Genital Autonomy Keele Conference Report

Vol. 9
No. 1
Steven Svoboda
Sat, 10/01/2011

I participated in a conference organized by the UK-based Genital Autonomy organization and by the University of Keele. The conference, entitled "Law, Human Rights, and Non-Therapeutic Interventions on Children," was held on August 31-September 1, 2011 at the University of Keele in Keele, UK.

Genital autonomy refers to the principle that all minors--male, female, and intersex alike--should be protected from genital cutting that is not medically necessary. The conference organizers, including David Smith of Genital Autonomy and Michael Thomson of the University of Keele, used a very creative approach to the conference, bringing together a mix of, on the one hand, intactivists, and on the other hand, academics and officials whose interests and inclinations align somewhat with ours but who are mostly not associated with intactivism.

The conference was devoted to considering all aspects of genital autonomy, though it concentrated primarily on intactivism and secondarily on female genital cutting (FGC). Some famous, long-standing activists against FGC spoke, including Efua Dorkenoo of Equality Now on "FGM and Human Rights" and Comfort Momoh of the University of London and FORWARD on "FGM--An Overview."

Two authors of recent influential papers on intactivist-related issues participated, and both their papers and the opportunity to interact with them were highlights of the conference. Drake University Politics Professor Debra DeLaet addressed "Genital Autonomy and Children's Rights in International Law" while Matthew Johnson discussed "Dealing with Invasive Religious Rights: Should the NHS Offer Circumcision to Diminish Harm?" Former Tasmanian Children's Commissioner Paul Mason traveled all the way from his homeland to deliver a talk entitled, "'So You Think Medically Unnecessary Circumcision Breaches Human Rights Law': The Other Side of the Coin."

Several presenters appeared for the first time at an intactivism-related conference, offering fresh perspectives. Youthful Travis Wisdom fought off illness to brilliantly analyze intactivism using a feminist analytical framework.  Gert Van Dijk, one of the main movers behind the Royal Dutch Medical Association's recent forceful anti-circumcision position statement and ensuing anti-circumcision programme, examined the relationship of the right to bodily integrity and religious freedom. Anthony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum, who was recently interviewed to stunning effect in a video available online, discussed "Conscience and Foreskins: A Medical Paradox." UK Professors Michael Thomson and Marie Fox delivered well-prepared and thoroughly researched meditations on health law and genital integrity.

The organizers even managed to get the Metropolitan Police to attend the entire conference and to present a film they prepared on the FGC topic. Unfortunately Sarah Graham was unable to be present to discuss her experiences with intersex activism.  Instead the delegates were shown an interview with Hida Viloria who is a spokesperson for OII that promoted a lively discussion, and John Geisheker of Doctors Opposing Circumcision did double duty, discussing last year's flip flop by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the acceptability of less severe forms of FGC, and also examining recent events regarding the San Francisco ballot initiative and the ensuing court case.

I presented a well-received paper that examined common concerns of the three branches of genital autonomy, entitled, "Protecting All from Genital Cutting — Law, Human Rights, and Demedicalization." The process of preparing this paper was itself very valuable and I found fascinating and instructive the opportunity to present a paper for the first time on the interrelationship between intactivism and activism against other forms of genital cutting.

The cross-fertilization was extremely beneficial and enlightening.  Also the high quality of the presentations and the intimate, relaxed setting of the conference allowed us all to connect, share ideas, and get to know each other over the two days. To use a British word, the conference was no less than a smashing success.