Why are two London doctors under investigation for carrying out cosmetic vaginal surgery? Because the procedure is alleged to fall under FGM legislation.

The doctors carried out vaginoplasty, which includes tightening the vagina and/or reducing the labia. The procedure is carried out regularly at private clinics – but this is the first time anyone has suggested it could be criminal.

The idea that vaginoplasty could count as FGM depends on a rather tortuous  interpretation of the 2003 Act banning such mutilation in the UK. Yet in 2014, when the then-Home Secretary Theresa May was asked for clarification, she said, that if any scalpel-work was “unnecessary for physical or mental health … then it is an offence … it would be for a court to decide if cosmetic surgery constitutes mutilation and is therefore illegal.”

In Harley Street circles, there is a widespread belief that the police are under pressure to obtain FGM convictions at any price. There have been none yet, so if these prosecutions went forward, they would be the first of their kind. The trouble, of course, is that the law in this case would be used to punish people for supplying a demand from women acting under their own free will – and happy to pay for it – rather than from people who feel a cultural obligation, even if it means inflicting it on others. What’s more, FGM is almost entirely performed by unhygienic “cutters”, rather than professional surgeons.

The women who these doctors treated chose to undergo their surgery, under the correct anaesthetic and for their own reasons. And if it is  an individual’s prerogative to do with their body as they wish, shouldn’t work ‘down there’ be governed by the same rules as any other cosmetic surgery.

Undoubtedly, FGM laws are extremely important; and the practice – which can leave victims with lasting damage – is abhorrent when undertaken without consent or pain relief.  And it’s true, as the The Evening Standard says, that “a report by the British Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology on labia reduction has warned that there is ‘no scientific evidence” to support the practice”. However, other such procedures are not brought under the same scrutiny. (After all, what is the medical benefit of breast or butt implants?) Of course such procedures requires careful thought – but the women who choose them are in a very different category from frightened children being held down by backstreet butchers.

This boils down to a woman’s right over her own body. And if these cases are being used to secure the first FGM prosecution, then women will be losing part of that the right while the illegal practice of FGM against the victim’s will remain unpunished.

by Julia Dixon