The New York Times Health and Science editor explained Friday that the paper did not use the term "female genital mutilation" in a story for fear that it would "widen the chasm" between Africa and the West.
A Times reader wrote in to complain about the headline and body of an April 13 story on the arrest of a Michigan doctor for performing a procedure the author referred to as "genital cutting." The letter caught the eye of Times public editor Liz Spayd, who asked the story's editor Celia Dugger to explain.
"I began writing about this back in 1996 when I was an immigration reporter on the Metro desk covering the asylum case of Fauziya Kassindja," Dugger wrote back. "I decided in the course of reporting that case–especially after a reporting trip to Togo, her home country, and the Ivory Coast–to call it genital cutting rather than mutilation."
"I never minced words in describing exactly what form of cutting was involved, and there are many gradations of severity, and the terrible damage it did, and stayed away from the euphemistic circumcision, but chose to use the less culturally loaded term, genital cutting," Dugger wrote.
"There's a gulf between the Western (and some African) advocates who campaign against the practice and the people who follow the rite,"she argued, "and I felt the language used widened that chasm."
Most NGOs and experts prefer the term "female genital mutilation" (or its abbreviation FGM) to refer to the traditional African practice, through which part or all of a woman's sexual organs are ritually removed for no medical benefit.
"FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women," writes the World Health Organization.
The United Nations agrees.
"Use of the word ‘mutilation' also emphasizes the gravity of the act and reinforces that the practice is a violation of women's and girls' basic human rights," the international body argues. "This expression gained support in the late 1970s, and since 1994, it has been used in several United Nations conference documents and has served as a policy and advocacy tool."