Friday, June 18, 2010

Genital Mutilation at Cornell University

*trigger warning*

Zimbardo's Prison Experiment (1971), the Puerto Rico Pill Trials (1955), the Tuskegee Syphilis study (1928)…what do all these studies have in common? They used people, real living human bodies, to conduct experiments. Experiments that caused physical and psychological harm on the subjects. Such experiments led to a stricter institutional review board. This review process prevents harm on the subjects and from repeating history. These experiments were done such a long time ago, most of us are positive these things don't happen anymore. We know better, we have learned our lesson. Or have we?

In 2007 the Journal of Urology published this study, “Nerve Sparing Ventral Clitoroplasty: Analysis of Clitoral Sensitivity and Viability” by Jennifer Yang, Diane Felsen, and Dix P. Poppas. Dr. Poppas operated on girls ( or could have been intersex children, we don't know) he judged to have "oversized" clitoris, cutting off a part of the shaft, and then reattaching the tip so that she would have a more "normal" looking clitoris but still not lose sensation. This is all with the consent of the parents. And at Cornell University.

Why is he doing this? The abstract states, "Enlargement of the clitoris is often a prominent manifestation of virilizing congenital adrenal hyperplasia and other disorders of sexual development". Alice Dregger, Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, says over at her blog,

"Poppas says he's using a "nerve-sparing" technique. How confident are we this will make a difference in terms of saving these girls from the sexual dysfunction (and pain) that many in previous generations have suffered following childhood surgeries designed to make their clits look more petite? Not that confident, frankly.
We're glad Poppas cares about function. But if he really cared about maximizing these girls' function, he would not be doing surgery on their healthy clitorises."

Another issue that has risen from this research is the way Dr. Poppas tests the success of surgery. Three things are done: he touches the clitoris with a cotton swab and measures how much the child can feel it, uses a vibrator-type on it to again measure sensitivity, and lastly uses a female nurse to pinch it to see if it is healthy tissue. Again, the parents have consented to this and are in the room while it happens.

But, um, WOW! Imagine being six-years old, being asked to lay down with this little paper robe on, open your legs, and then having people touch you and put things on your clitoris, while others watch, after having had surgery on it. How can this not be problematic to the child's psychological health? When I first read this post I not only squirmed, gasped, and started shaking, I wanted to cry.

So where was the review board? How was this allowed to happen? According to Dregger, Poppas might not have fully reported what he intended to do to the young children. Is this true?

Our society has an extremely strong desire to "normalize" bodies. What we fail to understand is that there isn't one normal body to emulate. The invading and "fixing" of what people deem non-normal bodies is just plain wrong.

Read more:
Bioethics Forum

Photo Credit: aesop on

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