Male circumcision can be worse than female genital mutilation

British judge calls circumcision “significant harm”


Circumcision of boys is “significant harm” and more damaging than mild forms of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the considered opinion of Sir James Munby, President of the British Family Court, expressed during his judgement on a case involving a girl from a Muslim family suspected of having undergone FGM. If she had been subjected to FGM, the law provides that she should be placed under care and the parents charged with a criminal offence. But since the girl had a brother who had been or was likely to be circumcised in accordance with Muslim tradition, the judge observed that the case inevitably brought up the question of male circumcision and its very different status in British law. He noted that “circumcision involved the removal of a significant amount of tissue, created an obvious alteration to the appearance of the genitals, and leaves a more or less prominent scar around the circumference of the penis.” Accordingly, it can readily be seen that while severe forms of FGM are more invasive than male circumcision, mild forms (such as Type IV in the WHO classification), “are on any view, much less invasive than male circumcision.”

Sir James further observed that any form of FGM, no matter how mild, constituted “significant harm” – this being the threshold condition for placing a child in care under the Childrens Act 1989 – and asked what this meant for male circumcision:

Mr Hayes points to the recognition, both by Wall J, as he then was, and by the Court of Appeal in Re J (Specific Issue Orders: Muslim Upbringing and Circumcision) [1999] … that male circumcision does involve harm, or the risk of harm. Given the comparison between what is involved in male circumcision and FGM WHO Type IV, to dispute that the more invasive procedure involves the significant harm involved in the less invasive procedure would seem almost irrational. In my judgment, if FGM Type IV amounts to significant harm, as in my judgment it does, then the same must be so of male circumcision [Para 69].

The judge went on to observe that the only differences between FGM and male circumcision are that the latter is sanctioned by some religions and traditional cultures, while the former is merely a cultural tradition; and that certain health benefits are (controversially) claimed for circumcision, but not for FGM. Despite these points of similarity, the status of male circumcision and FGM in British law are strikingly different: the former tolerated and unrestricted, the latter legally prohibited under pain of severe penalties. The result is a paradoxical situation:

In the present case the point [i.e. the paradox] arises in striking form. The family, as I have said are Muslims. I assume, therefore, that B [the boy] either has been or will in due course be circumcised. Yet, entirely understandably, and, if I may say so, entirely appropriately, this is not a matter that has been raised before me. There is no suggestion, nor could there be, that B’s circumcision can or should give rise to care proceedings. So, given the nature of the local authority’s case on this point, we are in this curious situation. G’s [the girl’s] FGM Type IV (had it been proved) would have been relied upon by the local authority, prior to its change of stance referred to above, as justifying the adoption of both children, even though on any objective view it might be thought that G would have subjected to a process much less invasive, no more traumatic (if, indeed, as traumatic) and with no greater long-term consequences, whether physical, emotional or psychological, than the process to which B has been or will be subjected [Para 63].

There is thus a crying anomaly in both law and custom. Although it constitutes significant harm and is more damaging than mild forms of FGM, non-therapeutic circumcision (NTC) of (non-consenting) male minors is both legally permitted and widely regarded as a legitimate aspect of “reasonable parenting”.

Although the judge’s comments on circumcision in this case are strictly speaking obiter dicta (i.e. not directly related to the point being decided), they are of great importance as yet another recognition that non-therapeutic circumcision does involve significant harm, and are possibly the first such formal recognition in an Anglophone court. Sir James’ comments echo and reinforce the judgement of the Cologne appeal court in 2012 that NTC of minors was harmful and violated and violated the child’s right to both physical integrity and freedom of religion. It also supports the conclusion of the Tasmania Law Reform Institute that NTC was sufficiently harmful (both physically and ethically) to warrant strict regulation and partial prohibition.

The judge’s conclusion –

– "that although both involve significant harm, there is a very clear distinction in family law between FGM and male circumcision. FGM in any form will suffice to establish ‘threshold’ in accordance with section 31 of the Children Act 1989; male circumcision without more will not" –

– sends a very clear message to legislators that such a glaring inconsistency in the law cannot be tolerated indefinitely.

Source (legal citation): Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division. In the matter of B & G (children). Case LJ13C00295, 14 January 2015.

Further reading on male and female circumcision

Robert Darby and J. Steven Svoboda. A Rose by Any Other Name: Symmetry and Asymmetry in Male and Female Genital Cutting

Brian Earp. Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: should there be a separate ethical discourse?

Brian Earp. Is there any moral difference between male and female circumcision? Aeon magazine, January 2015.

Brian Earp. Between moral relativism and moral hypocrisy: The case of FGM

Circumcision legal issues at CIRP

Male circumcision can be worse than female genital mutilation

Report in British magazine, insideMan

One of the country’s most senior judges has courted controversy by declaring that male circumcision can be more harmful than female genital mutilation (FGM). Sir James Munby acknowledged he was entering “deep waters” by highlighting inconsistencies in the law, but said it would be “irrational” to dispute the fact that male circumcision can be more harmful than some forms of FGM. The High Court judge made the comments as he passed judgment in care proceedings brought by a local authority seeking to take a brother and sister, from a Muslim family, into care on the grounds that the girl was a victim of Type IV FGM. While the case failed on the grounds that damage to the girl’s genitals was probably caused by a condition called vulvovaginitis, Munby, who is president of the family division, felt compelled to highlight the sexist double standard that the case brought to light. In summing up the judge noted that while subjecting a girl to Type IV FGM could result in that child being taken into care, male circumcision would not lead to a boy being removed from his family, even though the procedure is more harmful than at least some forms of Type IV FGM.


An inconvenient truth

Campaigners against male circumcision have long been hampered by the myth that subjecting girls to FGM is different and always worse than circumcising boys. The uncomfortable truth, to which Munby has now given judicial credibility, is that male circumcision is different and sometimes worse than FGM. This is particularly true of Type IV FGM which incorporates practices such as pricking, piercing and nicking the genitals, which are less harmful and invasive than removing the foreskin in it’s entirety. Male circumcision in the UK is often performed without anaesthetic, in non-medical conditions and can cause complications such as life threatening haemorrhage, shock, sepsis an in extreme cases death. In 2012 a Freedom of Information request revealed that two boys a week are admitted to the emergency department of Birmingham children’s hospital as a result of male circumcision.

Society more tolerant of male circumcision

However, despite Munby’s assessment that ”on any objective view” male circumcisions is sometimes worse than FGM, he also made clear that current judicial thinking is that there is no equivalence between the two practices. “In 2015 ,” he said in his judgment, “the law generally, and family law in particular, is still prepared to tolerate non-therapeutic male circumcision performed for religious or even for purely cultural or conventional reasons, while no longer being willing to tolerate FGM in any of its forms. “Given the comparison between what is involved in male circumcision and FGM WHO Type IV, to dispute that the more invasive procedure involves the significant harm involved in the less invasive procedure would seem almost irrational. In my judgment, if FGM Type IV amounts to significant harm, as in my judgment it does, then the same must be so of male circumcision.”

The phrase “significant harm” is important as this is the first threshold that must be crossed before a child can be taken into care under section 31 of the Children’s Act 1989. There is another criteria which must also be considered in care proceedings and this is whether the care given to a child is “what would be reasonable to expect a parent to give”.

Why the law is different

According to Munby, while it can never be reasonable parenting to inflict any form of FGM on a child, the position is quite different with male circumcision. Munby argued that there are at least two important distinctions between the two practices. Firstly, that FGM has no basis in any religion, while male circumcision is often performed for religious reasons. Secondly, that while FGM is said to have no medical justification and confers no health benefits; male circumcision is seen by some people as providing hygienic or prophylactic benefits, although opinions are divided. Even taking the conflicting medical evidence on any perceived benefits into account, Munby concluded that “reasonable” parenting should be seen to permit male circumcision.

And that is where UK law stands on the matter today. The Head of the Family Division of the Family Court has judged that while male circumcision is sometimes worse than FGM, it is deemed to be reasonable for parents of all backgrounds to circumcise their sons, while carrying out a less invasive and less harmful from of Type IV FGM on their daughters is not considered reasonable parental behaviour.

A welcome coup for campaigners

Having a senior judge acknowledge that FGM can be less harmful than male circumcision is a welcome coup for those of us who advocate for the right of every human being to enter adulthood with intact genitals, except in rare cases where therapeutic surgery is unequivocally unavoidable. The fact that our society, led by politicians and the judiciary, is still prepared to tolerate greater harm happening to boys than to girls, reveals a great deal about the sexist double standards we apply to the issues that affect men and boys in 2015. The fact that we are collectively more tolerant of the harm that happens to men and boys, than the harm that happens to women and girls, doesn’t begin and end at genital mutilation. Our shared cultural beliefs that “boys don’t cry”; that men should “man up”; that women have problems and men are problems; that females are the weaker sex and that we should always put the protection of women and girls first; is reflected in our inability to tackle a whole range of social issues that, predominantly impact men and boys, head on.

Why this is a men’s issue

These include male suicide; male homelessness; the high rate of male workplace deaths; men’s lower life expectancy; the expulsion of boys from school; the exclusion and marginalisation of separated fathers from their children’s lives; the way we respond to male victims of violence and the harsher treatment and sentencing of men and boys in the criminal justice system. What Sir James Munby has uncovered is an inconvenient and important truth about men, manhood and masculinity in 2015 which is simply this—while the harm that happens to men and boys in our society is different and sometimes worse than the harm that happens to women and girls, we still view any harm that women and girls experience more seriously. Munby is part of the problem he has raised, for while he acknowledges that male circumcision can be more harmful than FGM, he has essentially declared that while it’s reasonable for parents to harm their sons, it is never reasonable to harm their daughters.

Glen Poole, Male circumcision can be worse than FGM, rules senior Judge. insideMan (UK), 15 January 2015.

Glen Poole author of the book, Equality For Men.

Further discussion


Brian Earp, On the supposed distinction between culture and religion: A brief comment on Sir James Munby’s decision in the matter of B and G (children). Oxford Practical Ethics Blog, 8 February 2015.


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