On this sort of view, the sheer level of harm entailed by FGM passes a threshold of intolerability that is not passed by male circumcision.
FGM is also seen as lacking in any benefit (as the World Health Organization states: FGM has “no health benefits, [and] only [causes] harm”), In the first section of this essay, I call into question the claims upon which these distinctions are typically premised.
The consequence of this conclusion can be stated as a conditional: if the degree of harm vs benefit commonly attributed to male circumcision is seen as being compatible with its permissibility in Western societies, then forms of female genital cutting that result in a similar degree of harm vs benefit must also be considered permissible on these grounds. Indeed, the official position of such influential bodies as the World Health Organization and the United Nations is that any kind of medically unnecessary, non-consensual alteration of the female genitalia – no matter how minor the incision, no matter what type of tissue is or is not removed, no matter how slim the degree of risk, and no matter how sterile the equipment used – is by definition an impermissible “mutilation.” There is an important moral difference [between male and female forms of genital alteration] that does not have to do with the physical effects of the operation[s]. of the cultures in which female genital cutting is practiced, the practice reflects deeply-rooted attitudes about the lower status of women.
Thus, even if male and female genital cutting were perfectly identical in terms of net health benefits and effects on sexual pleasure, the relationship in some cultures between female genital cutting and a failure to respect women as moral equals would give an additional reason to object to female circumcision.Male and female forms of genital alteration: the question of harm That FGA is harmful to women and girls – and certainly much more harmful than MGA – is a truism in Western societies.This is the harm-based argument to which I alluded earlier, and I have already suggested that it cannot succeed.Indeed, contrary to common wisdom, non-therapeutic FGA is not always associated with, nor a reflection of, sexist and patriarchal norms; nor are the norms associated with male genital cutting always as morally innocent as is typically assumed.Accordingly, even if one were to grant that the moral permissibility of each type of genital cutting – stipulated to be equally (physically) harmful for the sake of this analysis – hinged on the attitudes or norms that they “reflected,” it would still be necessary to distinguish between such attitudes and norms on a context-specific basis, and possibly even case-by-case.First, as Mazor himself concedes, male and female forms of genital alteration are carried out for different reasons, and reflect different norms and attitudes, in different cultural contexts.In some cases, the “symbolic meanings” of these respective alterations are in fact quite similar.Apart from the practical difficulties that would be incurred by such a task, there are a number of epistemological difficulties as well.As I conclude, therefore, the Western habit of drawing a stark moral distinction between male and female forms of non-therapeutic, non-consensual genital alteration may be impossible to maintain on principled grounds – or if not impossible, certainly much more difficult than is commonly assumed.As an alternative, I propose an ethical framework for evaluating such alterations that is based upon considerations of bodily autonomy and informed consent, rather than sex or gender.Keywords: FGM, circumcision, gender, sexuality, autonomy, consent of the child whose genitals are altered.