A fundamental difference between male and female circumcisions is that female circumcision does not have the potential for medical benefit. Both excision and infibulation carry very significant negative health consequences. All types of female circumcision rely on cultural and religious reasoning. Opponents greatly resist naming this practice circumcision because using the term may diminish the seriousness of the practices of infibulation and excision. Health organizations, Islamic groups, women's groups, and Western governments continue to press for the abolition of these practices. They have used various strategies to try to achieve this. For example, the Kenyan Family Planning Association has proposed alternate ceremonies that would be accompanied by the traditional educational information given when an adolescent is circumcised. This strategy helps make proponents of change seem to respect tradition and culture while changing an unhealthy aspect of a particular tradition.
Some of the issues that surround female circumcision are similar to those related to male circumcision: pain, the risk of infection, alteration of a natural state, and the status of children. Female circumcision, however, carries more serious implications, which include significant chance of damage to the clitoris during surgery (in the Sunna form), loss of sexual pleasure, patriarchal control, birthing complications, increased infections throughout life, refugee status in developed countries, and loss of mobility (in the infibulation form). Support for maintaining the practice relies on arguments from tradition and religion, and from the concern that daughters will not make fit wives if they are not circumcised. However, as women become more educated and empowered within these societies, practices of female circumcision are being modified.
In Western countries, questions are raised as to whether female circumcisions should be offered in clinical settings when parents who have emigrated request it. This would be done to avoid complications brought about when unskilled people perform the surgery in nonsterile environments; however, this would seem to go against a principle of basic Western medicine—to do no harm to patients. Some suggest the practice is a type of child abuse or persecution such that young, uncircumcised girls should be granted refugee status. These issues are being continuously challenged and debated in legislatures and medical governing associations.
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PAUL J. FORD