Abstract submitted for the biannual NOCIRC Symposium, to be held September 4-6 in Keele, England. “Three-Fourths Were Abnormal”—Misha’s Case, Sick Societies, and the Law

By J. Steven Svoboda

Law, human rights, and medical ethics reflect, transmit, and reinforce social norms. By creating mandates ultimately underwritten by a state’s police power, certain ambiguities are eliminated, and others are introduced regarding interpretation. Genital cutting, a tragically flawed attempt to perfect a child, thrives on such ambiguities.

Gender identity anchors us from the buffeting winds of social change. 150 years ago, normality was redefined, and suddenly, “three-fourths of all male babies [had] abnormal prepuces.” Circumcision helped cover up male anxiety over legitimacy and father-son relations. Cultural constructions of dirt served reigning ideologies then and now.

Genital cutting presents a cluster of interwoven discriminations—racial, gender-based, age-based, and class-based—that violate law, human rights, and ethics. Parents (as in Boldt v. Boldt), doctors, and society seek treatment, not the infant. Thus the problem cannot be solved by a medical procedure, which circumcision never was anyway. Only human compassion can end the nightmare.