might have health benefits, if this were to be investigated, but there is a definitive risk in medicalizing morality, which ethicist Brian Earp writes about here.
Furthermore, historically, MGM was performed either as a punishment or as a way to limit male pleasure, much like FGM is used to limit female pleasure. For example, Maimonides, in his twelfth-century work The Guide of the Perplexed, stated:
The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. (p. 609)
Early health pioneer, John Harvey Kellogg, suggested practicing routine circumcision on boys in 1881’s Plain Facts for Old and Young:
A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. (pp. 106-107)
When Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville published her book The Ethical Canary in 2000, she was attacked for trying to equate FGM with MGM. She says her critics told her she was “detracting from the horror of female genital mutilation and weakening the case against it by speaking about it and infant male circumcision in the same context and pointing out that the same ethical and legal principles applied to both.”
CLICK TO READ MORE: Your Whole Baby: The Female Circumcision Connection
So, where’s the common ground?
We can agree that FGM and MGM are very different in several ways:
- FGM is performed on the female genitalia, whereas MGM is performed on the male genitalia.
- FGM is illegal in America, while MGM is legal.
- FGM is almost only practiced within Islam, whereas MGM is practiced within Islam, Judaism, and American Christians.
- When FGM is discussed, one of the most severe forms is often discussed. When MGM is discussed, one of the least severe forms is discussed.
However, from there, it can be argued that they are both similar.
- Both are done because of tradition in many places–either a family tradition or a religious tradition.
- Biased members of each community have condoned the act for beneficial reasons.
- Both MGM and FGM are often performed on children who do not have a say in what is happening or understand the consequence.
- Both are justified as practices that have been “successfully” performed for millenia.
- Both violate basic human rights ethics, as well as the Hippocratic Oath, when performed on unconsenting minors.
- Many people who have had the procedure done to them as children experience side effects at different stages of their life.
- People who speak up against the practice in areas where it is common are often ignored or ridiculed.
Can you see why some people are upset at the deficit between outcry about FGM and MGM?
Frankly, MGM is a deeply-ingrained practice in the United States. About 50% of boys born today in the US are circumcised shortly after birth, and approximately 70% of polled Americans still see the surgery as favorable. The AAP Task Force on Circumcision, in 2012, claimed that “the benefits outweigh the risks” and so it did not discourage circumcision of boys.
What were those “benefits”, according to Dr. Freedman, the task force’s chair? Cultural benefits, not medical.
According to the Federal fact Sheet on FGM:
“It is against U.S. law to perform FGM* on a girl under the age of 18, or to send or attempt to send her outside the United States so FGM can be performed. Violation of the law is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, fines, or both. There is no exception for performing FGM because of tradition or culture. Cutting and other procedures that injure the female genital organs of a girl under 18 are prohibited under U.S. law.”
In a recent essay by Brendon Marotta, director of American Circumcision, has this to say:
“For Intactivists [=people who protest circumcision], male and female circumcision are comparable. When I interviewed Brother K, leader of the Intactivist protest group Bloodstained Men, he said ‘Imagine this was happening to little girls across America, and you’ll understand why I’m angry.’ If female circumcision were as widespread as male circumcision, how do you think mainstream women’s organizations would respond?”
Why would I write about the difference between MGM and FGM?
As a man who has dealt with the side effects of a particularly invasive circumcision that was motivated not by medical necessity, but popular 80’s American culture, and the fact that MGM at that time was “just what you did,” I can attest to these feelings of frustration. Over the years, any time I have tried to speak up about it among friends and family or in a debate, my feelings have oftentimes been quickly downplayed.
I was raised in a Christian household. I was taught that we are created in God’s image, both men and women. I was brought up to believe that God ordained circumcision in Genesis 17, but that Christ’s death on the cross freed us from the bondage of Old Testament law. Paul is vehement that circumcision be done away with. It is officially abolished by the Council of Jerusalem. Why are Christians still practicing this in the United states, then?
What we at Little Images have found out through interviews with Christians in other parts of the world is that many are not even aware that American Christians are still practicing circumcision. In fact, many are shocked that we are. Similar to how Americans are shocked to learn that many Christians and Muslims in Africa and Asia are circumcising their daughters.
It’s easy to see something from another culture as harmful, but a lot less easy to look introspectively at something commonplace in one’s own culture as harmful.
Something that hit me as eerily similar to this was in a review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, a story about a British boarding school in which the students are all clones whose organs are harvested for their affluent doppelgangers. We as the readers are horrified by the characters’ unquestioning acceptance that their lives are expendable, but they see this act as their purpose in life.
The reviewer, Ramsey Campbell, explains that the book stands out as a “classic instance of a story that’s horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is.” Rachel Cusk, another reviewer of the book, describes this effect as “the evil of banality.”
This is the way male circumcision is viewed within American culture. We don’t see it as bad. Why *would* we equate it with something that *those people* do over in that *other place* with that *other religion* to hurt girls? If we take Genesis 17 at face value and don’t ask tough questions about it, how *could it* ever be seen as bad?
A recent poll by Earp, Sardi, and Jellison found that the more men know about circumcision–that is, what the foreskin is designed to do, how it is beneficial, where and why circumcision is performed–the less likely they are to be happy with being circumcised. The less men knew about it, the happier they were with having been cut.
The paper even states, in relation to FGM:
“despite the fact that FGM* is generally understood—at least by Western observers and by local dissenters—to be extremely harmful, most women who have actually undergone FGM do not regard themselves as having been harmed on balance by the intervention, much less “mutilated,” to use the terminology of the World Health Organization. Instead, similar to many circumcised men in the USA, Israel, some Muslim-majority countries, and very often in their own communities, these women tend to perceive their modified vulvae as improved or enhanced compared to the natural state (e.g., ‘cleaner,’ more ‘feminine,’ more aesthetically appealing).”
Why is the world talking about this?
Last month, a Michigan judge ruled that the federal law protecting girls from FGM was unconstitutional. You can read our coverage of that story here:
According to judge Bernard Friedman, the case was dismissed because anti-FGM laws are a state’s issue and not a federal issue. However, he stated that FGM could be considered applicable to existing assault laws. He makes it clear in his ruling that it is not, in light of his ruling, saying that FGM is permissible. You can read his entire statement here.
Many opponents of Male Circumcision, also called RIC (Routine Infant Circumcison) or MGM (Male Genital Mutilation) want to know why only girls are protected under these laws, and not boys.
In fact, one of the source documents Friedman uses to make his case is Article 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states:
Article 24, which states that “very child shall have, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property or birth,the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State.”
Friedman goes on to say:
Article 24 is an anti-discrimination provision, which calls for the protection of minors without regard to their race, color,sex, or other characteristics. As laudable as the prohibition of a particular type of abuse of girls may be, it does not logically further the goal of protecting children on a nondiscriminatory basis.
This would seem to indicate that the problem with Article 24 is that we are not upholding it, because girls and boys are not equally protected under American law. If a girl is protected by state legislation from any cutting whatsoever unless medically necessary, why are boys not?
Keep in mind that the original federal law that is being challenged reads as follows:
Section 116 states:
(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
(b) A surgical operation is not a violation of this section if the operation is–
(1) necessary to the health of the person on whom it is performed, and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner; or
(2) performed on a person in labor or who has just given birth and is performed for medical purposes connected with that labor or birth by a person licensed in the place it is performed as a medical practitioner, midwife, or person in training to become such a practitioner or midwife.
(c) In applying subsection (b)(1), no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that person, or any other person, that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.
(d) Whoever knowingly transports from the United States and its territories a person in foreign commerce for the purpose of conduct with regard to that person that would be a violation of subsection (a)if the conduct occurred within the United States, or attempts to do so,shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
Do you see it yet?
Should we protect one gender over another due to our own cultural blind spots? Or should we trust that God created everyone in His own image and protect every child from unnecessary modification?
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*= NOTE: These authors have used a different acronym for FGM, “FGM/C”, which stands for “Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting.” I have changed the acronyms used in the original citation to be consistent with the rest of the essay.