“I Don’t See That as a Medical Problem”: Clinicians’ Attitudes and Responses to Requests for Cosmetic Genital Surgery by Adolescents

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 15 (4):535-548 (2018)


Labiaplasty is a form of genital surgery to reduce large or protruding labia minora. Internationally, the rates of this surgery among women and girls is increasing and is viewed as a worrying trend. Currently, the main clinical strategy is to reassure adolescents that they are normal by talking about the variation of labia size and appearance and showing pictures demonstrating the wide range of normal female genital appearance. For the most part, policy documents recommend against labiaplasty in adolescents, claiming that it is medically non-essential surgery. In this paper, we contrast findings from our interviews with clinicians with the existing literature and policy documents and we point out areas needing more thought. This is qualitative research using semi-structured interviews. We set out to find out on what basis clinicians decide how to treat or manage adolescent patients seeking labiaplasty. We interviewed clinicians who are likely to be approached by under-eighteens requesting labiaplasty. We use interpretive content analysis and thematic analysis to analyse the data. Our findings support the emphasis on education and reassurance as the first step for all patients, but other issues that have not figured previously in the literature that would alter clinical strategies for managing patients emerge as well. Key findings are that reassurance does not always work and that the distinction between functional and appearance concerns is not a solid foundation in itself for deciding whether surgery is ethically appropriate. We conclude that the distinction between functional and appearance concerns is not ethically relevant. It is open to different interpretations and is not regarded by all clinicians as the definitive factor in relation to surgery. The focus of clinicians should be on relieving distress whatever the cause. Appearance reasons may sometimes justify surgery but, also, functional reasons may sometimes not be sufficient justification for surgery.

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