Law, human rights, and non-therapeutic interventions on children:

Genital integrity conference “A smashing success”


J. Steven Svoboda reports on a conference on circumcision and other genital surgeries held at the University of Keele.

“Genital autonomy” refers to the principle that all children – male, female, and intersex alike – should be protected from non-therapeutic (medically unnecessary) genital cutting. The conference organizers, including David Smith of Genital Autonomy (Europe) and Michael Thomson, Professor of Law at the University of Keele, took a very creative approach, bringing together grass-roots anti-circumcision and child protection activists with academics and officials not necessarily associated with direct advocacy. The conference considered all aspects of genital autonomy, though focused primarily on male circumcision and secondarily on female genital cutting (FGC) and female genital mutilation (FGM). Some famous, long-standing activists against FGC spoke, including Efua Dorkenoo of Equality Now on “FGM and Human Rights” and Comfort Momoh of the University of London and FORWARD on “FGM -- An Overview.”

The opportunity to meet the authors of two significant recent papers on circumcision and human rights were highlights of the conference. Debra DeLaet, Professor of Politics at Drake University, USA, addressed “Genital Autonomy and Children’s Rights in International Law”, while Matthew Johnson discussed “Dealing with Invasive Religious Rights: Should the National Health Service Offer Circumcision to Diminish Harm?” Paul Mason, former Children’s Commissioner in Tasmania, travelled all the way from his homeland down-under to deliver a talk entitled “So You Think Medically Unnecessary Circumcision Breaches Human Rights Law: The Other Side of the Coin.”

Several young activists offered fresh perspectives. Travis Wisdom (USA) fought off illness to brilliantly analyze intactivism from a feminist perspective. Gert Van Dijk, from the Royal Dutch Medical Association, and lead author of its recent forceful anti-circumcision position statement, examined the relationship of the right to bodily integrity with the right to freedom of religion. Anthony Lempert of the British Secular Medical Forum, who was recently interviewed to stunning effect in a video available online, discussed “Conscience and Foreskins: A Medical Paradox.” Michael Thomson and Marie Fox, professors of Law at University of Keele, delivered thoroughly researched analyses of health law and genital integrity.

The organizers even managed to persuade the Metropolitan Police to attend the entire conference and to present a film on FGC they had prepared. Sarah Graham discussed her experience of protecting intersex children, while John Geisheker of Doctors Opposing Circumcision did double duty, discussing last year’s flip-flip by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the acceptability of “mild” forms of FGC, and also examining the San Francisco ballot initiative to ban under-age circumcision and the ensuing court case. J. Steven Svoboda (from Attorneys for the Rights of the Child) presented a well-received paper that examined concerns common to all three branches of genital autonomy, “Protecting All from Genital Cutting: Law, Human Rights, and Demedicalization.”

The high quality of the presentations and the intimate, relaxed setting of the conference allowed participants to connect, share ideas, and get to know each other over the two days. To use a British word, the conference was a smashing success.

The conference, “Law, Human Rights, and Non-Therapeutic Interventions on Children,” was held on 31 August – 1 September 2011 at the University of Keele, UK. J. Steven Svoboda is a lawyer and founder of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, a US human rights group focused on protection of children.

Further information: Genital Autonomy Europe

Royal Dutch Medical Association Policy discussed on this site

Helsinki Declaration on the Right to Genital Autonomy (2012)

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