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Droit au Corps’s vision : the path of compassion

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February 17, 2021 version

  1. Aim and purpose
  2. The path of compassion
  3. Sexual health: communicate good practices and assist circumcised individuals who suffer
  4. Open a public debate on the conditions for consent to circumcision
  5. Developing the international coalition for the abandonment of sexual mutilation
  6. Notes and references

Aim and purpose

Droit au Corps’s founding principle is the right to control one’s own body.

The association’s aim is to bring an end to all forms of sexual mutilation [1] – female, male, transgender and intersex: excision, circumcision or other –, in other words any modification of a sexual organ carried out on an individual without their free and informed consent [2], and without medical necessity.

Purpose : the association’s ethical framework prioritizes the alleviation of suffering [3], and as such, it aims to end all physical and psychological suffering associated with sexual mutilation, and especially that inflicted on children.

Droit au Corps focuses principally on male circumcision, a subject that is overlooked and largely absent from public debate.

The path of compassion

In accordance with its ethical priority, Droit au Corps not only aims to end suffering arising from sexual mutilation, but is also concerned with suffering that can be experienced by individuals who feel their traditions are under threat or who feel obligated to perpetuate them. Droit au Corps wishes that all parties concerned by the issue of sexual mutilation progress together towards this goal.

When a practice is rooted in tradition for centuries, change is difficult. Droit au Corps seeks to effect change not through force, but through cultural evolution. A culture is a complex whole of which circumcision is just one aspect. As Droit au Corps cannot be active in all aspects of the cultures in question, it seeks an alliance with all progressive actors in order to act globally.

In order to bring about a change in paradigms and attitudes, Droit au Corps’s preferred tool is to communicate the most objective and impartial information possible. The only way to benefit all parties is through raising awareness and factual education on the consequences of sexual mutilation.

There are numerous testimonials and scientific studies showing that circumcision is a source of suffering for many men, both in the short- and long-term. Calling attention to this fact without any taboos is one of Droit au Corps’s priorities.

Nonetheless, circumcision is closely linked to sexuality, a highly sensitive topic. For this reason, we consider it essential to speak about it with extreme gentleness.

Compassion in no way means settling for a loose consensus. On the contrary, it is the firm determination to alleviate suffering steadily over time. [4]

Sexual health: communicate good practices and assist circumcised individuals who suffer

Throughout the history of medicine, ideology has often superseded science when it came to sexual health. In the 19th century, the idea took hold that mutilation of the penis or the clitoris was the antidote to masturbation, which was then considered a major cause of disease. Even if we have forgotten these origins, circumcision is still practiced on the majority of newborn males in the United States, under constantly changing pretexts, and despite the fact that there is no appropriate treatment for pain at this age. Circumcision is also a flourishing business: payment for the procedure, surgical equipment, sale of foreskins, etc.

This ideology of combatting onanism has left deep scars [5]. We know today that circumcision is never necessary for therapeutic reasons, except for rare cases. There are less invasive alternatives that are too often unknown.

In addition, a bad practice persists today: the forced retraction of the foreskin. Carried out by uninformed doctors and/or parents, it can create pathological conditions and lead to circumcision, as well as being a source of psychological problems.

Droit au Corps has set out the following major goals :

- communicate good practices to the general public ;
- support efforts to educate the medical profession and inform all actors in the healthcare sector and, if necessary, play the role of whistleblower ;
- address the concerns of young people and parents regarding sexual health ;
- offer support to circumcised men requesting assistance in repairing damage to the extent possible (support groups, psychosocial support, information about restorative therapies…).

Open a public debate on the conditions for consent to circumcision

As the right to control one’s own body is the founding principle of Droit au Corps [6], the association is not at all opposed to circumcision once the individual concerned is able to give free and informed consent.

Droit au Corps wishes to start a public debate on “the conditions for consent to circumcision”, which would allow the reaching of a consensus between all parties, an optimal balance likely to alleviate a maximum of suffering.

Developing the international coalition for the abandonment of sexual mutilation

Recent years have seen a growing number of initiatives aiming to abandon sexual mutilation: first female, then male, transgender and finally intersex. The time has come to bring together all these forces in order to make their mission more effective.

Droit au Corps advocates a universalist approach to sexual mutilation: shouldn’t the world community protect all children equally, regardless of their gender ?

To further this goal, in 2020 our group launched the international coalition for the abandonment of sexual mutilation, The Bodyguards.

Notes and references

1. Sexual mutilation

In 1997, the WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA joint statement Female genital mutilation set out this definition:

Female genital mutilation comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons.”

As of 31 January 2018, the definition used on the World Health Organization website is different:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

The 1997 definition was an obstacle to the circumcision campaign launched in 2007 by the WHO and UNAIDS, since this campaign was not for “therapeutic reasons” but only for preventative purposes, which were then covered by the notion “medical reasons”. The more restrictive expression “medical necessity” from Article 16-3 of the French Civil Code was not retained.

These different versions are transposable to all genders. However, the term “sexual” is preferable to the term “genital”, which is restricted to the organs necessary for reproduction. For example, the clitoris is not strictly speaking part of the “genital” organs even though it plays a “sexual” role.

2. Free and informed consent

Consent implies that the subject is not in a situation of psychological or physical weakness, that is, in a condition that could alter their judgment. The subject must have sufficient knowledge of the scientific elements for their consent to be free and fully informed. This requires comprehensive information on possible therapeutic alternatives, as well as their risks and consequences.

3. Ethics and the right to physical integrity

Droit au Corps gives ethical priority to the alleviation of suffering. “Physical integrity” does not appear anywhere in its Vision, although it is often invoked by “intactivist” movements. Why is this? Because “the right to physical integrity” seems too problematic to make it a strategic demand. Rather, DaC invites reflection on what really matters. Is it not the interest of the child and, more generally, of individuals?

1 - The “right to physical integrity” corresponds to a questionable ethic.

The idea of the physical integrity of the human body, while appealing to common sense, is based on the illusion of permanence, of immutability. In reality, the body is altered at every moment under the influence of natural processes. This alteration leads or can lead to physical losses, such as synaptic pruning in the brain, baldness, toothlessness…

Claiming a right to bodily integrity means, in fact, granting ethical superiority to nature’s interventions over human interventions. But isn’t suffering a product of nature? Are we so sure that natural development without human intervention is always better, including for children’s development?

What reason is there to oppose modifications to a child’s body, without their consent and without medical necessity, if society has good reason to believe that it is in the child’s interest? Contributing to a child’s education, with the best of intentions, necessarily involves physical modification of the child’s brain. Should we oppose this? Should we favour development without human intervention, or should we rather favour the “best” interest of the child? Which is it? According to DaC’s ethics, the priority given to the alleviation of suffering should serve as a reference point.

2 - Does the right to physical integrity, as it is currently defined, protect children sufficiently?

Article 16-3 of the French Civil Code permits one to have modifications done to one’s own body, provided one consents to them. In that respect, a child can consent to cosmetic surgery, for example for protruding ears, or even to circumcision. Under the current conditions of consent to circumcision, can we speak of truly free and informed consent?

3 - The claim to the right to physical integrity corresponds to a logic of confrontation.

Communication is impossible between those who claim the right to physical integrity and those who practice traditions they consider legitimate, as this claim offers no shared basis for discussion between the two camps. To brandish the right to physical integrity is to brandish the threat of prohibition by law. In the current situation in which circumcision is carried out around the world, the consequence would be confrontation.

Threats, legal coercion or the use of force in no way guarantee the abandonment of sexual mutilation. On the contrary, in the current situation, this approach will inevitably widen the chasm of misunderstanding between traditionalists and abolitionists, or even intensify the practice of sexual mutilation as an act of assertion of identity, as can be seen happening in places.

Conclusion:

Droit au Corps has chosen the path of compassion, which opens up the possibility of dialogue between the parties. Is the alleviation of suffering not an ethical priority shared by most cultures and peoples, a solid and consensual basis for discussion?

4. Compassion

Droit au Corps uses the term “compassion” without any particular religious connotation, but in the sense in which this word is used today, namely, the desire to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings, a desire that is based on the capacity to perceive the suffering of others.

While the Latin origin of the word “compassion” (cum patior) meant “I suffer with”, the meaning of the word has evolved in the opposite direction, today signifying the desire to alleviate that suffering. This semantic evolution of the term “compassion” is paralleled by the evolution in the meaning of the word “suffering” itself, which etymologically meant what one can bear. But in contrast to this Stoic origin according to which one must learn to bear suffering rather than fight against it - this is actually one of the anthropological meanings of male circumcision: a rite of passage - an origin later retained by Christianity (even in the 20th century Pope John Paul II spoke of the “salvific power of suffering” in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris “on the Christian meaning of human suffering”), suffering today designates a feeling of aversion (which it is preferable to avoid and not to bear).

These semantic evolutions are markers of humanity’s evolution towards a culture of alleviating suffering and of compassion.

5. Onanism

In the present era, the term onanism - restricted to masturbation alone - has caused people to forget its origin, which is important to understand in order to trace the origins of circumcision and, more generally, of sexual mutilation [URL of the future page “Anthropology of sexual mutilation”].

What is the history then of this “anti-onanism ideology”?

The ideology of reproduction is the social discourse that makes the reproduction of life a requirement, a universal norm. This ideology has existed for 100,000 years, when the belief appeared that the spirit survives the death of the body. According to this ideology, we must reproduce so that our descendants can take care of our spirit after our death (a).

There are various mechanisms that societies have put in place to ensure there will be descendants, including the levirate, a particular type of marriage where a man marries his deceased brother’s widow in order to continue his lineage. In Antiquity, the levirate was practiced in particular by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians and the Xiongnu. This practice is still in use in some African countries, such as Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo, Chad and the Republic of Congo (b).

The Hebrews took up this ancient law from their Egyptian and Phoenician neighbours. The “redeemer” in the Bible is originally  he who practises the levirate, who marries his widowed and childless sister-in-law in order to provide descendants to his deceased brother, thereby ensuring the inheritance of his property and guaranteeing the “survival” of his name on earth (c).

Onan is the biblical character who refused to play the role of redeemer, regardless of the issue of ensuring descendants:

Er, the firstborn of Judah, displeased the Lord, who put him to death. Judah then said to Onan: ‘Go to your brother’s wife. Act towards her as a brother-in-law and raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; when he went to his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground so as not to give his brother any offspring. What he did displeased the Lord, who killed him also.”(Genesis 38)

For Christianity, the “crime of Onan” alone is the basis for condemning contraception, an impediment to reproduction. From Saint Augustine (who died in 430) until the beginning of the 20th century, the crime of Onan was strongly condemned. Saint Thomas in the 13th century considered it to be the most serious sin after homicide, and the Council of Trent in the 16th century considered those who prevent procreation as “denatured and homicidal persons” (d). The priests opposed birth control essentially out of a desire to condemn what the Church called “onanism” - in this case, any sexual activity, including conjugal, not accompanied by procreative aims (e).

What the Bible explicitly condemns is not the means, but the end: the refusal to give offspring to one’s brother (f). This origin was gradually forgotten, with the ends and the means being reversed. The term “onanism” was promoted in the 18th century by an English surgeon solely to fight against the practice of masturbation (g), with pseudo-medical arguments for a long time being offered in support of the religious ones, leading to a call for circumcision as a supposed means of preventing this practice.

Sources:

a. Naître est-il dans l’intérêt de l’enfant ?, Jean-Christophe Lurenbaum, 2011, p.9 and 25 (English: Is Being Born in the Interest of the Child?)

b. Monique Gessain and Annabel Degrées du Loû, “L’évolution du lévirat chez les Bassari”, Journal des Africanistes, 1998, n° 68, 1-2, p. 225-247, P. S. Sow, B. Guèye, 0. Sylla, M. A. Faye and A. Coll-Seck, “Pratiques traditionnelles et transmission de l’infection à VIH au Sénégal : l’exemple du lévirat et du sororat”, Médecine et maladies infectieuses, 1998, vol. 28, n° 2, p. 203-205, B. Taverne, “Stratégie de communication et stigmatisation des femmes : lévirat et sida au Burkina Faso”, Sciences sociales et santé, 1996, vol. 14, n° 2, p. 87-106

c. “La rédemption selon le judaïsme”, Shmuel Trigano, Encyclopédie des religions, volume 1, under the  direction of Frédéric Lenoir and Ysé Tardan-Masquelier, Bayard, 2000, p.1793 (English: “Redemption according to Judaism”)

d. L’affaire Humanae Vitae. L’Église catholique et la contraception, Martine Sevegrand, 2008, p.11s (English: The Humanae Vitae case. The Catholic Church and contraception)

e. Faire vivre et laisser mourir - Le gouvernement contemporain de la naissance et de la mort, Dominique Memmi, 2003 (English: Bring to life and let die - the contemporary government of birth and death)

f. L’Église et la contraception : l’urgence d’un changement, Catherine Gremion, Hubert Touzard, Simone Dormont, Mijo Beccaria, 2006, p.27 (English: The church and contraception: the urgency of change)

g. “Thomas Laqueur, Le sexe en solitaire : contribution à une histoire culturelle de la sexualité, 2005”, by Sylvie Chaperon, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 4/2006 (no 53-4), p.211 (English: Thomas Laqueur, solitary sex: contribution to a cultural history of sexuality)

6. Right to control one’s body

Our association is entitled “Droit au Corps” (Right to One’s Body) and our statement of purpose says that “The right of control over one’s body is the founding principle of the association”, which may be surprising given that we distance ourselves from the claim to the “right to physical integrity” (see note 3).

This is a pragmatic attitude: we consider that the general principle of “control over one’s body” can prevent suffering, but at the same time we warn against an absolutist and extremist interpretation of this principle. There is a good reason for this pragmatism, stemming from philosophy and neuroscience. According to a common position in philosophy, “personal identity over time” does not exist; this means that behind the social convention that a person is “unique”, the principle of impermanence causes that person to change over time, from second to second (for example, from baby to adult, the size changes). What we call a “person” actually covers a multitude of “individuals” that are different from one another, with less and less in common over time. For a neuroscientist such as Wolf Singer, “self-awareness” exists in the sense that everyone can experience it, but the “self” conceived as an autonomous entity is a mental illusion known as the “illusion of the ego”. This scientific understanding, which already appeared in India 2500 years ago and which is also based on the principle of impermanence, has the corollary that “free will” is also an illusion of the mind. The consequences for democratic debate are far-reaching and require an in-depth revision of many preconceived ideas.

To illustrate the type of consequences that societies have to manage, let’s take a simple example:

  • Ethics condemns person T causing harm to person P, for example, by forcing him to ingest a street drug at time t1 that could bring him pleasure at time t2 but inflict great suffering as a result of a subsequent addiction at t3 t4 t5 etc.;
  • Since a person T is in reality composed of a moment of self-awareness T1 followed by another moment of self-awareness T2, and then T3, etc., should ethics condemn T1 for obliging T2 to ingest a substance that will cause suffering to T3 T4 T5, etc., and thus place a limit on the principle of control over one’s own body?

Like the prohibition of certain addictive drugs, the issue of prostitution, with its claim to free “control over one’s own body”, is another example where democratic debate has to consider the limits of “sovereignty over oneself”.

In short, we pragmatically consider that the principle of “control over one’s body” is generally appropriate for alleviating suffering, but not necessarily in all cases.

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