June, 17th 2010

The most disturbing thing you'll read all day

– Liz Mair

I guarantee it:

A pediatric urologist at Cornell—Dix Poppas—has been operating on little girls with what he judges to be oversized clitorises, cutting away important clitoral tissues, and then stitching the glans to what remains of the shaft.


At annual visits after the surgery, while a parent watches, Poppas touches the daughter’s surgically shortened clitoris with a cotton-tip applicator and/or with a “vibratory device,” and the girl is asked to report to Poppas how strongly she feels him touching her clitoris. Using the vibrator, he also touches her on her inner thigh, her labia minora, and the introitus of her vagina, asking her to report, on a scale of 0 (no sensation) to 5 (maximum), how strongly she feels the touch...  Poppas has indicated in this article and elsewhere that ideally he seeks to conduct annual exams with these girls...

Let's make no bones about it: This is extremely disturbing.  Extremely so.

First of all, we have medically sanctioned genital mutilation going on here.  Second of all, we have a doctor doing something that walks a pretty fine line with an act that would, absent the "medical" rationale, come very close to straight-up molestation-- and, as Dan Savage rightly notes, fairly purposeless molestation, from the girls' perspectives (if their sensation has been diminished, what's the doctor going to do about it? Nothing, that's what).

At the end of the day, we live in a society where the generally accepted rule is that parents make medical decisions for their kids.  But we also live in a society whose laws do not tolerate child abuse.

It seems to me that permanently altering a child's sexual organs in a way that has significant potential (and clearly, the doctor here accepts that premise, otherwise, why conduct research after the fact to assess sensitivity) to affect their emotional existence moving forward (because sex is something that arises in normal, committed, emotional relationships and sex without feeling is kind of like eating a 5-course, 5-star dinner without being able to taste it-- both unsatisfying and disturbing) falls into an obvious category of something we should not just say "OK" to, willy-nilly.  In fact, it seems to me that this is the kind of thing that a) Cornell University should not be tolerating, as a matter of practice and b) may well be worthy of actually legislating on, given the recent discussion of the American Academy of Pediatrics signing off on what amounts to better-branded female genital mutilation where needed to satisfy certain cultural dictates. Fundamentally, something needs to be done to protect relatively powerless individuals' rights (those of, say, 6 year-old girls) from the "good intentions" of others-- their parents, this particular member of the medical community, or religious leaders who think female circumcision is a good thing.

To be clear, I'm not accusing the doctor discussed here of having the mens rea of a kiddie-fiddler.  But I do think he is doing something that is likely to prove tremendously emotionally damaging to these girls, just as female circumcision itself is, in the name of science-- and it really is irrelevant that he's not getting off on it in the course of that action.

Cornell University needs to put a stop to this, immediately.  If it is going on elsewhere, those cutting the checks wherever "elsewhere" may be need to put a stop to it, also.  This is, at a minimum, battery, and at worst, it's child abuse.  Either way, it's intolerable. [intro]