Monday, January 13, 2014

FGM: Safe, Legal, and Rare?

[Today's guest post by Rachel Enders is part of our paid blogging program.]

Safe, legal, and rare. 

We’ve all heard this phrase at one time or another regarding abortion. The debate in popular culture changes, however, when you apply this phrase to female genital cutting, also known as female genital mutilation, female circumcision, or FGM. Incredibly, healthcare professionals have tried to curb the prevalence and danger of this heinous deed by making it “safe, legal, and rare.”

Female genital mutilation is most prevalent in Africa and areas in the Middle East. To describe this as non-graphically as possible: the practice involves removal or other injury to external female genitalia, including the clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora. Other forms include narrowing the passageway to the vagina and ceremonial pricks. While some people argue that there are health benefits to male circumcision, it is irrefutable that health is not improved by FGM. The only result from this practice is pain and long-lasting harm. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 140 million girls and women who have endured FGM, and the practice is becoming more common in western nations due to the influx of immigrants.

It is obvious that female genital mutilation is a crime against humanity – especially considering that the girls and women affected usually have no say in the matter. Despite the heinous nature of the procedure, in 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics proposed that an altered form of FGM – the ceremonial pinprick – should be legal and performed by a licensed physician. That’s right. The “safe, legal, and rare” rhetoric of abortion was applied to female genital mutilation.

A bioethics representative from the AAP said, "If we just told parents, 'No, this is wrong,' our concern is they may take their daughters back to their home countries, where the procedure may be more extensive cutting and may even be done without anesthesia, with unsterilized knives or even glass."

Opponents, including Georganne Chapin from the advocacy group Intact America, pleaded against the measure, saying "There are countries in the world that allow wife beating, slavery and child abuse, but we don’t allow people to practice those customs in this country. We don’t let people have slavery a little bit because they’re going to do it anyway, or beat their wives a little bit because they’re going to do it anyway."

It is astonishing how closely this debate parallels the abortion debate. Proponents of legalized abortion claim that the results of illegal abortions will be worse than legal and "safe" abortions, and so the moral question is shoved aside. Pro-life advocates feel that the heinous nature of abortion outweighs the potential back-alley tragedies that might occur following illegalization. In both cases, society-wide problems drive the crime. In both cases, the victims are often young. In both cases, the practices come from a male-driven patriarchal society. Abortion and FGM are both used to oppress girls and women, and both are human rights violations.

If it is preposterous for female genital mutilation to be “safe, legal, and rare,” then why is the deliberate killing of a human person in abortion legal? 

(Note: The AAP quickly retracted their proposal after the massive outcry against FGM. The academy asserts that they do not condone any form of female genital mutilation.)


Jameson Graber said...

Wow. That is a striking comparison.

k-squared9 said...

I think many pro-choice arguments fall apart if you simply compare them other topics. For example "Don't want an abortion, don't get one" can easily be compared to "Don't want a slave, don't get one" or "Don't believe in spousal abuse, don't hit your wife". The arguments fall apart when you see them in other context.

heather said...

shared on facebook.

M said...

What the...?!

Alright, I would like to say that I simply cannot believe what I am reading, but considering this "Western, civilized culture" we live in - which allows and justifies discrimination against human beings because of gestational age and even physical disabilities or poverty -, I must say that I am in no way surprised that now the same old slogan is being endorsed to advocate for legal female genital mutilation. After all, if this crime is going to happen anyway, why not make it legal so physicians can perform it themselves and thus make it "healthier"?

Thanks again, lovely patriarchal society of ours: next time try a little harder and advocate for female infanticide and spousal abuse too so we can make them "healthier" and "less risky" too.


heather said...

well put. the argument always fell apart in my opinion as long as it involves another person who doesn't get a say. to that argument to, say, gay marriage, I can understand that for people who don't agree with it, while everyone has a right to their opinion, it isn't hurting anyone so it is none of their business. For issues such as abortion, slavery, FGM, spousal abuse, etc, it involves hurting (or killing) another person, so it becomes the responsibility of people to stand up and say "this is wrong"

Max said...

Odd, it seems all of those countries are among those with the most restrictive abortion laws.

So if we are going to draw parallels between countries in which FGM is still practiced and abortion laws, I have to wonder why you didn't bring how the countries where FGM is practiced treat abortion?

You state that "In both cases, society-wide problems drive the crime. In both cases, the victims are often young. In both cases, the practices come from a male-driven patriarchal society. Abortion and FGM are both used to oppress girls and women, and both are human rights violations." But abortion is pretty much illegal in these countries.

It seems instead, however, that with regards to abortion laws, most posters here believe that is precisely these middle eastern and African countries (which you describe as male-driven patriarchal societies) that have it right and USA, Canada, England France, Germany, et al that have it wrong.

Abortion is illegal in all circumstances or only to save the mother's life in the following countries Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gustamala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nigaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Venezuela,
Angola, Benin, Central African Rep.Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Dem. Rep. of Congo, Gabon, Guinea- Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mali, Mauretania, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. Bangladesh, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Sri Lanka.Ireland, and Malta.

Not exactly the who's who of countries that respect women's rights, eh?

Take a look at the map of abortion rights ( Can anyone say with a straight face that the vast majority of women in the green countries don't live lives that are, in almost every way imaginable, qualitatively better than vast majority of women who lives in the red ones.

So, I suppose, I agree that there are a lot of parallels between FGM and abortion prohibition.

sal said...

Abortion may be convenient for some women, but comfort for women isn't the deciding factor whether abortion is ethical or not - it's the life of the fetus. The Western countries allow abortion on the basis that her desire not to be pregnant trumps the fetus's life, but what's best for her is certainly not what is best for the fetus. Women's rights may be recognized here more than anywhere else the world, but that doesn't mean some of these so-called "reproductive rights" aren't overstepping it!
Abortion may also be illegal in many 3rd world countries, but that doesn't mean it is socially unacceptable. Concerning the middle-east, although I am non-religious, I am from a muslim family and according to some Islamic literature the soul is breathed into the fetus around 3 - 4 months and some woman will have abortions before that time frame. The stigma of abortion (and even murder) in ME societies does not center around human rights, but rather, taking what belongs to Allah (the soul of the fetus)
The middle-east has dealt with many wars and colonizations thanks to imperialistic efforts of the oh-so civilized Western countries. Maybe if you didn't destroy our infrastructure, steal our resources, support dictators, and support religious fundamentalists we'd be in better shape human rights wise, which by the way affect everyone, men, women, and children, not just women.
As a middle-eastern woman I don't appreciate how you simplify the situation.

Rachel Anne Enders said...

The difference between the USA and
many of the countries you've listed is the lack of healthcare, economic resources, and education. One of the countries you've listed, Ireland, has one of the best maternal mortality rates in the world, including deaths from illegal abortions.

My point in the piece was to illustrate the illogical nature of making something "safe and legal" when the topic is something inherently wrong. I you'd like, I can do an analysis of difference between countries that allow abortions and countries that do not as well as the ramifications, but that's a separate point.

Max said...

Your point may have been to illustrate the incoherence of "safe and legal" immoral acts (although you did leave off "rare," which seems to me ought to be the linchpin).

But you also claimed that abortion was the result of a patriarchal society, which seems counter intuitive since, in general, the western societies (except Ireland) where abortion is legal seem significantly less misogynistic than the societies in which abortion is illegal (except Ireland).

Why is it that, for the most part, the most patriarchal cultures in the world are also the countries with the most restrictive abortion laws?

Or, to put it another way, why are the countries with the best healthcare, the most economic resources, and best education decidedly pro-choice on abortion?

Max said...

I don't doubt that the Middle-East has dealt with many wars and colonization, thanks to imperialistic efforts of the oh-so civilized Western countries. I also don't doubt that if the West didn't destroy their infrastructure, steal their resources, support vicious dictators, and support religious fundamentalists that they'd be in better shape human rights wise. And, yes, that would affect everyone, men, women, and children, not just women.

No doubt at all.

But that is not to say that I was incorrect that, for women (as well for men and children) being born in the West rather than in Africa or the Middle East is akin to winning the natural lottery for the vast majority of people.

Rachel Anne Enders said...

I believe it goes along with a desire to be seen as progressive, as well as the connotation that prolife views are strictly religious.

Furthermore, the patriarchy goes so much further than blatant misogyny of other nations. An industry that makes a profit off of killing our children is inherently misogynistic and anti-woman.

Max said...

I'm not sure how exactly pro-life people see themselves. Most pro-choice people are such because they (think they are) motivated out of concern for women's autonomy. That is, they think that women, like men, should generally get to choose what they want or don't want in life. Including having a baby. Or not. And that a woman, not a government, ought to get to make her own decision. Or at least that has been my experience. Perhaps, however, my experience is atypical.

That is not to say that there aren't some pro-choice men are pro-choice simply because they want to escape responsibility for something they feel isn't in their control because it happens in a women's body. There is certainly some misogyny there, of course. More than a little. Much more.

In my experience, however, few are interested in making money from abortion. In fact, I'd guess that quite a few, perhaps most, pro-choicers would be more than happy if abortion was free and nobody made money off of it.

As for how pro-choice people see pro-lifers, most see pro-lifers as being religious. Because the vast majority are. Even ones who have secular reasons for being against abortion are usually religious. Not all. Most.

But that really doesn't get to what they really think about pro-lifers. Really, most pro-choicers just see pro-lifers as being misogynists and that's about it. Is some cases they're right IMO, in others they're obviously wrong.

Part of that is the general misogyny that is part and parcel of the Abrahamic religious texts (even if most of the believers don't really look to Leviticus for guidance, thank God).

Some of that is because in looking at the world, for the most part, if you find a pro-life country, you've found a country where being a woman means that you've lost the natural lottery.

And some of that is because 'pro-life' is synonymous with the 'Religious Right' in the US (and, ironically on so many levels, the GOP's Ayn Rand(ish) economic policies).

LN said...

It only makes sense to people who see it as a one-person issue. That is, they think only the woman is affected by her decision to abort. So this would make sense if compared to other scenarios in which only the chooser is affected.

The reason it sounds so absurd to us, especially when you apply it to similar situations, is because there's a victim. It's a human rights atrocity, not a "personal decision".

So until the pro-choicer acknowledges that, then our analogies ("don't want a slave, don't get one") fall on deaf ears.

Rachel Anne Enders said...

I think it vastly varies. Personally, I think of myself as a social justice worker. I see myself as an advocate for peace and nonviolence. I see myself as a feminist, a progressive, sex positive, and a Democrat.

The religious aspect of the image of the prolife movement is changing though. My generation is more prolife than ever and less religious than ever, so there's obviously a growing number of nonreligious prolife people.

Max said...

Actually, I am not surprised at that (even if, to some degree at least, I disagree with the pro-lifers).

Part of the reason I am pro-choice is because of the US's rather inadequate policies regarding healthcare, day care, maternity leave, sex education, education generally, religion, etc create a society where women's autonomy is somewhat chimerical IMO. Especially for those not born to a certain level of affluence.

Or to put it more bluntly, I'm not very impressed with pro-life conservatives whose empathy all but withers and dies when it reaches his wallet.

But as we (slowly) move toward having better access to healthcare (including birth control) and more family friendly policies, I can see that there is (and, hopefully, will continue to be) less of need for abortion (which is why, IMO, there are both less abortions and more restrictions on abortion in western Europe).

Even from a pro-choice standpoint this SHOULD be seen as a good thing. I would hope that both pro-lifers and pro-choicers who are motivated by the right concerns would see, say, the social/legal regime in Germany as an improvement over ours.

Max said...

I think that the "less rights than a corpse" argument is silly, at best. As for less rights, I don't think that is true either. Rather, without abortion, in the society rules we live in, women have far more legal and social obligations than men do. Some of that can't be helped, of course, since men don't get pregnant, but a whole lot of the differences in the burden imposed are because we have chosen certain rules to apply and not others.

As for the bodily integrity argument, I don't think that really gets to more than just the mere periphery of the issue, as I've argued in the comments to those blogs (in what appears to have been an unpersuasive manner here :)

Being forced to bring a child into the world is about far more than just having your bodily integrity compromised. It goes to the heart of what it means to be autonomous.

IMO, arguing about bodily integrity trivializes both sides' actual concerns. To me at least, I think it would be best, at least when having a serious discussion, to acknowledge that what we are talking about is a lot more than just not getting a particular procedure or whether or not to buy a particular set of shoes.

Rachel Anne Enders said...

Let me give you a link, and we'll see what you think of it.

Max said...

The problem with arguing about the violin analogy is that we are not talking about a violinist. Because we are not just talking about cutting of the line connecting the dependent person to the woman, We are talking about a growing baby that is inside a woman that will require the woman not only do something relatively painful and more dangerous than an abortion, but also result in bringing a person into the world that she will be obligated to care for.

And that world is one in which the legal and social rules WE have chosen to live by significantly privatize the burden of raising the child to make that more difficult that than it need be (out of deep concerns for the sanctity of our own wallets for the most part).

IMO both pro-choicers and pro-lifers should agree this a big f-ing deal and get over trying to trivialize each other's concerns. If for no other reason that it seems counter productive for both sides (at least to the degree that both sides agree that the situation in, say, the Norway looks way better than ours)

Those are the salient facts for the woman, who ought to be part of the discussion, no?. The violin argument doesn't capture them. So arguing that the volinist argument doesn't work shouldn't be surprising. I don't think it works either!

However, what is being asked of the woman in the violinist argument is qualitatively different and way less burdensome. The violinist isn't going to rip the wall between the woman's anus and the vagina apart during birth (or require the woman to cut the violinist from her stomach). The violinist is not going to need $500,000 to be raised and go to college, the violinist isn't going to need to be breast fed, etc...

Which is why, even though I'm pro-choice, I can see how countries that don't privatize the burden of child rearing as much and ones that promote birth control (instead of sex shaming) that result in less unplanned pregnancies and less burdensome child rearing can have (much) more restrictive abortion laws while, at the same time, respecting a woman's autonomy in the way the US, (and its Randian conservatives) or (far worse) Ghana can not.

I'm fine with 20 week abortion bans (or 15 week abortion bans), waiting periods, parental notifications, etc IFF the increased restrictions on a woman's liberty is coupled with a equal commitment to support woman who have children and a commitment to de-shame (is that a word?) woman who have sex, etc...

Rachel Anne Enders said...

Pro-lifers are not suggesting that a woman has to raise the child. Why else would we so strongly advocate adoption?

I definitely agree though that the resources for mothers should be increased drastically.

I cannot argue that pregnancy is, at the least, difficult. However, are these difficulties enough to justify taking the life of another human person?

Rachel Anne Enders said...

The point is that there are no health benefits, and you're subjecting the child to a decision about its body that it has no control over.

It is arguable that parents should also not have their infants' ears pierced, but I think the intimate nature of the body part is also key.

Max said...

The result, however, is that the woman is going to, in most cases, raise the child because, for the most part, she is going to feel responsible. IMO we should take as a starting point what we realistically expect to happen. (Of course, I may be wrong about what would happen in the hypothetical.)

Even if I disagree with your position in the end (to some degree), I can certainly understand how, when balancing concerns for women's autonomy against the fetuses life, that, on balance, you would end up where you are.

And, to be very clear, I think pro-choicers would be well advised to recognize that people who have come to that conclusion in that way are qualitatively different those who could care less about whatever burden getting rid of abortion might impose on women.

My guess (which may just be wishful thinking on my part) is that this sort of active engagement would result in making policy compromises that get both of us to a better (if not ideal) baseline (e.g., Norway). I don't think that means we'll agree if (or when) we get there, of course. Just that I'd rather that be where we fight it out.

Rachel Anne Enders said...

Far too often, people assume that we want to control sex lives and marginalize women. While I'm sure that's a motivation for some people, it's not for most.

Kyle Garrison said...

So this is an obvious false equivalence in a way that you yourself mention further down in the comments. FGM is performed entirely without the consent of the girl involved and there are no benefits to FGM beyond ceremonial significance (and reducing pleasure in the girl but that is a different subject). You might argue that this is untrue since the fetus does not give its consent to be aborted but that assumes that the fetus is bestowed rights at conception, which is simply a very contentious issue. When does a fetus become a human person? I don't know and I certainly don't feel qualified to make any judgements on that point until I have done a LOT of research.