Bioethics News

Cruelty at home and abroad

Here’s a potato so hot that even naming it sparks controversy. For the purposes of writing about it, 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 when a girl’s or (less commonly) a woman’s genitals are altered 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. 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 debate the issue, there seems to be more sympathy for permitting at least the minimally-harmful forms of FGM.

Which brings us to a very interesting perspective on the debate 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 controversial and alien practice of FGM in the UK to the largely noncontroversial practicing of sending very young children to boarding schools.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.