SYMPOSIUM ON CIRCUMCISION
Rationalising circumcision: from tradition to fashion, from public health to individual freedom—critical notes on cultural persistence of the practice of genital mutilation
S K Hellsten
From a human rights perspective both male and female genital mutilation, particularly when performed on infants or defenceless small children,and for non-therapeutic reasons can be clearly condemned as a violation of children's rights whether or not they cause direct pain. Parents' rights cannot override children's rights.
The studies by Fletcher,14 and Fleiss18 show how in the United States, where the routine circumcision of newborn males has been common until rather recently, because of the widespread diffusion of the scientific myths about its benefits, the medical data with counter results were deliberately ignored or misinterpreted in order to maintain the practice. For instance, the latest reports from European medical research on the issue were neglected in order to maintain the practice in the USA even when it was already rapidly disappearing in Europe, as also noted by Hutson.1 Behind the disguise of alleged medical benefits we can find more gruesome reasons for the maintenance of the practice. In a modern, American, market oriented society male circumcision became a form of commercial exploitation of children when physicians, in cooperation with transnational biotechnology corporations, looked for the sales of marketable and economically profitable products made from harvested human foreskins that could further be used in the pharmaceutical industry (Fletcher,14 pp 259–71), (Sorrells,15 pp 331–7).17
Human sexuality and the attempts to control it, particularly to reduce or add sexual pleasure, have been, in one way or another, a part of all known cultures and civilisations. While sometimes this fact is acknowledged openly as the main purpose for genital mutilation, in most cases other rationalisations are put forward for the practice. These false reasons have varied from religious and cultural demands to a number of medical ``explanations'', depending on the wider cultural tradition within which the practice has appeared. These different rationalisations for the maintenance of the practices in various cultures show that no matter what the cultural differences are in beliefs and lifestyles, genital mutilation is a universal sign of human civilisation—or maybe the lack of it. All societies have found the arguments that best fit their local cultural traditions and environments in order to introduce or maintain genital mutilation in its various forms. In the Western, rather individualist tradition, these rationalisations are based on benefit to the individual and/or autonomy; in the Southern and Eastern cultures their support is drawn more directly from social values and ties, or from the need to protect one's unique cultural identity against Western cultural imperialism. Thus, in this regard one cultural tradition cannot be said to be better than another. Rather, with further education and knowledge the cultural smokescreen around the real reasons for the maintenance of the practice can be overcome in all societies no matter what their cultural background.