The debate over Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (an earlier round of which was blogged about here by Sarah Waldeck), continues at Teirneylab. I won’t recount all the arguments and evidence on both sides. Instead, I want to ask a legal question: How should evidence of FGM/C weigh in a custody hearing? Should evidence that a immigrant mother has had her daughter ritually cut support an inference of poor parenting? What if the mother hasn’t yet cut the child, but plans to in the future (perhaps by returning to her country of origin)? Is the inference obvious, or does it depend on context? Were an adverse party to raise the issue against your client in a custody case, what would you do?
As you think about your answer, also ponder the role that cultural cognition might play in resolving this kind of legal question. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities. I, for example, find myself interrogating studies showing that women who undergo FGM/C are no less likely to have fulfilling sexual lives and pleasurable sexual experiences far more intensely and critically than I do those that suggest the rituals produce long-lasting trauma. I am not in a position to evaluate the primary evidence myself and, when I reflect on my own reactions, I’m not a neutral evaluator of the secondary evidence. Can we expect a judge or social worker to be immune to the same cognitive biases?
Here’s another question to close the loop: Apparently I think that FGM/C is harmful, at least in part, because I think it is base — but I also think it is base because I think it is harmful! And if I (admittedly) can’t trust my intuitive assessment that it is really harmful, can I trust my normative evaluation of the practice as wrong?