End forced genital cutting

End forced genital cutting

Page 9 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

Crying baby

Protect all children from ritual genital cutting, NSS tells UN

Posted: Tue, 17 Mar 2020 12:09

The National Secular Society has formally called on the UN Human Rights Council to ensure that protections from forced genital cutting encompass all children equally.

In a written submission to the HRC, the NSS said the right to grow up in an intact body "must not be overridden on the grounds of religion, tradition or culture".

The submission said: "Child safeguarding must take precedence over the desire of adults within a community to express their own or their child's presumed belief through forced cutting of their child's genitals."

The NSS also noted that the norms around genital cutting are often subject to a gendered double standard because of the claim that male circumcision is integral to Jewish and Muslim culture.

The society urged the HRC and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to recognise the "irreversible gross violation" of cutting boys' genitals. It described forced genital cutting of boys as "an anomaly in that it is allowed despite the lack of evidence of benefit".

"The surgical assignation of a child's genitals with his parents' beliefs is a human rights abuse taking place on an industrial scale in most countries, so much so and for such a long time perhaps that some find it difficult to see."

The submission also said:

  • Forced genital cutting of children infringes on their ability to form their own beliefs – a right enshrined in the UN convention on the rights of the child.
  • There is a lack of medical evidence that forced cutting of boys' genitals has medical benefits.
  • The penile prepuce is "one of, if not the most" sensitive parts of a man's body, providing numerous functions in intact men and boys.
  • Victims of forced genital cutting are increasingly speaking out and asking why the practice largely goes unchallenged.
  • The forced cutting of children's genitals denies those who wish to undergo reassignment surgery of tissue which may be needed in the procedure.

Explaining the NSS's position, a spokesperson said: "The ritual cutting of children's genitals is an abusive practice which should be challenged and brought to an end. But too often a blind eye is turned on the grounds that genital cutting holds a religious significance for parents or those within religious communities.

"Governments and the UN should recognise this and place the rights of the child first, so children have the ability to grow up in their own bodies and make their own decisions about altering them."

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

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Ritual infant circumcision “morally impermissible”, say experts

Posted: Tue, 8 Oct 2019 15:59

The religious and cultural circumcision of non-consenting boys is "morally impermissible" and should be considered together with non-consensual female genital cutting, according to a panel of experts.

An article published in The American Journal of Bioethics in September says efforts should be made to "protect all nonconsenting persons, regardless of sex or gender, from medically unnecessary genital cutting".

Medically Unnecessary Genital Cutting and the Rights of the Child: Moving Toward Consensus says the moral reasons for opposing non-consensual female genital cutting apply to anyone unable to give their consent.

The paper argues that under most conditions, "cutting any person's genitals without their informed consent is a serious violation of their right to bodily integrity".

"As such, it is morally impermissible unless the person is nonautonomous (incapable of consent) and the cutting is medically necessary."

It also warns of a "collision course" in Western countries, owing to the disparity in legal protections afforded to boys, intersex children and girls.

The article says "the ethics of female, male, and intersex cutting must be considered together". It says all are "medically unnecessary" acts of genital cutting, performed mainly on young children "on behalf of norms, beliefs or values that may not be the child's own".

The paper also raises a recent US federal court case in which a judge said a law prohibiting female genital mutilation did not protect children in a non-discriminatory fashion, as it was specific to girls only.

National Secular Society campaigns officer Megan Manson said the article "should prompt policy-makers to seriously reconsider the current widespread acceptance of non-medical circumcision on non-consenting boys".

"Experts who have carefully considered the ethics of genital cutting have once again concluded that non-consensual, non-therapeutic male circumcision is no more morally permissible than cutting girls' genitals.

"As the harm caused by male circumcision becomes increasingly recognised, we should broaden the legal protections that girls already have to all children, regardless of sex or religious background. Female, male and intersex children should all have the same basic human right to bodily integrity.

"And this is also a reminder that extending the protections would strengthen them. If we continue to treat genital cutting inconsistently, we can expect advocates for FGM to continue to argue for the 'right' to cut girls as well as boys."

The paper's authors

  • The paper was written by The Brussels Collaboration on Bodily Integrity, a group of experts in medicine, law, ethics and other relevant fields. Dr Antony Lempert, chair of the NSS's Secular Medical Forum, is a member of the group.
  • The group also includes James Chegwidden, a barrister at Old Square Chambers, and Brian Earp, Associate Director of the Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University and The Hastings Center. Chegwidden and Earp have both spoken about genital cutting at NSS events including the 2018 Healthcare & Secularism Conference.

Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay.

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