Moral Hypocrisy or Intellectual Inconsistency?: A Historical Perspective on Our Habit of Placing Male and Female Genital Cutting in Separate Ethical Boxes
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Moral Hypocrisy or Intellectual Inconsistency?
A Historical Perspective on Our Habit of Placing Male and Female Genital Cutting in Separate Ethical Boxes

In his detailed and comprehensive analysis, Brian D. Earp shows clearly that prevailing discourses on female genital cutting (FGC) have sought to quarantine the practice from male genital cutting (MGC), and further demonstrates that none of the various features that are supposed to fully distinguish one set of procedures from the other can logically hold water. The fundamental problem seems to be that the voluntary and official bodies campaigning against FGC, and especially the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO), show unjustified discrimination and hence inconsistency with respect to gender and culture, but fail to make justified and morally relevant discriminations with respect to age and degrees of harm.

On the first point, they treat males and females unequally by giving less favorable treatment to males (females having total protection from nontherapeutic genital cutting, however slight, while males have close to zero, however severe). On the second point, they judge FGC entirely on the basis of Western liberal feminist norms, without a nuanced appreciation of the significance of these practices in their cultures of origin. The result is a gender bias favoring females over males, and a cultural bias favoring modern Western culture over “Other” cultures.

The opposite problem is found with respect to age. Anti-FGC campaigners fail to make necessary discriminations on the basis of age, and thus between procedures imposed on children without consent, and those elected by competent adults, or agreed to by older children capable of having a reasonable understanding of the implications of these surgeries. In many countries, including Australia, the law makes FGC illegal even when sought and agreed to by the woman.1 By contrast, no law anywhere2 gives male minors meaningful protection against circumcision. [End Page 155]

A further failure of discrimination is in relation to the degree of harm. Both FGC and MGC involve a wide range of surgical outcomes, with differing degrees of harm, both physical and psychological—the latter strongly influenced by whether the surgery was elected or coerced. Although campaigners acknowledge the various forms of FGC, all are rejected as morally unacceptable, no matter how slight the bodily damage; at the same time, however, they fail to distinguish among the different degrees of harm involved in male circumcision and regard them all as equally unproblematic and acceptable.

Like the various forms of FGC, however, the impact (physiological, anatomical, aesthetic and psychological) of circumcision can vary considerably, depending on how much of the foreskin tissue is removed, the instruments and method used, the skill of the operator, and the age of the subject. In order to reflect this variability, Darby and Svoboda (2007) and Svoboda and Darby (2008) have proposed a typology of male circumcision to complement the classifications of female genital mutilation devised by WHO. The 7-point scale is based primarily on the quantity of foreskin tissue removed, and ranges from mild injury without loss of tissue to partial or complete denudation of the penis.

The age at which circumcision is performed can also have a significant impact on both the physiological and anatomical outcome—physiologically (functionally) because nerve pathways from the penis to the brain are not fully developed in infancy or childhood (Immerman and Mackey 1998); and anatomically because at birth the foreskin is normally fused to the glans by a thin layer of tissue and is not mobile or retractable until some point in later childhood. Circumcision of infants and young boys normally requires tearing the foreskin forcibly from the glans, thus adding a dimension of risk and damage that can be avoided if the surgery is performed after natural separation of foreskin and glans has taken place.3

Questions provoked by Earp’s analysis are why these biological realities have been ignored by the authorities, and why the unacceptability of FGC tends to be cast in terms of and by contrast with the acceptability or even the desirability of MGC, usually meaning circumcision of male infants and other minors. The broad answer has three elements. The first is the Christian world’s familiarity with...