Circumcision or Mutilation - Voluntary or Forced Excision - Extricating the Ethical and Legal Issues in Female Genital Ritual
Obiajulu Nnamuchi, Circumcision or Mutilation - Voluntary or Forced Excision - Extricating the Ethical and Legal Issues in Female Genital
Circumcision or Mutilation - Voluntar y or Forced Excision - Extricating the Ethical and Legal Issues in Female Genital Ritual
Obiajulu Nnamuchi 0
0 Centre for Health , Bioethics and Human Rights, Enugu , Nigeria
Follow this and additional works at: http://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/jlh Part of the Human Rights Law Commons, and the Law and Gender Commons How does access to this work benefit y ou? Let us know! Recommended Citation
INTRODUCTION ...................................................................... 85
RECONSTRUCTING THE DEBATE............................................. 89
CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND FEMALE GENITAL RITUAL ....... 95
FGM: AN EVIL OR SOMETHING ELSE? .................................. 98
SOME ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS........................................ 107
HUMAN RIGHTS PROHIBITIONS: ARE THEY SUFFICIENTLY
ANTIDOTAL OR WARRANTED IN ALL CASES? ...................... 111
CONCLUSION ....................................................................... 118
The genesis of the procedure most commonly described as female circumcision
(FC) or female genital mutilation (FGM) is rooted in antiquity.1 The ritual has
Obiajulu Nnamuchi, LL.B (NAU, Nigeria), LL.M (Notre Dame), LL.M (Toronto), M.A.
(Louisville), S.J.D. (Loyola, Chicago). Interim President & Chief Counsel, Centre for Health,
Bioethics and Human Rights, Enugu, Nigeria. To all those whose suggestions and critiques, in
one way or another, aided the refinement of the ideas espoused in this paper, particularly Prof.
Nancy N. Potter and colleagues at the University of Louisville Bioethics and Medical
Humanities Program where this paper was first presented, I owe an immeasurable debt of
gratitude. And to Prof. Mark A. Rothstein, for his extraordinary support, colleagues at the
Loyola University Chicago Law School, and AdaObi Nnamuchi, my able assistant, I am
eternally grateful. All errors and omissions, of course, remain exclusively mine.
1 Though the origin of FGR is unknown, the Greek historian Strabo found evidence of the
procedure among ancient Egyptians in early first century A.D. See DAVID L. GOLLAHER,
CIRCUMCISION: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD‘S MOST CONTROVERSIAL SURGERY 195-96
(2000). His finding was corroborated in a fourth century papyrus from St. Ambrosius of
Milan, which recorded, as did Strabo, that Egyptians circumcised both males and females. Id.
From this early beginning, FGR spread to different parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and
Latin America. Rationales for the practice are as diverse as the communities in which it has
been firmly established, but practitioners typically justify their action as a religious or cultural
prescription aimed at promoting cleanliness, ensuring virginity, preventing promiscuity,
enhancing aesthetic beauty of the vagina/surrounding tissues, and improving marital
prospects. See ELLEN GRUENBAUM, THE FEMALE CIRCUMCISION CONTROVERSY: AN
ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE (2001) (providing a comprehensive analysis of the cultural
context of FGR and its underlying rationales and assumptions).
Historically, the procedure was known, like its male counterpart, simply as circumcision
or ―FC‖; but over the last two decades, additional terms, carefully crafted to serve one agenda
or the other, have been added to the corpus of descriptive terms. The pejorative term ―FGM‖
is most widely used, though many commentators have explicitly rejected its usage, choosing,
existed for centuries amongst different cultures but is currently practiced primarily in
twenty-eight African countries, parts of the Middle East, and increasingly among
immigrant populations in Europe, North America, and Australia.2 The World Health
Organization (WHO) estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women
have undergone the procedure,3 out of which 91.5 million are in Africa.4 Of these
91.5 million girls and women, more than half are in three countries ranking amongst
the highest in prevalence rates: Egypt, Ethiopia, and northern Sudan.5 Desegregated
figures show that the prevalence rates vary dramatically amongst practicing nations,
from as high as 96% in Egypt to as low as 0.6% in Uganda.6 Globally, around two
million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedure annually.7 Because FGR is
inextricably embedded in the cultural ethos of practicing nations, outsiders‘ attempts
to reconceptualize the practice as unnecessary, unjustifiable, or harmful have proved
largely unfruitful. Even in countries that have been successfully goaded into
criminalizing the procedure, often by external forces, compliance has not matched
instead, to adopt more culturally sensitive appellations. Cook and colleagues, for instance,
prefer ―female cutting,‖ which they perceive to be neutral and less offensive to people whose
culture endorses the ritual. See REBECCA J. COOK ET AL., REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND
HUMAN RIGHTS: INTEGRATING MEDICINE, ETHICS AND LAW 263 (2003). Similarly,
Gruenbaum uses ―FC,‖ although somewhat grudgingly, ―to avoid the connotations of evil
intentions or wanton mayhem associated with the term ―mutilation.‖‘ See id. at 4. Nancy
Ehrenreich & Mark Barr, on the other hand, settled on three terms, namely, ―female genital
cutting‖, ―FC,‖ and ―female genital surgery,‖ unapologetically rejecting ―FGM,‖ which they
consider unnecessarily inflammatory. See Intersex Surgery, Female Genital Cutting, and the
Selective Condemnation of “Cultural Practices,” 40 HARV. C.R.-C.L. L. REV. 71, 72 n.4
While I share these sentiments, in that I consider ―FGM‖ to be an unnecessarily
offensive, outrageous and counterproductive descriptive term, the nature of my discourse
makes employing the term imperative since a critical part of my main argument centers on the
term itself. But, aside from specific circumstances where a different term would be clearly
inappropriate, I endorse the terms identified above, in addition to ―female genital ritual‖
(FGR)—a designation which is used throughout this discourse as a constellation of all forms
and versions of the procedure.
6 Id. at 8.
7 WHO, supra note 3.
expectation.8 For centuries, the practice, like many others that are culture-driven,
was not a subject of international concern—that is, until recently. There is a growing
consensus that the influx of Africans and Arabs into Western countries contributed
to international involvement in what, heretofore, was generally regarded as a
legitimate cultural practice worthy of deference and respect. With escalating
conflicts and internal strife in many African and Middle Eastern countries, an
appreciable number of inhabitants are forced to seek refuge in Western countries.
One of the more visible results of this tragic exodus was that the aftermath of a
cultural ritual, once confined to distant lands, began to be seen in social welfare
offices and health clinics in Europe and North America. And this, not surprisingly,
raised some eyebrows.
In a move reminiscent of the scramble for the partition of Africa, commentators
of various disciplines are, with the publication of each new ―finding,‖ edging closer
to unanimity in their strident denunciation of the ritual.9 Their condemnations fall
8 A good illustration is Uganda‘s Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2010,
which became operational April 9, 2010. The law, which severely punishes activities related
to FGR (a term of imprisonment not exceeding ten years for anyone who performs the ritual
and not less than five for procuring, aiding, and abetting or attempting the ritual), has only
succeeded in driving the practice underground. See Fredrick Womakuyu, FGM Thrives
Despite Government Ban, NEW VISION (Uganda) (Jan. 7, 2011), http://www.newvision.co.ug/
D/9/183/743102 (reporting that ―[g]irls are now being mutilated secretly in huts and in caves.
They are also cut in the wee hours of the morning. Strangers are no longer welcome at the
venues.‖); see also Alison Slack, Female Circumcision: A Critical Appraisal, 10 HUM. RTS.
Q. 437, 478 (1988) (noting that one of the reasons anti-FGM legislation failed in Kenya,
Sudan, and Egypt is that ―[m]ost of the laws were the by-products of external pressure and did
not reflect the desire of the local people to suppress the tradition‖).
9 What I have in mind approximates Thomas Pakenham‘s description of the invaders of
the continent ―as outsiders of one kind or another but no less ardent‖ in their crusade, a
crusade ―they all conceived of . . . in terms of romantic nationalism,‖ hoping to ―save Africa
from itself.‖ Replace ―romantic nationalism‖ with ―cultural romanticism‖ and the similarity
with the tenor of a vast majority of commentaries against FGR becomes striking. See THE
SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA: WHITE MAN‘S CONQUEST OF THE DARK CONTINENT FROM
18761912, xxii (1992). As a University of Chicago anthropologist elucidates:
[i]f you read and believe those statements or most of the other things you find
written about ―FGM‖ in the popular press (which, for the most part, are
recapitulations of the advocacy literature) then you must conclude that Africa is
indeed a ―Dark Continent,‖ where for hundreds, if not thousands of years,
African parents have been murdering and maiming their daughters and
depriving them of the capacity for a sexual response. You must believe that
African parents (mothers and fathers) are either (a) monsters (―mutilators‖ of
their children); or (b) fools (who are incredibly ignorant of the health
consequences of their own child rearing practices and the best interests of their
children); or (c) prisoners of an insufferably dangerous tradition that they
themselves would like to escape, if only they could find a way out; or else (d)
that African women are weak and passive and live under the patriarchal thumb
of cruel, loathsome or barbaric African men.
See Richard Shweder, When Cultures Collide: Which Rights? Whose Tradition of Values? A
Critique of the Global Anti-FGM Campaign, GLOBAL JUSTICE AND THE BULWARKS OF
LOCALISM: HUMAN RIGHTS IN CONTEXT 181, 184 (Christopher Eisgruber & Andras Sajo
under three broad strands: the ritual is extremely hazardous to the physical and
mental health of affected girls and women; the ritual violates their human right to
bodily integrity insofar as fully informed consent was neither sought nor obtained;
and the ritual perpetuates gender inequality and subjugation in practicing
communities.10 Although there are stark differences between FGM and FC, there has
been a tendency to lump them together and proceed, on the basis of the conflation, to
prescribe the same response to the two procedures: eradication.11
This Article is a repudiation of the one-size-fits-all approach. It argues that owing
to several factors, particularly the unbridled passion surrounding the subject, several
important issues have fallen prey to intensely misguided pejoration,
mischaracterizations, and distortions; yet, extricating and coherently realigning these
issues in a meticulously nuanced way is a key component of resolving what is
already a highly-charged polemic. Unlike previous discourse on the subject, this
Article will not defend either procedure, will not lump the procedures together, and,
as has previously been achieved, perhaps unwittingly, will not contribute to further
obfuscation of the subject.12 Instead, this Article has two objectives: first, to classify
10 Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer, Female Genital Surgeries: The Known, the Unknown, and
the Unknowable 13 MED. ANTHROPOL. Q. 79, 79 (1999).
11 The claims made here pertaining to FC apply with equal force to other less invasive
forms of FGR (insignificant cuts), such as pricking the clitoris to draw blood. Their shared
characteristic is that they are generally harmless and are therefore worthy of consideration as
alternatives to more severe forms of FGR.
and rank the procedures on morally informed grounds, and second, based on the
ranking, to argue for different perspectives on, and treatment of, the two procedures.
Along the same trajectory, this Article considers the issues surrounding voluntary
FGR and explores whether sanction is a morally defensible response. An argument
for a distinction between forced and voluntary FGR as a basis for apportioning
sanction is made and defended.
This Article consists of seven sections. Following the introduction, Part II
reconstructs the debate as to whether FGR is a legitimate cultural practice or a
human rights violation, and it sets forth the major arguments. Part III delves into,
and debunks, the moral relativist argument regarding FGR. Part IV seeks to
determine whether FGM is evil. A foray into the theory of evil, the section draws
critical distinctions between FC and FGM and explains why the distinctions are of
paramount moral importance. Part IV also concludes that FGM is evil, and thus,
among the issues related to the betterment of women worldwide, FGM deserves
more attention. Part IV seeks to determine whether FGM is evil. A foray into the
theory of evil, the section draws critical distinctions between FC and FGM and
shows how the distinctions are of paramount moral importance. The section argues
that FGM (real cases and without consent) is evil, deserving of priority attention in
the overall scheme of attending to the overall wellbeing and betterment of women
while, at the same time, maintaining that FC, even when performed on
nonconsenting women, is distinctly not evil.13 Part V addresses whether there are ethical
bases for opposing bona fide cases of FGM. Relying on the principles of beneficence
and non-maleficence, in addition to ethics of care, Part V returns an affirmative
response. Part VI examines the antidotal adequacy of the existing human rights
framework. Because human rights norms, in their current incarnation that prohibit
FGR fail to draw a distinction between consenting adults and those forced to
undergo the procedure and fail to recognize the difference between FC and FGM,
Part VI argues that the framework is defective. Because, in their current incarnation,
human rights norms prohibiting female FGR fail to draw a distinction between
consenting adults and those forced to undergo the procedure, and fail to recognize
the difference between FC and FGM, Part VI argues that the framework is defective.
Part VII asserts that education and awareness campaigns are more productive paths
to eradication than criminalization.
II. RECONSTRUCTING THE DEBATE
Before plunging into the tasks of this Article, some basic knowledge about the
nature of FGR seems instructive. What follows is the story of a Somali-British
teenager, reported to have undergone the procedure a few years ago.14 Lali was three
when her family migrated to London from war-torn Somalia.15 Like her
Intransigence in the Campaign Against Female Circumcision, 47 CASE W. RES. L. REV. 275
13 The argument made in this section regarding FC applies with equal force to other less
invasive forms of FGR such as ceremonial pricking of clitoris, all of which come under the
rubric ―moral wrong.‖
contemporaries, Lali learned English quickly and adjusted to her adoptive country.16
But her happiness was short-lived. At age eleven, Lali was taken to an undisclosed
location to be circumcised, together with other Somali girls whose mothers, like
Lali‘s, had flown a cutter from their country of origin to circumcise their daughters.17
Upon arriving at the house, Lali was wrestled to the floor by a group of women
which, to Lali‘s dismay, included relatives, family friends, and her own mother.18
Once pinned to the floor, and without the aid of an anesthetic, the cutter was invited
to perform the ritual.19 The pain was excruciating and quite difficult to bear,
especially for a young girl.20 As Lali later recalled: ―They held me down, and when
the woman began cutting[,] I screamed, so my friend‘s sister put her hand tightly
over my mouth.‖21 More disturbing, as Lali further explained: ―I had known her and
these other women all my life, and now they were doing . . . this[ to me].‖22 For girls
like Lali, the scar left by the betrayal of people divinely assigned to her stewardship
can have serious psychological consequences and, possibly, medical complications.
Revulsion at this sort of experience is at the root of widespread clamor for the
eradication of FGR. Yet, there seems to be little, if any, agreement on the basic
elements of the procedure. It remains unsettled whether the appropriate descriptive
term for the procedure is FGM or FC. Even its medical and psychological
consequences are mired in controversy.23 Nonetheless, if meaningful progress is to
be made in the march toward proscription of the practice, factors disrupting
reasonable and effective dialogue on these issues need to be unraveled. Distortions
must be fleshed out and meaningfully analyzed; otherwise, progress toward
containment may prove unsustainable.
Not long ago, the term FC was used universally, including in medical literature.
However, its use is increasingly discarded in favor of the term FGM, a preference
based upon the idea that the term FC falsely analogizes FGM to male circumcision,
thereby confusing two remarkably distinct practices.24 The term FGM is meant to
“CIRCUMCISION” OR “MUTILATION”?
more aptly capture the gruesome and harmful nature of the procedure.25 More
importantly, the new term recasts the procedure more concretely as a human rights
violation, thereby providing a more robust ground upon which to campaign for its
abolition.26 Casting FGM as a human rights violation removes the practice from the
arena of culture (and its attendant legitimacy) and makes it more susceptible to
objective moral criticism. The term FGM was adopted in 1990 at the third
conference of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the
Health of Women and Children (IAC), an international private organization based in
Dakar, Senegal.27 Since 1991, when WHO recommended that the United Nations
(U.N.) adopt the term FGM,28 its use has spread like wild fire. The new term is
embraced not only by the U.N. and its agencies, but also by a plurality of scholars,
pundits, and activist groups pushing various agendas.
WHO defines FGM as ―procedures involving partial or total removal of the
external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical
reasons.‖29 Implicit in this definition is the notion that so long as the purpose is
nontherapeutic, excision of any part of external female genitalia is mutilation, regardless
of the degree and size of the tissue removed. This overly broad definition is at the
root of the controversy surrounding the practice, for it erroneously ascribes
mutilation to virtually all forms of FGR, even those that cannot reasonably be
described as such. Three variations of FGR are commonly practiced. In type I (a
clitoridectomy), the clitoris and/or clitoral hood is partially or totally removed.30
Type II (excision) involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia
minora, with or without the removal of the labia majora.31 Type III (infibulation or
pharaonic circumcision) involves cutting the labia minora and/or the labia majora,
with or without the removal of the clitoris, followed by stitching and narrowing of
the vaginal orifice.32 Of the three types, types I and II are the most prevalent,
undergone by approximately 85% of genitally cut women throughout the world.33
25 Richard A. Shweder, Disputing the myth of sexual dysfunction of circumcised women,
25 ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY 14, 17 (Dec. 2009), available at http://www.arts.uregina.ca/
26 WHO, supra note 24, at 22.
29 Id. at 1.
30 WHO, supra note 24, at 4.
The remaining 15% are subjected to type III, the most radical and dangerous of the
three types, commonly practiced in only three countries: Djibouti, Sudan, and
This taxonomy, which has been adopted by a vast majority of local and
international organizations, has attracted criticisms from several quarters, especially
third-world scholars with an intimate knowledge of the procedures. Writing in
opposition to a bill that would outlaw FGR in Nigeria, Nowa Omoigui, a
Nigerianborn cardiologist practicing in the United States, questioned the wisdom of
mischaracterizing circumcision as mutilation, and, as a result, lumping together all
forms of FGR under the pejorative umbrella: FGM.35 ―There is a huge difference
between [c]ircumcision and [m]utilation,‖ Omoigui argues.36 ―To group all forms of
age old religious circumcision into one large category under the guise of medical
enlightenment and ‗civilization‘ is very unfortunate.‖37 Omoigui attacks the idea that
every genital ritual connotes the same horror or has the same consequences as
clitoridectomy, excision, or infibulation.38 Referring to Edo women in Nigeria, for
whom circumcision is limited to the removal of the prepuce (preputium clitoridis)—
the fold of skin that covers the clitoris and which has no sexual or reproductive
value—Omoigui notes that, for these women, circumcision involves the mutilation
of neither the clitoris nor any other part of the genitalia.39 ―In fact, in many cases the
‗removal‘ is symbolic and part of a traditional marriage ceremony.‖40 A similar
argument has been advanced regarding the Ibos, one of the most populous ethnic
34 Borgna Brunner, The Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation: The Abolition of
Female Genital Mutilation Has Become a Worldwide Human Rights Cause, INFOPLEASE
35 Nowa Omoigui, Protest Against Bill H22 Outlawing “FGM” in Nigeria, J. CULTURE &
AFR. WOMEN STUD. 1 (2001), http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/jenda/art
icle/view/38. Some writers have even gone as far as labeling the procedure ―sexual
castration.‖ See, e.g., Mohamed Badawi, Epidemiology of Female Sexual Castration in Cairo,
Egypt, Paper Presented at The First International Symposium on Circumcision, Anaheim,
California (Mar. 1-2, 1989), http://www.nocirc.org/symposia/first/badawi.html; FRAN P.
HOSKEN, THE HOSKEN REPORT: GENITAL AND SEXUAL MUTILATION OF FEMALES 353
36 Omoigui, supra note 35.
39 Omoigui, supra note 35.
38 Nahid Toubia seems to be the only one among leading commentators on the subject
cognizant of this distinction. See Toubia, supra note 33, at 225.
40 To the contrary, it could be argued that not removing the prepuce is a hindrance to
maximizing sexual rights of women. This follows from the fact that women whose prepuces
have been removed enjoy greater sexual satisfaction—more intense and, in some cases,
multiple orgasms. See Gruenbaum, supra note 1, at 143-44; Michael P. Goodman et al., A
Large Multicenter Outcome Study of Female Genital Plastic Surgery, 7 J SEX MED. 1565
(2010); G. J. Alter, Aesthetic Labia Minora and Clitoral Hood Reduction Using Extended
Central Wedge Resection, 122 PLAST. RECONSTR. SURG. 1780 (2008); infra note 51.
groups in Nigeria, for whose people circumcision often involves the removal of only
Though the procedure Omoigui describes does not involve mutilation as the word
is ordinarily understood, the WHO type I classification nonetheless holds otherwise,
characterizing as mutilation any removal of the prepuce, even if the clitoris is left
untouched.42 The operative words in the WHO classification are: partial or total
removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce.43 This mischaracterization is widespread.
For instance, although in her book, Sex and Social Justice, Martha Nussbaum,
professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, claimed that her discussion is
―confined to cases that involve substantial removal of tissue and/or functional
impairment,‖ her subsequent discussion deviates from her self-imposed limited focus
in favor of the popular paradigm.44 She makes no attempt to draw distinctions
between procedures that are truly mutilatory and those that are not. Instead, she uses
the term ―amputation‖ to describe an act that destroys nothing other than prepuce, a
tissue that serves no useful function: ―The male equivalent of the clitoridectomy
would be the amputation of most of the penis.‖45 The removal of limbs or other
appendages can be accurately described as ―amputation,‖ but not insignificant tissues
such as prepuce or toenails. For instance, because clipping a toenail involves
removing the outgrowth nail only, it is a simple process that is associated with
nothing as gory as amputation. Thus, it would be silly to describe it as such.
Moreover, using terms that convey extremely exaggerated meanings serve no
purpose other than to obfuscate the issues. And that, for better or worse, has been the
contribution of the terms ―amputation‖ and ―mutilation‖ to the debate regarding the
legitimacy of FGR as a cultural practice.46
41 See Omoigui, supra note 22. These less serious forms of FGR are not exclusive to
Nigeria. Gruenbaum describes a type of procedure she observed among the Zabarma people in
Sudan: ―the Zabarma believe that only the sunna circumcision should be done, and as they
described it and showed me on a little girl, they take almost nothing off.‖ See Gruenbaum,
supra note 1, at 121-22.
42 WHO, supra note 3, at 1.
44 Nussbaum, supra note 24, at 119.
45 Nussbaum says that in clitoridectomy, the clitoris or part of it is amputated. See id. at
120. But even if it granted that clitoridectomy somehow amounts to clitoral amputation, the
generalization to include prepuce removal is certainly an exaggeration. Like Nussbaum,
Obermeyer questions the accuracy of the term FC since it ―implies that the surgery is
equivalent to that which removes the prepuce of the penis, when it is in fact a good deal more
extensive, removing as it does part or all of the clitoris.‖ See Obermeyer, supra note 10, at 84.
This observation (or reversal thereof) is precisely the bone of Omoigui‘s contention—that, in
fact, there exists a form of female ritual that terminates in prepuce removal, without tampering
with the rest of the clitoris/genitalia; see also Gruenbaum, supra note 1, at 121-22 (describing
a type of FGR in which ―almost nothing‖ is taken off).
46 Other scholars have followed Nussbaum‘s lead. See, e.g., Althaus, supra note 12, at 131
(stating that ―the amputation of the clitoris and other sensitive tissue reduces a woman‘s
ability to experience sexual pleasure‖) (emphasis added). But this claim has been challenged
by more recent studies. See, e.g., Lucrezia Catania et al., Pleasure and Orgasm in Women with
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), 4 J. SEX MED. 1666, 1673 (2007) (finding that a
vast majority of women that have undergone FGR of all types, even those that have been
Dubbing as ―mutilation‖ all forms of FGR was, of course, no happenstance.
Purveyors clearly intended to convey a grisly and ghastly image, and to shock the
moral sensibilities of everyone, which forced worldwide action. They seem poised to
succeed, as evinced by the deluge of newspaper, television, and scholarly articles
lambasting FGR and its practitioners. But, in reality, FGM is a far cry from what
prepuce removal entails. Mutilating the clitoris, in the sense of damaging or
chopping it off, is not the same as removing its hood. One does not need to approve
of FC to appreciate these distinctions. Yet, a plurality of commentators gloss over
these facts.47 Omoigui was struck by this hypocrisy, leading him to question the
rationale behind ascribing ―mutilation‖ to what he considers to be female
circumcision.48 On the other hand, whereas abortion, since it involves ―crushing and
scooping of the body parts of an unborn fetus‖ – a genuine instance of mutilation, is
never called ―fetal mutilation‖.49 Ultimately, the trend toward misinformation and
distortions, evident in the erroneous ascription of physical and psychological
connotations to a significantly less severe form of FGR is counterproductive; such
attitudes estrange, rather than persuade, practicing societies to rethink the ritual.50
The appropriate medical nomenclature for FC is ―clitoridotomy‖ or hoodectomy, a
distinct procedure from a ―clitoridectomy.‖ FC is comparable to male circumcision
and is commonly offered by physicians, even by physicians in the United States.51
Rather than cause harm, a clitoridotomy is, in fact, beneficial. By allowing for
maximum exposure of the clitoris, the procedure makes it possible for women to
experience multiple, quicker, and more intense orgasms.52 Certainly, sexual
freedom—the right to enjoy sex without third-party interference—is a human right.
infibulated, achieved orgasm and that the procedure ―does not necessarily have negative
impacts on psychosocial life (fantasies, desire, pleasure, ability to experience orgasm)‖).
47 See, e.g., COOK ET AL., supra note 1, at 262. Although not explicitly stated, the authors
appear to appreciate the distinction between real cases of clitoridectomy and prepuce removal.
This is evident from the fact that although they adopted WHO‘s categorization of FGM, they
carefully omitted the phraseology ―[e]xcision of the prepuce‖ (in the Type I definition) as part
of the class of prohibited procedures. See A Systematic Review of the Health Complications
of Female Genital Mutilation Including Sequelae in Childbirth , WHO 11 (2000),
http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2000/WHO_FCH_WMH_00.2.pdf. In attempting to distinguish
FC from male circumcision, the authors point out that in the latter, only the prepuce is
removed. COOK ET AL., supra note 1, at 264.
48 See Omoigui, supra note 35, at 3.
49 See Omoigui, supra note 35, at 3; see also Ehrenreich & Barr, supra note 1, at 72 n.4
(warning that ―one should hesitate to call African genital cutting practices ‗mutilation‘ unless
one is willing to apply the same term to genital cutting practiced in [the United States]‖ and,
perhaps, other Western countries).
52 See Gruenbaum, supra note 1, at 143-44.
So, why classify all ritualistic genital procedures as FGM? Omoigui argues that such
rigid classifications are an example of one culture attempting to dominate another,
under the subterfuge of health and safety concerns.53 He casts the issue as a ―cultural
war against female circumcision‖ by ill-informed human rights activists who, while
condemning non-western cultural values, condone same-sex marriage—an
institution, he says, that is prohibited virtually everywhere else.54
What do you say to people whose cultural practice is impugned and
misrepresented in such a blatant fashion? More importantly, how do you enlist their
support in eradicating what is deemed by outsiders to be a ―harmful cultural
practice?‖ Whatever the rationale for the extant approach, one of its consequences
has been the alienation of people whose support is needed to make headway in
abolishing FGM. This explains why, in many countries with laws on the books
criminalizing both FGM and FC, the practice continues to flourish. One need not
mischaracterize FC as mutilation to condemn it, for it too is condemnable on a
different basis. Steve Nwabuzor, Nigerian scholar and political commentator, pines:
―[the simple] fact that the West does not perform [female] circumcision as a norm is
not enough reason to attack [non-Western] values.‖55 Like Omoigui and others
before him, Nwabuzor is concerned about trivializing and demonizing cultural
values simply on account of their non-comportment with Western norms.56
Female circumcision—the removal of the clitoral hood—is comparable to male
circumcision.57 The clitoral prepuce is anatomically analogous to the penile prepuce,
and both serve relatively similar functions. Regarding female circumcision, neither
the procedure nor its consequences resemble a clitoridectomy or other types of FGM.
A suggestion worth considering is contained in the following recently released study.
Having discovered that there are forms of FGR that do not fit within the WHO‘s
classification of mutilation, physician Susan Elmusharaf and her colleagues
recommend that instead of pigeon-holing every conceivable form of ritualistic
genital procedures within the WHO‘s classification, a better approach would be to
classify rituals according to the anatomical extent of the procedure.58 In other words,
Elmusharaf argues for the creation of a novel classification system that accurately
reflects the true anatomical extent of the different forms of the procedure.59 Such
novel classification is, in a sense, the demand of Omoigui and his cohorts.
III. CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND FEMALE GENITAL RITUAL
Defenders of FGR view the effort to eradicate female genital rituals as an
unjustified attempt by the West to impose Western cultural values on others while
53 Omoigui, supra note 35, at 4.
57 Omoigui, supra note 35.
58 Susan Elmusharaf et al., Reliability of Self Reported Form of Female Genital Mutilation
and WHO Classification: Cross Sectional Study, 333 BRIT. MED. J. 127 (2006).
ignoring the moral deficiencies of Western norms. In other words, the Western effort
to eradicate FGR is like removing the speck in a stranger‘s eye while ignoring the
log in your own eye.60 Under the theory of cultural relativism, the practice of
excising parts of female genitalia is a cultural practice just like any other; the fact
that the practice is alien to Westerners does not ipso facto make it morally wrong.
The underlying principle of moral relativism is that moral judgments are not
universal nor objectively valid.61 Omoigui argues that Western cultural imperialists
actively support and condone practices, like abortion and homosexuality, which his
own culture prohibits and deems morally repugnant; yet, these abolitionists still pass
judgment on practices sanctioned in his culture.62 Valid or not, Omoigui‘s contention
represents a classic example of cultural relativism, the theory that moral truth is
culture-bound, that each culture sets its own standards (moral truths), and that no
culture can ascribe superiority to its own standards.63
Before grappling with cultural relativism and its application in defense of FGR,
we must define ―morality;‖ defining morality is crucial here because morality
functions as the polemic center when analyzing FGR in a philosophical context. In
its basic form, morality is how we normatively think about, and assign qualities of
right or wrong to, human actions or inactions; it provides the lens through which we
judge a particular conduct to be wrong or right.64 Morality comprises a set of
principles, rules, or precepts upon which judgments about the rightness or wrongness
of actions are based.65 This is the popular understanding of morality, and one upon
which both cultural absolutists and cultural relativists agree. For John Cook,
professor of philosophy, morality ―consist[s] of principles, and because these are
conceived of as saying what one ought or ought not to do, morality gets represented
as pertaining essentially to human actions, to what someone can be ordered or
forbidden to do.‖66 In the context of FGM, the moral debate has centered on whether
60 Cheryl Chase, “Cultural Practice” or “Reconstructive Surgery”?: U.S. Genital
Cutting, the Intersex Movement, and Medical Double Standards, in THE REPRODUCTIVE
RIGHTS READER: LAW, MEDICINE, AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF MOTHERHOOD 47, 55
(Nancy Ehrenreich ed., 2008) (expressing concern that in Western feminist discourse,
―African genital cutting‖ is depicted ―as primitive, irrational, harmful, and deserving of
condemnation,‖ while genital cutting among Westerners is represented as ―modern, scientific,
healing, and above reproach‖). But see Isabelle R. Gunning, Arrogant Perception,
WorldTravelling and Multicultural Feminism: The Case of Female Genital Surgeries, 23 COLUM.
HUM. RTS. L. REV. 189, 189 (1991-92) (providing a more practical way to state the case for
cultural relativist and asking ―by what right did I, as a Western feminist, have to criticize as
right or wrong the practices of an entirely different culture?‖).
61 James Rachels, The Challenges of Cultural Relativism, BIOETHICS: AN
INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORY, METHODS, AND PRACTICE 119 (Nancy S. Jecker et al.,
eds., 2007) (suggesting that ―the idea of universal truth in ethics . . . is a myth.‖).
62 Omoigui, supra note 35.
63 David Agler, Cultural Relativism Handout, http://www.davidagler.com/retired/teaching/
64 See JOHN W. COOK, MORALITY AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES 125 (1999).
65 See COOK, supra note 64, at 117 (citing RAYMOND FIRTH, ELEMENTS OF SOCIAL
ORGANIZATION 183 (1951)).
66 Id. at 127.
it is morally right for one culture to persevere in an act deemed reprehensible by
another and whether it is morally right to force change through the coercive powers
of criminal law.
But defining morality solely in terms of human action or inaction does not
provide an adequate account of the term because it neglects other important ways in
which we think about moral matters.67 We make moral assessments of not only
people‘s actions but also of how they think; ―the differences between, for example,
callousness and sensitivity, insightfulness and obtuseness, reasonableness and
perversity, fair-mindedness and prejudice, self-deception and self-criticism, wisdom
and fanaticism.‖68 Thinking of morality in this expanded form acknowledges the
inner struggle that underlies moral decision-making, for the action upon which we
eventually settle does not capture this internal conflict. Bigotry, selfishness,
callousness, willful ignorance, and the like are normal human predicaments, and we
constantly struggle against yielding to these temptations. Yet, our ability to resist
temptation is a crucial determinant of our actions and an indicator of the quality of
our characters. Cook argues that if we come to think seriously about our inner
struggles to resist temptation, it would become obvious that these inner struggles are
at the core of morality.69 How we think about moral matters, the evaluations and
discernments we make, is the essence of morality.
Cook‘s account of morality prioritizes thoughts over actions—a view that finds
support in Iris Murdoch, Oxford University philosophy professor and novelist. For
Murdoch, the concern of morality is essentially with change and progress,70 which
means a person‘s capacity for insight. Murdock holds that because all people do not
possess the same degree of insight and understanding, all moral views do not hold
equal weight.71 In other words, that a particular conduct is regarded as legitimate by
a given culture says nothing about its rightness. If true, Murdoch‘s view rejects
moral relativists‘ claim that all moral views are of equal weight. But her view does
not seemingly affirm absolutism either.
If Murdock is right, then, with what are we left? What is the source of dispute
between opposing moral perspectives? Relativists like Edward Westermarck, Finnish
sociologist and philosopher, think of moral disagreements in terms of a clash of
principles; people that share the same principles will invariably arrive at the same
moral conclusions.72 Cook rejects this notion and argues that where there are
conflicting claims in relation to a moral matter (such as FGM), the source of the
conflict is not that the disputants are operating from different moral horizons, but
that at least one of the opposing parties lacks ―a sufficiently developed moral
consciousness.‖73 Cook, thus, rejects Westermarck‘s notion that we are all equal in
our moral reasoning; that, in cases of two conflicting ―moral principles,‖ neither can
70 IRIS MURDOCH, THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOOD 29 (1971); COOK, supra note 47, at 127.
71 MURDOCH, supra note 53, at 17-18; COOK, supra note 65, at 128.
72 COOK, supra note 47, at 114; see also EDWARD WESTERMARCK, ETHICAL RELATIVITY
73 COOK, supra note 65, at 117.
be considered the ―right‖ one since there is no legitimate basis to argue that one
principle is the result of a ―superior moral consciousness.‖74 As Cook sees it, a
person lacks a sufficiently developed moral consciousness when he fails to reflect on
moral matters in an honest and careful way.75 Such people are not morally thoughtful
or insightful.76 The difference between those who are thoughtful and those who are
not thoughtful does not arise from a clash of principles; rather, the difference arises
in the ways that they evaluate moral matters, in ―how earnestly, honestly, and
diligently they think.‖77
Regarding FGM, the source of moral conflict has nothing to do with ―different
moral principles.‖ Instead, the source is a failure on the part of FGM defenders to
honestly and carefully evaluate morally relevant issues raised by the practice, such as
the need to seek and obtain consent prior to the procedure. If FGM defenders educate
themselves and think seriously about the broad implications of the ritual, they would
come to realize that FGM harms women‘s physical and mental health, and therefore,
FGM is morally indefensible on that ground alone. They would come to see that, by
all accounts, the harm suffered by women greatly outweighs the perceived benefits.
Clearly, thinking critically about the harm that FGM inflicts is the key to changing
the minds of FGM defenders. But successfully eradicating a centuries-old practice,
one deeply ingrained in collective psyche as an ineliminable part of cultural identity,
will not be easy. The difficulty that this will entail is captured by anti-segregationist
Lillian Smith‘s observation in 1963: ―[i]nsight was not a quality their [Southern
United States] culture valued; nor intellectual honesty; nor self-criticism; nor human
rights.‖78 Although Smith was writing about the racist southern United States, her
account accurately depicts the dominant cultural climate in some FGM societies. It is
with these societies that we are concerned.
IV. FGM: AN EVIL OR SOMETHING ELSE?
FGM can be faulted on multiple grounds. The procedure is usually performed
under unsanitary, painful, and violent conditions.79 Often the woman is forcibly
restrained by several people while the operation is performed.80 The women are
typically not anesthetized, and they do not receive post-operative treatment to cope
with the physical, emotional, and psychological problems associated with the
procedure.81 The fact that the vast majority of people that perform the surgery are
illiterate, and lack basic medical training, is a distinct hazard in itself. Their
instrument of choice is a razor blade or a knife, many with dull edges and usually
74 Id. at 116.
77 Id. at 117.
78 COOK, supra note 65, at 129 (quoting LILLIAN SMITH, KILLERS OF THE DREAM 47-53
80 See generally id.
81 Se generally id.
unsterilized.82 Not surprisingly, the procedure has been linked to immediate and
long-term physical and psychological health problems, the severity of which is
dependent upon the type of procedure performed.83 Infibulated women suffer the
most severe consequences. The following health complications are common: pain;
trauma; hemorrhage; difficulty urinating; painful menstruation; painful sexual
interourse (dyspareunia); sexual dysfunction; infections resulting from contaminated
instruments; an increased risk of HIV transmission due to the use of unsterilized
instruments; unintended labia fusion; proliferation of scar tissue at the site (keloid);
and infertility.84 These complications are the major drivers of calls for abolition of
the ractice. However, there is a growing body of literature that question the accuracy
of these claims. These recent studies—filled as they are with contradictory
conclusions—are critical because they have a foundational impact on the entire
debate regarding the elimination of FGM.85 Nonetheless, let us assume arguendo that
the consequences claimed to result from the procedure are not controversial. It is
these consequences that make the procedure amenable to human rights jurisdiction.86
84 See WHO, supra note 24, at 33-35 (discussing the complications of such procedures);
see also Nussbaum, supra note 24, at 120.
85 See Fuambai S. Ahmadu, Disputing the Myth of the Sexual Dysfunction of Circumcised
Women, 25 ANTHROPOL. TODAY 14, 15 (2009) (an interview) (arguing that the problem with
categorizing all forms of FGR as ―mutilation‖ is that the term seems to imply the inevitability
of some serious and irreversible harm, yet there is no evidence to support such conclusion);
Linda Morison et al., The Long-Term Reproductive Health Consequences of Female Genital
Cutting in Rural Gambia: A Community-Based Survey, 6 TROP. MED. & INT‘L HEALTH. 643,
651 (2001) (finding that morbidities such as infertility, anemia, damage to the perineum or
anus, vulval tumors, painful sex, prolapse and so forth have no significant association with
FGR and cautioning that by ―basing health information on sound data rather than implying
that severe long-term health consequences are common, activists are likely to make their
claims more credible to practising communities and therefore more effective‖); Obermeyer,
supra note 10, at 92 (concluding, following a comprehensive search and retrieval of the
medical and demographic literature on FGR, including all sources in English or French, that
―[o]n the basis of the vast literature on the harmful effects of genital surgeries, one might have
anticipated finding a wealth of studies that document considerable increases in mortality and
morbidity. This review could find no incontrovertible evidence on mortality, and the rate of
medical complications suggests that they are the exception rather than the rule. This should be
cause to ponder, because it suggests a discrepancy between the forceful rhetoric, which
depicts female genital surgeries as causing death and disease, and the large numbers of women
who, voluntarily or under pressure, undergo these procedures‖); Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer,
The Health Consequences of Female Circumcision: Science, Advocacy, and Standards of
Evidence, 17 MED. ANTHROPOL. Q. 394, 394-412 (2003); Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer, The
Consequences of Female Circumcision for Health and Sexuality: An Update on the Evidence,
7 CULT. HEALTH & SEX. 443, 443-461 (2005) (arguing that while some negative health
conditions are associated with FGR, for many of those conditions, there is no evidence of
statistically significant association).
86 As used here, the phrase ―amenable to human rights jurisdiction‖ suggests that in
absence of harmful health hazards, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make
a compelling case for intervention through the instrumentality of human rights. On the other
hand, one might argue that the very act itself (FGM), given accompanying pain and suffering,
constitutes human rights infraction in that it infringes the prohibition against torture, cruel,
While the status of FGM as a human rights violation has gained widespread
acceptance, it is not clear the appropriate moral weight to be attached to the
procedure. Is FGM a moral wrong, like any other? Or, are there some other
circumstances worthy of consideration that set it apart from other wrongs? If the
response to the latter question is affirmative, are the circumstances sufficiently
reprehensible to warrant calling the procedure evil? These are, by no means,
insignificant concerns, because whether FGM is classified as evil will influence the
overall scheme of employing human rights as a tool to redress gendered injustice. As
to why this is important, feminist philosopher Claudia Card‘s observation is
poignant: ―evils are of greater importance than mere [wrongs],‖ and therefore,
―should receive priority of attention.‖87 Card recognizes that we cannot possibly
attend to all the moral wrongs worthy of our attention, at least not to the same extent
nor contemporaneously.88 We are constantly confronted with many competing
demands, but the resources needed to effectively respond to these demands are finite
because of the limited amount of resources at our disposal. For this reason, Card
argues that we should attend to real cases of evil before deploying resources to
eradicate mere moral wrongs.89 Understanding and appreciating the degree of
suffering that procedures like FGM inflict would steer people to ―choose to do
something significant to alleviate or prevent them, rather than make relatively
greater progress with lesser projects.‖90 Instances of such lesser projects would
include FC and other less invasive forms of FGR. And this brings to the fore the
need to distinguish FGM from FC: FGM inflicts significantly greater harm and
suffering than FC and is therefore more deserving of our attention. What, then, is
Card defines evil as ―foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable
wrongdoing.‖91 Implicit in this definition is that not all harms constitute evil; only
harms that are intolerable and effectuated in a blameworthy manner would satisfy
the definition. Therefore, even if an act produces intolerable harm, it would not be
evil if its occurrence was accidental or the result of a natural event. How, then, are
evils distinguished from ordinary wrongs? Card explains that a wrong becomes an
evil when the harm ―(1) [is] reasonably foreseeable (or appreciable); (
) [is] culpably
inhuman, or degrading treatment, as well as the prohibition against all forms of physical and
mental violence, injury, and maltreatment. See International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, art. 7, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (Dec. 16, 1966) (entered into
force Mar. 23, 1976) [hereinafter ICCPR]; Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 19(1),
Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Sept. 2, 1990) [hereinafter CRC]. But
then, one might respond to this argument by suggesting the adoption of a public health
approach—that is, efforts should be directed toward enlisting the services of medical
professionals whose skills and use of anesthesia would nullify the ―pain and suffering‖
argument. In which case, there will be no question of violating any of the aforesaid human
rights and, therefore, the case for human rights involvement would become suspect. [This
argument is the subject of a forthcoming article.]
87 CLAUDIA CARD, THE ATROCITY PARADIGM: A THEORY OF EVIL 97 (2002).
88 See generally id.
89 Se generally id.
90 Id. at 111.
91 Id. at 3.
inflicted (or tolerated, aggravated, or maintained); and (
) deprives, or seriously risks
depriving, others of the basics that are necessary to make a life possible and tolerable
or decent (or to make a death decent).‖92 She cites, as examples of such basics,
―uncontaminated food, water, and air; sleep; freedom from severe and prolonged
pain and from debilitating fear; affective ties with other human beings; the ability to
make choices and act on them; and a sense of one‘s [own] worth as a person.‖93 ―A
‗tolerable‘ life is one that is at least minimally worth living for its own sake,‖ which
is judged from the perspective of the person whose life it is, and not as a means to
the end of others.94
Evidently, therefore, the distinction between ordinary wrongs and evils lies in the
nature and severity of the harm.95 While evils tend to ruin lives, ordinary wrongs—
because they are less severe—do not have life-lasting consequences. Regarding
FGM, opponents claim that in addition to adverse health complications, the
procedure damages relationships. Women who have undergone the procedure lose
the capacity to fully enjoy sexual relationships.96 And because of the irreversible
nature of the procedure, such women are doomed to a life of unfulfilled sexual
desires.97 This could lead to divorce or, for unmarried couples, estrangement.
According to a study conducted in Sudan that surveyed the preferences of men
married to infibulated women, an overwhelming majority of the respondents
expressed a sexual preference for non-infibulated women.98 Some of the men
surveyed married a second wife owing the remarriage to penetration difficulties
encountered with their first wives.99 Thus, the scar of FGM is not transient; rather, it
is a life-long perpetual denial of affected women‘s human right to sexual freedom,
an encounter with the face of evil.
92 Id. at 16.
93 Id. (emphasis added). The ability to make choices is innate to humanity and, depending
on the nature of the subject, an unjustifiable attempt to limit the exercise thereof could rise to
the level of evil. It is precisely because girls and women in most FGM societies are denied this
freedom that enables us to immediately conclude that the procedure is evil. The corollary,
then, is that it would be logically foolhardy to arrive at the same conclusion in cases where
choice is clearly respected.
95 Id. at 3.
96 Althaus, supra note 12, at 131.
Moral wrong is different. For example, falsely accusing a fellow student of
seeking favors from a professor, will not likely impact the life of the falsely accused
student in any significantly damaging manner; thus, it, does not rise to the level of
what can be appropriately termed evil. To be evil, the wrongdoing must be serious; it
must be of such a character that reasonable people would agree that the damage it
inflicts crosses the threshold of the sort that we would ascribe to the harm suffered
by the student whose reputation was unfairly maligned. Does this account support
the claim by Omoigui and Nwabuzor that it is a stretch to classify FC or removal of
clitoral prepuce as the same as FGM? Recall that their argument was based on the
fact that the two procedures and their consequences are starkly different;
specifically, that the painful nature of FGM as well as its attendant risks, are
conspicuously absent in FC.100 The implication is that if, as the two authors argue,
FC clitoridotomy, not clitoridectomy) is anatomically equivalent to male
circumcision, then it becomes difficult to group it with true cases of FGM.101
Circumcised males throughout the ages have lived normal and fulfilling lives and
have not suffered any of the consequences associated with FGM. Because there is no
evidence that the lives of circumcised men became intolerable as a consequence of
having lost penile prepuces (foreskin), it is reasonable to assume that circumcised
females would be similarly situated. Therefore, though it may be a moral wrong, we
cannot label as evil subjecting non-consenting women to a clitoridotomy unless we
are prepared to also ascribe evil to male circumcision.
What about real cases of FGM: clitoridectomy, excision, and infibulation? Are
they, like FC and other less invasive forms of FGR, ordinary wrongs? Clearly, they
are not. Rather, they fall within Card‘s definition of evil.102 The harm inflicted,
namely, the health and psychological suffering enumerated previously, was the
reasonably foreseeable consequence of the procedure. And this is the critical point of
departure that enables us to conclude that FC is not evil and yet hold differently with
respect to FGM. Although most perpetrators of FGM are illiterate, and thus, might
not understand the full ramifications of their actions, the validity of such a claim is
becoming increasingly tenuous given the large-scale dissemination of such
information. Moreover, if they are truly ignorant, it behooves them to seek
information, oral would suffice, about the possible consequences of their actions.
Further evidence of culpability is provided by human rights. Women, unarguably,
possess an inherent right to health (including sexual and reproductive health).
Although there may be no positive obligation on a third-party to ensure that their
right to health is realized, there is certainly an obligation on everyone to refrain from
obstructing the enjoyment of their right.103 Because FGM seriously compromises the
100 See supra notes 35-41.
101 Omoigui, supra note 35.
102 CARD, supra note 87, at 3.
103 See E.S.C. Res. ¶21 U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2000/4 (Aug. 11, 2000), reprinted in
Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights
Treaty Bodies, UN. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6 at 85 (2003) [hereinafter General Comment No.
14] (stating that to realize women‘s right to health, it is ―important to undertake preventive,
promotive, and remedial action to shield women from the impact of harmful traditional
cultural practices and norms that deny them their full reproductive rights‖). While the primary
subjects of human rights are states, non-state entities are obligated to respect human rights,
and a state that fails to ensure compliance of individuals and corporations within its
health of girls and women, perpetrators, like anyone else that interferes with
actualization of human rights, are morally and legally culpable.
As is often the case with controversial subjects, there has not been a dearth of
possible solutions to the challenges posed by FGM. Suggestions have been made to
redirect our efforts toward education.104 Scholars theorize that since even women in
FGM societies disagree about the propriety of the procedure, perhaps a compromise
would be to make the procedure elective.105 According to this view, the procedure
would be performed only on consenting adults. This compromise is a sensible
suggestion, but it raises the question whether such consent makes the ritual any less
evil. Does consent negate evil? Does FGM cease to be evil simply because the
victim is a consenting adult? For some, the answer is yes. Nineteenth century British
philosopher John Stuart Mill, for instance, holds that self-regarding harms (harm to
oneself) ―are not properly immoralities, and to whatever pitch they may be carried,
do not constitute wickedness.‖106 Such acts may be foolish or evidence of a lack of
self-respect, Mill argues, ―but so long as they do not constitute harm to others, they
are not immoral.‖107 ―[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised
over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to
others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.‖108
Under Mill‘s view, individual autonomy that does not harm others does not
warrant moral condemnation. As autonomous entities, human beings are entitled to
engage in actions that they consider promotive of their interests, without interference
by a third party, provided that their actions do not negatively impact others‘ interests.
But, as Cook forcefully argues, moral judgment is not limited to an assessment of
human actions; rather it must extend to the way people think: ―[W]e must assign
priority to moral assessments of how we think about matters and how we perceive
and represent them to ourselves; moral assessments of actions must take second
jurisdiction with human right norms is violating its international obligations. See SERAC v.
Nigeria, African Commission on Human and Peoples‘ Rights, Comm. No. 155/96 (2001)
(holding that the Nigerian government violated Article Sixteen‘s right to health, violated
Article Twenty-Four‘s right to a satisfactory environment, and violated the African Charter on
Human and People‘s Rights for failing to protect the Ogoni people from environmental
degradation and health problems caused by the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation‘s
104 See Female Genital Mutilation: A Matter of Human Rights: An Advocate’s Guide
to Action, CENTER FOR REPRODUCTIVE RIGHT 9 (2006), http://reproductiverights.org/sites/
crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/FGM_final.pdf (noting that anti-FGR legislation enacted
as far back as the 1940s and 1950s by authorities in Sudan and Egypt have had no impact—a
failure attributed to the authorities‘ inability to create an environment (such as through
community mobilization and outreach campaigns) that would by encouraging attitudinal
changes, yield the desired result).
106 JOHN STUART MILL, ON LIBERTY AND OTHER ESSAYS 51 (John Gray ed., 1998); see
also CARD, supra note 87, at 19.
107 MILL, supra note 106, at 51.
108 Id. at 10.
place.‖109 In this sense, lacking self-respect is not a private matter. According to
Cook, exhibiting a lack of self-respect provides a measure of one‘s morality.110 Thus,
Card was right: since self-respect provides a moral basis for change, it follows that
its absence must provide a basis for moral indignation.111 The consequences of
condoning disrespectful treatment does not end with the person disrespected. A
woman in a violent relationship, who subjects herself to prolonged abuse at the
hands of a spouse or partner, is inflicting evil not only upon herself, but also upon
others. By not demanding respectful and humane treatment, she legitimizes (albeit
unwittingly) domestic violence—a weapon of gender subjugation.112 The implicit
message her behavior sends to women in abusive relationships is one of affirmation
that violence and cruelty against women should be tolerated. No reasonable person
would desire such a result, and the negativity such posture connotes makes it a
morally imprudent course of action.
This principle—to forbear from a conduct on the ground that non forbearance
would lead others to do wrong—has a strong foundation in Christian ethics. Writing
at about 56-57 A.D., the apostle Paul summed up the doctrinal position on the
propriety of eating foods sacrificed to idols: ―[a]ll food is clean, but it is wrong for a
person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.‖113 In other words, while
a Christian is at liberty to eat whatever she likes, the liberty is not absolute. She is
forbidden to exercise the right where doing so would lead another to sin. Liberty or
not, ―[i]t is better not to . . . do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to
fall.‖114 As to how precisely the consumption of food offered to idols by one
Christian would lead another to sin, Paul offers this explanation: ―[f]or if someone
with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol‘s
temple, won‘t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?‖115 This
Christian adjuration presents an appropriate prism from which to examine the claim
that consent to FGM somehow negates the moral stigma attached to the procedure.
Applying Paul‘s injunction to FGM might yield the following gospel: by consenting
to the procedure, for whatever reason, the woman implicitly lends legitimacy to a
conduct that is inherently immoral, and this, in itself, is evil.
But this postulation—that forbearance, for the sake of self-respect and out of
concern for possible effects on third-parties, is the appropriate course of conduct—
does not end the inquiry. There is no consensus that forbearance is always the right
action to take. As a result, the idea should be understood as one of the ways to attend
to an ethical dilemma and not, in any sense, as a way to dispose of the matter. To
hold otherwise would be tantamount to prioritizing the right of the ―other‖ or the
community over that of the individual whose interest is primarily at stake. This is not
to suggest, however, that such tradeoffs are never appropriate. Rather, the point is
109 COOK, supra note 65, at 127.
111 CARD, supra note 87, at 19.
113 Romans 14:20 (New Int‘l).
114 Romans 14:21 (New Int‘l); 1 Corinthians 8:9-1 (New Int‘l).
that such circumstances are rare. Instances where such trade-offs have been
appropriate are usually exceptional cases, and, even in those limited cases, they are
Insight into the locus of forbearance and non forbearance in moral
decisionmaking can be gleaned from the evolution of bioethics as an independent discipline.
In terms of advancing human well-being and its unwavering commitment to patient
autonomy, the evolution of bioethics is extolled as one of the most remarkable
events of the last century. As scholars from such disparate backgrounds as
philosophy, medicine, theology, and law converged to explore the foundations and
contours of the new subject, it soon became obvious that the era of benign
paternalism—by which physicians independently determined what was in the best
interest of patients—must give way to something better.117 Albert Jonsen, Emeritus
Professor of Ethics in Medicine, notes that they settled on ―a principle unfamiliar to
traditional medical ethics but familiar to philosophers: the freedom of persons to
judge what is in their benefit without interference from others.‖118 Just as belief in a
supreme God, at least in monotheistic traditions, is at the core of moral theology,
patient autonomy is the foundation of bioethics. Individual autonomy is the altar at
which seekers of bioethical wisdom and guidance must manifest obeisance.119 But,
autonomy is not only a moral principle; it is also a human right.120 Therefore,
autonomy may be invoked by anyone, whether patients in hospitals or women
seeking fulfillment in ways that appear to others to be unfamiliar or, perhaps, even
strange. How is demanding forbearance from women intent on partaking in a revered
cultural rite different from paternalism—a deficiency in patient well-being that was
the impetus for the emergence of bioethics in the corpus of organized academic
disciplines? There does not appear to be any difference.
For women interested in this rite of passage, the appropriate moral direction
might be the ancient catechism: ―let your conscience be your guide.‖ This returns us
full circle to Mill‘s argument that self-regarding harms are not an appropriate subject
for moral criticism.121 To do otherwise, Mill argues, is a serious infraction on
116 This can be illustrated with the crime of prostitution. Although autonomy entitles
everyone to employ their bodies to whatever end they may choose, so long as the employment
does not result in injury to another person, most societies have laws that proscribe prostitution.
These laws were enacted not out of concern for the safety or other interests of the prostitutes,
but to preserve community morality. The fact that of all fifty states in the United States, only
Nevada permits prostitution is indicative of the difficulty of balancing individual rights with
117 See generally ALBERT R. JONSEN, A SHORT HISTORY OF MEDICAL ETHICS 117 (2000).
121 MILL, supra note 106, at 1.
individual autonomy—the most important of all fundamental rights.122 Although
originating from an unrelated context, the plea of Patrick Henry, one of the most
influential of the founding fathers of the United States, is particularly compelling:
―Liberty the greatest of all earthly blessings—give us that precious jewel, and you
may take everything else.‖123 The liberty to independently direct one‘s own actions
makes it possible for human beings to be valued, in the Kantian sense, as ends in
themselves, and not merely as means to another‘s end.124 And this is so whether the
subject is collective or individually-directed courses of action, or in the political
realm or one‘s private life.
Liberty is the foundation of all human rights, the fountain from which other
human rights draw nourishment. When we say that a person has a right to this or
that, we mean, in essence, that the person has liberty to do anything he chooses. For
instance, a right to health means that one has liberty to do all that is necessary to
ensure optimal health. Regarding individuals asserting their autonomy, the only
question one needs to ask is whether the individual is sufficiently competent. Has the
agency, rationality, or independence of the individual been compromised in any
discernible way? Where expectations to comply with societal mores are great,
external influences might weaken independent action so that seemingly freely
expressed ―consent‖ is, in reality, coerced.125 But the influence of coercion on
123 THE ANTI-FEDERALIST PAPERS AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION DEBATES
199-200 (Ralph Ketcham, ed. 2003) (Speeches of Patrick Henry), available at
124 See generally Thomas Scanlon, Means and Ends (Spring 2008),
=FAkGT7buCM72sQKWxfWQCg&usg=AFQjCNEpaEfaalCC7Qiy9y7QwVGfLapFg&sig2=5lKtEe8rsfYtjcsjgt5U Xw (critiquing Kantian Ethics).
125 This is known as ―false consciousness.‖ This is the idea that although on the surface an
act appears voluntary, the perceived voluntariness was, in fact, a byproduct of some
conditioning (which may be economic, religious, or cultural) that leads one to unexaminedly
accept something (even if harmful to him or her) as normal. See generally Daniel Little, False
Consciousness, Univ. of Michigan-Dearborn, http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~delittle/
iess%20false%20consciousness%20V2.htm (last visited Jan. 5, 2012). The corollary is that an
individual without the same conditioning would likely find the same thing objectionable. See
id. The following account is illustrative:
Because traditional patrilineal communities assign women a subordinate role, women
feel unable to oppose community dictates even when those affect them adversely.
Many women even go to great lengths to support those dictates by organizing groups
which mete out punishment to nonconforming women, and conduct hostile campaigns
against passive observers. Women championing many of the cultural practices
adopted by their communities do not realize that some of the practices they promote
were designed to subjugate them, and more importantly, to control their sexuality and
to maintain male chauvinistic attitudes in respect to marital and sexual relations. Most
African women have still not developed the sensitivity to feel deprived or to see in
many cultural practices a violation of their human rights. The consequence of this is
that, in the mid-1980s when most women in Africa have voting rights and can
influence political decisions against practices harmful to their health, they continue to
individual autonomy should not be overplayed. There are many situations in which
community expectation subtly coerces an individual to act differently than he would
have chosen, yet the action is not condemned. For example, a parent with many
children who is able to provide for his family through extraordinary means receives
no moral condemnation, even though the parent‘s perceived need to avoid
denunciation by his community may have strongly motivated his conduct. It follows
then that where a fully-informed, competent woman decides in favor of the benefits
and voluntarily submits to the FGM, it would be difficult to find her blameworthy.
V. SOME ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
There are at least two principal ethical issues that are of concern regarding FGM:
first, harmful health complications awaiting women who have been subjected to the
procedure; and second, the non-consensual nature of the procedure. Non-consensual
FGM occurs when girls lack capacity to give informed consent and when women are
forced to undergo the procedure against their will. The right to bodily integrity is not
only a legal precept, but it is also an ethical prescription that forbids anyone from
invading another‘s bodily space without permission.126 The protection offered by this
right, as explained by Justice Benjamin Cardozo in 1914, is all-encompassing:
―Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what
shall be done with his own body; and a surgeon who performs an operation without
uphold the dictates and mores of the communities in which they live; they seem, in
fact, to regard traditional beliefs as inviolable.
See HANNY LIGHTFOOT-KLEIN, PRISONERS OF RITUAL: AN ODYSSEY INTO FEMALE
GENITAL CIRCUMCISION IN AFRICA 75 (1989) (citing OLAYINKA KOSO-THOMAS, THE
CIRCUMCISION OF WOMEN: A STRATEGY FOR ERADICATION 1 (1987). This conditioning
might be the result of what has been described as ―gender indoctrination‖—meaning, the
alignment of socioeconomic and political forces in a way that normalizes and makes
acceptance of gendered oppression somewhat automatic. Id. Sociologists as well as
psychologists use the term ―internalized oppression‖ to define a process whereby an oppressed
group comes to believe and live out negative stereotype, myth or unfounded image of
themselves (concocted, of course, by the oppressor) as if it were true. See id. In the context of
FGR, this is effectuated by socializing women, from childhood, into believing that the practice
is indispensable to fulfilling socially predetermined roles in the family (wives and child
rearers). Women, thus socialized, would come to see the practice as something to be
celebrated, not resisted. See Abusharaf, supra note 12, at 53. Accepting this view makes it
easy to adopt a dismissive attitude toward women who do not share in the clamor for FGR
abolition, branding them as confused or ignorant of their own or others‘ suffering. But those
who adopt this attitude may themselves be the ones who are operating out of ignorance—
ignorant because they impose judgment on experiences they do not understand and they do so
on the assumption that their own experiences provide sufficient guide for judging others. This
is highly contestable. Non-adherents of Catholic faith might view the exclusion of women
from pastoral duties as instantiating gendered oppression and might even conceive of
gendered assignment of roles in the church as one that calls for internally generated
revolution. But there is no evidence that this view reflects the position of millions of Catholic
women around the globe. Are these women victims of ―false consciousness‖ or ―gender
indoctrination‖? See Christine Littleton, Women’s Experience and the Problem of Transition:
Perspectives on Male Battering of Women, 1989 U. CHI. LEGAL F. 23, 26-27 (1989)
(criticizing, from a feminist perspective, the concept of false consciousness).
his patient‘s consent, commits an assault, for which he is liable in damages.‖127 The
two principal ethical issues noted above—health and non-consent—are incompatible
with the human rights principle articulated by Justice Cardozo. Law, as well as
ethics, prescribe that permission must be sought and obtained before performing any
medical procedure on an individual, regardless of the type of procedure.128 Whether
performed by traditional practitioners, midwives, or physicians, FGM is a medical
procedure. Therefore, FGM is subject to the rules and principles of medical ethics.
The ethical principle of non-maleficence is directly related to the first concern.
The principle requires health professionals to ―first, do no harm,‖ primum non
nocere.129 This is an absolute obligation, from which no derogation is permitted.
Although the harmfulness of FGM remains mired in controversy, there is little
disagreement that some harm is involved. On the basis of fidelity to
nonmaleficence, therefore, health professions must refrain from lending their skills and
service to the performance of FGM. Many professional medical organizations have
issued statements emphasizing respect for this obligation. The General Assembly of
the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, for instance, is
cognizant ―that [FGM] is a violation of human rights, as a harmful procedure
performed on a child who cannot give informed consent‖ and urges gynecologists
and obstetricians to ―oppose any attempt to medicalize the procedure or to allow its
performance, under any circumstances, in health establishments or by health
professionals.‖130 The second relevant principle is beneficence, defined as ―a moral
obligation to act for the benefit of others.‖131 This is a broad concept and includes
virtues such as mercy, kindness, altruism and love.132 As an action-guiding norm,
beneficence requires genuine demonstration of empathy toward the suffering of
others, including girls and women at the risk of FGM.133
Closely related to beneficence, though itself an independent moral theory that
most profoundly speaks to FGM, is care ethics. Compared to more established moral
traditions, care ethics is still evolving. Its evolution originated from feminist
127 Schloendorff, 105 N.E. at 93.
128 See Slater v. Baker, 95 Eng. Rep. 860, 862 (K.B. 1767) (suggesting the origin of this
rule where the Court stated that ―it is reasonable that a patient should be told what is about to
be done to him, that he may take courage and put himself in such a situation as to enable him
to undergo the operation‖). In the United States, the rule was established by Justice Cardozo
(then in the New York Court of Appeals) in Schloendorff v. Society of New York Hospitals,
105 N.E. 92, 93 (N.Y. 1914).
129 Prinum non nocere, MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY (2012),
130 Resolution on Female Genital Mutilation, INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF
GYNECOLOGY AND OBSTETRICS (1994), http://www.figo.org/projects/general_assembly_reso
lution_FGM (emphasis added).
131 TOM L. BEAUCHAMP & JAMES F. CHILDRESS, PRINCIPLES OF
ETHICS 166 (5th ed. 2001).
133 See generally Beneficence v. Nonmaleficence, UCSF SCH. OF MED., http://missing
link.ucsf.edu/lm/ethics/Content%20Pages/fast_fact_bene_nonmal.htm (last visited Jan. 5,
psychologist Carol Gilligan‘s seminal 1982 book and subsequent writings, and has
since been expounded by a litany of other commentators, feminists, and
nonfeminists alike.134 Gilligan‘s thesis was that the moral horizons of men and women
differ significantly. Whereas men tend to think in terms of reason and rules, women
exhibit more nuanced ways of thinking, prioritizing caring and relationships.135
Gilligan‘s findings compartmentalized ethics into two distinct blocks.136 The first is
ethics of justice, which is detached, abstract reasoning based on objective rules,
duties, and obligations.137 The second is ethics of care, which is marked by
relationships and characterized by emotions and sentiments.138 At the core of care
ethics is the importance of relationships: affinity, community, and togetherness, or,
as made more explicit by Alisa Carse, Georegetown University professor of
philosophy, ―a concern for the good of others and of community with them, of a
capacity for imaginative projection into the position of others, and of
situation134 CAROL GILLIGAN, A DIFFERENT VOICE: PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORY AND WOMEN‘S
DEVELOPMENT (1982); see also ANNETTE BAIER, MORAL PREJUDICES: ESSAYS ON ETHICS
(1994); GRACE CLEMENT, CARE, AUTONOMY, AND JUSTICE: FEMINISM AND THE ETHIC OF
CARE (1996); VIRGINIA HELD, FEMINIST MORALITY: TRANSFORMING CULTURE, SOCIETY,
AND POLITICS (1993); VIRGINIA HELD, THE ETHICS OF CARE: PERSONAL, POLITICAL,
GLOBAL (2006); EVA FEDER KITTAY, LOVE‘S LABOR: ESSAYS ON WOMEN, EQUALITY,
AND DEPENDENCY (1999); DARYL KOEHN, RETHINKING FEMINIST ETHICS (1998); NEL
NODDINGS, CARING: A FEMININE APPROACH TO ETHICS AND MORAL EDUCATION
(2003); NEL NODDINGS, STARTING AT HOME: CARING AND SOCIAL POLICY (2002); FIONA
ROBINSON, THE ETHICS OF CARE: A FEMINIST APPROACH TO HUMAN SECURITY (2011);
SARA RUDDICK, MATERNAL THINKING: TOWARD A POLITICS OF PEACE (1989); MICHAEL
SLOTE, THE ETHICS OF CARE AND EMPATHY (2007); SALLY E. TALBOT, PARTIAL REASON:
CRITICAL AND CONSTRUCTIVE TRANSFORMATIONS OF ETHICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY (2000);
JOAN TRONTO, MORAL BOUNDARIES: A POLITICAL ARGUMENT FOR AN ETHIC OF CARE
(1994); ROBIN WEST, CARING FOR JUSTICE (2000); Annette Baier, Hume: The Woman’s
Moral Theorist?, WOMEN AND MORAL THEORY (Eva Feder Kittay & Diana Meyers eds.,
1987); Helga Kuhse et al., Reconciling Impartial Morality and a Feminist Ethic of Care, 32 J.
VALUE INQUIRY 451 (1998); Hilde Lindemann Nelson & Alisa L. Carse, Rehabilitating Care,
6 KENNEDY INST. ETHICS J. 19 (1996); Bill Puka, The Liberation of Caring: A Different
Voice for Gilligan’s “Different Voice,” 5 HYPATIA 58 (1990); Susan Sherwin, Feminist and
Medical Ethics: Two Different Approaches to Contextual Ethics, 4 HYPATIA 57 (1989);
Rosemarie Tong, The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Virtue Ethics of Care for Healthcare
Practitioners, 23 J. MED. & PHIL. 131 (1998).
135 Carol Gilligan, Moral Orientation and Moral Development, WOMEN AND MORAL
THEORY 22-23 (Eva Feder Kittay & Diana Meyers eds., 1987).
138 See Tong, supra note 134, at 131-32 (listing, as key differences between the two
orientations, the following: ―(a) justice ethics takes an abstract approach while care ethics
adopts a contextual approach; (b) justice begins with an assumption of human separateness
while care ethics begins with an assumption of human connectedness; (c) justice ethics
emphasizes individual rights while care ethics emphasizes communal relationships; (d) justice
ethics works best in the public realm, whereas care ethics works best in the private realm; (e)
justice ethics stresses the role of reason in performing right actions while care ethics stresses
the role of emotions in constituting good character; and (f) justice ethics is male or masculinist
while care ethics is female or feminist‖).
attuned responses to others' needs.‖139 These are core values, and a gross deficiency
in them diminishes one‘s moral standing. Care ethics judges the rightness of an
action as well as the goodness of the action‘s agent; under the theory, the two are
A distinctive feature of care ethics is its emphasis on relationships and the nature
of their resulting moral obligation: benevolence, empathy, and compassion, each
borne out of a sense of interdependence and interconnectedness.140 The thrust of care
ethics is that ―we are [all] in it together.‖141 This togetherness is breached when we
unjustifiably detach ourselves from others who need our help. The level of
blameworthiness for unjustifiable detachment rises or falls in tandem with the
proximity of the relationship. For example, apathy toward the well-being of one‘s
child is more egregious than when the ―other‖ is a colleague at work. Vulnerability
foists a special demand on us to act. As a matter of moral responsibility, the unfairly
disadvantaged deserve priority over those not similarly situated. The temptation to
remain ambivalent in the face of injustice is replaced by a call to action, to the rescue
of the weaker party.
Does care ethics provide moral instructions for FGM? Certainly, the response
must be affirmative. Recall that FGM involves people in very close relationships.142
Girls and women undergo the procedure with the full knowledge and active support
of their parents, uncles, aunts, and so forth—all of whom perceive themselves as
standing in solidarity with members of their family as they celebrate a treasured
cultural rite.143 The paradox here is the gulf between intent and reality. Regarding
intent, families encourage or force their daughters and sisters to undergo the
procedure believing that their action will promote the best interest of their loved one.
The reality is that the procedure involves a real risk of more harm than good. In this
seemingly confused state, the standard articulated by Professor James Rachels,
philosopher and medical ethicist, seems instructive. Referring to controversial social
practices, Professor Rachels recommends the following evaluative process:
Does the practice promote or hinder the welfare of people whose lives are
[most] affected by it? And, as a corollary, we may ask if there is an
alternative set of social arrangements that would do a better job of
promoting their welfare. If there is any, we may conclude that the existing
practice is deficient.144
Based on the negative consequences flowing from FGM, the response to the first
question is that FGM hinders welfare. As to the second question, alternative rites of
passage that involve no cutting would better promote welfare.145 For instance, in
139 Alisa L. Carse, The “Voice of Care”: Implications for Bioethical Education, 16 J. MED.
& PHIL. 5, 18 (1991).
140 See Tong, supra note 134, at 148 (suggesting that without these virtues, true human
community and bona-fide relations cannot evolve).
141 See id.
142 See Jo-Ann and David Jones, supra note 14.
143 See id.
144 Rachels, supra note 61, at 128.
145 See Chi Mgbako et al., Penetrating the Silence in Sierra Leone: A Blueprint for the
Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation, 23 HARV. HUM. RTS. J. 111, 131-134 (2010)
Kenya, an alternative rite of passage known as Ntanira na Mugambo or
―Circumcision through Words‖ has been practiced since 1996.146 After a weeklong
counseling program on family and role of women, there is a community celebration
of singing, dancing, and feasting to affirm young girls‘ transition into adulthood.147
Ntanira na Mugambo retains all aspects of Kenyan traditional FGR, except cutting.
VI. HUMAN RIGHTS PROHIBITIONS: ARE THEY SUFFICIENTLY ANTIDOTAL OR
WARRANTED IN ALL CASES?
Initially, among those pushing for the eradication of FGM, the rallying cry was
the procedure‘s adverse health consequences. The idea was that highlighting the
physiological and psychosocial harm resulting from the procedure would arouse
sufficient public outcry and galvanize efforts toward its elimination. This idea,
however, generated unintended consequences. Instead of seeking the services of
traditional cutters—maligned for using crude instruments, for operating in unsanitary
conditions, and for their inability to manage complications resulting from the
operation—parents and family members of girls and women due for the procedure
began enlisting the services of qualified medical personnel. This led to the evolution
of the ―medicalization‖ argument,148 which argues that merely shifting the location
(discussing steps that could yield a successful transition to alternative rites in FGR
communities, including the need to: precede the introduction of the alternative rites with
educational workshops on the negative consequences of FGR; consult and integrate
community members that perform the procedure into the project; and, select the type of
alternative ritual that would be satisfactory to new initiates and the community).
146 Chelala Cesar, An Alternative Way to Stop Female Genital Mutilation, 352 LANCET
147 Jane Njeri Chege et al., An Assessment of the Alternative Rites Approach for
Encouraging Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya, FRONTIERS IN
REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH 4-5 (2001), http://www.popcouncil.org/pdfs/frontiers/FR_FinalRep
orts/Kenya_FGC.pdf; Malik Stan Reaves, Kenya: Alternative Rite to Female Circumcision
Spreading in Kenya, AFRICA NEWS SERVICE (Nov. 19, 1997), http://allafrica.com/stories/20
0101080370.html. But whether programs such as these, that seek to attain the same goal as
FGM while sparing young girls the horror of cutting, have staying power remains to be seen.
As a government official remarked during a recent celebration, ―You cannot change Culture
overnight.‖ Id. Troublingly, a report by the human rights group ―Equality Now‖ shows that
despite availability of harmless rites such as Ntanira na Mugambo, FGM is still on the rise in
the country. See Equality Now, KENYA: Female Genital Mutilation Cases Rise, CHILD
RIGHTS INFORMATION NETWORK (Dec. 28, 2007), http://www.crin.org/violence/search/
148 ―Medicalization‖ (of FGR) means employing suitably qualified health professionals to
perform the procedure. See JEANNE WARD ET AL., BROKEN BODIES - BROKEN DREAMS:
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN EXPOSED 52 (2005); Gemma Richardson, Ending Female
Genital Mutilation?: Rights, Medicalization, and the State of Ongoing Struggles to Eliminate
the FGM in Kenya, THE DOMINION (Feb. 11, 2005), http://www.dominionpaper.ca/accounts/
2005/02/11/ending_fem.html. Remarkably, this approach is similar to the rationale behind
decriminalizing abortion (that is, access to physicians would reduce mortality and other health
complications resulting from back alley abortions). See id. But medicalization has been
discredited as legitimizing FGR, in that the end result would be making FGR safer as opposed
to putting an end to it—the professed goal of anti-FGR efforts. See id. The need to plug this
deficiency was the rationale for the current framework; that is, a human rights approach that
of the operation to hospitals and clinics does not wash away the sins of FGM; rather,
regardless of who performs the procedure or where it is performed, FGM is wrong
and must be abolished. This argument led to the emergence of the human rights
approach as a more productive framework.
A rights-based approach is predicated on the human-rights‘ principle that the
protection of human well-being, in all its dimensions, is accomplished not just by
condemning conduct inimical to this objective, but by also holding perpetrators
accountable. Several aspects of the wellbeing of women and children are violated by
FGM and this is manifested in a plethora of human rights instruments, some more
narrowly focused than others. Foremost amongst these instruments are the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW)149 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).150 In addition to
the omnibus prohibition of discrimination against women, State Parties to CEDAW
(currently 187)151 specifically undertake to ―take all appropriate measures, including
legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs, and practices
which constitute discrimination against women.‖152 Because FGM is exclusively
performed on women, it is prima facie discriminatory. Further, because the
procedure is embedded in the culture of affected communities, its eradication is
clearly mandated by this provision. This obligation is made more concrete in Article
5 of CEDAW, which requires ―social and cultural‖ practices to be modified ―with a
view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other
practices‖ based on gender-related stereotyping or subjugation.153 The CRC, on the
other hand, requires State Parties to ―take all effective and appropriate measures with
a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.‖154
Furthermore, Article 19(1) of the CRC imposes an obligation on State Parties to
protect children from all forms of violence, injury, abuse, or maltreatment.155
Africa—the region with the highest FGM prevalence—has its own regional
framework. Two treaties are particularly relevant: the Protocol to the African Charter
focuses on breach of individual rights resulting from the procedure and not solely on health
concerns. See id.
149 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Sept. 3,
1981, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13 [hereinafter CEDAW].
150 CRC, supra note 86, at art. 19(1). The Convention on the Rights of the Child was
acclaimed as the most widely ratified human treaty, with a total of 193 countries as of July
2010. UNICEF, THE STATE OF THE WORLD‘S CHILDREN: SPECIAL EDITION ii 2 (2009);
U.N. Treaty Collection, Convention on the Rights of the Child , (June 24, 2010),
ng=en. Only the United States and Somalia are yet to ratify the CRC though both countries
signed the treaty.
151 See Chapter IV: Human Rights, CEDAW (Jan. 21, 2011), http://treaties.un.org/Pag
es/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-8&chapter=4&lang=en (listing the
State Parties to the treaty).
152 CEDAW, supra note 151, at art. 2(f).
153 CEDAW, supra note 151, at art. 5(a).
154 CEDAW, supra note 151, at art. 24(
155 CRC, supra note 86, at art. 19(1).
on Human and Peoples‘ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo
Protocol)156 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
(ACRWC).157 Among human rights treaties dealing with FGM, the Maputo Protocol
may be described as a pace-setter; it was the first international treaty to make explicit
reference to FGM: ―[A]ll forms of female genital mutilation, scarification,
medicalization, and para-medicalization of female genital mutilation‖ shall be
prohibited in member countries through the adoption of appropriate legislative and
other measures.158 Like CEDAW, the Maputo Protocol obligates State Parties to
combat all forms of discrimination against women by enacting appropriate
legislative, institutional, and other appropriate measures.159
The ACRWC, on the other hand, prohibits the practice of any custom, tradition,
culture, or religion ―that is inconsistent with the rights, duties and obligations
contained in the . . . Charter;‖ it stipulates that such practices ―shall to the extent of
such inconsistency be discouraged.‖160 The ACRWC explicitly states that decisions
or actions by any person or authority concerning the child shall be judged by
whether such decision or action is promotive of the best interest of the child.161 The
implication, then, is that since FGM is harmful to children,162 the practice runs afoul
of the ―best interest of the child‖ principle. Therefore, regardless of semantics,
FGMpracticing nations who are parties to the ACRWC could be subjected to sanctions for
failing to meet their obligation under the treaty.
Discrimination aside, those clamoring for abolition point out that FGM violates
affected children‘s and women‘s right to health, life, liberty, and security163—all of
which are protected by a battery of international human rights norms. FGM is a
violation of the right to ―the highest attainable standard of physical and mental
health,‖164 not only due to associated health complications, but also because it
156 Adopted at the 2nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union, Maputo,
July 11, 2003, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/66.6, reprinted in 1 AFR. HUM. RTS. L. J. 40, (entered
into force Nov. 25, 2005) [hereinafter Maputo Protocol].
157 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Nov. 29, 1999,
OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 [hereinafter ACRWC].
158 Maputo Protocal, supra note 156, art. 5(b).
159 ACRWC, supra note 157, art. 2.
160 ACRWC, supra note 157, art. 1(
161 ACRWC, supra note 157, art. 4(1).
162 See Maputo Protocol, supra note 156, art. 1(g) (defining ―harmful practices‖ to include
―all behaviour, attitudes and/or practices which negatively affect the fundamental rights of
women and girls, such as their right to life, health, dignity, education, and physical integrity‖).
163 WHO, supra note 24, at 9; see also NUSSBAUM, supra note 24, at 120.
164 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, art. 12, opened for
signature Dec. 16, 1966, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), U.N. GAOR, 21st Sess. Supp. (No. 16) at
49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Jan. 3, 1976) [hereinafter
ICESCR]; see also Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 25, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N.
Doc A/810 at 71 (1948), adopted Dec. 10, 1948; International Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, art. 5 (e)(iv), G.A. res. 2106 (XX), Annex, 20 U.N.
GAOR Supp. (No. 14) at 47, U.N. Doc. A/6014 (1966) 660 U.N.T.S. 195 (entered into force
Jan. 4, 1969); CEDAW, supra note 151, art(s) 11(1)(f), 12; CRC, supra note 86, art. 24;
violates the right ―to control one‘s health and body, including sexual and
reproductive freedom.‖165 The procedure could lead to death, thereby breaching the
obligation of States to respect and promote the right to life.166
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognizes the
right to liberty and security of the person and forbids State Parties from restricting
these rights, except in accordance with the law.167 Liberty connotes freedom to make
decisions or choose actions that maximize individual preferences, and security
means non-interference with freely made decisions or chosen actions. When forced
or performed on children, FGM violates these rights. The procedure is also inhuman
and degrades those upon whom it is forced. Still, protection against inhumane and
degrading treatment168 is provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,169
the ICCPR170 and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment.171 Regardless of the sporadic nature of States‘
compliance, the importance of these treaties lies in their norm-setting standards, as a
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and
Members of Their Families, art(s) 28, 43(1)(e), 45(1)(c), 70, G.A. res. 45/158, annex, 45 U.N.
GAOR Supp. (No. 49A) at 262, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990) (entered into force July 1, 2003);
African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples‘ Rights, art. 16, adopted June 27, 1981, OAU
Doc. CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, 21 I.L.M. 58 (1982), entered into force Oct. 21, 1986; Maputo
Protocol, supra note 156, at art. 14; ACRWC, supra note 157, at art. 14.
165 See General Comment No. 14, supra note 103, ¶8.
166 See ICCPR, supra note 86, art. 6.
167 Id. at art. 9.
168 The term ―inhuman and degrading‖ treatment is not defined by CEDAW nor any related
treaty. But the European Court of Human Rights (in relation to Art. 3 of the European
Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment) provides some guidance. See Ireland v. United Kingdom, Judgment of Jan. 18,
1978, Series A No. 25, p. 66 ¶167; Soering v. United Kingdom, Judgment of July 7, 1989,
Series A No. 161, p. 39, ¶100; see also Tyrer v. United Kingdom, Judgment of Apr. 25, 1978,
Series A No. 26, p. 14-15, ¶29-30; GILLES DUTERTRE, KEY CASE-LAW EXTRACTS:
EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS 57 (2003). To constitute ―inhuman‖ treatment, the
court must consider the action being challenged to have caused ―if not actual bodily injury, at
least intense physical and mental suffering.‖ See id. ―Degrading‖ treatment, on the other hand,
must generate feelings of fear, anguish and inferiority resulting in humiliating or debasing the
moral worth of its victims. See id.
169 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 164, at art. 5.
170 Id. at art. 7.
(1) Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction
other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment which do not
amount to torture as defined in article 1, when such acts are committed by or at the
instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person
acting in an official capacity.
basis for condemning or upholding conducts perpetrated or sanctioned by national
authorities.172 For instance, in its consideration of the latest periodic report by Sudan,
the Human Rights Committee, the implementing body of the ICCPR, noted that
despite the country‘s efforts to criminalize FGM, the most serious form
(infibulation) still runs rampant.173 The Committee urged Sudan to enact legislation
prohibiting FGM and to ensure that perpetrators are punished.174
The transformation of the anti-FGM approach from health-based to human
rights-based was not driven solely by pragmatic considerations. The transition to a
human rights framework also has a moral undertone. Underlying the framework are
the cherished liberal principles of individual liberty and human (gender) equality.175
These principles are universal values shared by all humanity—a universality that is
transgressed by the imposition of FGM on children and ―others incapable of
providing autonomously given consent.‖176 But what about lucid adult women who
opt for FGM, such as women in Kono and Sierra Leone?177 Are these women liable
172 Submission of reports required by various human rights treaty monitoring bodies is ipso
facto a good faith demonstration by State Parties of their desire for recognition as being in
compliance with their treaty obligations. In this way, even countries with a poor human rights
record, and countries perennially condemned for deficits in their legal and policy frameworks,
would slowly improve their performance. This is significant for it will certainly contribute to
the advancement of human rights and other rules of international law.
173 U.N. Human Rights Committee (HRC), Concluding Observations of the Human Rights
Committee: The Sudan, Aug. 29, 2007, CCPR/C/SDN/CO/3, ¶15.
174 See id.; see also U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women,
Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against
Women: Uganda, Oct. 4-22, 2010, CEDAW/C/UGA/CO/7, ¶¶21-22 (criticizing Uganda,
while extolling the country for promulgating the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act
5 (2010), for the continued prevalence of the practice and recommending intensifying its
awareness-raising and education strategy in addition to enlisting the support and coordinated
action of civil society and religious organizations in stamping out the practice).
175 Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, Relativism, Universalism, and Applied Ethics: The Case of
Female Circumcision, 14 CONSTELLATIONS 91, 92 (2007).
176 COOK ET AL., supra note 1, at 271.
177 Fuambai Ahmadu, an associate professor of Comparative Human Development at the
University of Chicago, has written extensively on this subject. A Pro-FGR (she herself was
circumcised according to Kono rites at the age of twenty-two), her observation challenges
So, contrary to much of the rhetoric of the anti-FGM campaigns, the female sex and
female sexuality are not oppressed in, through or by these ritual practices. On the
contrary, female sexuality and reproductive powers are celebrated and reified in the
masquerades, as the origins of creation, of nature and of culture, and feared as potent
weapons of death and destruction. This cultural and symbolic context of female initiation
and excision explains how it could be that Kono girls and women [speak] in positive,
almost reverential terms, about the practice, their bodies and the experience of
Ahmadu, supra note 85, at 14-15; see also Fuambai S. Ahmadu, Rites and Wrongs: An
Insider/Outside Reflects on Power and Excision, in FEMALE ―CIRCUMCISION‖ IN AFRICA:
CULTURE, CONTROVERSY, AND CHANGE 283-311 (Ylva Hernlund & Bettina Shell-Duncan
eds., 2000); Fuambai S. Ahmadu, Hurray for Bondo Women in Kailahun, THE PATRIOTIC
in much the way as others who were coerced? Does consent matter? If consent is of
any significance (a view defended below), then it must represent a cogent reason for
decoupling the two situations in ethical and legal discourse. But this decoupling is
conspicuously absent in virtually all the regional and international treaties dealing
The same result is obtained in national anti-FGM legislation. This confusion is
best represented by Ghana‘s attempt to criminalize FGM. Ghana‘s statute178 assigns
the same punishment to consensual and non-consensual FGM:
(1) Whoever excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any
part of the labia minora, labia majora, and the clitoris of another person
commits an offence and shall be guilty of a second degree felony and
liable on conviction to imprisonment of not less than three years.
) For the purposes of this section ―excise‖ means to remove the prepuce,
the clitoris, and all or part of the labia minora; ―infibulate‖ includes
excision and the additional removal of the labia majora.179
This unnecessary conflation is troubling. Laws proscribing FGM must draw a clear
distinction between forced and voluntary procedures, and the distinctions must
determine the severity of sanctions.180 In other words, in respect to those who
voluntarily submit to the procedure, there should be no punishment whatsoever.181
Failure to make this distinction is a serious deficiency, one that touches upon the
very foundation of human rights. Since there is no legitimate reason to punish
voluntary FGM, treaties and criminal codes purporting to do so violate the human
right of rational adults to effectuate autonomous choices regarding their most prized
possession: their bodies. The French Parliamentarians, in 1789, conceived of
individual liberty as consisting ―in the freedom to do everything which injures no
one else,‖ stressing that ―the exercise of the natural rights of each man [and woman]
ha[ve] no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the
enjoyment of the same rights.‖182 The ambit of this liberty is sufficiently broad to
VANGUARD (Mar. 13, 2008), http://www.thepatrioticvanguard.com/article.php3?id_article=
178 Ghana‘s statute was enacted Aug. 4, 1998. The state is an Act (484 of 1994) to amend
the Criminal Code, 1960 (Act 29) to include in the Code the Offence of Female Circumcisions
and for Connected Purposes.
179 The Act amended Ghana‘s Criminal Code by inserting a new provision: § 69A.
180 Other countries with national legislation outlawing FGR are Burkina Faso, Central
African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Tanzania, and Togo. In
Nigeria, there is no national prohibition of the practice, but at least five states have enacted
such legislation. See Abiodun Raufu, Nigeria Recommends Jail Terms to Eradicate Female
Genital Mutilation, 324 BRIT. MED. J. 1056 (2002).
181 See COOK ET AL., supra note 1, at 272 (arguing against parental right to have their
daughters cut, but holding that such right belongs to the girls themselves who could exercise
them once of age and intellectually capable of making such decisions).
182 The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, J. OFFICIEL DE LA REPUBLIQUE
FRANCAISE art. 4 (Aug. 26, 1789).
shield from the long arms of the law women who voluntarily embrace FGM. To
punish conduct that is non-coercive and harms no third party is surely an infraction
on liberty and an affront to the pluralistic ideals of liberal democracy.
The existence of positive law coercing action or inaction should not confuse us.
Such law does not mean much, for it says nothing about the rightness or wrongness
of the conduct proscribed. And, even if enforced, the enforcement does not ipso
facto legitimize laws that lack a moral justification.183 A philosophy professor once
183 This sort of conflict (arising from awareness of each individual‘s civic duty to comply
with a duly enacted law, and yet being restrained from compliance by knowledge that the law
lacks moral foundation) is most evident in emerging democracies and dictatorships in third
world countries. It is common knowledge that governments in these countries quite often
subscribe to international agreements to appease foreign powers, upon which many of them
especially poorer ones, rely for economic survival—not, as one would expect, out of
internally-generated or home-grown desire to cure some mischief or remedy some defects in
their domestic legal frameworks. The aphorism ―he who pays the piper dictates the tune‖ is no
truer than in international relations. The African Charter on Human and Peoples‘ Rights, for
instance, is generally considered historic for being the only human rights treaty to recognize
the three genres of rights. See Indigenous Peoples in Africa: The Forgotten Peoples?,
AFRICAN COMM‘N ON HUMAN AND PEOPLES‘ RIGHTS & INT‘L WORK GROUP FOR INDIGENOUS
AFFAIRS 20-24 (2006), http://www.achpr.org/english/Special%20 Mechanisms/Indegenous/
ACHPR%20WGIP%20Report%20Summary%20version%20ENG.pdf. The Charter was
adopted in 1981 and, by 2009, all fifty-three member nations of the African Union had
deposited their instruments of ratification or accession. List of Countries That Have Signed,
Ratified/Acceded to the African Union Convention on African Charter on Human and
Peoples’ Rights, AFRICAN UNION (May 26, 2007), http://www.achpr.org/eng
lish/ratifications/ratification_african%20charter.pdf. Because ratifying governments were only
paying lip service to the letters of the treaty, the Charter, much to the dismay of the human
rights community, has contributed nothing meaningful to the protection of human rights in the
region. Had it been otherwise, there would have been no need for the adoption, in 2000, of the
Maputo Protocol, now glorified in some circles for, inter alia, being the first international
treaty to explicitly recognize abortion as a human right. See generally Anthony Kuria Njoroge,
The Protocol on the Rights of Women in African to the African Charter on Human and
Peoples’ Rights 1 (Feb. 2, 2005), http://www.emmabonino.it/campagne/stopfgm/djib
outi/njoroge.pdf; The Maputo Protocol: Clear and Present Danger, HUMAN LIFE
INTERNATIONAL 6-7, 17 (2009), http://maputoprotocol.org/maputo-protocol.pdf. Yet
twentythree of the sixty-eight countries (nearly one-third) with the most restrictive abortion
legislation (that ―either permit abortion only to save a woman‘s life or ban the procedure
entirely‖) are in Africa. The World’s Abortion Laws, ISIS INT‘L (Aug. 12, 2008), http://www.is
iswomen.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1079&Itemid=200. And here is
the paradox. As of October, 2010, twelve of these same African countries (Angola,
Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Libya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria,
Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda) had also ratified the Protocol which, in § 14(
abortions ―in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy
endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus,‖
notwithstanding the apparent conflict with their respective national laws. List of Countries
Which Have Signed, Ratified/Acceded to the Protocol to the African Chapter on Human and
Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, AFRICAN UNION (July 22, 2010),
hts%20of%20Women.pdf.; see also The World’s Abortion Laws, Fact Sheet, CENTER FOR
REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS 1 (2009),
http://reproductiverights.org/en/document/world-abortionlaws-2009-fact-sheet; Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, EQUALITY NOW (July
14, 2011) http://www.equalitynow.org/ node/368.
observed: ―Morality can and should overrule both law custom and practice, in fact,
morality can and should overrule every other thing except its own very rationale.‖184
At the base of human corporate existence, the relationship that binds one unto
another, the cardinal prism from which human conduct and behavior ought to be
assessed, is morality.185 Therefore, whether a law exists or not in respect to a
particular conduct is not an argument for the legitimacy of the law. On the other
hand, a practice which cannot be faulted on any morally ground is legitimate, even if
condemned by the law. This is the fate of anti-FGR human rights framework,
especially regarding consenting rational adults.
Another area of deficiency in the anti-FGR human rights framework is its failure
to distinguish between FC and bona fide cases of FGM. Part IV of this paper
established that although related, FC is not the same as FGM because FGM is
morally evil, but FC is not. Just as human rights law does not distinguish, in terms of
punishment, between consenting adults and those forced to undergo FGM, it does
not distinguish between FGM and FC. The result is that all forms of FGR, regardless
of severity, attract the same punishment. But the lesson of Part IV is that when faced
with evil and mere moral wrongs, priority should be given to the evil. Because FC
and other less invasive forms of FGR are mere wrongs, the punishment should not
be the same as the punishment for FGM. The law should reflect these crucial
distinctions by imposing minor punishments for less severe cases of FGM and
impose no punishment for voluntary FGM.
The history of human civilization is strewn with repugnant and unconscionable
cultural practices—practices once treasured as part of people‘s ineliminable identity,
but which, over the years, have been consigned to the abyss of history. For centuries,
killing twins was an acceptable cultural practice in Southeastern Nigeria.186 Because
twins, or other multiple births, were viewed as curses by Ibos and Ibibios, newborns
184 Godfrey B. Tangwa, Globalisation or Westernisation? Ethical Concerns in the Whole
Bio-Business, 13 BIOETHICS 218, 221 (1999).
185 Morally deficient laws (laws lacking moral justification) will ultimately fail. But
because such laws are supported in most cases by the majority, the laws are not transient and
may subsist for centuries, all the while wrecking havoc on the lives and well-being of the
minority. For instance, it was not until 1865 that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United
States Constitution abolished slavery in the country (by providing that ―[n]either slavery nor
involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been
duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction‖).
But the first batch of African slaves arrived in the United States (Virginia) in 1619. African
Americans at Jamestown, NAT‘L PARK SERV.: U.S. DEP‘T OF THE INTERIOR, http://www.np
s.gov/jame/historyculture/african-americans-at-jamestown.htm (last visited Jan. 5, 2012).
Recall that the decision, over two centuries later, by the United States Supreme Court, that
black slaves and their descendants could never become citizens of the United States and,
therefore, could not sue in federal court was approved by the public. See Dred Scott
v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). Now virtually every reasonable person in the country
considers slavery to be an unquantifiable evil, a stain on the collective conscience of the
nation—but only after untold suffering, pain, and destruction of millions of African
186 See D. Lyons, The Material Culture of Twins in West Africa, SIMON FRASER UNIV.
were immediately killed or cast away in the evil forest, while the mother underwent
a period of purification.187 The arrival of Christianity and the efforts of missionaries,
over time, ensured the demise of the practice.188 Through persuasion, education, and
reasoned dialogue, the people gradually realized the error of their ways.189 Criminal
prohibition came later, after the groundwork had been laid. A similar approach may
be needed to tackle the problem of FGM.
This Article has demonstrated that demonizing all forms of FGR as FGM fails to
advance eradication of the practice. Instead, it estranges the very people whose full
and unwavering support is critical to the eradication process. We must distinguish
between permanently harmful cultural practices and less severe ones, and the law
must explicitly reflect this distinction. Because a clitoridotomy is clearly different
from a clitoridectomy, grouping them together, as the WHO classification does, is a
mistake. The Latin maxim culpae poenae par esto (let the punishment fit the crime)
is a legal and ethical principle requiring that sanctions be apportioned according to
the severity of the crime.190 As such, anti-FGR treaties and legislation must be
amended to reflect this principle. Along the same trajectory, forced FGR must be
decoupled from voluntary cases. There is no reason whatsoever to punish the
conduct of adults that has no adverse impact on third-parties.
Regarding forced FGM cases, criminalizing the procedure is commendable, but
hardly adequate by itself to trigger needed change. A mechanism designed to change
attitudes and behavior seems to be more productive. The value of education in this
process cannot be underestimated; FGM and FC are more resisted by the educated
class. Dissemination of information about the adverse consequences of the practice
holds even greater prospect for success. Beneath all the abstractions, the people
whose sufferings drive the debate are the mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters of
those insistent on perpetuating the practice.191 Care ethics, as shown in Part V,
demonstrate that most people would wish no harm on their relatives, even if culture
prescribes otherwise. But first people must have a full dose of information.
What man, with full knowledge of the causal link between FGM and the
gynecological problems suffered by his wife, would condemn his daughter to the
same fate?192 Even amongst cultural aficionados, many would be less ferocious in
187 See generally GEORGE T. BASDEN, AMONG THE IBOS OF NIGERIA (1921).
190 Latin Quotes: Crime & Criminals, The Latin Phrases Dictionary,
http://latinphrases.co.uk/ quotes/legal/crime/ (last visited Jan. 5, 2012).
191 See Jo-Ann and David Jones, supra note 14.
192 This too is problematic. If one accepts the authenticity of recent studies debunking
earlier ones that claimed that gynecological health issues await women that have undergone
FGM, then the case for its proscription becomes suspect—especially because it is based
largely on the adverse health consequences presumed to result from the procedure. See
Birgitta Essén et al., No Association Between Female Circumcision and Prolonged Labour: A
Case Control Study of Immigrant Women Giving Birth in Sweden, 121 EUR. J. OBSTET.
GYNECOL. REPROD. BIOL. 182, 185 (2005) (finding that there is no association between FGM
and obstructed and prolonged labor); Birgitta Essén et al., Is There an Association Between
Female Circumcision and Perinatal Death?, 80 BULL. WORLD HEALTH ORGAN. 629, 630
(2002) (finding that none of the perinatal deaths in the study had any relationship to the
mothers‘ circumcision); Andrew Browning et al., The Relationship Between Female Genital
their demand for compliance under such circumstances. People must realize that
whatever cultural significance FGR holds for them, it can be achieved through
means that are free of deleterious health consequences.193 Through sustained
education, people would come to realize that regardless of whether a particular
cultural practice has existed for centuries, ―societies can and do endorse grave
injustices [and] that societies, like their members, can be in need of moral
improvement.‖194 After all, as WHO aptly notes: ―culture is not static; it is in
constant flux, adapting and reforming.‖195 This means that attitude will only change
when the practitioners ―understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices
and when they realize that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving
up meaningful aspects of their culture.‖196
On whose shoulders should this heavy lifting lie? Because it has more resources
at its disposal, the government has primary responsibility to mobilize the people.
Others must take a secondary, though no less important, role, such as civil society
organizations (CSOs), faith-based organizations (FBOs), community-based
organizations (CBOs), traditional leaders, and media organizations.197 CSOs are
well-suited to translate official government policies into a workable formula. In
2007, the African Union Conference of Ministers of Health called for countries in
Cutting and Obstetric Fistulae, 115 OBSTET. & GYNECOL. 578, 580-82 (2010) (finding no
evidence that FGM is causally linked to obstetric fistulae); S. Wuest et al., Effects of Female
Genital Mutilation on Birth Outcomes in Switzerland, 116 BJOG: AN INTL. J. OBSTET. &
GYNECOL. 1204 (2009) (finding no difference in duration of labor for women who were
subjected to FGM (mostly infibulations) in comparison to the control group).
Similarly, there are studies which contradict claims that FGM interferes with sexual
intimacy. See Uche Megafu, Female Ritual Circumcision in Africa: An Investigation of the
Presumed Benefits Among Ibos of Nigeria, 60 EAST AFR. MED. J. 793, 795 (1983) (finding
that clitoris excision does not impair sexual urge); Catania et al., supra note 46; F. E.
Okonofua et al., The Association Between Female Genital Cutting and Correlates of Sexual
and Gynaecological Morbidity in Edo State, Nigeria, 109 BJOG: AN INTL. J. OBSTET. &
GYNECOL. 1089, 1089 (2002) (finding, on the basis of a study involving questionnaires and
medical examinations of 1,836 healthy premenopausal women, that there was no statistically
significant difference between cut and uncut women in terms of frequency of sexual
intercourse, sexual arousal, or frequency of orgasmic experience during sex, and concluding
that ―female genital cutting cannot be justified by arguments that suggest that it reduces sexual
activity in women . . .‖).
193 Chi Mgbako et al., supra note 145, at 112 (citing S. RICH & S. JOYCE, ERADICATING
FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: LESSONS FOR DONORS 3 (1997)) (noting that the failure of
advocacy programs to acknowledge the complexities and cultural context of FGR has been
detrimental to the cause, and incidentally, a new approach involving ―culturally sensitive
strategies such as education, sensitization, and community collaboration‖ has been adopted by
civil society organizations).
194 Rachels, supra note 61, at 131.
195 Female Genital Mutilation: A Joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA, WHO 1–2 (1997),
197 African Union, The African Health Strategy: 2007 – 2015 CAMH/MIN/5(III), ¶114
(Apr. 9-13, 2007), http://www.africa-union.org/root/UA/Conferences/2007/avril/SA/9-13%20
avr/doc/en/SA/AFRICA_HEALTH_STRATEGY.pdf (defining CSOs).
2 E. Turillazzi & V. Fineschi , Female Genital Mutilation: The Ethical Impact of the New Italian Law, 33 J. MED. ETHICS 98 , 98 ( 2007 ).
3 Female Genital Mutilation , Fact Sheet No. 241, WHO 2 ( 2001 ), http://www.who. int/mip2001/files/2270/241-FemaleGenitalMutilationforMIP.pdf [hereinafter WHO].
4 P. Stanley Yoder & Shane Khan, Numbers of Women Circumcised in Africa: The Production of a Total, MACRO INTERNATIONAL INC . (Mar. 2008 ), http://www.measuredhs.c om/pubs/pdf/WP39/WP39.pdf. But note that the figure excludes girls younger than 10 and covers only 20 countries for which data was available. Compared to earlier reports, prevalence is declining. For instance, although Egypt remains the country with the highest proportion of FGR, the figure is falling-from 97% in 1998 to 95.8% in 2005-whereas the current prevalence rate of 0.6% in Uganda represents a steep drop from the 1998 level of 5%. See Female Genital Mutilation: An Overview , WHO ( 1998 ), https://apps.who.int/dsa/cat98/fgm book. htm (last visited Dec . 29 , 2011 ) (providing 1998 estimates) .
14 Jo-Ann and David Jones, The Unspeakable Practice of Female Circumcision That's Destroying Young Women's Lives in Britain , DAILY MAIL (Jan. 3 , 2008 ).
23 Yoder P. Stanley et al., Female Genital Cutting and Coming of Age in Guinea, MACRO INTERNATIONAL INC ., 3 (Dec. 1999 ), http://www.measuredhs.com/topics/gender/FGC-CD/pd fs/FGCinGuinea.pdf.
24 Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation : An Interagency Statement: UNAIDS, UNDP , UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCHR, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO, WHO 22 ( 2008 ), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw52/statements_missions/Interagency_St atement_on_Eliminating_FGM.pdf [hereinafter WHO] ; MARTHA NUSSBAUM, SEX AND SOCIAL JUSTICE 119 ( 1999 ). 27 Id. 31 Id.
28 UNICEF , Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, INNOCENT DIGEST 2 ( 2005 ), http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/f gm_eng.pdf.
32 The procedures are ranked in order of severity, from least to most severe. WHO specifies a fourth (type IV) category which comprises pricking, piercing, incising of the clitoris and/or labia, and other harmful procedure to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. Type IV procedures, however, are generally not included in FGM discourse . See WHO, supra note 24 , at 4; Nussbaum, supra note 24, at 120.
33 NAHID TOUBIA, Female Genital Mutilation, in WOMEN'S RIGHTS , HUMAN RIGHTS : INTERNATIONAL FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES 224 , 226 (J. S. Peters & Andrea Wolper eds., 1995 ). 37 Id.
50 Ronan M. Conroy , Female Genital Mutilation, Whose Problem, Whose Solution?: Tackle “ Cosmetic” Genital Surgery in Rich Countries Before Criticizing Traditional Practices Elsewhere, 333 BRIT . MED. J. 106 ( 2006 ).
51 Royal Benson , III, M.D., a board certified obstetrician/gynecologist, affiliated with The Southwest Center for Female Genital Refinement, Texas, provides the procedure at a cost of $2 , 000 - 3 , 000 . See CLITORALUNHOODING .COM, http://www.clitoralunhooding.com/dr-ben son. html (last visited June 8 , 2011 ).
55 Steve Nwabuzor , Opposition to Proposed HB 22 on Female Genital Mutilation , J. CULTURE & AFR. WOMEN STUD . 1 ( 2001 ), http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/ jenda/article/view39.
79 See generally Thoraya Obaid, Frequently Asked Questions on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting , http://www.unfpa. org/gender/practices2.htm#8 (last visited Jan. 5 , 2012 ).
97 Mohammed H. El-Defrawi et al, Female Genital Mutilation and Its Psychosexual Impact , 27 J. Sex Marital Ther. 471 , 471 - 72 ( 2001 ).
98 Althaus, supra note 12 (citing A. A. Shandall, Circumcision and Infibulation of Females: A General Consideration of the Problems and a Clinical Study of the Complications in the Sudanese Women, 5 SUDAN MED . J. 178 , 178 - 212 ( 1967 ). But note that this finding is not conclusive as there have been studies that arrived at a different conclusion regarding fulfilling sexual relationships and other associated hazards. See Fuambai S. Ahmadu, Ain't I A Woman Too?: Challenging Myths of Sexual Dysfunction in Circumcised Women, in TRANSCULTURAL BODIES: FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING IN GLOBAL CONTEXT 278-310 (Ylva Hernlund & Bettina Shell-Duncan eds ., 2007 ); Catania et al., supra note 46 , at 1666-78; Obermeyer, supra note 10, at 79-106; Ahmadu, supra note 85, at 14- 17
99 Althaus, supra note 12 (citing A. A . Shandall, supra note 98, at 178- 212 ).
105 John Tierney, “ Circumcision” or “Mutilation”? And Other Questions About a Rite in Africa,” N.Y. TIMES BLOG ( Mar . 19, 2008 ), http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/ 2008 /03/19/acompromise-on -female-circumcision/ (citing Fuambai Ahmadu) .
112 See generally Jeffrey R. Baker , Trifling Violence: The U.S. Supreme Court, Domestic Violence, and the Golden Rule , 42 CUMB. L. REV. 1 ( 2011 ).
119 See Josiah A. M. Cobbah , African Values and the Human Rights Debate: An African Perspectve, 9 HUM . RTS. Q. 309 , 314 ( 1987 ).
120 Id. (tracing modern human rights regime to western liberalism expressed in political manifestos of the 17th and 18th century, namely, the English Petition of Rights (1627), the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776), the U.S. Constitution (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791)-all of which ―were based on the image of the autonomous man‖).
171 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment , G.A. res . 39 /46 art. 16, U.N. Doc . A/39/51 ( 1984 ), entered into force June 26 , 1987 . Section one of Article 16 states: