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Male or female genital cutting: why ‘health benefits’ are morally irrelevant
  1. Brian D Earp
  1. Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy, Yale University and The Hastings Center, New Haven, CT 06511, USA
  1. Correspondence to Brian D Earp, Associate Director, Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy, Yale University and The Hastings Center, New Haven, CT 06511, USA; brian.earp{at}


The WHO, American Academy of Pediatrics and other Western medical bodies currently maintain that all medically unnecessary female genital cutting of minors is categorically a human rights violation, while either tolerating or actively endorsing medically unnecessary male genital cutting of minors, especially in the form of penile circumcision. Given that some forms of female genital cutting, such as ritual pricking or nicking of the clitoral hood, are less severe than penile circumcision, yet are often performed within the same families for similar (eg, religious) reasons, it may seem that there is an unjust double standard. Against this view, it is sometimes claimed that while female genital cutting has ‘no health benefits’, male genital cutting has at least some. Is that really the case? And if it is the case, can it justify the disparate treatment of children with different sex characteristics when it comes to protecting their genital integrity? I argue that, even if one accepts the health claims that are sometimes raised in this context, they cannot justify such disparate treatment. Rather, children of all sexes and genders have an equal right to (future) bodily autonomy. This includes the right to decide whether their own ‘private’ anatomy should be exposed to surgical risk, much less permanently altered, for reasons they themselves endorse when they are sufficiently mature.

  • circumcision
  • children
  • rights
  • sexuality/gender
  • concept of health

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  • Correction notice This paper has been updated since first published to amend reference 65 and to include the provenance and peer review statement.

  • Contributors BDE wrote the paper.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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