The case for genital mutilation.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 19 2006 6:15 AM

Mohels to Mozambique

The case for genital mutilation.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click to expand.

For thousands of years, we humans have lovingly mutilated our children. We give birth to them, swaddle them, and then cut their genitals. Some people condemn these rituals; others defend them. Now reports from Africa are shaking assumptions on both sides. Our mutilation of girls may be killing them. Our mutilation of boys may be saving their lives.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to UNICEF, at least 100 million women, largely in Africa, have been genitally disfigured. Two months ago, the World Health Organization reported that these women, compared to their uncut peers, were up to 69 percent more likely to hemorrhage after childbirth and up to 55 percent more likely to deliver a dead or dying baby. For every 100 deliveries, the WHO estimates that female genital mutilation kills one or two extra kids.

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Fortunately, the world is mobilizing against this practice. More than 50 African nations have signed a protocol against female mutilation. Last year, two reports found it was declining across the continent. The governments of Djibouti and Mauritania have campaigned against it; public support has diminished in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Senegal. Last year, practitioners in Ivory Coast renounced the trade and gave up their instruments. Three weeks ago, colleagues in Sierra Leone followed suit. Britain and Sweden are cracking down on immigrants who try to import it.

But why stop with girls? Why not rescue boys, too? That's the argument of the anti-circumcision movement, whose constituencies—groups such as Mothers Against Circumcision, Jews Against Circumcision, and Catholics Against Circumcision—are flooding the Internet. There's a site for "intactivists" and another for foreskin restoration. There's a gallery of naked men, literally uncut. Some groups troll for personal injury plaintiffs; others promote marches on Washington to honor Genital Integrity Awareness Week.

To its credit, the movement has challenged custom and inertia. It has pleaded for "scientific research" and "an open mind," and doctors have listened. Seven years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that evidence of potential benefits was "not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision." The American Medical Association agreed. Fewer boys are being circumcised today than in 1970, and more medical residency programs that teach circumcision are including anesthesia.

But scientific rebellions against religion have a nasty habit of becoming religions themselves. First come the myths. Last month, Dan Bollinger, director of the International Coalition for Genital Integrity, launched Project: OUCH!, a "collection of first hand accounts"by victims of genital mutilation. The first account, written by Bollinger, described a recurring "flashback of my circumcision when I was three days old." It was a moving story. But according to brain researchers, such memories at that age are biologically impossible.

Then comes the ideology. Foreskin advocates say uncut men are "intact," "natural," and "normal." Circumcised men, by implication, aren't. Technically, according to Doctors Opposing Circumcision, it's up to you whether to "go through life with incomplete genitalia." But what kind of man would choose that?

Half the time, anti-circumcision activists talk like anti-abortion activists. They're pushing federal legislation to impose a jail sentence of up to 14 years on anyone who "cuts or mutilates the whole or any part" of the foreskin of a boy younger than 18. (Call it the "partial bris" bill.) They're fighting to end public funding of circumcisions on the grounds that this procedure, like elective abortion, is "nontherapeutic" and "not health care." They're planning lawsuits to intimidate doctors and ban infant circumcision through the courts.

The rest of the time, they talk like radical feminists. They're outraged that we deplore female mutilation but tolerate male circumcision. They call this sex discrimination and a violation of the Constitution's equal protection clause. Their founding declaration  opposes, in the same breath, "foreskin, clitoral, or labial amputation." The ICGI has even proposed an international legal code equating removal of the foreskin with removal of the clitoris.

Have these people lost their heads?