Male circumcision – can it really be equated to FGM?

Circumcision of young boy

There has been a lot of debate recently as Iceland has caused a stir, considering a bill to ban male circumcision and providing penalties similar to those doled out for female genital mutilation. The bill was initially triumphed by Iceland’s centre-right party MP Silja Gunnarsdottir who likened male circumcision to female genital mutilation. Essentially they are proposing to modify current FGM law to include male circumcision with no distinction between the two practices.

I was listening to a debate on Radio 4’s moral maze regarding this topic, which was joined by the head of the national secular society Keith Wood. The feeling was so deep in his comments that they felt distorted and unreal. Not only was male circumcision equated to FGM, which is often hugely disfiguring and will vastly decrease sexual pleasure amongst it’s victims, but also against the Hindu practice of sati, which is where a widow will burn herself to death.

So is there an argument here?

Pro criminalisation of male circumcision campaigners argue from a number of standpoints;

  1. It is the right of the child to determine what happens to their body – I agree to a certain extent here but I would have to point out that it is not an offence to have a baby’s ears pierced. Though this is slightly less invasive it also carries with it a small number of risks.
  2. We ban religious practices in this country where they are seen to infringe upon human rights. (This is where the comparison to sati came in on the moral maze). – To be honest I don’t even feel I need to argue with this one – I’m not sure this constitutes an infringement of human rights, and if it does then human rights have become so far reaching since their first basic inception that I wonder what will be included under the umbrella term in the next 50 years.
  3. We have banned FGM, male circumcision is essentially the same. – I have to scoff at this one. Female Genital mutilation is an extreme procedure which completely removes the clitoris thus vastly decreasing female sexual pleasure at it’s best, and at it’s worse can involve pure mutilation and sewing up of the vagina. To equate male circumcision to this is to decrease the horror that FGM is. There is no evidence that men who have been circumcised have decreased sexual pleasure.
  4. As an unnecessary procedure the risks do not outweigh the benefits. – A soft argument I feel when talking about taking away an ancient religious practice that is likely to alienate a religious minority within a country. Especially given that the risks are essentially very small and some studies have shown that there are significant benefits (though these are widely debated.) NICE (national Institute for Clinical Excellence, a body designed to evaluate evidence for treatments and procedures in the UK,) states that the risk is small and as such the decision should be left up to parents.

So can a ban be justified?

Given the regard with which male circumcision is held within both Jewish and Islamic communities, the little harm and risk that is associated and the fact that a third of the male population of the world is estimated to be circumcised (and they still wish to circumcise their own children) do I think that banning this religious practice would benefit society or harm it?

I think that given recent allegations of institutional antisemitism within the labour party in the UK, and islamophobia rife amongst much of the west, this is a foolhardy exercise. It just goes to strengthen the belief held in these communities that as a minority they are demonised. And they may well be right to think so.


9 thoughts on “Male circumcision – can it really be equated to FGM?

  1. I’d recommend that you research what actual FGM victims have to say about comparing FGM with male circumcision.

    Here’s a video from Soraya Mire for starters:

    Here’s another one from Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

    Anyway, you lose the gendered nature of the term FGM (the F), and male circumcision would very much slot into a moderate to severe form of GM.

    In fact, there are forms of FGM that are commonly practiced in the Islamic world that “only” remove skin.

    Just this year the first charges under the federal FGM law were brought against certain individuals from Michigan. Let me share with you an excerpt from the FBI’s complaint against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is accused of performing female genital mutilation (FMG) on underage girls:

    “MN-V-1’s labia minora has been altered or removed, and her clitoral hood is also abnormal in appearance. Finally, the doctor observed some scar tissue and small healing lacerations.”

    “MN-V-2’s clitoral hood has a small incision, and there is a small tear to her labia minora.”

    “The parents of MN-V-2 confirmed that they took MN-V-2 to Detroit to see Nagarwala for a ‘cleansing’ of extra skin.”

    What happened to these girls is horrific.

    But it must be pointed out that “only” so-called “extra” skin was removed and their glans clitorises were intact, just like in male circumcision “only” so-called “extra” skin is removed and the glans penis is left intact.

    That sounds pretty comparable, does it not?

    And yet this is a federal crime while cutting boys’ foreskins happens to thousands of boys everyday legally.

    I’m not sure if MN-V-1 and MN-V-2 have brothers, but what would have been done to their genitalia under Islamic religious tradition — the excision of their entire prepuce — would have been just as excruciating, if not more so, than what happened to these girls. And yet there would be no legal repercussions for such a painful act committed against their bodies.

    The United States has to ask itself the difficult question of why it is so repulsed by excising folds of skin from female children’s genitalia but is so nonchalant about excising a fold of skin from male children’s genitalia.

    This should not be so; girls do not have more of an innate right to their bodies, and especially their most private parts, than boys do to theirs.

    And as far as health benefits go…what other normal, living, healthy, permanent tissue do we research the “health benefits” of cutting off at birth? The answer is none. I mean heck, you could remove a few fingers, maybe an arm, ears, all sorts of body parts with low risk of harm and relatively low risk of complications. I’m pretty sure each part of the body you remove will reduce the risk of getting cancer or disease in the absent body parts, too.

    I mean, uncircumcised women and girls have far more folds of bacteria-trapping folds of skin and suffer more genital infections than uncircumcised men and boys by a large margin, and are more prone to HIV and most STIs from unprotected vaginal intercourse — and let’s not even get into hygiene issues — and we leave their genitals alone.

    There has not been one study, performed under the same sterilized conditions in which science has examined male circumcision literally hundreds of times over, of the health benefits of removing, say, the female inner labia, and yet there are literally hundreds of studies concerning the health benefits of removing the male foreskin.

    There’s something else going on here, and it’s not science; if infection reduction were the goal, then the population most infection-prone (uncircumcised females) should be the population most studied.

    Her body, her choice.
    His body, his choice.
    Not yours to cut.


    1. Thankyou for taking the time to comment. You have some very good and well made points.

      I completely agree that FGM in all forms is deplorable, I struggle to equate circumcision with this but I understand where you are coming from.
      Regarding the issue of consent in children, this is a whole topic within itself but I agree, if you were to completely discount the religious significance of circumcision (I am neither Jewish or Muslim,) then there would be no argument. I don’t see how it could be criminalised in a society that believes in tolerance.


      1. “I completely agree that FGM in all forms is deplorable”

        If removing a baby girl’s prepuce is “deplorable,” then isn’t removing a baby boy’s prepuce? What am I missing here?


      2. I disagree fundamentally that they are comparable, and therefore cannot answer that question. Of course they do not have more of a right. The question I have posed is whether the harm caused by the two practices is comparable, and therefore whether it would be right to criminalise circumcision. I cannot agree that there is a similar amount of harm caused by both practices. Female genital mutilation as it stands and is understood in british law at the moment is far more harmful, without any ability to debate whether there may be bemefits to it or otherwise.

        It is because of this that I think it would be wrong to criminalise it. I am not debating whether the practice itself is morally right or wrong.


  2. “I disagree fundamentally that they are comparable, and therefore cannot answer that question.”

    What is so fundamentally incomparable between cutting off a baby boy’s prepuce and cutting off a baby girl’s prepuce?

    “Of course they do not have more of a right.”

    So how much of their daughter’s genitals are you OK with parents legally having cut off?

    If you 1) do not believe that females have more of a right to their genitals than males and also 2) believe that it should be legal for parents to cut off a portion of their son’s genitals, then surely you must 3) believe that parents should be legally permitted to cut off some portion of their daughter’s genitals.

    It would be inconsistent to say, “Males and females have an equal right to their own genitals,” and then turn around and say, “It’s OK for parents to legally cut off a portion of their son’s genitals. However, parents should not be allowed to cut off any portion of their daughter’s genitals.”


  3. “The question I have posed is whether the harm caused by the two practices is comparable, and therefore whether it would be right to criminalise circumcision. I cannot agree that there is a similar amount of harm caused by both practices.”

    What specific harms are presented by cutting off folds of skin from a baby girl’s genitalia — say, her prepuce or labia minora — that are not presented by cutting off folds of skin from a baby boy’s genitals — say, his prepuce — assuming that both procedures are performed in the same setting?


  4. I don’t understand why you are so opposed to legally guaranteeing to males the same right we currently legally guarantee to females — the right to grow up with all of their genitals, not just the portion that their parents’ sense of aesthetics, culture, or religion deem appropriate.


  5. You say it over and over again. “Harm, harm, harm, cutting off a baby girl’s prepuce is not comparable to cutting off a baby boy’s prepuce, I cannot agree that there is a similar amount of harm, far more harmful,” etc.

    Well, what of it?

    Tell me what specific harms are inherent to the practice of cutting off a young girl’s prepuce or labia minora that are not inherent to the practice of cutting off a young boy’s prepuce, assuming both practices are performed in the same sanitary, clinical setting.

    I’m not talking about clitoridectomy and infibulation, just as I’m not talking about castration or penile subincision, so blanket copied-and-pasted WHO or other statements on FGM are not what I’m looking for here.

    I’m talking specifically about the harms inherent to the forms of FGM that “only” remove skin.


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