April 21, 2024

Is a defence of female genital cutting possible?

Absolutist notions of human rights must be tempered by respect for cultural traditions, says German ethicist

Female genital mutilation (or circumcision, or cutting) is reviled as one of the most egregious violations of human rights. But hundreds of millions of women have undergone some of form of FGC and there is fierce resistance to eliminating the traditional practice. Is it possible to reconcile it with human rights?

Writing in the journal Developing World Bioethics, a German bioethicist teaching in Lithuania, John-Steward Gordon, of Vytauto Didziojo University, believes that a compromise is possible. He contends that “one form of FGC, the removal of the clitoris foreskin, can be made compatible with the high demands of universal human rights”.

This depends, of course, on whether one regards human rights as absolute and their application as inflexible. Gordon insists that cultural background must be taken into account:

After all, human beings are not islands; on the contrary, their lives are deeply embedded in the social settings of their communities. The surrounding society's view of a person – e.g., a woman who has been circumcised and is therefore respected in her society – is of utmost importance for that person's self-conception. To deny this point is to ignore the enormous influence of society on individuals.

In other words, lack of FGC could severely handicap a woman in some cultures, both personally and socially.

The young girls themselves often want to be circumcised because they do not want to be left behind socially. They want to become full members of the tribe, share this experience with their friends, and become respected by other tribe members as a ‘real’ woman, even though the path to get there may be associated with great pain and even life-threatening circumstances.

However, Gordon does not believe that any and all forms of FGC are compatible with human rights. He sets down several criteria:

  • There must be individual informed consent, and not just consent from a girl’s parents
  • Some forms of FGC are such a severe risk to health that they should be actively discouraged through education, social pressure, regulation, and prohibition
  • All FGC should be carried out by medically-trained experts
  • The instruments should be disinfected and anaesthesia should be available
  • There should be no social-political pressure and a female who refuses FGC should not be disadvantaged

Gordon is not arguing that FGC is good. He believes that it should not be practiced at all. But he says that absolutist notions of human rights have to be tempered by respect for cultural traditions. It is a controversial thesis; he can probably expect some fireworks. 

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