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.


Human Rights as Politics rather than Principle

Posted: June 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: FGM, Media Marketing, Politics | No Comments »

What is it about the basic concept of human rights that confuses so many people, such as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay:

FGM is a form of gender-based discrimination and violence. It is a violation of the right to physical and mental integrity. It violates the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Because it is almost always practised on young children, it is also a violation of the rights of the child. FGM violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health. And when it results in the death of the person who is mutilated, it violates the right to life.

I’d state it as the rights of self-ownership and bodily integrity, but still, even this way it’s easy to understand. Cutting an individual’s healthy genitals without the person’s consent violates rights. So why staple on this (emphasis added):

This harmful and degrading practice is not based on any valid premise. FGM has no health benefits. On the contrary, it generates profoundly damaging, irreversible and life-long physical damage. It also increases the risk of neonatal death for babies born to women who have survived it.

The answer is obvious to anyone who spends any time studying the issue of genital cutting. It’s a method that attempts to distinguish female genital cutting from male genital cutting. It shows up over and over. It’s transparent and wrong because it’s politics at the expense of human beings. The principle isn’t gendered. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual violates the individual’s human rights, full-stop. That is the human rights principle involved. The potential health benefits a child’s parents may cite can’t be a valid premise for non-therapeutic surgery without the child’s consent.

That isn’t my primary point here, though. The “FGM has no health benefits” approach is short-sighted and obtuse in the push to end FGM. It contains an implicit argument that FGC – not FGM, because unnecessary genital cutting without consent somehow can’t be mutilation – would be acceptable if some health benefit could be reasonably claimed. It’s a way of saying that human rights are important, but only to the extent that someone can’t find an excuse people are willing to accept as justification for ignoring obvious violations. It demonstrates that the person making the argument does not understand the implications of defending human rights and the courage it requires to be consistent to the principle. This tactic is not a framework for considering humans and their rights. It’s a strategy uninterested in human rights principles. It’s a strategy of manipulating emotions to achieve an ideological goal.

I’m not familiar with the source material, but I think this Friedrich Nietzsche quote I stumbled on today works well in this context (via):

“The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.”

That’s what the “FGM has no health benefits, so it’s not acceptable like male circumcision” argument is when attached to a human rights argument. If you claim to defend human rights, you have to defend human rights, not the politics of favored human rights.


The Equation Is Unnecessary Genital Cutting Minus Consent

Posted: March 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: "Voluntary", Control, Ethics, FCD, FGM, Logic, Media Marketing, Parenting, Politics | 1 Comment »

Many have heaped scorn on Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Salon piece that criticized Alan Cumming for calling male circumcision genital mutilation and comparing it to female genital mutilation. This scorn is deserved.

Alan Cumming wants to tell you about his penis. He wants it to be a shining example to the world. In a candid interview with Drew Grant this week in the New York Observer, the 49-year-old Scottish actor reveals his strong opinions on “Girls,” naughty cellphone pictures, and, most controversially, circumcision. Or as he puts it, “genital mutilation.”

“There’s a double-standard, which is that we condemn the people who cut off girls’ clitorises, but when it happens to boys,” Cumming says. “I mean, it is the most sensitive part of their bodies, it has loads of nerve endings, and it can go horribly wrong. I’m speaking out against it … I’m just so suspicious of the medical industry, which just flings pills at people to ensure everyone is reliant on things. ‘Here are some pills, Mommy. Take them, and we’ll take your baby away and hack its thing off, and then we’ll bill you for that too.’”

I don’t share Mr. Cumming’s view of the medical industry. Its complicity strikes me as cultural inertia and cowardice. My experience suggests that profit-driven focus on circumcision is limited, although it motivates some. But that’s a distraction. The key is that he is correct about the comparison.

Circumcision of a healthy male minor is mutilation of that male’s genitals. To be valid, it must involve his consent prior to the surgery, not assumed to be later granted retroactively. This is the standard inherent in 18 USCS § 116, which criminalizes all non-therapeutic genital cutting on female minors without regard for parental justifications or potential benefits. The difference we imagine is an accident in the history of Western child genital cutting.

Later in the essay:

… And earlier this week, protesters threatened to disrupt Bill and Melinda Gates’ TED Vancouver talk because of their organization’s efforts to increase the practice in Africa as a means of “limiting the spread of HIV in the parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

There is good reason to find the work of the Gates Foundation repugnant, as it pertains to male circumcision. It speaks in the euphemism of voluntary medical male circumcision, when it also means infant circumcision. This is unethical because it violates the principles of bodily integrity and consent. And this study, commissioned and funded by the Gates Foundation, hardly provides reassurance when examining the context of WHO and UNAIDS, who think violating this human right of male children can be legitimized through question begging. Mental gymnastics like that are not admirable.

Cumming’s equation of circumcision with female genital mutilation is an insultingly inaccurate one — boys are not circumcised as a ritualized means of suppressing their future sexual enjoyment,

Although it’s easy to find similar defenses of male circumcision, ritual or not, this implies that the critical issue is intent rather than outcome. Female genital mutilation, in all its forms, is wrong because the female is mutilated, not because she is mutilated for “bad” reasons. Some reasons given are the same as those for male circumcision. And not all females who were mutilated reject or condemn it. Yet all reasons for surgically altering the healthy genitals of a female minor are still bad. This focuses on the principles and facts involved, not our feelings.

Notice, too, how often erroneous claims like “[t]here is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that it affects function, sensation or satisfaction” are made about male circumcision, as it’s made with that quote from Williams’ link to reader comments on an article. The statement is wrong on its face because circumcision changes the function. If you change the form, you change the function. The function of the penis, including its structure, should not be lazily defined as “to have sex” or something similarly ridiculous. The foreskin is normal anatomy with functions for the penis and belongs to its owner.

The quote is disputable on sensation, considering the (anecdotal) arguments in favor of male circumcision stating that males can “last longer“. Consider the heads I win/tails you lose efforts of Brian Morris here, as all outcomes are assumed to be favorable to overall satisfaction, even when the studies cited do not involve anything near 100% on the subjective evaluation of satisfaction.

nor does a clean male circumcision compare with the often crude, blunt and unsanitary practice of female genital mutilation.

Those qualifiers obfuscate. What about clean female genital cutting compared with crude, blunt, and unsanitary male circumcision? A sterile surgical environment does not grant legitimacy to a rights violation. Again, the act is what matters. There are degrees of harm possible, but the inevitability of harm requires first priority, whatever the degree.

The World Health Organization calls FGM “a violation of the human rights of girls and women” with consequences that include “severe pain, shock, hemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue,” while it in contrast notes, “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”

WHO also explains that female genital mutilation “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.” There is no unethical caveat for “but if we find some benefits to female health, or even male health, we’d have to weigh mutilating injury against potential benefits.” That unethical caveat is always applied to male genital mutilation, as Williams does here. An adult male volunteering is not the same as an infant male being volunteered. Consent is the issue, not how horrible female genital mutilation usually is or how innocuous and/or beneficial male circumcision appears to be. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a healthy individual who does not consent is unethical. It involves harm. Gender is irrelevant to the principle.

One can argue, quite persuasively, about whether the practice of circumcision still has validity here in the West, especially among those who don’t have a religious directive. What’s needed, however, is education and enlightenment, so families can make the healthiest choices for their children. …

I reject the premise. This is a not a decision parents should be allowed to make for their children. The argument that parents may decide this for their healthy children requires this decision to be a parental right. If it’s a parental right, then the prohibition of non-therapeutic genital cutting on daughters is indefensible. The basis for thinking about genital cutting can’t be girls and the parents of boys. That’s absurd.

… It’s not helpful to make far-fetched comparisons, and it certainly isn’t constructive to imply that men and boys who are circumcised are somehow damaged, “mutilated” goods. That’s a shaming technique that serves no one, one that turns having a foreskin into a bragging point. …

Why are we only worried about shaming men and boys by using the term “mutilation”? Isn’t there the possibility or likelihood that women and girls will feel shamed if we describe their genitals as mutilated? Are the psyches of females more able to handle facts?

There is a difference in stating a fact and demanding a value judgment from that fact. The bodies of males who were circumcised as children were mutilated. Their rights were violated. Circumcised males are not obligated to think this is bad or shameful. The obligation (for everyone) rests in understanding that it is unacceptable to perpetuate this violation on their children or to permit its continued practice in society.

Or to put it in terms of individual autonomy, circumcision mutilated me through the deprivation of an essential¹ part of my body. Where I had a normal human foreskin, I now have only scars. My penis is mutilated. No one gets to reject that fact for me. But I do not feel shame. This sense that males might feel shame is what encourages parents to circumcise their sons for conformity. We have to stop being afraid of shame. We’ll achieve that only when we are no longer afraid to state that shame belongs with those who circumcise, not those who are circumcised.

… And it’s an unfair judgment coming from a man who admits, “I myself don’t have kids. I just have managers, assistants, agents and publicists.”

I feel second-hand embarrassment, so that at least someone feels what her statement deserves.

¹ Quibble with essential as something other than an obvious stand-in for normal, and I’ll roll my eyes and ask if normal parts of female genitalia are essential.


Brian Earp Confronts the Genital Cutting Double Standard

Posted: February 26th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Control, Ethics, FGM | 1 Comment »

I’ve discussed the comparison between male circumcision and female genital cutting/mutilation in depth across various posts. In a great post, titled Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: time to confront the double standard, Brian Earp discusses the principled comparison in a single post that should become the “Go To” link. It’s worth the read because it’s so thorough and sourced. I know there are people who will read that and remain unconvinced. That is not because the proof isn’t there. He demonstrates the complexity that dismisses the “FGM is always the worst extreme/male circumcision is always the best extreme” that perpetuates superficial thinking on the principled comparison.

Again, it’s all worth reading, but I like this the best (links in original):

So what are the implications here? Given that both male and female forms of genital cutting express different cultural norms depending upon the context, and are performed for different reasons in different cultures, and even in different communities or individual families, how are we meant to assess the permissibility of either one? Do we need to interview each set of parents to make sure that their intended act of cutting is intended as an expression of acceptable norms? If they promise that it isn’t about “sexual control” in their specific case, but rather about “hygiene” or “aesthetics” or something less symbolically problematic, should they be permitted to go ahead? But this is bound to fail. Every parent who requests a genital-altering surgery for their child – for whatever reason under the sun – thinks that they are acting in the child’s best interests; no one thinks that they are “mutilating” their own offspring. Thus it is not the reason for the intervention that determines its permissibility, but rather the consequences of the intervention for the person whose genitals are actually on the line. …

That’s the truth missing from society’s moral relativism. One is judged on outcome alone, with intent assumed from the outcome. The other is judged on intent alone, with outcome assumed from the intent¹. For female genital cutting we focus on the female. For male genital cutting we focus on the parents. That’s the mistake. Separate approaches for the same inherent violation – non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual – cannot hold under inspection. Earp’s post is great for revealing that error with such clarity.

¹ This is especially maddening because the intent we assume and praise is not benign.