The Bioethics of Circumcision

The Religion and Bioethics seminar explores the role and interaction of religion and medical practices, always examining reading from a range of viewpoints. This week’s session looks at similarities, differences and controversies surrounding male and female circumcision.

Male circumcision is familiar to all in the US and has had a long history of general acceptance. Critics of male circumcision, however, recently generated an unsuccessful attempt in California to ban the practice. Female circumcision is practiced by Muslim groups in Africa, though many Muslim cultures do not practice female circumcision. The practice was far less widely known in the US until the last decade. Horrific reports of the nature of the procedure and its physical and psychological damage led to the creation of federal law banning any aspect of the practice. More recently, including at the recent meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and the Humanities, various scholars have questioned this harsh condemnation of female circumcision, citing such grounds as false reporting of the range, nature and consequences of variant forms of female circumcision, and the rights of women in different cultures to choose a practice that sustains their cultural and religious preferences.

The class reviewed the fascinating release in May, 2010 by the American Association of Pediatrics of guidelines permitting a minor variant of female circumcision, known as a ritual knick, and the retraction of this statement after public condemnation roughly a week later. The lively class discussion ranged widely. We explored tensions between the concept of universal ethical principles and the attempt to decide when and under what circumstances one culture can judge as unethical the practices of another. The group coalesced around the need to seek best data from a wide range of sources, to avoid the premature rush to judgment, and to approach complex cultural problems with humility and an approach that encourages, rather than precludes, dialogue.

– Tia Powell, M.D.
Director, Einstein-Cardozo Master of Science in Bioethics Program
Director, Montefiore Einstein Center for Bioethics

Tags: Male circumcision, female circumcision, Muslim, Culture, Africa, psychological damage, American Society of Bioethics and the Humanities, American Association of Pediatrics, Ethical Principles

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