Ethics does not require medicine. Medicine requires ethics.

I finally figured out how to explain the flaw in the thinking I challenged last week, the flaw that believes male and female genital mutilation are not morally equivalent. The path to missing the truth is clear. The blogger who claimed that gender is a valid surgical distinction assigned his entry to a category – “Medicine” – that misses the point. It’s a category that he would explicitly refuse to assign any discussion of female genital mutilation. He would file any such post to “Ethics”. That’s where he should’ve posted Wednesday’s entry.

In his mind, and in every encounter I’ve had on this topic, the assumption informing the lapse in reason always rests on the mistaken notion that the claimed potential benefits from male genital mutilation inform the ethics of imposing the procedure on another. It can be helpful, so it is acceptable. Obviously it’s desirable for the patient. Obviously. Also obvious, because it’s now acceptable and presumptively desirable, it must be desired by the patient. We assume that every male who can’t consent would consent if given the option, so there’s no need to bother with waiting. Waiting only increases the likelihood that one of the scary possibilities from being intact will affect the male.

But that misses the subjectivity of potential benefits and the evaluation each individual might undertake if he retains his normal choices. There is no medical need at the imposition of the surgery. Ethics must dictate a refusal to impose unnecessary surgical procedures, which is most often nothing more than tradition and conformity masquerading as medicine. The key word is impose. That requires legitimate ethical consideration, a test that cultural and ritual male child genital mutilation fail.

With female genital mutilation, our society recognizes no potential medical benefits. We do not consider the silly idea of chasing any. We assume no benefit and understand the obvious harm. We invoke only ethics, rejecting any hypothetical encroachment of speculative, preventive medicine into the ethics. Everyone in western society accepts that it is morally objectionable to impose unnecessary genital modification on a healthy individual who can’t consent, if the healthy individual is female. We know females would not consent to genital modification. Yet, we have evidence that seems to contradict this in societies that practice FGM. In the United States some adult females willingly choose cosmetic surgical alteration of their genitals. We refuse to accept the former and willfully ignore the latter.

This adherence to a gender-based relativism is the ethical myopia that leads to the mistaken belief that male and female genital mutilation are not the same immoral human rights violation. They are morally indistinguishable because humans possess human rights, not just female humans. Society errs every time it sanctions parents imposing surgical genital modification on their healthy child. We’ve reasoned our way to the proper understanding of female genital mutilation. We need to stop rejecting reason the same proper understanding of male genital mutilation.

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