Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) visited a family planning center in Cairo when she attended the U.N. conference on population this month. She watched as a doctor trained social workers on how to explain the health hazards of female genital mutilation to local families.

A camerawoman from CNN told Morella that she had filmed a mutilation and that it had been broadcast internationally. "She said it just turned her stomach." Later that week, Morella watched the film: In it, 10-year-old Nagla Hamza is mutilated at a ceremony in her family's home in a Cairo slum. The footage shows her being held down on her back by two men while her legs are forced open; then one of the men cuts off her clitoris with a barber's scissors. Strips of cloth are used to stop the bleeding. The footage shows her shrieking curses at her father.

Morella and a group of U.S. dignitaries later met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I asked him about female genital mutilation, and he said that it does not happen, that it's not legal in Egypt. I said that {the law} must not be enforced ... that I'd seen the CNN film. {Mubarak} said it's hard to get rid of the practice, but he said he didn't think it was happening any more in Egypt." As soon as she got back to the United States, Morella read that Egyptian authorities had arrested the girl's father and the men involved in performing the mutilation.

Broadcasting footage of such an atrocity raises profound ethical and moral questions. Reporter Christiane Amanpour wisely warned viewers that it would be tough to watch. But when do reporters stop reporting and start saving lives? When do photographers put the camera aside and try to stop families from mutilating children? When does your obligation as a human being overtake professional obligations?

"That's always the toughest question," says Dixie D. Vereen, a veteran USA Today photographer, who has been to Rwanda twice and witnessed atrocities. "A lot of those decisions have to be made by individual journalists, and it depends on the integrity of {each one}. If there is something you can do to save someone's life, I guess I'd have to put down my camera and save that life. I don't think any image is more important than someone's life."

She saw the CNN footage when it was broadcast. "At first I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and that's good and bad. You look at it and say, 'How are they showing this on TV?' But ... there is nothing like seeing something like this for reality to really strike you and say, 'Oh, my God, this can't be going on.' "

Would she have tried to stop it? "This girl's family has decided to do this for the sake of tradition. Can I, someone from another country, another culture, come in and convince them single-handedly that they are wrong? Probably not. Probably the most I could do is to ask the question, Why?"

"You've got to bring it to light," media consultant Nancy Woodhull says. "How many people have to write about it, video it, before the world gets outraged about the human-rights abuses of women? This being covered by CNN sure brings this to the world's attention. That's what a free press is all about."

Jaqui Hunt, president of Equality Now, a New York City-based organization that is campaigning for the eradication of female genital mutilation, agrees. "We're happy the practice is being exposed. It's a mutilation of girls that's carried on around the world all the time. Obviously, the Egyptian government and other mutilators are very sensitive to outside pressure and publicity."

Just how sensitive they are became clear Wednesday when Egypt's leading religious official, Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, said he would back a ban on female circumcision if it was recommended by doctors. The practice already is banned in public hospitals in Egypt, but estimates are that it is still practiced on 50 to 80 percent of young girls there.

Paige Prill, a spokeswoman for CNN, said the station has been praised and condemned for showing the film. One caller said she had not believed news reports about the practice were true until she saw the film.

That's probably the best argument for showing shocking and horrifying footage of any atrocity. The world has far too long pretended that female genital mutiliation isn't happening -- that it's something in the past. It's not. It's a ritual born of ignorance and superstition that no longer can be excused in a modern world where we know how dangerous the practice is to women's physical and psychological health. At the tender age of 10, Nagla Hamza got it right when she cursed her father and those who helped him. Her words were carried by CNN for all to hear: "Daddy! There is sin upon all of you!"