British court: Male circumcision reasonable; Female genital mutilation always wrong

British court: Male circumcision reasonable; Female genital mutilation always wrong January 26, 2015

Rejecting any moral or legal equivalence between male circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM), a British family court has ruled that FGM is never acceptable, while non-therapeutic male circumcision can be considered “reasonable parenting.”

Religion Clause reports the court found significant differences between the two procedures, and rejected the argument that male circumcision should be equated with female genital mutilation and be banned just as female genital mutilation is banned.

Law and Religion UK also reports on the court decision concerning the differences between FGM and non-therapeutic male circumcision carried out for religious or socio-cultural reasons.

The following is an excerpt from the court’s ruling, via Law and Religion UK:

Whereas it can never be reasonable parenting to inflict any form of FGM on a child, the position is quite different with male circumcision. Society and the law, including family law, are prepared to tolerate non-therapeutic male circumcision performed for religious or even for purely cultural or conventional reasons, while no longer being willing to tolerate FGM in any of its forms. There are, after all, at least two important distinctions between the two. FGM has no basis in any religion; male circumcision is often performed for religious reasons. FGM has no medical justification and confers no health benefits; male circumcision is seen by some (although opinions are divided) as providing hygienic or prophylactic benefits. Be that as it may, ‘reasonable’ parenting is treated as permitting male circumcision.

FGM continues to be a serious and under-reported problem in the UK. The following is an excerpt from a recent report on the problem via Independent.IE:

Almost 500 newly identified cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) were reported by hospitals across England in one month, according to the latest figures.

An average of 15 cases were discovered each day in November, according to data published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

Last November 466 cases of FGM were identified; while in October, the first month such figures were compiled, 455 cases were reported. The figures for December are expected this week.

Despite the apparently high number of FGM cases, no one has yet been convicted for the practice, which has been illegal in the UK since 1985.

No convictions? How is this possible?

Eugene Volokh, writing for the Washington Post, makes some important observations about a curious portion of the court ruling declaring that female genital mutilation “has no basis in any religion.”

Volokh writes:

It’s not completely clear to me exactly what the judge means by stating that female genital mutilation “has no basis in any religion.” As I understand it, some forms are female genital mutilation are indeed endorsed as religiously necessary or at least advisable by some Muslim religious scholars. I take it the judge must be concluding that either majority Islamic belief doesn’t support female genital mutilation, or “true” or “proper” Islamic belief doesn’t support it — not a conclusion that American judges would be free to draw, I think, given the First Amendment, but presumably one that English judges are allowed to draw. (Under American law, it’s not for courts to decide whether a religious claim represents the majority view of a religious group, or the proper understanding of its scriptures, though courts can of course reject religious exemption claims on other grounds, such as that the exemption would unavoidably inflict substantial harm on third parties.)

Volokh’s observation is noteworthy because it points to a larger issue, the interesting yet troubling phenomenon of authorities, in this case the court, trying to dictate what is, or is not, “true Islam.”

While some Muslims and academics in the West take pains to insist that the practice of FGM is not rooted in religion but rather in culture, the fact is that those who commit the practice believe it to be religiously mandated.

In the end, the case touches on several hot button issues: the connection of Islam with FGM, the relationship between FGM and male circumcision, and the morality of non-therapeutic male circumcision.

While it seems there is a clear moral consensus that FGM is a barbaric and morally repugnant practice, there is no such consensus about non-therapeutic male circumcision.

What do you think? Do you find any moral equivalence between FGM and non-therapeutic male circumcision? Is non-therapeutic male circumcision “reasonable parenting,” or should it be considered child abuse? Leave a comment – express yourself.

(For a much more detailed account of the family court’s ruling, see UK Human Rights Blog, while a copy of the original ruling can be found here.)


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