Bioethics Blogs

How Different are Female, Male and Intersex Genital Cutting?

By Brian D. Earp  (@briandavidearp), with Rebecca Steinfeld, Goldsmiths, University of London 

Three members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam were recently indicted on charges of “female genital mutilation” (FGM) in the US state of Michigan. In Norway, meanwhile, one of the major political parties has backed a measure to ban childhood male circumcision.

Fearing that objections to female forms of genital cutting will be applied to male forms, some commentators have rushed to draw a “clear distinction” between them. Others, however, have highlighted the similarities.

In fact, childhood genital cutting is usually divided not just into two, but three separate categories: “FGM” for females; “circumcision” for males; and “genital normalisation” surgery for intersex children – those born with ambiguous genitals or mixed sex characteristics.

In Western countries, popular attitudes towards these procedures differ sharply depending on the child’s sex. In females, any medically unnecessary genital cutting, no matter how minor or sterilised, is seen as an intolerable violation of her bodily integrity and human rights. Most Westerners believe that such cutting must be legally prohibited.

In intersex children, while it is still common for doctors to surgically modify their genitals without a strict medical justification, there is growing opposition to non-essential “cosmetic” surgeries, designed to mould ambiguous genitalia into a “binary” male or female appearance.

Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele, for example, has spoken openly about the negative impact of the “irreversible, unconsented and unnecessary” intersex surgeries she was subjected to growing up.

In male children, by contrast, the dominant view is that boys are not significantly harmed by being circumcised, despite the loss of sensitive tissue.

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.