Should We “Nick” Our Baby Girls?

I had a boyfriend in college who was from Eritrea and had fought in the war of independence from Ethiopia.

He fought side by side with women soldiers, some of whom had had their clitorises cut off when they were small children.

“What does it feel like?” He asked his fellow soldiers.

The women laughed at him. “How should we know?” They said. “We’ve never known anything different!”

Clitoridectomy, known in the Western world as female genital mutilation (FGM) is no laughing matter. According to the World Health Organization, between 100 and 140 million women and girls have already had their clitorises (often along with other parts of their female anatomy) cut off and about three million girls each year are at risk of having this procedure done (see the WHO’s “Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation“).

When this procedure is done on a newborn baby girl without her consent, it is the worst and cruelest kind of mutilation.

Which is why so many activists are very upset by the recent policy statement, issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), that seems to condone FGM in America.

In a statement issued at the end of April 2010, the AAP (calling the procedure “Female Genital Cutting” instead of “Female Genital Mutilation”) emphasizes that the procedure is harmful and dangerous but also suggests that it be decriminalized in the United States so that doctors can perform a “ritual nick” on baby girls, in order to “offer compromise and build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities.” The policy statement continues:

It might be more effective if federal and state laws enabled pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm.

Efforts should be made to use all available educational and counseling resources to dissuade parents from seeking a ritual genital procedure for their daughter. For circumstances in which an infant, child, or adolescent seems to be at risk of FGC, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that its members educate and counsel the family about the detrimental health effects of FGC. Parents should be reminded that performing FGC is illegal and constitutes child abuse in the United States” (my emphasis).

Is a “ritual nick” really something we should be promoting in this country?

I read about this when the AAP statement was first issued but wasn’t sure how I felt. It was a friend who urged me to write about it, Kristen Gough, a parenting, pregnancy, and food writer who also has a blog called My Kids Eat Squid.

Many thoughtful parents believe that the new AAP policy may actually help immigrant baby girls, which is the reason it was developed in the first place. They argue that on the surface it seems horrifying to consider that American doctors would even think about any form of FGM but if the alternative is that these girls are taken to other countries to undergo much more traumatic, life-threatening procedures instead, maybe a “nick” approach could actually help save them from harm. In an NPR story about the subject, one of the interviewees made the comparison to giving clean needles to heroin users without supporting heroin use. As a friend who wants to remain anonymous said to me, “In a perfect world, the AAP’s policy statement would be unconscionable but in the real world, it’s compassionate.”

On the other side are the outraged activists, both people from developing nations where this kind of mutilation continues and Americans who believe that a baby’s genitalia should never be harmed or cut in any way unless it is absolutely medically necessary. Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, argues that being respectful of the cultural norm is misguided and calls the AAP policy statement ill-advised. In a Huffington Post commentary she writes: “Hundreds of African women – and men – have dedicated their lives to end FGM in their own communities through awareness-raising, education, and advocacy for legal and policy changes. While resistance to progress may be at times fierce, as in most social change movements, stories of girls and their families who are successfully rejecting the practice and mobilizing their communities and governments to eradicate FGM are proliferating. The AAP should honor those commitments and not seek to undermine such advances” (my emphasis).

Georganne Chapin, executive director of Intact America, is completely against the statement. In a call to action Intact America insists: “At Intact America, we know that any form of genital cutting of babies is wrong – ethically, morally, and medically” (their emphasis).

This is one of those thorny issues where I can see both sides. I appreciate that the AAP is being culturally sensitive but I’m not sure that “nicking” a baby girl’s genitals should be legal in this country.

What do you think? Is the AAP being culturally sensitive and keeping baby girls from further harm or are they tacitly condoning female genital mutilation and undermining the activists trying to change cultural practices?

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