Will Genital Mutilation be Protected as a Form of Religious Expression?

The Catholic Church insists that it has the right to deny women and girls medically-appropriate treatment because of religious doctrine.  In Catholic hospitals and medical centers across the country, women are regularly denied access to contraception, abortion, fertility treatments, and other services that the Catholic bishops say offends their rights to religious liberty.

In the case of ectopic pregnancies, the bishops have a special directive that says: “In case of extrauterine pregnancy, no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion.”

Note that this directive is in addition to the one that says: “Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center says that the directive forbidding a direct abortion even in the case of an ectopic pregnancy means that the only morally acceptable way to terminate an ectopic pregnancy is to remove a section of the Fallopian tube:

“When an ectopic pregnancy does not resolve by itself, a morally acceptable approach would involve removal of the whole section of the tube on the side of the woman’s body where the unborn child is lodged. Although this results in reduced fertility for the woman, the section of tube around the growing child has clearly become pathological, and constitutes a mounting threat with time. This threat is addressed by removal of the tube, with the secondary, and unintended, effect that the child within will then die.

In this situation, the intention of the surgeon is directed towards the good effect (removing the damaged tissue to save the mother’s life) while only tolerating the bad effect (death of the ectopic child). Importantly, the surgeon is choosing to act on the tube (a part of the mother’s body) rather than directly on the child. Additionally, the child’s death is not the means via which the cure occurs. If a large tumor, instead of a baby, were present in the tube, the same curative procedure would be employed. It is tubal removal, not the subsequent death of the baby, that is curative for the mother’s condition.”

In Catholic hospitals around the country, physicians regularly remove the Fallopian tube when other methods are available.  The reasons for why physicians in Catholic hospitals do this are laid out pretty well in this article from the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

Meanwhile, physicians who work in reproductive health care are clear that in the early stages of an ectopic pregnancy, medication that “stops the growth of the pregnancy and permits the body to absorb it over time” should be considered first.

So here we have a clear example where following the Directive that prohibits the use of drugs in the case of an early ectopic pregnancy results in the unnecessary mutilation of a woman.  The fact that the mutilation is internal and the rest of us can’t see it doesn’t in any way change what it is.

Which means we are already allowing religion to dictate that some women be mutiliated in situations where it’s not medically appropriate.

Genital mutiliation is also the mutilation of a women to satisfy religious doctrine.

Some physicians are already confronting demands for genital mutiliation here in the United States.  In fact, according to this article from the Journal of Medical Ethics, “in the city of Seattle in the United States, the Harborview Medical Center (knowing that if requests to have their daughters “circumcised” were not fulfilled, mothers would seek out the procedure in a non-medical environment) agreed to offer a compromise for the procedure. They offered to provide a procedure in which the labia or clitoris would not be touched, but a small incision in the clitoral prepuce would be made to draw some blood. Although this compromise would have satisfied some members of the community, opponents of female genital cutting prevented its provision.”

If we’re willing to say that religious liberty justifies the right of Catholic hospitals to mutilate women unnecessarily simply because a woman has an ectopic pregnancy, what’s to stop a medical facility that abides by different religious rules from forcing women to undergo female “cirumcision” to satisfy their religious freedom/expression.

We can’t argue that it’s wrong and unnecessary; we’ve already ceded that moral high ground.


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