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What (if anything) is wrong with infant circumcision?

By Eldar Sarajlic


Public controversies over non-therapeutic infant circumcision have become frequent occurrences in our time. Recently, an Israeli religious court fined a mother of a one-year-old for refusing to circumcise her son. We all remember last year’s circumcision controversy in Germany. A public outcry of Jewish and Muslim representatives followed after a local court in the city of Cologne banned the procedure under the pretext of violation of children’s human rights. Several months later, the German parliament revoked the decision of the local court and adopted a new law that provided for the discretionary right of parents to have their infants circumcised for non-therapeutic reasons.

Reasons for Circumcision

Lewis Sayre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Male circumcision is one of the oldest medical procedures known to mankind. Historical evidence suggests that it is more than 6,000 years old. Early Sumerians and Semites in the Arab Peninsula practiced it as a form of initiation into adulthood, while Australian Aboriginals performed it as a test of bravery. Modern humans started practicing it in the early 1870s, when American orthopedic surgeon Lewis Sayre suggested circumcision as a prophylaxis for a number of diseases, including paralysis, syphilis, epilepsy, and similar. By the end of the century, circumcision became universally accepted in the United States and Western Europe and recommended as a routine medical procedure.

However, by the late 20th century, most medical experts refuted Sayre’s theories and argued that there is no evidence of the procedure’s medical benefits. Australian, Canadian, and some European national medical associations went so far as to recommend against routine non-therapeutic circumcision. The American Association of Pediatrics remained neutral, claiming that since there is no decisive indication about circumcision’s medical benefit or harm, it is up to parents to decide if they want their infant boys circumcised.

The lack of equivocal scientific data about health benefits or harms of circumcision has left the center stage of defending the practice to reasons external to medicine, most notably to culture. If no medical reasons for performing (or refraining from) circumcising boys are decisive, then social and cultural reasons can provide the rationale. This was the rallying cry of those who opposed the Cologne court decision.

Some philosophers and bioethicists have taken on this claim to argue that parents are justified to have their sons undergo circumcision for social and cultural benefits. In a famous article on the topic, Michael and David Benatar argue that circumcision would be morally impermissible only if we could prove that there are no clear non-medical benefits to the child. But, as the reader can infer from their analysis, circumcision may benefit boys in a number of ways, from integration into their community to conferring metaphysical meaning to providing access to communal wealth. More recently, Joseph Mazor argued that circumcision can serve a number of the child’s future (social and cultural) interests, and that it doesn’t necessarily violate any of his rights because he is not sufficiently autonomous to exercise such a right.

But, are the arguments about potential social and cultural benefits of circumcision sufficient to justify the procedure? I will argue that they are not. By analyzing what may be the putative cultural benefits, I will show the reasons why circumcising boys is morally wrong. So, what may be cultural reasons for circumcision?

Religion

Among the most prevalent cultural arguments offered in support of infant circumcision are metaphysical and religious claims. In Judaism, circumcision is brit milah, a covenant between man and God. The flesh of foreskin testifies a bond between humanity and its creator, which is never to be broken. In Genesis (17:10-14) God ordered Abraham to be circumcised and commanded his followers to do the same. By circumcising their children, Jews perpetuate this bond and keep the covenant alive to this day.

Is this claim sufficient for moral justification of infant circumcision? No, because it builds on several problematic presumptions. First, it presumes the existence of a divine entity that commands the performance of circumcision. While the question about the existence of such an entity is a matter of personal persuasion, the mere presumption can hardly warrant authorizing invasive intervention into the body of another human being, even in cases of parents and their children. Without definite proof that such an intervention would bring metaphysical benefits to the child, circumcision cannot be justified.

However, one may claim that circumcision represents an expression of the deepest concern and love for the child by parents who sincerely believe that without the procedure, their child will suffer eternal damnation. This claim is plausible, and it may be true for many families. But, in any similar case, in which an objectively unwarranted parental belief about some benefit would authorize an invasive intervention into the child’s body, our basic intuitions militate in the opposite direction. Take the hypothetical case of parents who would wish to surgically engineer an irreversible removal of hair from their newborn child, so to secure his or her eternal salvation in the eyes of God. One may have no doubts that such parents or systems of belief might exist, but it is difficult to accept that such beliefs can justify the procedure. The reason feeding this intuition is the notion that infant bodies should not be instrumental to satisfaction of unwarranted (metaphysical or other) beliefs of their parents. The intuition would hold even if the putative salvation-conferring procedure were not scientifically proven to be decisively beneficial or harmful, such as circumcision.

In addition, the claim about metaphysical salvation presumes that the child will necessarily share his parents’ metaphysical beliefs once he is grown. It is plausible to assume that most children end up having the same religious beliefs as their parents, but this is not always or necessarily so. Individuals often change their beliefs, shed the religious assumptions inherited from parents, or adopt new ones. Undergoing an irreversible bodily modification when non-autonomous to provide consent can significantly affect the subsequent development of the individual. It can diminish the sense of selfhood by limiting the degree of self-determination and control over one’s life.

Community Integration

Another religious type of argument might claim that circumcision represents an initiation of the infant into the community of faithful. This would be the case for both Jews and Muslims. Muslims in particular believe that circumcision is obligatory because the Prophet Muhammad advised so – it is sunnah, the perpetuation of the Prophet’s tradition. Through circumcision, so the argument could go, male children become fully-fledged members of the community and receive all benefits that accompany that membership.

While this argument may certainly reflect parental concern for a child’s social well-being and integration, it is hardly justified because it also builds on an unwarranted assumption and implies a mistaken conception of the relation between individuals and communities. Namely, presuming that the child will want to be a member of the given community once he reaches adulthood is unwarranted. True, most men circumcised for cultural reasons stay within the communal bounds of their birth, but many don’t. Valuation of communal membership must be accompanied by the exit option that allows members to opt out freely at any time without grave consequences. When membership is involuntarily imposed and marked by an irreversible bodily modification, the exit avenues are significantly narrowed. The fact that few men choose to opt out later in life may actually reflect the fact that they have been physically marked as members, rather than the assumption that they do not wish to opt out because they value their community.

However, one may also suggest that opting out from Muslim and Jewish communities has nothing necessarily to do with circumcision: men can freely exit these communities and circumcision does not prevent them from doing so. Furthermore, one may claim that circumcision is a fairly inconspicuous modification of the body, so no necessary stigma is attached to communal disintegration of the individual. True, circumcised men may be free to exit one community and integrate into another without visible marks, but this argument is valid only against an externalist assumption about identity. One’s identity is not necessarily affirmed or altered through a visible (external) change. Inner self-understanding and perception play an important role as well. A bodily modification such as circumcision can significantly diminish the ability of a person to perceive himself as a member of the non-circumcising community.

The claim about communal integration also sustains an implausible conception of the relation between the individual and the community. Namely, the argument about benefits implies that circumcision is a small sacrifice (both in a literal and a symbolic sense) of the infant individual for the large cultural (and sometimes even material) benefit that comes with communal membership. It is assumed that the practice is a form of a trade between individuals and their communities, where the community reciprocates the individual sacrifice with access to communal wealth. In other words, circumcision is a form of investment that will yield cultural capital to the infant once he reaches adulthood.

As far as the exchange of symbolic and real sacrifices for the benefit of cultural capital goes, this assumption is right. Individuals do trade their personal energy, time, aesthetic preferences, and even bodily parts for some forms of social and cultural capital. But, the assumption is plausible only if we accept that the trade between individuals and the communities reciprocating with cultural capital takes place voluntarily. The argument about trade, thus, makes sense only against the background of a free exchange of goods and benefits. If not free, the exchange of goods is not a trade but an extortion. Therefore, performing circumcision on a non-autonomous infant as a form of his sacrifice for future gain in cultural capital is contrary to the meaning and the spirit of trade relations between individuals and groups.

Secular Reasons

Cultural claims in support of infant circumcision also come in non-religious forms. Namely, physical similarity with parents, bodily aesthetics, and genital hygiene are often invoked as secular forms of the argument about non-medical benefits of infant circumcision. All three of them are problematic for the same reason: they assume the parents’ rather than the child’s standards of physical semblance, beauty, and responsibility for cleanliness and thus position the child as a mere means for his parents’ ends. Children should not bear the burden of their parents’ views about what constitutes a sufficient physical resemblance between family members and physical aesthetic, nor should they bear the burden of the parents’ responsibility for their hygiene. The cultural belief about hygiene is especially problematic, given its striking discrepancy with moral intuitions about the status of other parts of the human body that are even more demanding in terms of cleanliness. The belief that a child’s body parts can be surgically removed because they demand additional hygienic attention is unwarranted and unjustified.

Conclusion

Clearly, claims about putative social and cultural benefits of circumcision are insufficient for moral justification of the procedure. We should not circumcise our sons just because people in our culture have been doing so for the past two or four thousand years or because we entertain a particular view about bodily beauty. We lack moral grounding for such practice and violate the rights of our children to have a future in which they will be the ones deciding to undergo such a procedure. We have no right to remove parts of their body to justify and strengthen our beliefs or secure the continuity of our ethnic group. Similarly, we have no rights to shape their bodies according to our aesthetic standards or demands for hygiene without sufficient medical reason. If they decide to undergo circumcision for whatever reason they see fit once they reach adulthood, so be it. But, until they do, we need to protect their right to a future where they will be the sole deciders about what happens to their bodies.

Eldar Sarajlic is a final year PhD Candidate at the Central European University in Budapest. He was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in New York in 2012 and 2013. He writes about personal autonomy, neutrality and perfectionism in contemporary liberal thought. He worked for universities in Edinburgh (School of Law) and Oxford (European Studies Centre) on two research projects. He has published peer review articles in Citizenship Studies and Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, as well as book chapters in volumes by Routledge and Penn Press. This article is based on research conducted for the European Studies Centre at Oxford University and the full paper is currently under peer review for the Hastings Center Report.

If you are interested in this subject, check out Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America by Leonard B. Glick. He offers a history of Jewish and Christian beliefs about circumcision from its ancient origins to the current controversy. He shows that Jewish American physicians are especially vocal and influential champions of the practice which, he notes, serves to erase the visible difference between Jewish and gentile males.

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14 Responses to “What (if anything) is wrong with infant circumcision?”
  1. “Modern humans started practicing it in the early 1870s.” Because Jews and Muslims are, of course, not modern humans.

  2. Circumcision is an old procedure but not done as medicine. It is truer when mentioning circumcision in diverse cultures to also point out the types of circumcision are equally diverse. In other words, pushers for genital cutting would have us think all circumcisions are the same as if there is a cut here at the dotted line, and as if it is pervasive around the world because it is good.

    Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Of the Covenant, is using a boy’s body as a billboard, a religious billboard. Also a cut penis advertises for others to go get cut which General George Patton used well.

    There was an great influx of Jews into medical schools just before WWII. General Patton knew that circumcision controls the man’s sex so controls the man. He made sure circumcision was pushed, forced, into the military. He brought in Jewish doctors. My mother-in-law was a nurse in the Army who headed a Circumcision Ward. She said the men cried being forced and violated and no longer being real men. Most were Italian on this ward. BTW Patton is the originator of the word Asshole. Yes he WAS.
    http://www.amazon.com/Ascent-A-Word-Assholism-First…/dp/1610392582‎

    “What (if anything) is wrong with Circumcision?” I reply “What? You have to ask?”

  3. roger desmoulins says:

    “By the end of the century, circumcision became universally accepted in the United States and Western Europe and recommended as a routine medical procedure.”

    In 1900, a fair fraction of American boys born in maternity wards to educated comfortable parents underwent RIC. But at that time, a large majority of children were still born at home. So circumcision remained a permanent mark identifying a man as having been born into the urban middle class. The baby boom made circumcision quasi universal in the States, at least among white males born to non-immigrant parents. In the UK, RIC never caught on outside of the urban middle class and its wannabes. In the British services during WWII, the circumcised penis was jocularly referred to as the “toff penis”.

    RIC never caught on in continental Europe. It did catch on in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The practice gradually ceased in New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s. The %age of boys routinely circumcised in Australia (Canada) is now about 10% (30%), and declining over time. Why most American parents and doctors resist the critique of routine circumcision is the biggest controversy in American pediatrics, and the biggest open problem in American sexuality. Circumcision removes the most sexual bits of the male body, but polite American simply cannot see that.

    On the sociology of routine (in contrast to ritual) circumcision, read the OUP book by Leonard Glick, and the U of Chicago Press book by Robert Darby.

  4. D.O. says:

    This is a great article. I have read Glick’s book as well. However, I think if we are going to change the circumcision culture of the United States we have to be more vocal about the function of the foreskin. It is not an “extra piece of skin” and it can and does change the the intimate relationship between a man and his partner. The function of the foreskin is observable and measurable and yet so many circumcised men say “I’m just fine so I’m going to circumcise my baby too.” Too many American men are unable and unwilling to entertain the idea that their genitals have been compromised. As the wife of a circumcised man, I am upset that a choice that someone else made (not my husband) over 30 years ago will forever impact our intimate relationship. And while we have a wonderful relationship, we know it’s not what it could or should be. I am horrified when women (and sometimes men) say “well, maybe a little less sensitivity is a good thing” like perhaps we know better than our Creator when it comes to the design of our bodies. I wonder about the women who complain of pain and dryness and dissatisfaction in their intimate relationships if their partner’s circumcision is the root cause. My husband said about our decision to leave our boys intact “it’s not my body to make that decision about.”

  5. Aussietoads says:

    All children who are born healthy and intact should not be violated by genital mutilation regardless of custom, religion, etc.

    Adults have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies.

    Children’s rights to their own bodily integrity should not be subjugated to adult cultural beliefs of desires.

    The differentiation between female genital mutilation and male genital mutilation never ceases to astound and sadden me.

  6. Mike Roloff says:

    A nicely presented and argues exposition which nonetheless fails to present both the physical and psychological consequences of the procedure to the male infant:L the loss of appr. 500 nerves and a trauma, an intimation of castration.
    Here three links to the discussion as it has irrupted since the German controversy became prominent.

    http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-circumcision-debate-links-and.html

    http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/10/michael-wolffsohns-foreskin-of-heart.html

    This discussion is chiefly in German and derives from a German groups of analysts
    http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/psychotherapeutenyahoogroupsde.html

  7. CK says:

    The arguments in the article are not really persuasive. The author does not have enough data to back up his assumptions. This really isn’t an analysis. If you want to take away the rights of parents and communities that have existed for hundreds of years, you need to have more analysis.

  8. CK says:

    I also forgot to mention that a year and a half ago the American Academy of Pediatrics changed their position of circumcision from neutral to beneficial.

  9. Bill Donnelly says:

    The AAP still fell short of advocating that infants be routinely circumcised.
    It is a contradictory position, but typical of the US medical community.

  10. Jack Perry says:

    This is interesting, but it is always odd when people talk about male genital cutting and don’t talk about what is cut off. Isn’t the essential issue that of ones own body and the right to all of the NATURAL tissue — particularly the nerves, all of the function and all of the sensation of ones own natural body???

    The idea that cutting the parts off does not affect sexual pleasure is ludicrous. Only someone that does not have the parts could possibly say that. The parts move, so natural sex is fundamentally different from partial genital sex. The outer skin and inner mucosa (with THOUSANDS of nerves) provides space for an erection. The nerves touch inside the female. This is the sensory input as acute as a fingertip, the nipples or lips.

    The nerves are real. The dynamic action of the NATURAL genitals is real. Of course the cutting of these affects sexual pleasure and function. How could this not be the most essential issue?

  11. Nowhere in this discussion is mentioned the harm of carrying out penile circumcision. Penile circumcision in the Western world is routinely carried out under general anaesthesia. It may be carried out in other parts of the world with no anaesthesia at all, or by practitioners with little or no surgical training.

    Even in a modern Western hospital, surgery and general anaesthesia are not free of risk. Parents who insist on having their children circumcised for cultural or religious reasons are not only permanently mutilating healthy children, but exposing them to the risks of unnecessary surgery and anaesthesia. Once in a while, a disaster will happen: a surgical catastrophe causing injury to a boy’s penis, or an anaesthetic catastrophe putting his life in jeopardy. Risks and trauma to the child are much greater where rigid medical standards are not adhered to.

    Isn’t it time we turned our backs on this outmoded and unnecessary custom?

  12. John Dalton says:

    What is wrong with infant circumcision?

    It is an unnecessary and permanent alteration of a child’s body denying his right to autonomy. The possibility that he might resent it is ever present.

    That is what is wrong.

  13. Robert Davis says:

    Outside the US and Europe, the debate on circumcision has moved well beyond our western concerns. Anyone wishing to review the scientific literature on the subject from developing countries need only consult, for example, http://www.malecircumcision.org, or http://www.childsurvival.net, typing ‘circumcision’ in the search engine.

    I am surprised at how provincial we Americans can be. There are a few billion Asians and Africans out there whose concerns are not, and need not be, identical with ours.

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