Flawed Circumcision Defense: Dr. Laura Berman

Posted: October 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, FGM, Parenting | No Comments »

tl;dr version:

Dr. Berman writes:

… Thankfully, [male circumcision] is a choice that we do have here in America, unlike the millions of young girls across the globe who must endure genital mutilation with no option to decline.

Her analysis shifts depending on whether a male or female is cut without need or consent. Male circumcision is “a choice that we do have here in America”. “Thankfully”¹. Her male circumcision argument is about parents, without consideration for the child. She then compares the victims of FGM “who must endure genital mutilation with no option to decline.” When did I have the option to decline my mutilation? When did any boy circumcised without need have the option to decline? Her argument is sophistry. It’s garbage and shows why any defense of male circumcision as ethically different from female genital mutilation is mistaken. Dr. Berman should feel shame for even thinking that sentence.

**********

Dr. Laura Berman posted a question on Facebook, asking:

Men, how do you feel about your circumcision (if you were circumcised)? Do you wish you weren’t, or do you think your parents made the right choice? And women – do you have a preference when it comes to partners who are circumcised vs. uncircumcised?

The replies are roughly in line with what anyone should expect from a circumcision thread. In response to some comments asking her opinion, she followed with a blog post about it, “When You Miss Your Foreskin: The Real Deal on Male Circumcision”. Early on, she writes:

First, as a Jewish woman, I want to acknowledge that there is a cultural legacy behind circumcision which informs many people in my community and their decision to circumcise. While I appreciate and love my Jewish heritage, I realize this is not enough of a reason to perform surgery on an infant without medical cause.

That statement takes courage and is worth commending. Unfortunately, she does not let that inform enough of the rest of her post. She continues:

The pediatric community is still largely in favor of circumcision, as they say that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. What are these benefits?

She links the AAP’s 2012 statement there, which I’m omitting because you can get there here or here, instead. Apart from quoting the AAP’s flawed statement, quoting the AAP as “the pediatric community” is silly. The *American* pediatric community is still largely in favor of (non-therapeutic infant) circumcision. Most of the rest of the world is not in favor, for the reason Dr. Berman touches and then skips. There is not enough of a reason to perform surgery on an infant without medical cause. (There is no reason. There is no medical cause.) That’s the ethical principle applicable here, as in non-therapeutic genital surgeries on female minors. There’s no reason to exclude male circumcision from ethics.

After reviewing some potential benefits of circumcision, including the casual sexism of “for little boys who hate to bathe”, which should be rewritten as “for parents who abdicate their responsibilities”, Dr. Berman gets to some negatives. She writes:

Loss of nerve endings. Removing the foreskin also removes thousands of nerve openings that make sex more pleasurable.

It’s beyond comprehension how someone can write that fact and not end the post there with, “Yeah, this is wrong. We must stop immediately. And we should apologize for every non-therapeutic, non-consensual circumcision performed before now, because we were wrong to perform every one of them.” But she doesn’t, because of the usual consequentialism and moral relativism involved in this debate that predictably appears in her post. She continues:

… Along with physical pain, many men later report that they feel they feel violated as their circumcision was done without their consent.

Although I feel violated, that is a direct result of being violated. My non-therapeutic circumcision occurred without my consent. My circumcision violated me. I know why we avoid acknowledging this as a society, but it’s too blatant to be defensible.

Dr. Berman shifts to something worth repeating:

Last, before I end, I want to address the issue of consent around circumcision. One man on my Facebook post compared circumcision to rape, and while I appreciate his right to anger about his circumcision, we must be very, very careful when we use the word ‘rape’ to describe anything other than rape. Words matter. They are powerful. They shape our beliefs and they inform the way we live in this world. So when we use the word ‘rape’ to talk about a medical procedure performed in good faith, this does a grave injustice to rape victims who have been abused, traumatized, penetrated and dehumanized by a sexual predator(s).

I agree with this, and stand by what I’ve written on it.

However, what is consent, if not the ability to reject something you neither need nor want? It shouldn’t be discussed in the context of calling circumcision “rape”. We must discuss consent, though,
because it’s the crux of the violation. You don’t believe in consent if you believe consent in non-therapeutic genital cutting is sometimes relevant and sometimes not.

She moves on to the comparison of female genital mutilation/cutting and male circumcision. It’s flawed:

Nor do I think it is appropriate to take over a conversation about female genital mutilation by bringing up male circumcision in the Western World. There is a giant difference between FGM which occurs across the globe in places like Africa, Indonesia, and more. There are currently 200 million women living today in 30 countries who have been victimized by female genital mutilation in which these young girls near puberty are held down while some or all of their external genitalia are cut off with a sharp blade or piece of glass or similar cutting instrument.

It’s usually not appropriate to take over a conversation about FGM. The problem arises when the writer changes the analysis used for non-therapeutic female and male genital cutting, as most writers on the comparison do, and as Dr. Berman does here. Is it wrong to alter the healthy, normal genitals of a girl in a sterile operating theatre with appropriate pain management and the best parental intentions, the context assumed for male circumcision? It is still wrong in that context because it harms the girl without her consent. “One is almost always worse” is true and irrelevant to the principled analysis of non-therapeutic genital cutting without the recipient’s consent.

The usual caveats appear to continue the false distinction:

Unlike male circumcision, there are absolutely no benefits to FGM,…

If there were potential benefits to FGM, very few would change their opinion on FGM. Rightly so, because they would look at the costs – the guaranteed harm – and judge it unethical. There is no excuse for distinguishing this violation of males from this violation of females.

… and unlike circumcision, it is not performed to protect male sexual health …

Harming an individual to protect him from harm that can be prevented with lesser interventions is an absurd justification. He may not prefer this “protection” at the expense of his foreskin.

… but in order to erase female sexual pleasure and to lay ownership to a woman’s genitals. …

What did Dr. Berman ask? “And women – do you have a preference when it comes to partners who are circumcised vs. uncircumcised?” Why is that question relevant to the discussion? Dr. Berman doesn’t use the “women prefer” argument, but enough proponents use it to make the comparison. At best, we do not discourage “you prefer circumcision, so circumcise your son”. So, is the argument that it isn’t intended to lay ownership to a man’s genitals or that it doesn’t lay ownership? Even when the former is correct, it’s irrelevant because the latter is always incorrect in non-therapeutic child circumcision. “Son, you should prefer our preference(s), so we’ll make this choice that forces you to live with our preference(s) forever” is the antithesis of self-ownership.

When Dr. Berman later talks about whether “circumcision is the right choice for you and your family”, she implies that the penis belongs to the family rather than the boy. The best intentions don’t change the action. It is permanent control over part of the child’s sexuality.

After more awful facts of FGM, and embedding an Instagram post from WHO (correctly) declaring FGM a violation of human rights, Dr. Berman continues:

FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women. There are many who feel that male circumcision is a violation of the human rights of baby boys, and for these people, deciding to keep their baby intact is the correct choice. Thankfully, it is a choice that we do have here in America, unlike the millions of young girls across the globe who must endure genital mutilation with no option to decline.

Circumcision is a violation of the human rights of boys and men. This is true for the same reason non-therapeutic, non-consensual genital cutting violates the human rights of girls and women. There is neither need nor consent. Any cutting in that context violates the individual. Any analysis beyond that is sophistry for one’s preferences and biases.

Re-read the tl;dr above if it isn’t burned into your mind.

And then:

Why am I making this distinction between FGM and circumcision? Because, again, I think it does a disservice to woman who can feel no sexual pleasure, women who endure a lifetime of pain and loss, and young girls who are held down and tortured because their bodies are viewed as dirty and sinful to a medical practice which is performed safely, hygienically and with a baby’s health in mind.

Again, what is done to the genitals of girls and women is horrific, barbaric, and indefensible. Also again, this uses a different standard for assessing what is done to girls and what is done to boys. Would she approve of FGM if it is “performed safely, hygienically and with a baby’s health in mind”? Nope, and to reiterate, correctly. Consequentialism and moral relativism have no place in the analysis of genital cutting, including male circumcision. Genital cutting is wrong for boys for the same reasons it’s wrong for girls. (Especially when we consider “their bodies are viewed as dirty” in the context of “for little boys who hate to bathe” and “I chose to circumcise because I thought it was cleaner.”)

In summary, using the last link in the previous paragraph, Dr. Berman writes:

While nothing can ever undo that man’s circumcision,…

“While nothing can ever undo that man’s *non-therapeutic, non-consensual* circumcision… That’s the whole story. Stop ignoring it.

¹ I’m not thankful male circumcision is a choice “we” have in America, because “we” decided my penis without me.


√erifying what you want to believe

Posted: May 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, FGM, Media Marketing, Parenting | No Comments »

WZZM, the ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a “verify” article purporting to address the following:

The story of a female genital mutilation case in Detroit has prompted lots of questions from our viewers on what this procedure actually is and how it compares to circumcision in males. So, we set out to Verify this issue by reaching out to the experts.

WZZM “verifies” this in a surprising and predictable manner. There’s a video associated with the article. It’s what I will use as a summary for two reasons. I assume that’s what most people who arrive at the link will use. But I’ll focus on the video because it addresses what WZZM researched, not the comparison the article said they aimed to verify. (Most of the sections of the article are rote talking points. Also, I’m unconvinced the article had an editor for content because it did not have one for grammar.)

First, the on-air reporter, Val Lego, provides a summary of the two procedures.


(Larger size here)

This is the surprising part. It’s accurate. As those of us who recognize the valid comparison have said, both inflict permanent harm for non-therapeutic reasons and without consent. This is where the discussion should end. If this were investigating the correct question, the comparison as posited in the article, Ms. Lego would say, “As you can see, they are comparable. They are both a violation of the child.”

But this wasn’t investigating the correct question. Contrary to the accompanying article, WZZM sought to “verify” the difference between female genital mutilation and male circumcision. WZZM begged the question that they’re different. So, even with the ethical comparison established, the analysis works to provide the flawed, predictable psychological comfort for the viewer. Anyone with even a basic understanding of American culture can predict the outcome:


(Larger size here)

Here’s the completed list. It’s “√erified”. You got it right, didn’t you?


(Larger size here)

While accurate in the merely factual sense, none of it is relevant to the question of whether child genital cutting is acceptable. The comparison established before this list demands equal protection for everyone based in the ethical principle¹, whether female or male, adult or child. Everyone has the same human rights. There are no exceptions in the right to bodily integrity for “rooted in parents’ religion”, “potential health benefits”, or “only lifelong consequences we care about”. Religious rights belong to the individual, including the choice to reject genital cutting. The potential health benefits are of subjective value² because the child is healthy. Only he may decide if he values them more than his foreskin. And permanent removal of normal body parts is harm, always. That harm occurs in varying degrees, but harm is guaranteed with every cut.

Going back to the article, it ends with this:

Dr. Megan Stubbs, sex and relationship expert, says that there is a distinct intent to curb a woman’s sexual desire when she undergoes FGM/C – women and girls may face serious, lifelong medical and sexual dysfunction.

“Men who have been circumcised typically lead happy, health lives. Circumcised men still enjoy sex, with or without a foreskin,” Dr. Stubbs states.

Again, FGM is evil in all its forms. “May face” is true here because some less-common forms of FGM do not inflict serious, lifelong harm (or inflict harm similar to circumcision). Those forms are still illegal, as they should be. Good so far.

Dr. Stubbs then counters objective harm to a female victim with “still enjoy sex” for male circumcision. It’s a ubiquitous attempt at a distinguisher, the psychological comfort to parents of boys. But Dr. Stubbs changed the criterion, going from factual statements about FGM to a subjective statement about male genital cutting. Changing form (i.e. cutting away genital parts) changes function (e.g. loss of foreskin’s gliding mechanism). Whether that’s good or not depends on the individual recipient’s opinion. Outcomes vary for every individual. Preferences for or against those outcomes differ for every individual.

The issue is proxy consent for non-therapeutic genital cutting. The first picture above makes it clear how this should be answered. It is not a separate analysis for female versus male patients. (There is perhaps a separate analysis of punishment for what is inflicted on the victim.) Without need, inflicting permanent harm on an individual via proxy consent – with unknown severity and long-term consequences – is indefensible.

No individual’s experiences (or rights) are less valid than another’s because his or her outcome isn’t typical or as severe as another’s, or because his or her parents had the perceived right intention. “Still enjoy sex” is not a Get Out of Violating Human Rights Free card. Nothing in that video or article makes me think those who oppose FGM and defend circumcision would accept FGM if potential health benefits were discovered. (It wouldn’t be ethical to research the question on children, anyway.) That’s correct because FGM/C violates the girl’s body and rights. Thinking the items in the “√erified” column excuse or differentiate male circumcision in a meaningful manner is wrong and hypocritical.

¹ Non-therapeutic genital cutting without consent of the recipient is unethical.

² Science isn’t stagnant, either. It’s realistic to imagine a future with even better ways than our existing less-invasive-than-genital-cutting options to respond to the problems prophylactic male circumcision might address.


False Distinction, Not False Equivalency

Posted: April 30th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: "Voluntary", Ethics, FGM, Law, Logic, Science | 2 Comments »

Note: I’m not going to write about the charges directly here. Anything involving a cursory glance of my work here will let you know I understand, abhor, and reject FGM in every form. If guilty of the charges, the doctors should serve the maximum sentence allowed.

I noticed something both fascinating and infuriating in this USA Today version of the Detroit Free Press article on the arrest of three doctors in Michigan on charges of mutilating the genitals of female minors. Specifically, this section:

As some medical experts on the topic stated in a 2015 article by The Atlantic:

“Male circumcision does no harm. Female gender mutilation does. Male circumcision cuts the foreskin, FGM cuts the clitoris — the two things cut are not even remotely the same. For male circumcision to be equivalent to FGM, the entire tip of the male’s penis would need to be cut off … Constantly trying to claim they are equivalent practices when they are not takes away from the unique seriousness of female ‘circumcision/mutilation,’ as most cases are performed during a traumatic developmental period and remove most sexual sensation, which is not true with male circumcision.”

Two things immediately jumped out. Who are the medical experts? Where is the link to the Atlantic article? Seeing that this is the USA Today version, I investigated to determine if the link was dropped from the original Detroit Free Press version, which is here. Nope. The link isn’t there. And not only is the link not there, those two paragraphs were removed and replaced. (More on the latter in a moment.) So I checked the Wayback Machine to see if the USA Today version is different or out-of-date. Predictably, it’s out-of-date, because the first version was what USA Today still presents. My hunch was that the reporter, Tresa Baldas, (or an editor) made an inexcusable mistake, which was then erased (incompletely, because the internet is mostly forever). It’s the conclusion I draw, but I’m open to more facts.

I found the referenced Atlantic article, “How Similar Is FGM to Male Circumcision? Your Thoughts”. It contains Baldas’ paragraph from two excerpted, merged comments. The quoted “medical experts” are a commenter called Tyfereth and a commenter, Jim Eubanks, who is an MD candidate, according to his Facebook profile. Half-right, I guess, except the initial comment is the one drawing the alleged distinction. Tyfereth’s comment:

Male circumcision does no harm. FGM does. Male circumcision cuts the foreskin, FGM cuts the clitoris, the two things cut are not even remotely the same. For male circumcision to be equivalent to FGM, the entire tip of the males penis would need to be cut off. Now that would be a harm, but cutting off the foreskin isn’t harmful.

This is ridiculous logic. (It is also incomplete knowledge of the various types of FGM.) Cutting inflicts harm. This is indisputable, except for foolish attempts such as this. Declaring that cutting the body and removing a normal, healthy body part is somehow harmless, like touching a raindrop, should raise skepticism in every reporter (and editor). That it didn’t immediately demonstrates a problem Ms. Baldas (and/or her editor) should question in her continuing coverage. Instead, she quoted Tyfereth as a medical expert on nothing more than a lame “nuh-unh!”.

At least Mr. Eubanks appears to be closer to an expert. But he isn’t making the same argument, so he shouldn’t be lumped in with Tyfereth’s nonsense. In his complete comment, he’s a bit more nuanced.:

False equivalency. You can stand against both practices, but constantly trying to claim they are equivalent practices when they are not takes away from the unique seriousness of female “circumcision/mutulation” as most cases are performed during a traumatic developmental period and remove most sexual sensation, which is not true with male circumcision. We can oppose both but take them on their own terms please.

He’s still wrong, of course. There is no false equivalency in the principle. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. The right involved is a human right based in consent, not a female right based in degree of harm¹. The cutting done on an individual is a matter for penalty, not whether both violations or just those of females should be treated as crimes. The boy who is cut has as much right to his normal, healthy body² as the girl who is cut has to hers.

This is apparent with analysis of a more recent article Ms. Baldas wrote, “Report: Girl’s genital mutilation injury worse than doctor claims”.

A doctor’s findings, however, contradict that claim. A juvenile protection petition filed on behalf of the victims in Minnesota, along with federal court documents, cite scarring, a small tear, healing lacerations and what appears to be surgical removal of a portion of her genitalia.

I have or had all four of those injuries. I can’t state they are to the same degree, of course, so I’m not declaring that here. I’m stating the comparison is valid because non-therapeutic genital cutting without consent violates the individual. There is no false equivalency in stating that everyone has the same right to be free from unneeded, unwanted harm.

————-
Here are the paragraphs that replaced the reference to the medical experts in the Atlantic.

Medical associations also have cited health benefits to male circumcision, but have found no such benefits to female genital mutilation, which has been condemned by medical organizations worldwide.

For example, The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have both found that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, though both groups say the final decision should be left to the parents as it may involve religious or cultural beliefs. The benefits cited by both groups include the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and a lower risk for urinary tract infections in infants.

Neither group, however, endorses female genital mutilation in any form and has cautioned physicians against practicing it. The same goes for the World Health Organization, which has condemned female genital mutilation, but has recognized health benefits to male circumcision, stating: “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”

First, the “FGM has no medical benefits” argument is a false distinction. It’s true, but irrelevant in the comparison. Most, if not all, opponents do not oppose FGM because it has no medical benefits. They oppose it because it violates the girl and inflicts harm on her. It’s a “spaghetti against the wall” argument. If researchers were to find (potential) benefits, the harm would still be real. Few opponents would change their mind. Rightly, of course, but it demonstrates the argument’s irrelevance.

Next, the American Academy of Pediatrics did not “find” that the health benefits outweigh the risks. They declared it to be true in the same way Michael Scott declared bankruptcy. The ethics section (Pg. 759) of its 2012 technical report states:

… Reasonable people may disagree, however, as to what is in the best interest of any individual patient or how the potential medical benefits and potential medical harms of circumcision should be weighed against each other.

This is obviously true. The value of a potential risk reduction at the expense of risk and an objective physical cost with the lost foreskin is a subjective conclusion based on the individual’s personal preferences. Yet the Abstract misrepresents what’s in the Technical Report when it declares, “preventive health benefits of elective circumcision of male newborns outweigh the risks of the procedure”. The AAP knows this is not a factual statement. Lazy, uncritical journalism perpetuates this subjective conclusion as fact.

Even the alleged bioethicist involved in the Task Force knows the truth, despite what he signed off on with the Abstract. Dr. Douglas Diekema said, “Not everyone would trade that foreskin for that medical benefit.” All individual tastes and preferences are unique. I think the potential benefits probably have merit. I don’t care. I don’t want them in exchange for my foreskin. I’d rather have my foreskin and a (tiny) higher absolute risk of a foreskin-related problem than my circumcision. This is true in spite of my parents preferring me circumcised. The proper analysis is cost-benefit, not risk-benefit. The risks are a relevant cost, but the loss of the foreskin is the primary cost of circumcision. For indefensible reasons, most – including the AAP and CDC – ignore it completely.

The reference to the CDC is curious for another reason. Its proposed guidelines have not proceeded beyond the flawed draft recommendations from 2014. Again, uncritical journalism is probably to blame. Most treated the draft as final, despite it clearly stating “draft” and open to review. I assume this happens due to laziness and confirmation bias. Insert your own theory why. It doesn’t matter. The result is misinformation spreads further.

With respect to FGM, the AAP briefly proposed a ritual nick as an alternative, which has implications for the “false equivalency”. But it is correct they don’t endorse it today. The WHO, however, is clueless and/or hypocritical. From its FGM factsheet, it states:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. Generally speaking, risks increase with increasing severity of the procedure.

Everything there that isn’t the “spaghetti against the wall” argument (and “total removal” for the pedants, although it occurs) is true of male circumcision. WHO recognizes FGM as “a violation of the human rights of girls and women”. It is a violation of human rights, not female rights. Injury to the genitals without need or consent is the problem, not the form of the body part.

¹ Even though, yes, what is done to females is usually more harmful than what is done to males.

² This applies to intersex children, too. Obviously.


Flawed Circumcision Defense: Barbara Kay

Posted: October 18th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Control, Ethics, FCD, FGM, Hygiene, Logic, Media Marketing, Pain, Science | No Comments »

[10/19 Update: Edited for clarity and to reduce speculation since late night posting is imperfect and probably unwise.]

National Post columnist Barbara Kay used Brian Morris’ latest rehash on circumcision to repeat her ignorant thoughts on the subject. She begins by regurgitating claimed benefits, which can all be conceded here for the sake of time because they’re irrelevant to the only issue, ethics. Then:

… Dr. Morris and his American co-authors state, “We found that up to 65% of uncircumcised males might experience at least one of these [medical conditions] over their lifetime.” …

Until May 2015 Morris claimed the number as 33%. Since June 2015 he claims it’s 50% in a brochure on his website. And it’s apparently 65% in this new review. When will he settle on 100%? But more to the point, it’s obvious he likes whichever way he can claim this number because it’s flashy. “Ooooooh, 33/50/65 percent is high. Such danger!” But it’s a meaningless number in the context of non-therapeutic circumcision of boys. I assume Morris knows this. I assume Kay doesn’t, so a review of Morris’ history could help. Instead of those numbers, this is what is worth discussing here, from Morris:

Up to 10% of males reaching adulthood uncircumcised [sic] will later require circumcision for medical reasons.

Not only is the number only 10%, it’s only up to 10%. Medically necessary circumcision is rare, at any age. There is no ethical case for imposing the most radical solution without consent when at least 90% of males will never need it.

She continues:

… Their risk-benefit analysis of the procedure led them to conclude the benefits exceed the risks by about 100 to one. (In another study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Dr. Morris and colleagues found circumcision produced no adverse affect on sexual function or pleasure, a charge often leveled by anti-circumcision activist groups.)

Much like when Yair Rosenberg accepted Morris’ claim unexamined, Kay doesn’t appear to know the primary source.

But in a study Morris and Krieger rate as [highest quality], Payne et al [12], this:

… It is possible that the uncircumcised penis is more sensitive due to the presence of additional sensory receptors on the prepuce and frenulum, but this cannot be compared with the absence of such structures in the circumcised penis. …

Payne’s study published in 2007. In 2011 Kay wrote:

Set aside the rights-based rhetoric. It’s about sex: Circumcised men have greater pre-orgasmic endurance; non-circumcision permits more frequent ejaculations. …

So, circumcision either delays orgasm, assumed to be positive for all men, or has no effect on sexual pleasure. Like Morris, she appears to play “heads I win, tails you lose”.

Kay goes on to write:

… The AAP states: “The new findings show that infant circumcision should be regarded as equivalent to childhood vaccination and that as such it would be unethical not to routinely offer parents circumcision for their baby boy. Delay puts the child’s health at risk and will usually mean it will never happen.”

That quote is not from the AAP. It’s from Prof. Morris. He wrote it in a press release more than 18 months after the AAP published its revised position statement. Kay doesn’t bother to fact check the most basic statement. [ed. note: Kay asked the online editor to correct her error.] Nor does she pursue how Morris’ quote undermines their case for non-therapeutic neonatal circumcision since he acknowledges that circumcision is rarely necessary.

Thus, while it’s inexcusable, it’s hardly shocking when she continues:

The CPS could not condemn the practice on grounds of increased morbidity. After thousands of years of what is essentially a controlled study with virtually all Jewish men, with a large percentage of Muslim men on one side, and uncircumcised men on the other, it has been unequivocally concluded that circumcision presents no health risks; quite the contrary, as we shall see.

Even Morris doesn’t pretend that circumcision “presents no health risks”. He understates them, and ignores the guaranteed harm from the removal of the foreskin (and possibly frenulum) in 100% of circumcisions. But he’s not so biased that he’ll posit such an obvious untruth. Yet, there’s Kay’s indifference masquerading as hyperbole for all to see.

… Morris’s team estimates the combined frequency of adverse events at 0.4% overall, arguing that “the cumulative frequency of medical conditions attributable to [having an intact foreskin] was approximately 100-fold higher” than the cumulative risk of circumcision.

Even if we accept the numbers, he’s arguing frequency of medical conditions attributable to the foreskin, not the frequency of medically necessary circumcision. It’s fascinating, perhaps, but a transparent obfuscation. The anti-science charge is often leveled at activists here, but soap, water, antibiotics, steroids, condoms, and so on are also science. To start with the most extreme solution at the tiny prospect of a problem sometime in the future is ridiculous.

When she gets to the comparison of male and female genital cutting, she ignores the principle.

The single most irrational argument one often sees is the charge of moral equivalency between circumcision and female genital mutilation. FGM is a phenomenon that is, apart from both affecting the genitals, …

Apart from both affecting the genitals, indeed. Affecting the genitals of a healthy child who does not need or consent to the permanent alteration of said healthy genitals. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. The individual has inherent rights to bodily integrity and autonomy from birth. Non-therapeutic circumcision violates those rights.

… quite separate from circumcision. Unlike circumcision, which removes an unnecessary piece of skin, …

Unnecessary circumcision removes a piece of skin. It’s the same words, but made objective rather than subjective. It’s the fact-based opposite of “heads I win, tails you lose”.

… in no way prevents natural and satisfying sexual function, …

In addition to calling back to the Payne study and Kay’s earlier comments about delayed orgasm, circumcision removes the foreskin, a natural part of the body. That is “natural”. Its mechanism is gone, so circumcision certainly prevents that function. And “satisfying” is subjective. Would all men prefer delayed orgasm and the loss of the foreskin? (I don’t.)

… FGM is a misogynistic practice created as a means for men to control women, …

Circumcision controls men. Its imposition is another’s assessment that the male’s body should be the way someone else prefers. It is then made that way (hopefully, except when complications occur, including possible death). The male is never asked. He is to say “thank you”, praise the imposition, and impose it on his sons as soon as they’re born.

Kay’s argument rests on control as intent rather than action. I doubt she would accept that parents cutting their daughter’s genitals for the reasons we allow them to cut their son’s genitals. She assumes their intent is always evil, but is it the intent or the act that matters here? If she believes intent with FGC is only what she writes, as she appears to believe, she should read more¹ on the topic. And then extrapolate back to the disparity in the intent and the violence of male circumcision.

… meant to prevent sexual desire and gratification in women to ensure their fidelity, and which removes a portion of the genitals absolutely vital to gratification. It is the very epitome of patriarchy, whereas circumcision is a rite of passage conceived by males for other males, and for thousands of years rooted solely in spiritually contractual language and meaning. Women who have been subjected to FGM invariably come from countries in which extreme misogyny is the norm. Circumcision carries no moral or gender-injustice baggage of this kind whatsoever.

I agree that FGM is awful. But it’s silly to repeatedly claim a definitive knowledge that male circumcision does not remove of portion of the genitals absolutely vital to gratification. She ignorantly cites bad summaries of studies and only uses groups of males circumcised at birth or as young children as reference points for this opinion. She doesn’t appear interested in males as individuals with rights and preferences of their own for their foreskins. (“Conceived by males for other males”.) Preference for the foreskin or circumcision is an individual decision. What other males prefer is only valid for themselves.

She closes by misunderstanding the ethics involved one last time, in a disgusting manner:

Parents deserve to be informed of all the evidence, pro and con, when the issue of circumcision arises. It is not necessary for the CPS to actively recommend circumcision to keep to the path of ethics and professional responsibility, but given the accumulation of evidence demonstrating the positive effects of circumcision, it would be unethical of the CPS – or any pediatricians individually – not to present the science available, or worse, to recommend against the procedure.

She’s dancing close to the silly proposition that boys have a right to grow up circumcised. The only ethical position is absolute opposition to (and prohibition of) all non-therapeutic genital cutting without the patient’s consent. It’s the right she recognizes for females. Her source (inadvertently?) recognizes that circumcision is rarely needed ever and can be (but likely won’t be) chosen later. She cites evidence of males who are dissatisfied with circumcision and being circumcised. But she ignores these in favor of her own biases. Cognitive dissonance (and a non-sequitur) is the best she can offer. She is ignorant. She should aim to be less ignorant.

¹ Consider Fuambai Sia Aahmadu, and from 2008.


The “Hacking Away at Perfectly Healthy Genitals is Bad” Principle

Posted: February 5th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FGM, Logic, Parenting | No Comments »

How many times have we seen a quote like this?

In Jacksonville, Dominic Morris, a 30-year-old father of two, said he did not understand what all the fuss was about. He said he was not mutilated during his circumcision, didn’t bleed at all and felt nearly no pain during or after the procedure. “Mutilation is horrible, but it’s not true that it happens here” in America, Mr. Morris said. “They cannot stop us. It’s our tradition.”

That’s said every time an activist discusses circumcision for what it is rather than what people think it is. It’s accepted thought. We’re told we owe complete deference to it. Who are we to tell people their dismissal of inconvenient facts is wrong? We’ll assume they’re informed, whatever they’ve been told or choose to believe. Parents have this absolute right to have their healthy children cut for whatever reason they desire. Sons only. Obviously.

Except, wait. I just noticed an error. I transcribed that quote wrong. Here’s the real quote from that story:

In Jakarta, Fitri Yanti, a pregnant 30-year-old mother of two, said she did not understand what all the fuss was about. She said she was not mutilated during her circumcision, didn’t bleed at all and felt nearly no pain during or after the procedure. “Mutilation is horrible, but it’s not true that it happens here” in Indonesia, Ms. Fitri said. “They cannot stop us. It’s our tradition.”

We will never accept that defense in the context of female genital cutting. Rightly so, of course. But I choose not to be a hypocrite, so I don’t accept it for male genital cutting, either. The basic fact is the same. It’s non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual. Therefore, the principle is the same. They are both unethical. Opposition to one necessitates¹ opposition to the other².

We should also be clear on what Ms. Fitri may be arguing.

Experts in Indonesia said the practice there had largely involved a less drastic version of cutting, usually a surface scratch or nick, as compared with more severe disfiguring. The Indonesian government’s survey asked parents if their young daughters had undergone circumcision. Ms. Cappa said it was possible that there were some more severe cases in Indonesia, but she said the official Indonesian government definition of female circumcision was “an act of scratching the skin that covers the front of clitoris without injuring the clitoris.”

That is objectively less harmful than male circumcision. Still, the official government definition could be irrelevant to the reasons parents are answering “yes”. The parents could be openly admitting something much more severe. This possible difference matters for prevention and response. In principle, it’s irrelevant. We recognize even “a surface scratch or nick” on a female minor’s genitals, which will likely heal without permanent injury or scarring, as unethical and worthy of prohibition. The WHO’s definition of FGM is effectively “any genital injury for non-medical reasons”. The universal principle is obvious and applies without regard to sex. We must all reject the silly, biased distinction the WHO and others demand. Possible health benefits are not a “medical” reason for non-therapeutic male genital cutting. (“Medicalized” is not the same as “medical”.)

What happened to Ms. Fitri is unethical. What will/did happen to Ms. Fitri’s children is unethical. For every male who was/is the hypothetical Dominic Morris as a child, what happened to them as a child is unethical.

(Title reference here.)

¹ Opposition to both does not necessitate equal activist efforts from everyone. Care more about FGC/M? Agitate for change. Care more about MGC/M? Activate for change. The cumulative effort will work itself out. Just don’t dump on those agitating more for one than the other, or for making the logical comparison of the two.

² Or it necessitates support for both, but I assume no one reading this wishes to be horribly wrong and unethical.


Activism is always about marketing

Posted: February 4th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FGM, Mission | No Comments »

I like this post by Jonathan Friedman:

Friday, February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). There is a lot of positive momentum in the UK and around the world for education and prosecuting those who practice or aid FGM. This is a day for us to learn more about FGM, to listen to the victims and to learn how FGM is being eradicated. Many of us know very little about it and have never even met victims of FGM.

That’s correct. It’s too easy to forget that children are violated, not just boys, because of what is most familiar. It’s also critical to remember this reality:

Unfortunately, there’s also a great deal of sexism within the discourses on FGM, especially coming from cultures practicing male genital mutilation (MGM). Great care is taken to state that MGM and FGM aren’t comparable, while intersex genital mutilation (IGM) is virtually ignored. MGM has recognized health benefits, FGM does not, they point out. MGM is a religious requirement, FGM is a cultural practice. And so on.

Many women’s organizations recognize MGM for what it is and speak out. On December 12, 2012, I attended my first Bloodstained Men & Their Friends demonstration in Berlin, Germany, the day the German Parliament passed a new law enshrining MGM as a religious right. The event was co-organized by Terre Des Femme, a women’s rights organization. I can’t express how comforted I felt getting up there on stage in a bloodstained suit with a group that included a woman.

People are complicated. I trust that anyone opposed to FGM is – or can be – receptive to the truth that boys have the same rights as girls. We should challenge mistaken beliefs where possible. But we can’t make enemies of potential allies because it feels good to launch these wide, careless attacks. Everyone involved is justifiably angry to some extent. Some are angry, and others are more angry. It’s natural. We can’t allow that anger to become so righteous that we lose control. Don’t be an accelerant:

So to them I say: don’t be an accelerant. Be a passionate advocate when necessary. Speak truth to power when you feel it’s right. But train your powerful tools of criticism of others on yourselves, and be ruthless when it comes to your own good intentions. Ask yourself: when I intensify this conflict, when I beat my chest and declare someone evil, when I throw fuel on the fire, am I really helping the people of color and women I claim to speak for? When I go for the jugular again and again, am I actually helping to solve injustice? Is this kind of engagement from me an instrument of political progress? If not, why am I doing it? How am I contributing to this cause?

The context is different, but the same. It never helps protect children when someone spews hatred at a group of people united only by the attacker’s presumption of the group’s hatred of boys. Pick a group targeted for vitriol, whether it’s women as in the tweet linked above, or Jews, or doctors, or any group, really. When did smearing someone achieve a single helpful thing? Lazy accusations of misandry don’t help. How many times do any of us need to see images from issue two of Foreskin Man in news stories and blog posts to understand how damaging that vileness is? You think you’re making the point that circumcision is awful and how dare you not understand that circumcision is awful. You’re making the point that you’re unhinged and scary and best ignored.

Back to Mr. Friedman’s post, in this paragraph he states exactly what activism should be:

When space is created for talking about FGM, we need to respect the intentionality of that space. When that space is used to defend MGM or IGM, we must raise our voices as appropriately as possible. We have been accused of minimizing FGM by comparing it to MGM and taking resources away from FGM, as if we’re all in competition. Whether or not these allegations are true, people perceive these as being true (on the whole I think they’re false, but I can’t speak for everyone).

It’s correct for discussions of FGM. The concepts of appropriateness and respect are broadly applicable. That willingness to consider others and to understand that we need to explain our position will achieve more than “Shut up” ever could. Do we want to feel superior or do we want to protect children?


Flawed Circumcision Defense: Karin Klein

Posted: December 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, FGM, Science | 1 Comment »

Encouraging half-baked opinions, like this one by Los Angeles Times reporter Karin Klein, is the inevitable result of the CDC’s proposed recommendation. The opinion piece is titled, “It’s time to end inaccurate criticisms of male circumcision”, which suggests its author should not offer an incomplete analysis in defense of male circumcision. That is what Ms. Klein offers.

The recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should quell the unfounded arguments that male circumcision is no better than or different from female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. According to the draft guidelines released by the CDC, the benefits of male circumcision clearly outweigh the risks, in the form of reduced risks of urinary tract infection as infants and penile cancer later in life, and lower risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The short version of her essay is “Shut up.” It’s her introduction and conclusion. Alas¹, no.

“According to the draft guidelines released by the CDC” involves undue weight for the recommendation. The CDC’s conclusion is subjective. The equation is not merely benefits versus risks. There is a direct cost (i.e. harm) in the loss of the foreskin. That matters, yet it isn’t factored into the CDC’s analysis (or the AAP’s before it or Ms. Klein’s here). And the CDC ignores the individual foreskin owner’s preferences. Someone might value his foreskin more than reduced risks of future maladies. As I do. It isn’t defensible to declare that the potential benefits “clearly” outweigh the risks, for everyone, or that this demonstrates anything conclusive.

The comparison of male circumcision to female genital mutilation rests on the principle involved, not indifference to the disparity in recognized potential benefits. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. Minimal or maximal cutting is relevant for punishment, but not for whether the individual’s human rights are violated. A female owns her body from birth, including her genitals. A male owns his body from birth, including his genitals.

It’s understandable that circumcision has become controversial. It’s a permanent change made to the body, usually in infancy. (It should be noted that parents make all kinds of decisions that affect their children’s lives permanently; circumcision happens to be a particularly visible one.) …

It’s a permanent change made to the healthy body. Defending this removes any limitation on what parents may do. It isn’t that it’s a particularly visible effect. It’s that circumcision alters the child’s body without need. Proxy consent requires the patient’s need, not the proxy’s preference. Non-therapeutic circumcision is still cosmetic surgery, contra the silliness Ms. Klein will shortly suggest.

Nor is non-therapeutic circumcision acceptable because parents make all kinds of decisions. This common argument rests on the flawed premise that a) Parents make decisions for their children, b) Non-therapeutic genital cutting is a decision, therefore c) Parents may cut the healthy genitals of their children sons. It’s ridiculous. Treating all decisions equally to defend an extreme, gendered decision makes no sense. It imagines a strange scope of parenting we don’t accept, as evidenced by the required strikethrough in c) to narrow the conclusion to what parents may legally decide on non-therapeutic genital cutting. It’s about parental rights only to the convenient extent that it maps to what we want to do. It’s arbitrary.

The CDC report won’t end the debate, nor should it necessarily do so. Perhaps its most important short-term good will be to increase the likelihood that the procedure will be covered by health insurance, because circumcision could not be viewed as solely a cosmetic procedure, but rather one that carried health benefits backed by the most current scientific research. That gives parents the option — either way.

It is still cosmetic surgery, even with potential health benefits backed by the most current scientific research. It is backed by an incomplete analysis of all factors involved. Arguing only from potential benefits and risks without factoring in the costs (i.e. harms), as well as preferences for how an individual weighs those three aspects for himself, is biased, inaccurate nonsense. The CDC shouldn’t peddle it. Ms. Klein shouldn’t defend it.

But it should end the scurrilous argument that male circumcision, with its very low complication rate, is mutilation on par with female circumcision. There are no known health benefits to female genital circumcision and a long list of not-uncommon consequences, including fistulas, abscesses and childbirth complications.

If Ms. Klein is going to use a word like scurrilous to criticize critics, she should first understand mutilation. Should we assume that a case of non-therapeutic female genital cutting without the girl’s consent that doesn’t result in a complication, or at least only a “very low complication rate”, isn’t actually mutilation? I assume Ms. Klein’s answer is the correct answer, which is “obviously not”. We can also search for the unifying principle that shows how weird it is to argue that parents should have the choice to surgically alter the bodies of their children, except this choice is for sons only because we’ve researched that. For example, in the WHO factsheet on Female Genital Mutilation, this:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Partial removal or other injury to the genital organs for non-medical reasons? As long as you don’t foolishly suggest “reduced risk of X” is somehow a medical reason² for non-therapeutic circumcision, removing the foreskin is clearly such an injury.

And:

FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.

Removing and damaging healthy and normal genital tissue, and interferes with the natural function of bodies? Male circumcision fits that, too. Without need or consent, male circumcision is indefensible genital mutilation. Awareness of potential benefits does not change the equation. It is mere question-begging.

Of course, even religious traditions shouldn’t outweigh health concerns. Just as female genital mutilation is outlawed in this country no matter what the religious beliefs of the parents, if the CDC report had found similar complications with male circumcision, then there should be serious conversations about whether the procedure should be allowed. But that’s not what the science shows; until there is solid evidence to contradict the CDC report, conversations about restricting parents’ ability to make this decision for their sons should end.

It makes sense to ask if the boys who suffer the complications, including the most serious outcomes, could be considered mutilated, or is it merely based on the intent we assume for the parents? (The simplistic, “Male genital cutting is well-intentioned. Female genital cutting is ill-intentioned.”) But complications and consequences are unique. Consequences includes the costs (e.g. loss of the foreskin). That ignored aspect is what makes non-therapeutic male circumcision an unacceptable parental choice. Again, using the subjective conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks while excluding the factual harms and the child’s preference is an incomplete analysis. Demanding, as Ms. Klein does, that we guide policy on this subjective opinion is ludicrous.

The CDC’s recommendation and Ms. Klein’s demand aren’t made better by using SCIENCE! as an incantation. Å normal, healthy foreskin is science. The numerous methods short of circumcision to prevent and/or treat maladies are science. A condom is no less SCIENCE! than circumcision. Antibiotics are no less SCIENCE! than circumcision. Soap and water are no less SCIENCE! than circumcision. It might be interesting that parents prefer SCIENCE! to SCIENCE!, but the issue involves ethics. The ethics are the same, whether it’s daughters or sons. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. We all have the same basic rights. Non-therapeutic genital cutting without the individual’s consent violates her – or his – basic human rights.

¹ The piece includes a “Shareline” suggestion to tweet out a link to it with propaganda, “There are reasonable debates about male circumcision — but not about its benefits vs. risks”. That’s also nothing more than “Shut up”. It poisons the conversation by setting boundaries on what’s “reasonable” to debate. It’s also incorrect.

² The factsheet makes it clear that this would not be accepted for any non-therapeutic female genital cutting, as the law against FGM in the United States also makes clear. There is a principle, and it doesn’t negate the principle of equal rights simply because we’ve agreed to study the possible benefits of cosmetic surgery.


Cutting matters more than the “why”

Posted: November 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, FGM, Media Marketing | 1 Comment »

Mona Eltahawy writes in The New York Times:

I am a 47-year-old Egyptian woman. And I am among the fortunate few of my countrywomen whose genitals have not been cut in the name of “purity” and the control of our sexuality.

This is an important topic. She explains it well as it pertains to Egypt. But this paragraph bothers me:

The practice is sometimes erroneously referred to as circumcision. According to the World Health Organization, it “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons.” The procedure has no health benefits. We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls’ genitals because we’re obsessed with female virginity and because women’s sexuality is a taboo. This cutting is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive. And families believe their daughters are unmarriageable unless they are cut.

“Sometimes erroneously referred to as circumcision” is meant to distinguish FGM from male genital cutting. “No health benefits” demonstrates this point for the few readers who didn’t catch the “male circumcision is okay” implication¹. That’s nonsense. It’s reasonable to state that the two inflict different degrees of harm in common practice, and that difference can be significant. It is not reasonable to distinguish the two as “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. The World Health Organization quote she used describes male genital cutting, too.

The end of the paragraph demonstrates this point. Were I to write the second half of that paragraph, I’d write it from this perspective:

We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls’ genitals.

That sentence doesn’t need the because. She was correct to include it. It’s relevant for explanation. But the sentence as I wrote it does not need a “because”. It doesn’t matter why we do it, hacking away at a child’s perfectly healthy genitals is always wrong. Get the principle right and the comparison takes care of itself.

For example, does anyone believe Ms. Eltahawy would change her mind if someone discovers health benefits for any form of FGC? Would she be okay with research studies to determine if there are benefits? I wouldn’t. I don’t believe she would. What about cases where her “because” is wrong and parents are honest-but-mistaken in their intent? Nothing changes. The truth that we shouldn’t hack away at a girl’s healthy genitals is clear. There is no excuse for making or endorsing an implication that hacking away at a boy’s healthy genitals is somehow acceptable. People who make the argument Ms. Eltahawy makes in that paragraph advocate for special rights, not human rights.

¹ See also.


Comparing Genital Cutting

Posted: July 30th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FGM | No Comments »

I agree with the gist of Neil Lyndon’s call yesterday for a proper debate on circumcision. I’d express it differently than he did, without the needless attacks, but here he’s right:

Another part of the reason it doesn’t register on anybody’s list of outrages and abuses is that ritual male genital mutilation is inflicted, sanctioned, tolerated and even encouraged not just by people who might be like us – but by our very selves. It’s not some remote, alien barbarism: it’s intrinsic to our own domestic lives.

The argument is “We don’t practice female genital cutting because it’s bad. Circumcision can’t be bad because we practice it. And it isn’t male genital cutting. It’s circumcision.” Cognitive dissonance is powerful.

Such common and unquestioned practice leads people to bluster about circumcision in the same callous tones that old blunderbusses used to talk about the caning of boys at school before it was outlawed: “Never did me any harm. Can’t see what all the fuss is about. What a sensitive plant you must be if you care about such a trivial matter.”

Anyone who has argued against non-therapeutic child circumcision has heard that bluster almost word-for-word.

Today, Simon Hochhauser, Co-Chairman of Milah UK, responds with “Don’t compare male circumcision with FGM“. He is wrong.

FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of the genitalia, is a crime because it is abhorrent by any measure. It subjugates women, makes intercourse extremely difficult and painful, and can be the cause of a number of serious medical complications, including not only haemorrhage but also urinary retention, urinary infection, wound infection, and septicaemia. Sadly, in the countries where it is most widely performed, hygiene is poor, and thus both hepatitis and tetanus have also resulted.

That’s generally the case, but it isn’t the only case. The relevant comparison isn’t to start (and end) with differences in practice, but to look at similarities in practice and principle. At its most concise, they’re both non-therapeutic genital cutting on an individual who does not consent. The applicable law in the UK (and 18 U.S. Code § 116 in the United States) prohibits cutting any part of the healthy genitalia of a female minor, just as the WHO defines FGM. It isn’t just genital cutting more extreme than male circumcision. The focus is on the rights and how imposing non-therapeutic surgery on a child violates her rights. The same principles apply to male minors.

Consider this quote from the Girl Summit conference in London Mr. Hochhauser cites:

“A girl is a human being and she should be respected,” [Malala Yousafazi] tells the crowd. “A boy has the right to live his life the way he wants and a girl should too. The best solution is educate the girls. Let’s educate her and make her independent. When a girl gets independent she realises she’s a person. She’s a human being, she has equal rights like men have. She’s not only a wife and daughter – she’s a woman too.”

She’s right because the principle is human rights, not girl rights or boy rights. We have equal rights. Girls have the right to not have their genitals cut without need or their consent. Boys have the same right not to have their genitals cut without need or their consent. It’s preposterous to think of the right involved as the right to be free from female genital cutting.

Continuing:

Contrary to what Neil Lyndon wrote yesterday in Telegraph Men, none of this is comparable to the practice of male religious circumcision. Mr Lyndon would have us believe that the practice – known as ‘Brit Milah’ in the Jewish community – should be considered in the same light as FGM. It’s a bizarre argument to make, rather like comparing ear piercing with sawing off a person’s entire ear with a rusty hacksaw.

Comparing genital cutting to genital cutting isn’t a bizarre argument. The introductory list of questions Mr. Lyndon asked contains some of the same problems in the rest of his piece. However, it’s clear he was getting at the principle shared between the two acts of genital cutting. It’s like comparing genital cutting with harm to genital cutting with generally more severe harm.

Brit Milah is a minor procedure. When carried out by a trained practitioner in a clean environment it has no recognised negative impact on the child or on the rest of his life. Of course there are risks associated with any such procedure. …

It’s important to consider the environment where the procedure takes place, which isn’t regulated in the United States, at least. But that doesn’t resolve the human rights issue. There are recognized harms (i.e. negative impact). Circumcision is surgery, which always constitutes harm. The question of net harm is separate, and subjective to the individual circumcised. But there are always costs, including loss of the foreskin, damage to the nerve endings, scarring, and various risks of further harms. We recognize in law and principle that any non-therapeutic injury to the genitals of a female minor constitutes a negative impact. The same is true of genital cutting on males.

The facts speak for themselves. According to the World Health Organisation, circumcision of male babies results in “a very low rate of adverse events, which are usually minor (0.2-0.4%)”. These figures would no doubt be much lower still if they referred only to properly regulated and responsibly carried out circumcisions.

If we grant this as an accurate reflection of the risk of adverse events, and we ignore that every circumcision involves direct harm, that 0.2-0.4% involves humans with rights. The adverse events don’t have to be death to demonstrate that circumcision inflicts harm.

Mr Lyndon’s suggestion is that, while a third of the male population of the planet is circumcised, the practice is not challenged in the same way as FGM has been because culturally we are not ‘comfortable’ taking issue with it. I would like to offer a slightly different explanation: we’re very happy! There are no international movements calling for an end to circumcision because the billions of men around the planet who have been circumcised have not experienced any negative effects. In fact, the religious and cultural significance of the practice means that, to them, it is an overwhelmingly positive event. Put simply, circumcision has not had an adverse impact on their lives.

Mr. Hochhauser assumes too much. To summarize, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

Maybe there are some people who do consider it to have been a negative experience and who feel that they would have liked to have had the choice. But I would contend that there would be many, many more people who would feel much more aggrieved if they had been prevented from undergoing the procedure as an infant, as mandated by their faith.

To summarize again, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

I consider it a negative experience and want my choice. Many men throughout the world, including Jewish and Muslim males, oppose circumcision and wish they hadn’t been circumcised. Human rights aren’t based on what the majority values. And I’m guessing Angelo Ofori-Mintah and Goodluck Caubergs would like their choices back. (Those two were performed badly, but the question begins with whose choice it is, not how it’s done.)

Nevertheless, both groups of people have rights which must be respected, so how should we reconcile them?

Normal practice, where there is a question about the religious and/or physical well-being of an infant, is to defer to their parents, who we tend to assume have the best interests of their child at heart. Parents don’t always get it right – hence the campaigns against FGM – but any equivalent campaign against male circumcision would have to be accompanied by an overwhelming body of objective scientific evidence that demonstrated significant harm to the child. As far as circumcision goes, there is no such evidence. Some scientists even claim that it is medically beneficial.

Mr. Hochhauser keeps stacking the deck in his favor. This time it’s “an overwhelming body of objective scientific evidence that demonstrated significant harm to the child.” We already have overwhelming objective scientific evidence. Circumcising a child removes his foreskin, a normal body part. That is harm. The alleged challenge is in demonstrating that this removal amounts to “significant” harm. But that criterion is subjective and meaningless. That correctly isn’t the standard applied to female genital cutting. The focus is rights. The burden of proof rests on the imposition of genital cutting, not the withholding of genital cutting. The child’s body belongs to herself. The child’s body belongs to himself.

Mr Lyndon dismissively characterises the view that male religious circumcision isn’t comparable to FGM as “nitwit feminism in which males are of no consequence at all”. I disagree entirely. … it is deeply irresponsible to attribute the different treatment of these topics as some sort of underhanded feminist conspiracy. To do so threatens simultaneously to generate unwarranted attacks on religious practice, and undermine the important campaign against FGM.

I agree with everything I didn’t remove in that paragraph. But the comparison is not false because the messenger botched the delivery.


“…but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

Posted: July 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FGM, Logic, Religion | 1 Comment »

Rebecca Steinfeld describes Elissa Strauss’ essay, How Female Circumcision Is Different From a Brit Milah, as “badly researched & poorly argued”. Ms. Steinfeld is correct.

Fighting against female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, is a no-brainer of an issue. Who could support the use of often unsterilized blades to slice off, in the least-invasive case, a portion of the clitoris, and, in the worst case, the whole clitoris and the labia, which are then sewn together, leaving just a small hole for the release of urine and menstrual fluid?

Obviously, but the inclusion of “often unsterilized blades” is irrelevant in the ethical analysis of FGM compared to male circumcision. Using unsterilized, non-surgical equipment is egregious, but that is a violation of medical standards within the context of a rights violation. The violation is wrong, even if it is performed using top-notch equipment with trained staff in a sterile environment. Of course, the appropriate strict standard implied is neither required nor adhered to for religious male circumcision, so the distinction hardly matters.

The degree of harm is relevant to the act. It should inform punishment. It is not relevant to the core ethical principle.

But before we Jews start fastening our anti-FGM pins to our messenger bags and sharing petition links on social media, we have to contend with the elephant in the room. You know, the one with the mohel on top.

Indeed, many fighting female genital mutilation see male circumcision in the same light, viewing both procedures as a violation of basic human rights because both are done without consent or reasonable medical justification. …

Yes. This is the place Strauss should’ve stopped. She proved the comparison. Instead, an appeal to authority:

The World Health Organization sees a big difference between the two procedures, describing female circumcision as having no health benefits and as “a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children.”

FGM may reflect deep-rooted inequality. That’s debatable, given that the common idea that it is imposed by men on women is more complicated than normally stated. The last sentence, though, applies to male circumcision. That’s the comparison. Both are non-therapeutic genital cutting. Imposing that on a non-consenting individual (e.g. a minor) violates that individual’s rights. There is no asterisk on the right to bodily integrity for whichever distinction a person needs to impose it.

The WHO casts male circumcision in a very different light, describing it as “one of the oldest and most common surgical procedures worldwide, and is undertaken for many reasons: religious, cultural, social and medical. There is conclusive evidence from observational data and three randomized controlled trials that circumcised men have a significantly lower risk of becoming infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).”

I’ll grant these unequivocally, despite potential objections. So? They do not negate the ethical objection. There are any number of non-invasive preventions and treatments available to achieve these benefits. Some of them, such as condoms, are still necessary after circumcision. The ethical issue exists in part because not everyone shares the same preferences. Some would choose their foreskin and its alleged risks over circumcision and its alleged benefits¹.

Both female and male circumcision are motivated by custom: the surreptitiously stubborn notion of “This is what we do.” But the cultural setting accommodating the customs, as well as the physical ramifications of the procedures, reveal stark differences, and to ignore them is to demean the experience of the 135 million women and girls around the world who have had their genitals mutilated.

Those stark differences are often real. But Strauss already demonstrated the valid ethical comparison, before the added question begging. Mentioning that more extreme aspects of some FGM practices exist maybe shows that one is more wrong, but it doesn’t change that both are wrong.

Opposing non-therapeutic male child circumcision does not demean the experience of any female victim. This argument is a common fallacy. It’s clear that their experience is traumatic. The violation is obvious, real, and unethical. The results are usually more extreme than the results of male circumcision. The comparison is one of ethics, not harm. It is not a competition of victimhood. As I’ve often said, a punch to the face is not the same as a knife in the stomach. Because the latter is worse, the former isn’t a violation? That’s silly.

A common trope appears in the comments that feeds directly from Strauss’ approach. Twitter user CpaHoffman posted this comment (emphasis added):

Jews circumcise their male babies because we are commanded to by the Torah; it doesn’t hurt them (if it did, we’d have died out long ago). Female genital mutilation is not a “moral equivalent” or even on the same planet. Yet the lunatic fringe needs to drag it into every discussion of circumcision and needs to compare the two as if they were different yogurt brands.

It’s not comparing “apples and oranges”; it’s comparing apples and poison oranges.

That is a convenient straw man, but the argument against violating a child’s rights isn’t that it kills. (Although it can and does.) Death is not the only form of harm from circumcision. All surgery involves harm, including circumcision, which should be apparent since a normal part of the body is removed². Imposing that harm without direct need or consent that can’t be resolved with less invasive methods is unethical. Just like non-therapeutic genital cutting on female minors.

¹ These benefits can be medical, religious, or cultural.

² This is a different analysis than whether or not a surgery is a net harm.