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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.