End forced genital cutting

End forced genital cutting

Page 10 of 26: No child should be subjected to unnecessary genital cutting.

We are committed to ending all forms of forced non-therapeutic genital cutting.

This includes female genital mutilation (FGM) and ritual circumcision of boys.

A child's right to bodily autonomy must not be overridden by other people's religious or cultural beliefs.

The National Secular Society supports a person's most fundamental right to grow up with an intact body and to make their own choices about permanent bodily modifications.

All forms of forced cutting on children's genitals breach basic child rights and safeguarding guidance.

Several communities have genital cutting traditions, often rooted in religious beliefs. But children, and particularly babies and young infants, are incapable of giving consent to such medically unnecessary, harmful, painful and permanent procedures.

Sometimes health benefits for non-therapeutic genital cutting are claimed despite the evidence to the contrary. All forms of forced genital cutting risk serious emotional, sexual, and physical harm – including death.

Child safeguarding must always be prioritised above the desire of adults to express their belief through forced cutting of children's genitals.

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

"It is irrelevant whether or not a person believed the operation to be necessary in the child's best interests as a matter of custom or ritual."

Section 1(5) of the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act

We are committed to the eradication of forced genital cutting of girls and women known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in all its forms.

There are thought to be well over 100,000 women and girls affected by FGM living in the UK. We work with like-minded organisations to protect girls from the harm of forced genital cutting.

FGM practices vary. Some forms involve a pinprick or the removal of a small amount of tissue from the clitoris. Other forms include complete removal of the clitoris and labia, and stitching the vulva closed. Communities which practice FGM often cite religion as a motivation.

All forms of FGM are child abuse and are rightly illegal in the UK. But some British girls are still unprotected. Some have been sent abroad to undergo the procedure and others are having it performed secretly in this country.

There have been only two successful prosecutions for FGM since it was banned in 1985. We are concerned that fear of upsetting cultural and religious sensitivities is preventing authorities from tackling FGM effectively.

"...a right specifically for African families who want to carry on their tradition whilst living in this country"

Defeated 1993 Brent Council motion on making FGM available on the NHS. At the time councillors opposing the motion were abused and accused of racism and cultural insensitivity.

As with all forms of forced genital cutting, those who speak out against FGM are often accused of disrespecting their parents or cultural heritage, and of over-dramatising a 'minor' procedure that others 'don't complain about'. Together with the perceived humiliation of speaking about one's own genitals, these factors combine to ensure that many sufferers are reluctant to speak out.

Ending FGM requires sustained civil society action to change attitudes and inform girls of their rights.

Male circumcision

While all forms of FGM are rightfully banned, non-therapeutic circumcision of boys is permitted in UK law.

The foreskin is a normal body part with physical, sexual and immunological functions. Removing it from non-consenting children has been associated with various physical and psychological difficulties. These are likely to be greatly under-reported because people who have experienced sexual harm are often reluctant to reveal it as societal dismissal or stigmatisation may compound the harm.

Circumcision is excruciatingly painful. When performed on babies, little to no anaesthesia is used. Even when performed under anaesthesia on older children, the recovery entails weeks of pain and discomfort.

The procedure is also dangerous. Between 1988 and 2014, there were 22,000 harms recorded by the NHS resulting circumcision. They included scarring and full penis amputation. In 2011, nearly a dozen infant boys were treated for life-threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis as a result of circumcision at a single children's hospital in Birmingham. At least three babies have bled to death from circumcision in the UK since 2009: Celian Noumbiwe, Angelo Ofori-Mintah, and Goodluck Caubergs.

Between 2012 and 2022, the General Medical Council (GMC) dealt with 39 complaints relating to 30 doctors regarding circumcisions. The complaints include incidents in which children's penises were left deformed and babies required blood transfusions.

Any claims of marginal health benefits of circumcision are extremely contested. No national medical, paediatric, surgical or urological society recommends routine circumcision of all boys as a health intervention. There is now growing concern among doctors that existing ethical principles of non-therapeutic childhood surgery should no longer include an exception for non-therapeutic circumcision.

62% of Brits would support a law prohibiting the circumcision of children for non-medical reasons. Only 13% would oppose it.

There is very limited regulation of non-therapeutic circumcision in the UK. We do not know how many such procedures are performed annually or the degree of harm, as there is no requirement for any follow up or audit and the boys themselves are too young to complain.

It is now being recognised more widely that non-therapeutic religious and cultural circumcision is a breach of children's rights. We want to see the same protections for girls' bodily autonomy extended to boys.

Take action!

1. Write to your MP

Ask your MP to support an end to non-consensual religious genital cutting

2. Share your story

Tell us why you support this campaign, and how you are personally affected by the issue. You can also let us know if you would like assistance with a particular issue.

3. Join the National Secular Society

Become a member of the National Secular Society today! Together, we can separate religion and state for greater freedom and fairness.

Latest updates


NSS calls on NSPCC to reconsider its position on genital cutting

Posted: Thu, 7 Mar 2019 14:59

The National Secular Society has called on the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to reconsider its position on non-therapeutic male circumcision after it defended the practice.

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans wrote to the NSPCC after it deflected a question about the similarities between infant male and female genital cutting on Twitter last week.

In response to a query asking why its website only covered female genital mutilation, the NSPCC tweeted: "FGM is illegal and a form of child abuse.

"The evidence on MGM isn't strong enough to suggest that male circumcision should be considered a form of child abuse, when considering the physical, religious and social implications.

"We understand that some parents see circumcision as being in the best interests of the child and it's vital that it's carried out by expert practitioners and that any risk and suffering for the child is minimised."

In his letter Mr Evans said the NSPCC's position was "difficult to reconcile with a consistent approach to other forms of non-therapeutic body alteration on children".

"Arguments similar to those made to justify the imposition of non-therapeutic male circumcision are also made to justify other non-therapeutic surgery of children. But UK courts have not accepted that religious/cultural reasons justify any form of assault on children in other contexts."

He added that non-consensual circumcision undermined children's right to religious freedom by irrevocably depriving them of the chance to dissociate from practices or customs with which they disagreed.

"Freedom of religion and belief belongs to the individual person; otherwise it is not freedom. The surgical assignation of a child's genitals with the religious beliefs of his parents stands in stark contrast to this freedom by making assumptions about the child's later beliefs and then making irreversible changes to the most intimate part of his body before his beliefs could possibly be known."

He said individuals' right to express and practice religion were "subject to the rights and freedoms of others" under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

And he noted the growing recognition that non-therapeutic circumcision was a violation of children's right to bodily integrity. In recent years the Council of Europe, the Nordic children's ombudsmen and the Child Rights International Network have been among those to condemn the practice.

Medical ethicist Dr Brian Earp, who will address the subject of children's bodily integrity at the NSS's Secularism 2019 conference, was among those to criticise the NSPCC's position on Twitter.

He said the NSPCC's view was "uninformed", asked whether the organisation was "regurgitating popular clichés" and pointed out that the overlap between male and female cutting is well established.

Explaining his decision to write the letter, Mr Evans said: "The NSPCC has a tremendous track record of protecting children, but appears to have a blind spot when it comes to the ritual cutting of boys' genitals.

"With a growing global consensus that forced genital cutting is harmful and represents a fundamental violation of the child's right to physical integrity and autonomy, the time has come for child protection agencies to review their stance. All children should deserve the same level of protection, irrespective of their religious or cultural background.

"Religious privilege and cultural sensitivity should play no part in the formulation of policy when it comes to protecting vulnerable children from harm and abuse."

Last year a poll found that 62% of people in Britain would support a law to ban the cutting of children's genitals for non-medical reasons. The poll results emerged as Icelandic lawmakers considered introducing a similar measure.

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Doctors’ body: consider parents’ religion on infant genital cutting

Posted: Wed, 27 Feb 2019 09:08

The National Secular Society has criticised the professional body which represents doctors after it said "health interests" should not be the sole factor in deciding whether to cut boys' genitals.

In newly-published guidance for doctors the British Medical Association (BMA) has said decisions on whether to circumcise boys should partly be influenced by their "social and cultural interests".

It adds that "an overall best interests assessment" should include consideration of "matters including the child's social and cultural circumstances".

"Where a child is living in a culture in which circumcision is perceived to be required for all males, the increased acceptance into a family or society that circumcision can confer is considered to be a strong social or cultural benefit. Exclusion may cause harm by, for example, complicating the individual's search for identity and sense of belonging."

The guidance says "parental preference alone does not constitute sufficient grounds for performing NTMC (non-therapeutic male circumcision)". But it also lists a series of factors to be taken into consideration on the subject.

They include "the views of parents and family", "the implications for the family of performing, and not performing, the procedure" and "relevant information about the child or young person's religious or cultural background".

It adds that "some religions require circumcision to be undertaken within a certain time limit", meaning a decision not to cut their genitals immediately may be "harmful".

The BMA says it has "never taken a position in the debate about the acceptability or otherwise of NTMC".

"Instead, as with other procedures involving children who lack the capacity to consent, we have made clear that those wishing to authorise the procedure for their children need to demonstrate that it is in the child's best interests."

It also cites several positions outlined by the General Medical Council (GMC), which registers medical practitioners. One cited GMC document says doctors should "consider the religious and cultural beliefs and values of the child or young person and their parents" when deciding whether to cut children's genitals.

The BMA guidance says doctors are not obliged to carry out requests to circumcise children if they do not think it is in their best interests. But it adds that doctors who object to cutting children's genitals must follow GMC guidance on conscientious objection.

It also says doctors who do not believe circumcision is in a child's best interests should tell parents that they are entitled to seek a "second opinion".

The BMA also refers to GMC guidance on personal beliefs. This says doctors carrying out ritual circumcisions should "explain" to patients or their parents that they may invite a "religious adviser" to attend "to give advice on how it should be performed to meet the requirements of their faith".

The BMA acknowledges that harm can be done when someone does not have "the opportunity to choose not to be circumcised or choose not to follow the traditions of his parents". It says this, along with the potential harm caused to the child's relationship with his parents as a result, should be taken into account.

It says doctors should not assume that parents will support circumcision or seek it because a child is "born into a practising community". It adds that "options which maximise the child or young person's future opportunities and choices" should be prioritised over those which do not.

The BMA's positions on medical ethics often have a significant influence on government policy.

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "We welcome the BMA's acknowledgement that parental preference alone does not constitute sufficient grounds for performing ritual circumcision. However, we reject the tacit assumption within the guidance that because a child is born to parents with strong religious beliefs, it may be in the child's best interests to be subjected to medically unnecessary surgery.

"There is ample evidence of harm from ritual circumcision. Child safeguarding must be the priority rather than appeasing the desire of adults within a community to express their belief through the forced cutting of their child's genitals. Religious freedom isn't a licence to violate children's rights.

"The BMA's vague advice also fails doctors, who would benefit from clear directions which put their duty of professional care to their patients first.

"No child should be subjected to unnecessary medical surgery. We therefore urge policymakers to promote child safeguarding in the face of harmful religious or cultural practices."

The guidance acknowledges that there is a growing medical consensus against non-therapeutic genital cutting.

In 2010 the Royal Dutch Medical Society (KNMG) advised doctors to discourage parents from having their sons circumcised, urging "a strong policy of deterrence". It said any medical advantages of circumcision were significantly outnumbered by the risks and other disadvantages, such as the loss of up to 30% of erogenous tissue.

In 2013 an international group of physicians criticised the American Academy of Paediatrics for promoting infant male circumcision. The Council of Europe adopted a non-binding resolution advising member states not to allow the ritual circumcision of children unconditionally, at least for very young children. The Scandinavian children's ombudsmen issued a joint statement saying children should be allowed to choose for themselves.

In 2016 the Danish Medical Association said circumcision should only be performed with "informed consent". And in 2017 a Belgian federal government committee ruled against the cutting of infant boys' genitals for reasons other than medical necessity.

Children's right to physical integrity and protection from physical injury is protected by the International Treaty on the Rights of the Child.

In a submission to a GMC consultation on its guidance on decision making and consent last month the NSS said it should "explicitly address" the harm caused by ritual infant genital cutting.

The guidance comes as the government is expected to bring a bill to strengthen protections against female genital mutilation (FGM) before the House of Commons. A private members' bill on FGM was blocked from immediate passage by the Conservative MP Christopher Chope earlier this month.

In a debate on the topic shortly afterwards Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen asked minister Lucy Frazer to "update the house on the government's policy on male genital mutilation". Frazer's reply did not address the topic of cutting boys' genitals.

Bridgen's colleague Matthew Offord later remarked that there was "no moral equivalence" between cutting boys' and girls' genitals.

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