Examples of the Need to Reverse the Approach

Following on yesterday’s post, The Guardian posted four letters from readers about Catherine Bennett’s excellent essay against non-therapeutic male circumcision. Three of the letter-writers believe they’ve found a weakness in her argument. They’re mistaken, and in odd ways. (I’m omitting points that are mistaken but beyond the comparison.)


Female genital circumcision implies the removal of the clitoris, sometimes with the inner labia, sometimes infibulation. It is often practised with blunt razors or knives and without anaesthetics. The risks: fatal haemorrhaging, cysts, urinary and vaginal infections, chronic pain, obstetrical complications.

This supports my last post. This writer didn’t figure out how the comparison might work. She assumed it doesn’t. She started with FGM and worked back to discredit it.

The larger question is the relevance of the remaining facts in that paragraph. If those didn’t happen, and FGM occurred in a clean hospital room, I don’t believe her objection to it would change. She’s arguing for a distinction that doesn’t matter to the initial ethical question or the fundamental comparison. (It only matters to individual practices, which is still important to understand and change.)

She continues:

… There is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that it affects function, sensation or satisfaction.

It’s incorrect to claim that there is no evidence that circumcision affects function, when the form changes. There is more to function than the ability to orgasm and impregnate. On that crude basis, an argument could be made that FGM doesn’t change function. Just limit “function” to whatever begs the question. (The latter two are subjective to the individual, which is also on the ethical point.)

Next writer:

Catherine Bennett is incorrect in describing female genital mutilation (FGM) as the “equivalent” of circumcision. Granted, both procedures involve a surgical modification of the external genitals of a non-consenting child. Both are, in my view, unacceptable.

That’s the key comparison. I don’t understand why this bizarre tangent follows:

There are, however, great differences: female genital mutilation is illegal in the UK and in many other countries worldwide, including in Africa. Circumcision is lawful. So campaigners against circumcision need to get into dialogue with the Jewish and Muslim communities and press for a change in the law.

Of course. But how is that relevant? The legality of an action doesn’t speak to its validity. Here, numerous historical examples could disprove that “correlation equals causation” mistake. Ms. Bennett made no error in comparing the acts.

This writer provides another paragraph, but it’s more helpful to move on to the next writer:

With reference to Catherine Bennett’s polemic on male circumcision, she should give more attention to the WHO’s statement that male circumcision can be a positive boon in relation to sexual cleanliness. …

This comment demonstrates the idea that one’s own subjective view should somehow be everyone’s objective view. It’s the idea that anyone against circumcision simply hasn’t considered some aspect allegedly in favor of circumcision. If the opponent would just think of benefit X valued by someone else, it would all be clear.

It doesn’t work that way. Much of the debate is subjective to the individual affected. That’s a reason the choice belongs only to the male himself. Me, I prefer to bathe properly and engage in safe sex practices. The so-called “positive boon” to “sexual cleanliness” is irrelevant to me. Ethically, we’re left with the objective facts from a non-therapeutic surgery.

… That hidden space underneath the flap of foreskin is indeed a fertile breeding ground for bacteria and disease. …

That just as accurately describes female genitalia. I don’t imagine the letter-writer thinks that’s a ringing endorsement for female genital cutting.

… The German court’s ban on male circumcision has rightly been overturned by its parliament. …

They did not overturn the court’s decision. They passed a resolution showing support for circumcision as a parental choice. The resolution is essentially a promise to address the issue in the legislature in the fall. The letter-writer erred on a simple, verifiable fact.

… Babies and young children are not able to make rational decisions as to their welfare: their parents have to decide how they are fed; what names they shall be known by; what schools they will go to; to which religion they will be directed; all of which decisions have a significant effect on their later life. …

Parents make decisions for their children. Circumcision is a decision. Therefore, parents may circumcise their children. That’s flawed logic. It assumes that a decision is just merely based on parental choice. Surely the letter-writer sees the negative implications of that. One such implication would be that parents may also cut the genitals of their healthy daughters. The silliness of the argument is that parents may make many decisions, and they all apply to their children, except this one so-called parental right that only applies to their sons. If they make this decision for their daughters, we incarcerate them. It’s incomprehensible in a rational analysis.

… The only effect of male circumcision on their later life is enhanced cleanliness and hygiene.

Taking the statement at face value, because the male still has to bathe, the claim is rather silly. The only basis on which it works as support for non-therapeutic child circumcision is with the assumption that the male will not undertake the minimal additional effort to bathe himself properly if left with his normal foreskin. Without that (offensive) assumption, the choice must be left to the male to decide whether he values his foreskin or saving a tiny bit of effort in the shower.

The larger problem is that this posited benefit isn’t the only effect. The male loses a normal, functioning part of his anatomy. He loses his foreskin, and suffers the damage to the nerve endings that remain. He is left with a scar that he may not find aesthetically appealing. He is left without the mechanical gliding action of his foreskin, so sex becomes a matter of friction rather than pressure. That’s not a valid parental choice.

3 thoughts on “Examples of the Need to Reverse the Approach”

  1. Two interesting facts:

    Isaac Baker Brown, who was expelled from the London Obstetrical Society in 1867, actually argued that clitoridectomy was no more mutilating than male circumcision, as proved by the subsequent pregnancy of several of his patients.

    The Policy Statement about Ritual Genital Cutting of FEMALE Minors from the AAP mentions that “Some forms of FGC are less extensive than the newborn male circumcision commonly performed in the West.”

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