Thursday, December 20, 2012

FGM and Circumcision: Rights for the Goose & Rites for the Gander

Things seemed to be looking up in Germany a few months ago when a court ruled that circumcision constituted bodily injury. But Muslims and Jews protested and the country passed a law protecting circumcision, as long as parents were informed about the risks. In the interest of protecting religious freedom, the right to bodily integrity has been denied. Perhaps male circumcision is being viewed as being no more serious an injury than ear piercing. But it is a lot more serious, which is why the question about it arose in the first place; a baby boy's genitals had been mutilated, and this is just one of the risks.

Certain forms of female genital mutilation (FGM) are undoubtedly a far more serious bodily injury. But others may be little more serious than ear piercing. None are, apparently, sanctioned by any religion. One might expect that it is not the level of injury that is involved that makes FGM an offence in countries where it is forbidden by law. Ireland has passed such a law: female genital mutilation "means any act the purpose of which, or the effect of which, is the excision, infibulation or other mutilation of the whole or any part of the labia majora, labia minora, prepuce of the clitoris, clitoris or vagina of a girl or woman". But I'm not sure about any kind of mutilation that is not permanent, such as nicking or pricking.

However, male circumcision unambiguously involves excision, permanent and irreversible damage, indeed, mutilation. If the issue ever arose in Ireland we may take the German option of hiding behind religious freedoms. But couldn't the FGM act then be challenged on the grounds of cultural freedoms? Perhaps not. But male circumcision can not generally be claimed to be "necessary for the protection of [a man or boy's] physical or mental health". Neither consent nor parental consent can be accepted as a defence for FGM, so why should they be for male circumcision? The same goes for being required or permitted for customary or ritual reasons. Even taking someone out of the country for the operation is not permitted.

In the UK, a circumcision that was carried out by a midwife using a pair of scissors on a 27 day old boy went wrong and the boy died. There is more than one offense there, but should a circumcision carried out by a qualified surgeon in a clinical setting with the consent of the parents be any more acceptable? If the operation is being carried out for religious or cultural reasons, surely it can wait until the child grows up? Maybe it is easier, cheaper or whatever is claimed by those who want it done to infants (thought I doubt if these claims are in any useful sense true), but it is a clear denial of a boy's right to bodily integrity.

Of course, many people may grow up not at all bothered whether they are circumcised or not. But if there is a right to bodily integrity, it also exists when people have no objection to what may be seen as infringements of that right. Thus, FGM is not permitted even if the person (who must be over 18) gives their consent, unless there is 'no resultant permanent bodily harm'. If a law were to protect people against infringements such as infant circumcision, it would not be an objection to the law that they may want to be circumcised, or that many people have grown up having been circumcised as an infant and are happy with that.

What bothers me is that male circumcision is not generally required or permitted for 'customary or religious reasons' in Ireland, Germany or the UK, yet none of these countries, or any other European country, appears to have any objection to mass male circumcision campaigns being aggressively promoted in African countries. These campaigns involve misinformation, political arm twisting, deceit and downright lies. But they are being carried out, supposedly in the name of HIV prevention, where they may do a lot of harm, and even in countries where HIV prevalence is higher among circumcised than uncircumcised men. Why are Ireland and other Western countries not objecting to this?

The mass male circumcision programs in African countries appear to be entirely funded by the US. But countries that would not consider such programs themselves, even for the 'public health' benefits claimed for the operation, should be questioning the right of the US to take such action. Male circumcision is itself a bodily injury, I would argue, but the risks of additional serious injury involved, on such a scale, should be enough to make people question these programs. Denial of the right to bodily integrity on such a massive scale, carried out by a wealthy and powerful country, in poor countries where inequalities are so high and healthcare is so inaccessible and unsafe, is an extremely destructive and divisive form of cultural imperialism.

It's something of a truism that male circumcision is not the same thing as FGM; but on a continuum from, say, ear piercing to FGM, male circumcision is a lot more serious than ear piercing. While ear piercing may not generally be seen to constitute an infringement of the right to bodily integrity, male circumcision, I would argue, always does. It is an infringement whether people who have been circumcised think so or not. Even if they have no objection to circumcision, they could still have been allowed them to make the decision to be circumcised for themselves.

Some countries see fit to permit infant male circumcision, but what right does the US have to aggressively promote such a practice in African countries, regardless of whether HIV prevalence is higher or lower among uncircumcised men? Ireland and other countries have taken a commendable stand against FGM, so why not infant male circumcision? Perhaps Germany has its reasons for avoiding a confrontation with Jews and Muslims. But if Jews and Muslims are not confronted about infant male circumcision, how can we justify confronting cultures where FGM is (or was) permitted? Indeed, the contradictory stances make objections to FGM sound like just another instance of cultural imperialism, which is not a conclusion we would like to come to, is it?

[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission and mass male circumcision, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]


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