Between Moral Relativism and Moral Hypocrisy: Reframing the Debate on “FGM”


The spectrum of practices termed “Female Genital Mutilation” (or FGM) by the World Health Organization is sometimes held up as a counterexample to moral relativism. Those who advance this line of thought suggest the practices are so harmful in terms of their physical and emotional consequences, as well as so problematic in terms of their sexist or oppressive implications, that they provide sufficient, rational grounds for the assertion of a universal moral claim—namely, that all forms of FGM are wrong, regardless of the cultural context. However, others point to cultural bias and moral double standards on the part of those who espouse this argument, and have begun to question the received interpretation of the relevant empirical data on FGM as well. In this article I assess the merits of these competing perspectives. I argue that each of them involves valid moral concerns that should be taken seriously in order to move the discussion forward. In doing so, I draw on the biomedical “enhancement” literature in order to develop a novel ethical framework for evaluating FGM (and related interventions—such as female genital “cosmetic” surgery and nontherapeutic male circumcision) that takes into account the genuine harms that are at stake in these procedures, but which does not suffer from being based on cultural or moral double standards.