Female genital cutting, commonly known as female genital mutilation (FGM), remains one of the most dreaded practices to date and has faced constant criticism from all corners particularly from medical experts and human rights activists. With several cultures worldwide practicing circumcision for boys, some cultures have extended the practice to girls despite the numerous risks to which it exposes girls who undergo the practice. FGM refers to the removal of female genitalia either all or in part (Amnesty International 1). With various forms of FGM in existence, the most severe of these is infibulation, which is also referred to as pharaonic circumcision. Infibulation is common in Africa, and consists of clitoridectomy and cutting what is known as the labia majora that results in the creation of raw surfaces. After the labia majora is cut, the raw surfaces created are then stitched in a way that a cover is formed over the vagina upon healing. Procedures followed during FGM as well as the age of those who undergo the practice vary from one country to the other, the girl’s ethnic group, socioeconomic status, and whether they live in an urban or rural setting. Reports indicate that approximately 135 million women and girls around the world have undergone the practice with a further 2 million girls facing the risk of FGM annually (Amnesty International 2). FGM is a common practice in Africa, selected countries in the Middle East, and in North and Latin America among immigrant communities. FGM has significant physical and psychological effects on girls, and can result in death in serious occasions. Also, the practice has adverse effects on sexuality as most of the girls or women who face the cut report complications during their first intercourse. Despite the criticism and opposition of the practice, supporters justify the practice giving reasons such as cultural identity, gender identity, control of women’s sexuality and reproductive functions, religious beliefs or inclinations, as well as the need to justify beliefs about hygiene, aesthetics, and health.
Although supporters of FGM give several justifications or reasons for the practice, it remains undoubtable that FGM is ethically unfounded and indefensible. In fact, from a medical profession perspective, the fact that some physicians participate in the practice can be described as a serious violation of medical ethics. The support FGM receives from selected cultures or communities does not make it ethically defensible. Ethics, in itself, is a matter of what people ought to do and not what they believe or what they are doing. In other words, ethics is always based on principle that define what it means to be a person and not on a person’s or culture’s beliefs (Kluge 3). This said, the argument that several cultures worldwide perform FGM is not a justification that the practice is ethical. The argument about the unethicality of FGM can be supported by applying theories such as utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics.
Proponents of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argue that the rightness (ethicality) of an action can be determine by whether the action promotes happiness of the person performing the act and that of the everyone affected by the action. This means that an action that produces the reverse of happiness can be considered wrong or unethical. Unlike other theories such as consequentialism that determine the rightness or wrongness of an action based on the consequences, utilitarianism argues that an action that has a bad motive can be considered right or ethical if it results in happiness of everyone involved. Based on these perspectives, it can be argued that FGC is wrong or unethical as it does not result in the happiness of the victims of the practice. As aforementioned, FGC has numerous physical and psychological effects that jeopardize the happiness of the victims of the practice. When FGC is carried out, it causes severe pain, hemorrhage, shock, and serious damage to female genital organs and this causes sadness rather than happiness to the victims. In worst cases, FGC can lead to death, which clearly does not cause happiness for everyone involved in the action.
Another principle. Kantianism, argues that a good will is the only intrinsically good thing, which can loosely be translated that an action is ethical, morally acceptable, or good, if the principle behind it (maxim) is duty to the mora law. Categorically, Kantianism, also referred to as Kantian ethics states that people should act in such ways that they treat humanity, whether themselves or any other person, not as merely as means to an end but often as an end. Kantianism’s other formulation is that actions should always be according to maxims where people can at the same time wish that it is embraced as a universal law (Agil 36). Unfortunately, FGC is one of the actions whose maxims cannot be embraced as a universal law. In fact, opponents of FGC see it an action used by selected cultures to treat girls and women merely as means to an end, a perspective that is strongly opposed by Kantian ethics. Therefore, the fact that FGC is supported by maxims that cannot be accepted as universal laws and that it creates an avenue for treating girls and women merely as mean to and end implies that the action is unethical.
On the other hand, the theory of virtue ethics avers that an action can be considered right or ethical if it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances of an action. Since a virtuous agent is a person tasked with maximizing utility, an action can be considered ethical or right only if it maximizes utility (Hursthouse 68). For instance, an action that would make another person charitable, benevolent, courageous, friendly, magnificent, and other virtues, can be described as ethical or good. As an action, FGC does not enhance or promote virtues of either the people carrying out the act or the victims. Rather, FGC interferes with the virtues of people involved, and therefore, it cannot be described as ethical.
However, based on theories such as relativism and universalism, FGC should be properly and ethically considered, especially through the lens of cultures and religions of those involved. Relativism refers to the perception that the rightness or wrongness of an action, standards of reasoning, as well as the procedures justifying an action differ based on conventions and assessment frameworks and that the context giving rise to them confines their authority (Shweder 86). This means that various cultures have their own view of FHC with some giving justifications such as gender identity, cultural identity, and controlling women’s sexuality and reproductive functions. From this line of thinking, FGC should be properly and ethically considered. Universalism is the philosophical or theological aspect that selected ideas have universal applicability implying that the universal principles of religions, for instance, should be accepted inclusively (Shweder 87). Certain religions such as Islam (though not all Muslims) believe that FGC is essential and go ahead to attribute it to the Prophet Muhammad. In such a scenario, it would be difficult to discredit FGC as an unethical practice with Islamic principles and teachings being accepted universally.
Agil, Syed Omar Syed. “Kantian Ethics: A Critique.” Universiti Tun Abdul Razak E-Journal (2011): 33-43. http://www.unirazak.edu.my/research/ejournal/cases/KANTIAN%20ETHICS%20A%20CRITIQUE.pdf
Amnesty International. What is Female Genital Mutilation? 1997, September 30. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/act77/006/1997/en/
Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue ethics and human nature.” Hume Studies 25.1 (1999): 67-82. http://www.humesociety.org/hs/issues/v25n1-2/hursthouse/hursthouse-v25n1-2.pdf
Kluge, E. W. “Female genital mutilation, cultural values and ethics.” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 16.2 (1996): 71-76. https://phil102moralproblems.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/8/7/12874574/kluge_-_female_genital_mutilation.pdf
Shweder, Richard A. “Relativism and universalism.” A companion to moral anthropology (2012): 85-102. http://www.indigenouspsych.org/Members/Shweder,%20Richard%20A/Relativism%20and%20Universalism.pdf