A bill making it a crime for parents to allow their daughters’ genitals to be cut has passed in Minnesota House committees and is under consideration at the Legislature. If the bill (HF2621), introduced by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, becomes law, it would further protect girls born with healthy genitalia from having any part of them cut, permanently altered or removed without their consent (and children are, by law, unable to grant valid consent).
But what about boys?
In the United States, doctors who cut (or “circumcise”) the genitals of little boys are paid for their services. But doctors who cut a girl’s genitals can be prosecuted under federal law. Last month, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala was arrested in Michigan for allegedly cutting the genitals of two 7-year-old girls from Minnesota. The girls had been brought to the accused doctor — a mother herself, and a Muslim — by their own moms, to comply with the custom of their culture.
To people like me, an attorney and advocate for health care equity who has been fighting against male circumcision for decades, it’s evident that a double standard is at work here. Americans are appalled when they see female genital mutilation practiced on our soil. But most are blind to the fact that each day, 3,000 baby boys have their genitals mutilated in hospitals, doctors’ offices and private homes in our country. Even the word “circumcision” is a euphemism, meant to give this cultural practice the status of a legitimate medical procedure.
Maybe if we called it male genital mutilation, more people would understand what the surgery actually entails — binding the arms and feet of a newborn boy, using a metal probe to forcibly tear the normal, healthy foreskin from his glans penis, clamping that foreskin, and then cutting it off with scissors or a scalpel. In many medical settings, no pain relief is employed for this surgery. Follow-up operations to correct errors and functional impairments are common, and are the primary reason for boys to visit pediatric urologists. That’s no surprise. Surely, it is hard to operate on the genitals of a bucking, screaming child.
Rep. Franson’s bill would complement the existing federal law by making parents as culpable as doctors if they allow their daughter’s genitals to be cut. However, criminalizing a procedure carried out on girls, while tolerating (and indeed promoting) it for boys, is not only self-righteous and hypocritical — it’s unjust. Indeed, it’s unconstitutional, as the 14th Amendment says, “No state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Parents love and want the best for their children, girls and boys, and follow practices endemic in their respective cultures not because their motives are sinister, but because it is hard to fight the status quo. Just ask any American mom who has been told, time and again, by family members, doctors and nurses, that if she doesn’t consent to her son’s circumcision, he will be dirty, unattractive and disease-prone. Such pressure regularly occurs, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has never said that infant male circumcision is a medical necessity. (The AAP’s most recent statement on the topic says there are minimal benefits that outweigh the risks, but at the same time admits that the risks and complications have never been systematically studied.)
Medical organizations elsewhere vigorously disagree with the AAP’s pro-circumcision stance. Great Britain, Europe, Australia and other Western countries do not circumcise their boys, and physicians and ethicists from these countries hold that it is unacceptable from both an ethical and a public health standpoint to routinely remove healthy body parts to prevent hypothetical future maladies. They also are critical of American doctors’ failure to consider the protective and sensual value of the foreskin. Interestingly, the rates of AIDS/HIV, cervical cancer and penile cancer in noncircumcising, developed countries are comparable to or lower than ours.
Legislation tends to follow — not create — public opinion. Americans are already revolted by the idea of cutting girls. Rather than doubling down by creating additional inequality in the law, why not take the opportunity presented by the recent events in Minnesota and Michigan as an opportunity to talk openly about why we think we can improve on mother nature? If we look at the subject closely, we will learn why we should keep all of our children intact.
Georganne Chapin is executive director of Intact America, a national advocacy group working to end involuntary circumcision in America.