Re: female circumcision-Arguing at cross-purposes
5 Dec 1994 02:57:26 -0500

In <3bg6dh$> Julia Smith (

To grow up with a healthy intact body is a noble goal,
certainly, but I'm not sure how to judge what meets those
criteria. Are we going to only allow life-saving operations
for children (which certainly will leave them with
non-intact bodies)? Are we going to disallow braces and ear
piercing (certainly violations of the right to make one's
own decisions about their bodies as adults)?

I don't think that laws operate according to some completely
consistent idealogical system. For example, I'm allowed to drink
whiskey and own a gun, but not to smoke a joint; there is no real
moral consistency in this. To suggest that any laws regulating the
medical procedures to which we may subject out children will obey a
rigourous set of principles is probably unreasonable. In all
likelihood, the law will just muddle its way through: Certain
procedures (or lack thereof) will be illegal (child abuse) _unless_
there is a Big Reason for them (eg, religious freedom), and _unless_
their consequences are not too severe (things such as the more severe
forms of female genital mutilation, or denying a child a blood

It's obvious that definitions of how to produce a healthy
adult change (we used to think that circumcision was good
for male infants, because it made them healthier; now we
tend to think otherwise). So, how do we decide what's
necessary, what's allowable, and what's forbidden.

The statement "we used to think that circumcision was good for male
infants, ...." sweeps a _lot_ under the rug. The history of
(non-religious) male circumcision is quite complicated, and it began
with Victorian beliefs about the effects of masturbation and theories
about how irritation in the genitals could propagate into other
regions of the body, and cause an wide range of disorders. Later, it
became a class separator (the clean and wealthy, who could afford
extra surgery, versus the unwashed masses). In Great Britain, the
circ rate of the upper classes hit 95%, whereas the working class hit
only 50%; the few (~1%) circs done in GB today are performed for the
upper classes. A very good case can be made that that there never was
a genuine "scientific" belief (by modern, vs Victorian, standards of
science) in the benefits of circumcision, but that it was more a habit
into which the medical profession fell at the beginning of the
late nineteenth century, and hasn't begun to shake off until today. I
strongly urge anyone who is interested in the subject to read an
excellent article in the last issue (Fall '94) in the "Journal of
Social History," put out by Carnegie-Mellon.

The problem with the discussion on circumcision is that
we're talking past each other. I don't think that anyone
would assert that circumcision (at least the female variety)
is a good thing that we ought to all emulate. However, the
issue remains: Do I have the right to tell someone else that
they can or cannot do this to their children? At what point
does that right stop? These are broad issues, that bring in
notions about what the nature of human rights are. But they
are questions we have to grapple with, before we can decide
what the appropriate response is to the admittedly
horrifying problem of infibulation.

As I mentioned above, the law is already so (necessarily)
hypocritical, and "rights" are so much a social construct, that I
would have no qualms about giving the State a greater role in the
protection of children. Rights are such an abtraction and such an
artificial creation, that the issue will never be resolved if posed as
a debate between "parents' rights" and the child's "right to an intact
body." The law should be guided simply by the questions "what is
humane?" and "how will we ensure that the fewest people get hurt?"

Last week, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a
14 year old girl (whose family was from somewhere in
Southeast Asia--does anyone remember this?) who had run
away from home because the state was trying to force her,
against the will of her family and the girl, to undergo
chemotherapy for leukemia. Does the state have the right to
intervene in this way for her own good? I think that this
is closely related to the arguement about "circumcision."

Again, I don't think that there is a single rule by which to handle
cases like this. Is the child old enough to decide intelligently for
herself? Does she decide in the same way if taken out of the
influence of her parents for a while? One can only try to handle
these things case-by-case. The State, I believe, can be trusted
to take reasonable account of the child's desires better than the

As an example of how I would apply these principles (other people will
no doubt differ), I would offer the following examples:

I would ban non-religious male circumcision. If you look in the
literature, it is recognized purely as a matter of parental
_preference_ (both daddy wanting junior to look like daddy, and the
mother's sexual preference for uncut men), rather than for the benefit
of the child; none of the Big Rights, such as religion, come into
play. Also, such a ban could be done quite simply as a regulation of
medical practice, reflecting the current belief that the risks
outweigh the benefits. Such a ban would be no different, really, than
the ban of opium based "baby soothing syrups" a hundred years ago.
Thinking back on this ban, do you see a violation of parental rights
when parents were told that they could not medicate their child as
they saw fit?

All female "circumcision" would also be banned (in the US, of course,
which is the only place where we have authority), because it is a
minority practice and a ban would cause minimal social damage.
We should ban it because it is cruel and because we _can_ ban it.
Period. Note that under the proposed (or passed?) Bill
H. R. 3075, SUBTITLE M:

"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 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 or any other
person that the operation is required as a matter of custom
or ritual."

In reality, as you can see, abstract considerations or rights mean
little when it comes to making laws. Is snipping just a little off a
a girl's labia _that_ much worse than cutting off a male's entire foreskin
that the former will land you in jail, and the latter is performed on
almost 60% of US male infants? No, but it is socially _possible_ to
ban one and socially impossible to ban the other, so we do what we can.
(At least, I hope that this is what is going through Rep. Shroeder's head).
Of course, I don't want to compare the general practice of FGM to male
circumcision, particularly its common severe manifestations such as
infibulation; I just want to point out how easy it is for us to ban it
across the board rather than to nitpick and balance the severity vs parental

Religious male circumcision, though, could not be banned in the US
(even though I personally view it as profoundly disturbing) simply
because it would effectively result in the persecution of significant
religious minorities. This would be more a pragmatic decision than
one based on abstract notions of religious rights. The gain
(children's right not to be cut up without their consent) would be much
smaller than the loss (the persecution of minorities).

I suppose that my entire point is that debating this as a matter of
"rights" is a red herring. Rights are already such a tangled mess
that to worry about "rights" when children's bodies are being cut up
is simply unrealistic. To worry about denying parents the "right" to
cut bits off their children's genitalia is nothing less than absurd,
given that I don't have the right to smoke a joint, or to assist a
terminally ill person in killing herself, or to purchase sex, or to do
any number of things that hurt no one else.

Laws are not (and cannot be) based just upon abstract arguments about
angels dancing on pins, but must be driven principally by pragmatism
and simple humane motivations that balance the different types of
damage that may be caused by imposing rules upon people's lives.