February 2, 2004

An Italian gynecologist of Somalian descent, Omar Abdulcadir, proposes an alternative to female genital cutting/mutilation, the NYT reported yesterday:

That alternative, as he described it, would be a piercing of the tip of the clitoris that would draw just a drop or two of blood and would be largely symbolic. He said he would use a topical anesthetic.

Jacob Levy over at Volokh Conspiracy comments:
The question is, soughly, whether the substitution of a relatively humane procedure performed hygenically for a monstrous one performed unhygenically outweighs the cost, i.e. undermining the attempt to stamp out female genital cutting and the attitudes that generate it.

(Soughly? I can't even think what that is a typo for. And why is Volokh Conspiracy already up to Wednesday? They blog fast.)

Surely as between the two procedures, it would be better to have the far less extreme one, just as it would be better to be tortured for an hour than for a year. If we could be assured that those who would otherwise have the radical procedure would switch to Dr. Abdulcadir's procedure, and everything else remained equal, we should support this innovation. The first problem is, as the Times article reveals, perhaps no one would move to the middle ground:

Several opponents said immigrants who were deeply invested in tradition would probably deem the alternative insufficient, while immigrants who were liberated from that tradition would feel no need for a substitute.

Sometimes there is no middle ground. The second problem is that becoming involved in developing a middle ground seems to legitimate the evil extreme, and it participates in evil. So we can't trust that everything else would remain equal. Levy has written a book on multiculturalism, which I haven't read, but I rankled at his blogged comment "A Seattle hospital considered doing precisely the same thing a number of years ago, until it was bullied out of it by activists and by Patricia Schroeder." There is at least a basis for principled disagreement here about whether compromise is acceptable. Those who resist compromise are not necessarily bullies. I'd like to know more about exactly how the "activists" misbehaved, if they did.

We may gain from observing the Italian debate. The Times reports:
Italians are still absorbing [the reality of "sudden demographic changes"] and sifting through the related challenges, both practical and philosophical.

A front-page article in the Turin daily La Stampa on Jan. 23 asked why a symbolic alternative to genital cutting would validate that practice any more than the symbolic consumption of the body of Jesus at a Catholic Mass would validate cannibalism.

A closer analogy to communion would be if the symbolic genital cutting was performed on something that wasn't part of anybody's body! And of course there was never any actual cannibalism in the Christian tradition. The original Last Supper used only symbolic bread. There is no belief in the value of cannibalism that communion is honoring!

That said, Dr. Abdulcadir's procedure doesn't seem any worse than the sort of body piercings we tolerate people engaging in for all sorts of reasons. We aren't all up in arms about that. There shouldn't be discrimination against the religious motivation.

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