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Cutting slack and cutting corners: an ethical and pragmatic response to Arora and Jacobs’ ‘Female genital alteration: a compromise solution’
  1. Arianne Shahvisi
  1. Correspondence to Dr Arianne Shahvisi, Department of Ethics, Brighton & Sussex Medical School, University Of Sussex, Medical School, Biology Road Falmer, EAST SUSSEX, Brighton BN1 9PX, UK; A.Shahvisi{at}

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Arora and Jacobs recommend a tidy way of respecting the desire of certain communities to perpetuate the tradition of altering the genitals of girls and women while ensuring that those girls and women do not experience changes in genital function or morphology. They propose that a minimal procedure, resulting in no long-term medical complications, be legalised in order to prevent more extreme and damaging forms of alteration. Their definition of a minimal procedure is determined not by the details of the procedure itself, but by its effects. A ‘minimal procedure’ is one that ‘does not have a lasting effect on morphology or function if performed properly’ (pp.9–10) or one that results in minor morphological changes which do not adversely affect sexual satisfaction or reproduction. Permissible procedures therefore include: small incisions in the clitoral hood or in the labia, or minor surgical resection of the clitoral hood or of the labia.

Their compromise stems from a desire to respect two seemingly competing legitimate interests. First, they wish to avoid ethnocentrism in their assessment of female genital alteration (FGA)i by challenging the blanket criminalisation. They point out that male circumcision is widely practiced, with little or no critique. Second, they wish to challenge and limit the more extreme, dangerous and oppressive forms of FGA.

In this response I argue that (a) Arora and Jacobs should not rely on the legitimacy of male circumcision in order to devise a parallel procedure for FGA, and (b) assuming that the ritual, rather than functional, aspects of FGA are more determinative does not adequately capture the rationale for performing the procedure.

Male circumcision: a questionable yardstick

Arora and Jacobs assume that male circumcision (ie, excision of the foreskin) is an acceptable practice and take this as a premise in their argument, which proceeds to claim that any society which tolerates …

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