It was a clear, sunny afternoon. Immersed in some mundane daily chore, my routine was abruptly interrupted by the ring of my cell phone. It was my doctor. After the usual greetings, she seemed to pause before continuing. “Lynette, I want to commend you for following up on this.” Darn. Any doctor starting a conversation that way couldn’t possibly have good news. “You’ve caught this early and the good news is, it’s not cancer.” Ok…. “but the biopsies did not come back with clean edges and the report states stage 2 and 3 precancerous cells. You will need to have an excision of the area to remove any remaining abnormal cells.” Darn, again. With a family history of melanoma and other related skin cancers, I knew the excision was unavoidable. What paralyzed me in that moment was the realization of what she was implying. This wasn’t my dermatologist. She was my gynecologist and the skin cancer was in an area that had never seen the light of day. Back, arm, leg, even face…. but there?
I met with a highly respected gynecological oncologist a few weeks later and he only confirmed the inevitable. Family and personal history, combined with the biopsy results, screamed negligence if I ignored or chose not to have the excision done. But it wasn’t just a simple matter of choosing to do it or not. Once I accepted the necessity of the procedure, it then came down to my level of pain tolerance. Financially, excision in the office would save a significant amount of money. Torn with the guilt of spending more than perhaps I needed to, I asked for my doctor’s opinion. His words cut through the stillness in the room. Economically, the office was the best choice, “but if it was my wife, I might tell her something different.” Double darn – enough said. Surgery and related appointments were scheduled.
My husband, in an effort to become educated about the subject at hand, spent an evening looking up my “condition”. As he read, he reported interesting information, hoping the knowledge would make me feel better. A few articles into the research, what he was discovering, however, was nothing short of horrifying. What is performed medically in our country as a response to female genital pre/cancer is routinely carried out in other countries as a form of female mutilation. The statistics for FGM (female genital mutilation) are staggering. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Fact Sheet dated February of 2017, “More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated.”[i] While some of the reasoning behind FGM is sociocultural factors, the conditions in which it is carried out (unmedicated with poor hygiene), along with the long-term psychological and physical effects, have prompted a world-wide effort to eradicate it.
Lest we fall into proudly boasting our country is above such atrocities, “the Centers for Disease Control estimate that there are around 513,000 girls and women in the United States who have either undergone FGM or who (are) at risk of doing so—mostly in immigrant communities from regions of the world where it is still practiced.”[ii] Although FGM was prohibited in the U.S. with the passing of the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995[iii], our country has not escaped unscathed.[iv] On April 24th of this year, CNN reported, “In the first federal case involving female genital mutilation filed in the United States, two Michigan doctors and the wife of one of the doctors have been charged with performing the banned procedure on two 7-year-old girls.”[v] Just two months later on July 14th, CNN published perhaps the most alarming report I have read yet, “The alarming rise of female genital mutilation in America.”[vi] I will warn you. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Years ago, I would have received my husband’s informational reporting with a half-hearted “that’s horrible” response and I would have moved on to my own self interests. But this time, I was almost instantly seized with a deep sadness and pain. Why the difference? My faith.
Having recently studied the writings of Pope St. John Paul II on human sexuality contained in his teachings on the Theology of the Body, I couldn’t escape the reality of the attack at the very core of the dignity and the femininity of these young girls and women. We are sexual beings. This fact is undeniable and unavoidable. We are conceived into being within the context of a sexual act. We are formed within our mother’s wombs with DNA that marks us indelibly as either male or female. Not just biological beings, we are made in the image and likeness of God, which means our bodies are “even more so, theological. Our bodies offer us, if we have the eyes to see it, a profound ‘study of God.’ Just as a work of art points to the heart of the artist, so too does the human body point to the heart of the God who made us.”[vii] Every cell, every inch of our body was intricately designed for a definite purpose. To rob a woman of her femininity as God physically designed is to alter what was divinely inspired. And then, as a result of the intervention of man’s disordered misconception of God’s plans, all havoc breaks loose. The pain is felt not just by the woman herself, but it trickles down to every aspect her life touches – her future relationships, her ability to mother, her role within society, her impact on her peers, etc.
We have all heard the cry to protest the “Culture of Death.”[viii] We think of such issues as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc. With FGM, I propose we are facing a culture of death to the dignity of femininity, a death of the sacredness of God’s design, a death of the beauty God created in the creature He called “woman.” There is hope – a surgeon, speechless by what she saw, hoping to establish a clinic for reversal surgery[ix]; organizations like Kakenya’s Dream[x] that educate and keep young girls safe from FGM and child marriage; and a documentary, Jaha’s Promise[xi], that chronicles the story of Jaha Dukureh, an activist named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
It would have been much easier for me to have brushed aside the inner voice prodding me to write about this. I could have come home from my surgery (which ended up being more extensive than originally planned), pampered myself with pain meds all the while confident in the knowledge that I had an excellent surgeon and medical team who treated me with dignity and respect, and let the topic slide by. But I know God doesn’t work that way. He won’t let me forget those women whose faces I see when I close my eyes to offer my discomfort for them. He won’t let me be silent about the pain they surely endure that I have only experienced a mere fraction of. It is for them I share my story. It is for them I share their story.
[vii] Christopher West, Foreword, Theology of Her Body, p 2.
[xi] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/17/jahas-promise-fgm-film-premieres-at-copenhagen-film-festival; https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2017/mar/17/jaha-dukureh-promise-fgm-video