False Distinction, Not False Equivalency

Posted: April 30th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: "Voluntary", Ethics, FGM, Law, Logic, Science | 1 Comment »

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 So I checked the Wayback Machine to see if the USA Today version is different or out-of-date. Predictably, it’s out-of-date, because the first version was what USA Today still presents.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.

One Comment on “False Distinction, Not False Equivalency”

  1. 1 Choose Intact » Blog Archive » Discomfort Them So They Won’t Be Discomforted? said at 12:50 pm on May 1st, 2017:

    […] the comments to the article in yesterday’s post, Bryan Swilley wrote the […]

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