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The case that could end ritual male circumcision in the UK

A woman from Nottingham, England is suing the doctor who carried out a circumcision on her infant son without her permission. The circumcision took place during Eid festival when the infant was in the care of his biological father, a Muslim. After the operation, the child was in so much pain, he was unable to wear a nappy.

There is a stark contrast between female and male genital excision: the former is illegal, the other is permitted. There are mythical differences, too: one is seen as barbaric, the other as somehow beneficial.

I have actively contributed to the campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM), which varies in severity from the abhorrent radical destruction of outer genitalia (type I) to the most common, mildest form of clitoral excision (type IV). All types are forbidden, although not a single person has been convicted for this crime in Britain, despite estimates of 2.1% of females in London having been cut. At least girls are protected in law, if not always in practice.

Shearing off parts of genital organs is no less unethical or abusive because the child is male. Yet the political and professional establishments don’t want to know.

Arguably, circumcision is on a par with FGM type IV in terms of harm. In the short term, there is often inflammation, soreness and bleeding, and the risk that the wound may become infected. There are also potential long-term psychological harms that may arise in adulthood, as self-consciousness detracts from sexual intimacy. Yet outdated justifications for circumcision are blithely accepted.

There are medical benefits, some say. In fact, as stated by the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, it is extremely rare for removal of the foreskin to be medically necessary.

Another excuse is hygiene. When an academic colleague doubted my stance on circumcision of boys, arguing that it is necessary for cleanliness, I asked: “What’s wrong with soap?”

“But they don’t wash,” she replied with implausible certainty.

Another similarity with FGM is that incidence of male circumcision may be increasing, due to demographic change. Astonishingly, in some areas of the country, it is funded by the NHS. This could become more established as local commissioning bodies give in to cultural demands.

Circumcision is a Muslim and Jewish practice, and is also prevalent in some African Christian communities (it was also fairly common among the upper and middle classes in Britain until the 1950s). Happily, some parents are honouring the rite of passage with an adapted ceremony that relinquishes the scalpel. A boy or girl is no less a Jew or Muslim if their genitals remain intact.

Cultural sensitivity

As a healthcare lecturer, I am troubled by any medical practitioner performing this act for religious rather than clinical purpose. It breaks the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm”. The operation, however proficiently completed, violates the healthy body. But, due to cultural sensitivities and moral relativism, few public figures are brave enough to call for circumcision to be outlawed, fearing charges of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. However, Iceland has recently taken this bold step, and other countries may follow.

Should cultural sensitivity trump the rights of a child? From an egalitarian perspective, as guided by Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative to afford everyone the same rational justice, the answer must be “no”. But society is hypocritical on equality.

A situation where cutting girls is (rightly) illegal, but boys are fair game, is unconscionable. Sir James Munby, an English judge, criticised this inconsistency in a recent case in which a local authority sought to remove a Muslim brother and sister from their home after the girl had been cut; the boy’s circumcision, by contrast, cannot be regarded as a safeguarding concern.

I’m not suggesting draconian intervention, but let the law treat children fairly and squarely, irrespective of gender. Perhaps a specific prohibition of male genital mutilation is needed, but this would not be necessary if the longstanding statute of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is applied.

The case reported in the Sunday Times is at least a promising sign that circumcision against a parent’s consent is prosecutable. A much-needed precedent would boost the cause against all forms of child genital cutting.

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