This starts off horrific and becomes monstrous.
Bioethics Forum - Bad Vibrations
In “The Rhetoric of Dehumanization: An Analysis of Medical Reports of the Tuskegee Syphilis Project,” Martha Solomon brilliantly demonstrates how the project’s researchers hid their work in plain sight. Specifically, Solomon used the published reports of the Tuskegee syphilis study – which involved medical professionals actively withholding medicines from black men with syphilis for four decades – to show how the dehumanizing, scientized language of modern medicine “can obscure and deemphasize any ethical, non-scientific perspective.”
Solomon’s insights come to mind as we read the 2007 Journal of Urology paper, “Nerve Sparing Ventral Clitoroplasty: Analysis of Clitoral Sensitivity and Viability” by Jennifer Yang, Diane Felsen, and Dix P. Poppas. Writing in the typically dry, quantifying language of modern medicine, the authors report why they believe Poppas, a pediatric urologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, has left a group of girls still able to have sexual sensation after he has removed parts of the girls’ clitorises. With parental consent, these girls’ clitorises have been cut down in size after the physician deemed these clitorises too big.
For over a decade, many people (including us) have criticized this surgical practice. Critics in medicine, bioethics, and patient advocacy have questioned the surgery’s necessity, safety, and efficacy. We still know of no evidence that a large clitoris increases psychological risk (so is the surgery even necessary?), and we do know of substantial anecdotal evidence that it does not increase risk. Importantly, there also seems to be evidence that clitoroplasties performed in infancy do increase risk – of harm to physical and sexual functioning, as well as psychosocial harm.
But we are not writing today to again bring attention to the surgeries themselves. Rather, we are writing to express our shock and concern over the follow-up examination techniques described in the 2007 article by Yang, Felsen, and Poppas. Indeed, when a colleague first alerted us to these follow-up exams – which involve Poppas stimulating the girls’ clitorises with vibrators while the girls, aged six and older, are conscious – we were so stunned that we did not believe it until we looked up his publications ourselves.
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