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05/07/2010

What’s the Harm in a Pinprick?

It all depends on the context when asking the question–what’s the harm in a pinprick?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, when talking about female circumcision, their committee on bioethics has decided that the procedure should be permitted for American doctors. It would be far better for American doctors to be permitted to perform a ceremonial pinprick or “nick” on girls whose families want them to have the procedure rather than these being forced to travel to Asia or Africa to have a full procedure done, says the NYT.

Medically speaking, the harm in a pinprick or “the nick” shouldn’t be much–and that is the goal–to prevent these girls from undergoing a much more severe procedure in places where the surgery (if you could even call it that) resembles the practice’s more common name–female genital mutilation. So in one sense, this position is attempting to reduce harm for these young girls.

Moreover, the notion of a “prick” is a standard we use for minimal risk in research all the time for needle sticks for blood draws, for example. Thus, the AAP is not recommending some risky procedure at the expense of American girls to appease parents who want the procedure for religious or cultural reasons.

However, opponents of FGM are right to worry about the message that endorsing the practice at all sends–at least from our Western perspective. For those who just flat out think that female circumcision is wrong and that it suggests a certain view that these cultures hold about the role of women, their power and sexuality in those cultures–they take the black and white view–anything that even resembles female circumcision or FGM must be bad and must not be allowed.

But taking such a view imposes our Western cultural values upon families who take a different point of view. These families ought to be allowed to express one of their important cultural rituals in a manner that presents minimal harm to these young girls. The AAP statement has found that middle ground–it would seem. If it does, in fact and upon empirical review, prevent these families from going oversees to get a more complete procedure. That is the key. The “nick” as it were would have to satisfy these families need for female circumcision in order for this policy to meet its intended goals.

If it in fact can do that, I think that the half-way position is a reasonable one. It will never please the fervent opponents of the procedures or feminists who believe that any genital cutting is morally wrong, but if the data bear out, it may be the solution we have all been looking for for a truly problematic moral problem that has plagued us for decades.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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