Here’s a potato so hot that even naming it sparks controversy. For the purposes of discussion, let’s call it female genital mutilation (FGM), the name the World Health Organization favours. But it is also called female genital cutting or female circumcision. It means that a girl’s or (less commonly) a woman’s, genitals are cut in varying degrees of severity in accordance with traditional practices in Africa and the Middle East.
As Oxford bioethicist Brian Earp points out in a paper in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (in press) there may be a double standard in the discussion of this practice, which is almost universally decried in the West. Why isn’t FGM also applied to the increasingly common cosmetic surgery for young women in Western countries? And if we condemn FGM, shouldn’t male circumcision be subject to the same standard? As bioethicists continue debating the issue, there seems to be growing sympathy for permitting at least the minimally-harmful forms of FGM.
Which brings us to a very interesting perspective on the debate which appeared recently in the Journal of Medical Ethics blog. Matthew Johnson, of Lancaster University, says that most parents who subject their daughters to FGM do it because they love them.
[They] believe that they are acting in their children’s best interests when having them cut. They believe that being cut will ensure that their children are socially accepted, that their health will be improved and that they will live better lives than if they were left intact.
Criminalising their behaviour and packing them off to jail would do more harm than good. “Sending parents to prison serves, in most cases, to undermine, rather than promote, the wellbeing of children.”
In a fascinating rhetorical twist, he compares the alien practice of FGM to the familiar practice of sending very young children to boarding schools. Complaints by “survivors” of the boarding school experience are beginning to surface. Their grievance is not only sexual abuse and bullying, but the practice of “privileged abandonment” itself, which created generations of upper-crust, stiff-upper-lip, emotionally frigid adults. Brookfield Grammar School, the fictional setting for Goodbye, Mr Chips, was not representative of the schools which formed Britain's elite:
While the harms of abusive boarding schools are very different, along a number of dimensions, to FGM, they can be significant, debilitating, and caused by the adaptive preferences of parents. There are no calls for the prosecution of parents who handed their children over to public school child molesters or who ignored the suffering of their children at these institutions or who even willfully wished for their children to be transformed into stoic individuals lacking in empathy.
After all, they only wished the best for their children. Many parents felt deeply uncomfortable as they left their children at these institutions, helpless in the knowledge, perpetuated by their privileged communities, that abandonment was an integral means of shaping their offspring into respectable citizens. Despite all the evidence of harm among some former pupils, there has hardly been a wave of calls for parents to be penalized for their actions.
Johnson argues that the only way that “FGM or male circumcision will disappear is by people in practicing communities gradually rejecting it collectively themselves”. And he concludes that “It is unfortunate, then, that a government led by people from boarding schools should be committed to inflicting separation between children and their parents by sending the latter to prison – whether the former believe they have been harmed or not.”
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