FGM/C Shifting Sands

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FGM: Between Moral Relativism and Moral Hypocrisy

Published 3 August 2016 Associated Categories What critics think
Reframing the Debate on FGM

Between Moral Relativism and Moral Hypocrisy: Reframing the Debate on FGM by Brian Earp is a lengthy but welcome and important intervention in the discussion around FGM. It offers an in-depth critique of the World Health Organization and the United Nations’ joint policy on FGM.

Earp’s valuable contribution will hopefully help move the discussion forward because, as Lori Leonard said in 2000, the Western literature on FGM has become “remarkably constrained and predictable, bearing signs of an almost standardized discourse”. Unfortunately, not enough has changed since then, and research and activism are still being conflated.

Three responses to Earp’s article by Richard Shweder, Robert Darby and Lindemann Nelson were published in the same Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Volume 26, Number 2, June 2016 and are accessible to subscribers (links below).

This abstract introduces Earp’s paper:

‘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 non-therapeutic 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.’

Earp begins by presenting the orthodox position on FGM as represented by the WHO/UN. Their position rests on a number of specific moral as well as empirical considerations. Taken together, these considerations are believed to justify a concerted effort on their part to “eradicate” all forms of FGM, including from the countries and cultures in which it has long been performed and continues to be widely endorsed.

He then turns to the analysis of a number of critics of this position who have raised concerns about cultural bias. They believe it is characterised by problems such as oversimplification, unjustified conflation of disparate phenomena, exaggeration, and often extremely emotive rhetoric that is not supported by dispassionate research.

Next, the question of patriarchy is explored. That there does not seem to be any consistent relationship between the respective status of men versus women in some society and whether it practices a form of FGM was underlined by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa (2012). And notes there are almost no patriarchal societies with customary genital surgeries for females only.

He also notes when analysing the role of patriarchy in upholding genital cutting practices that it isn’t only girls who are initiated. The boys are circumcised also. And, ‘In consequence, many African women and men are genuinely perplexed by what they see as Western efforts to eliminate only the female half of their initiation rites. Recognizing this, one scholar of genital cutting has suggested that “Female circumcision will never stop as long as male circumcision is going on . . . [for how] do you expect to convince an African father to leave his daughter uncircumcised as long as you let him do it to his son?”

The Clitoris and Sexual Function and Satisfaction then gets discussed when he explores the commonly asserted view that circumcision is likely to be much more sexually damaging. In addition to noting that ‘symbolic meanings’ of the clitoris are different in different cultures, he reminds us about basic clitoral anatomy which is frequently misunderstood. He clarifies that the almost universal Western assumption regarding female genital cutting in particular (at least its more invasive forms) – namely, that it eliminates the capacity for orgasm as a matter of anatomical necessity – is not true.

The issue of ‘consent’ to FGM is next explored. Here, in demonstrating British thinking when the 1985 law against FGM was being discussed, he identifies a double standard which persists: ‘In effect, the Act said that “if you are a British girl who believes her genitals are abnormal, it is permissible to have surgery to fit in with the ideals of the majority society. However, if you are from a minority [community], your mental health is culturally determined – you have a group delusion rather than an individual one – and you do not have the same rights as members of the majority society to alter your body.”

Non-clitoral genital cutting is discussed next and we are reminded that there are several kinds of female circumcision that do not involve modification of the clitoris at all. Yet these are criminalised and defined as mutilation in many western countries.

WHO classifications are explored next as is the trend towards medicalisation which is not acceptable to the WHO/UN and others.

The section ‘Explaining the many different perceptions’ provides some valuable insights into how might we begin to explain the different perceptions that Westerners seem to have when it comes to female genital “mutilation” (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) both female genital “cosmetic” surgeries and male forms of non-therapeutic genital alterations.

That there is a flaw in our ‘western’ way of thinking was outlined by Androus (2004) and cited here: ‘the attitude that male circumcision is harmless [happens to be] consistent with Western cultural values and practices, while any such procedures performed on girls [are] totally alien to Western cultural values. [However] the fact of the matter is that what’s done to some girls [in some cultures] is worse than what’s done to some boys, and what’s done to some boys [in some cultures] is worse than what’s done to some girls. By collapsing all of the many different types of procedures performed into a single set for each sex, categories are created that do not accurately describe any situation that actually occurs anywhere in the world.’

The WHO/UN position is that all forms of FGM are morally impermissible, regardless of the type or extent of the intervention, of the cultural or even clinical context, and notwithstanding anyone’s beliefs to the contrary.

Earp identifies three main strands to their argument:
(i) The harm strand which suggests that FGM is harmful to health, to sexuality and to overall well-being.
(ii) The discrimination strand which suggests that – even if the harms of FGM could somehow be minimised – it would still constitute “an extreme form of discrimination against women” because it is a “manifestation of gender inequality.”
(iii) The rights strand which suggests that FGM is a violation of “fundamental human rights” a violation of the “right to . . . physical integrity” And since it “is nearly always carried out on minors” who cannot provide consent, it is also “a violation of the rights of the child.”

He explores each strand in detail and makes keen observations, identifies anomalies and asks difficulty questions which expose problems with the WHO/UN positions.

He also explores how cultural change happens and ways in which it can occur which is not migration dependent.

Finally, he makes some proposals and acknowledges that some may not please everybody. It is worth reading the paper in full to find out what they are, in context.

Brian D Earp is a Research Associate in Science and Ethics at the University of Oxford and a Visiting Scholar at the Hastings Center Bioethics Research Institute.


Three responses to Earp’s essay were published in the same Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Volume 26, Number 2, June 2016 and are accessible to subscribers.

Richard Shweder’s is entitled Equality Now in Genital Reshaping: Earp’s Search For Moral Consistency.

He opens by saying: “For many adolescent Kenyan males genital reshaping is a self-defining experience of enormous positive significance. The same can be said for many Kenyan females. These adolescents, male and female, do not think their bodies have been “mutilated.” Quite the contrary, by their lights the surgical procedure removes a defect of nature and is the means by which a desired state of physical integrity and social maturity is achieved. By their lights the procedure gets rid of unseemly fleshy encumbrances and protrusions and helps them erase unwanted physical traces of childhood bisexuality, thereby making their genitals look smooth and clean and more gender appropriate. By their lights their appearance and self-esteem have been improved by the surgery. The surgery is understood to be a reshaping of one’s body in the service of local ideals for genital aesthetics and sexual identity. Alternatively stated, for many Kenyans having one’s genitals reshaped promotes a sense of well-being and is experienced as an enhancement, much the way body modifications of various sorts promote a similar sense of well-being among many youth and adults in North America and Europe.”

Robert Derby explores 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.”

Jamie Lindemann Nelson looks at Relativists and Hypocrites: Earp on Genital Cutting and begins “Cutting people’s genitals—at least, when thought of as an exotic practice—seems to interest philosophers chiefly as a source of problem cases for moral relativism. A ready-to-hand example is supplied by Simon Blackburn, in the relativism chapter of his charming little introduction to ethics text, Being Good: “If, as in some North African countries, young girls are terrifyingly and painfully mutilated so that thereafter they cannot enjoy natural and pleasurable human sexuality, that is not OK, anywhere or anytime” (Blackburn 2003, 21).”

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About the Author -

Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.


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