Sunday, March 28, 2010

More on boys

A while back, I wrote on gender equality in education from the mother-of-a-boy perspective, and today I wanted to continue in that vein of thought, but in regards to bodily integrity and medical autonomy.

For a while, female genital mutilation, or female circumcision gained a lot of attention as the human rights cause celebre.  Female circumcision has a number of variations, all including the removal of some part or all of the clitoral hood, and may also include removal of some part of the labia as well, and in extreme cases the suturing of the vaginal opening to a reduced size.  It is practiced mostly in African and Middle Eastern cultures, but also in parts of Asia and in immigrant communities in North America and Europe.  The reasoning for the outcry was that this was a cosmetic procedure with no medical benefit and the creation of medical risks, performed on an underage and often unwilling female in traditional societies.  There has since been some push-back, as women who chose to be circumcised have come forward asking that us nosy Westerners stay out of their cultural practices, and accusations of cultural imperialism.  It is important to note, however, that the acceptance of the practice and the reports of voluntary circumcision are by far the minority view in this matter.

Contrast this with the case of male circumcision: a practice that originated as a minority religious tradition, with questionable medical value, and also done on under age males, usually infants, but a practice that is unquestioned as "good" for the person to whom it is done.  Both circumcisions involve the removal of similar tissue- the foreskin removed by male circumcision is homologous to the clitoral hood removed in female circumcision, although it is common for female circumcision to go further that that, as I've stated.  Where the removal of tissue is concerned, the difference is mostly quantitative as opposed to qualitative, although the stitching of the vaginal opening is definitely a qualitative difference.  There have been some studies to show a decrease in the risk of AIDS and STD transmission with circumcision, but none of those studies to my knowledge have dealt with neonatal circumcision in Western societies, instead focusing on adult men in developing countries, so I question how well the results can be extrapolated from one paradigm to the other.

Essentially, my biggest problem is just what I stated at the beginning of this post- the issue of bodily autonomy.  Why is the usurpation of a male infant's bodily autonomy considered perfectly normal and natural and parents who choose not to do so are seen as "fringe" community members, while to do the same thing to a female is considered unthinkable and a human rights violation?  Granted, the bodily autonomy extends further than just this one example, and can favor either sex, but the stark differences in how the circumcision of males and females is treated really draws my ire.  Human rights are human rights, and if one sex has the right to choose whether or not they will have cosmetic surgery, then the other does as well, and no one else can take that right, least of all the parents.  We still have a long way to go on gender equality, I fear, and no one is a winner so long as there are losers in the world.

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