When I wrote about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ revised policy statement on ritual genital cutting of female minors, I sensed some misunderstanding of what the policy says. Then the story hit the New York Times, among many outlets covering it, confirming what I suspected.
In a controversial change to a longstanding policy concerning the practice of female circumcision in some African and Asian cultures, the American Academy of Pediatrics is suggesting that American doctors be given permission to perform a ceremonial pinprick or “nick” on girls from these cultures if it would keep their families from sending them overseas for the full circumcision.
Saying that the AAP now supports female genital cutting grabs attention, but it’s not an accurate summary of the policy statement. The AAP’s conclusion:
The American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Opposes all forms of FGC that pose risks of physical or psychological harm.
- Encourages its members to become informed about FGC and its complications and to be able to recognize physical signs of FGC.
- Recommends that its members actively seek to dissuade families from carrying out harmful forms of FGC.
- Recommends that its members provide patients and their parents with compassionate education about the physical harms and psychological risks of FGC while remaining sensitive to the cultural and religious reasons that motivate parents to seek this procedure for their daughters.
I stand by my original interpretation that the AAP left itself room to appeal to both sides of the argument. It brought up a ritual ‘nick’ for ceremonial blood, but avoided anything more declarative than hinting that it should be discussed. But it did not endorse female genital mutilation, unless one defines genital mutilation as any blade-to-genitals. (If that’s your definition, I agree from my rights-based perspective, but the same applies to male genital cutting.) If the goal is to reduce and eliminate harm to children, it’s stupid to suggest that we factor anything other than harm from non-therapeutic genital cutting and sexist to suggest the victim’s gender matters, somehow.
So, to be clear, I don’t have much respect for the AAP, for multiple reasons. It’s revised statement is cowardly. And I’m angry that the story has careened in a manner that requires me to defend an organization unable to reject non-therapeutic male circumcision, a practice it admits¹ is harmful. But here, with this statement, the AAP did not recommend that doctors perform female genital mutilation, nor did it initiate discussion of anything other than the least harmful forms of Type IV as a substitute for Types I, II, and III in a context where some form of genital cutting is likely.
To its credit the New York Times called the AAP:
A member of the academy’s bioethics committee, Dr. Lainie Friedman Ross, associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, said the panel’s intent was to issue a “statement on safety in a culturally sensitive context.”
Dr. Friedman Ross said that the committee members “oppose all types of female genital cutting that impose risks or physical or psychological harm,” and consider the ritual nick “a last resort,” but that the nick is “supposed to be as benign as getting a girl’s ears pierced. It’s taking a pin and creating a drop of blood.”
I don’t accept that ear piercing is benign, but for the purposes here, Dr. Friedman Ross shows that the AAP did not say what many now hysterically claim it said. The now-accepted misunderstanding of its revision is unfortunate because there’s a relevant, necessary path for the discussion to take now that it’s opened:
Dr. Friedman Ross said, “If you medicalize it and say it’s permissible, is there a possibility that some people will misunderstand it and go beyond a nick? Yes.”
But she said the risk that people denied the ceremonial procedure, usually on the clitoris, would opt for the more harmful one was much more dangerous.
I’d like to see research to back that claim, but for some (probably significant) percentage, I have no doubt she’s correct. Unfortunately, the hysteria now present in the debate involves people who either have not read the revised policy statement or have poor reading comprehension skills, so we can’t approach that topic. (Remember, too, that I wrote that I favor of zero tolerance on this if you wish to accuse me of anything for pursuing the discussion.)
Instead, we’re left with people preening about an existing, incomplete (or inaccurate) narrative. The sentiment seems to be a determination to show that one cares about the issue in the correct way rather than figuring out how to minimize harm to children. I’m not saying that people who exhibit the former are uninterested in the latter, but they’re inadvertently working against the legitimate goal.
Post Script: I’d planned to include examples from other sources. Since they generally raise issues that are tangential to my objective in this post, I will address them separately.
¹ The AAP exhibits its cowardice by admitting this indirectly. It engaged in obvious moral relativism as it acknowledged that male circumcision is more harmful than what it proposed we discuss and that causing harm violates the physician’s “principle of nonmaleficence.” But the proper conclusion that non-therapeutic male circumcision is harmful and should therefore be prohibited on male minors is unavoidable from the bioethics committee’s statement on female genital cutting.