female genital mutilation – hideous whichever way you look at it

I’ve just been sent through an article from an Australian news site, which suggests that the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetrics will next month be discussing the possibility of doctors offering ‘ritual nick’ – a form of female genital mutilation that entails a small incision on the clitoris. (In this they seem to be following in the footsteps of the American Academy of Paediatrics.)

I am commenting as both a biologist & a woman when I say that I find this practice abhorrent. At its most extreme, female genital mutilation (FGM, sometimes called ‘female circumcision’, presumably in an attempt to make it sound more acceptable) sees the removal of the clitoris & the labia minora & majora; women are often also infibulated ie the wound is stitched to heal in such a way that only a small opening is available for the passage of urine & menstrual fluids. I say ‘women’ but the whole process is performed on young girls. The outcome of this extreme mutilation – if the child doesn’t die of infection – is complete loss of any pleasurable sexual sensation and the real potential for further damage during intercourse & childbirth, not to mention an increased risk of urinary tract infection. The ‘ritual nick’ is far less extreme, but it still involves damage to a particularly personal part of a girl’s anatomy for no good medical reason.

The rationale for the doctors’ consideration of this issue appears to be that it’s already done in a ‘backdoor’ way by various ethnic communities in Australia, without anaesthesia or proper surgical tools, & making the less extreme ‘ritual nick’ legitimate might stop the whole backdoor thing in its tracks. (In some cases families take their daughters overseas & the FGM is done there. It’s hard to see how people who feel so strongly about subjecting their daughters to this would settle for ‘just’ a nick…)The problem I have with this is that it legitimises the idea that it’s OK to scar young women in this way. The practice may have a lengthy cultural history but that doesn’t make it right. Nor is there any good biological or health-related reason why it should be encouraged – I fail to see, for example, how cutting away any tissue around a woman’s genitals can is some way improve personal hygiene. Yet it’s sometimes justified (ha!) as making a young woman ‘more beautiful.‘ More tellingly perhaps, in many proponents of the practice feel that it reduces the young woman’s libido, making it less likely that she will engage in ‘illicit’ (ie outside of marriage) sexual intercourse. This is an incredibly misogynistic view. (And no, I don’t see the point of male circumcision either.)

OK, if an adult genuinely consents to such a procedure, & knows what the outcomes are, then it’s their decision (although I find it hard to imagine why a woman would wish to go ahead with it). But not a child. Children cannot possibly give informed consent for this.

And – for the doctors – whatever happened to ‘first, do no harm’?


PS (29th July): the College has put out a press release saying that it does not support the use of the ‘ritual nick’. Thanks to Mark for passing this on.

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