Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Any move to restrict circumcision is a good thing, but I can't help thinking the media's somewhat missed the point again.

The New York Post reports today that a group of two hundred or so orthodox Rabbis in New York have signed a "proclamation" claiming that the Health Department's concerns about the ritual of metzitzah b'peh - in which blood is suctioned from a male baby's circumcision wound by mouth - are "lies", spread "in order to justify their evil decree".  They have also stated that even if the law is changed, they will simply ignore it.

The article I quote can be found here, but as with so many news pieces dealing with religious customs and ceremonies I can't help but feel a point is being missed. Don't misunderstand me; anything that draws attention to the entirely unnecessary dangers of circumcision, anything that might - just maybe - make a parent stop and think "wait, why am I actually allowing this to be done to my child?" is a good thing, particularly in the USA where circumcision is as much a cultural thing as an overtly religion custom and far more common than it is in the UK and much of Europe.

This, specifically, is the aspect that bothers me; all the emphasis in the proposed change to the law seems to be on avoiding the risk of herpes (and other diseases, one would like to assume), which is a danger specific to oral contact with the child's wound.  It is true that babies have been killed and brain-damaged by contraction of the herpes virus during their circumcision, and of course that needs to be prevented from happening again; but by placing all the emphasis on that risk, the law-makers in New York leave their stance on more modern circumcision methods open to interpretation, and it would be very easy to conclude that it is only the oral contact specifically that carries any risk for the baby.  Who knows, though?  Maybe that really is their stance.

When Germany outlawed circumcision for non-medical reasons a few months ago, the decision was met with hysteria and outrage among both Jews and Muslims, with one Rabbi describing it as "perhaps the most serious attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust".  Much was made of Europe's - and particularly Germany's - history of oppressing Jews, but while this past certainly can't and shouldn't be denied, nor should it be allowed to become some sort of carte blanche to do whatever you like without reference to ethical considerations or legality just because you're Jewish.  It's my opinion that Germany's decision was the correct one, even though I'm certain people will find ways to flout the new law; they've considered the moral implications, and taken a stance on the issue. That speaks volumes in its own right.

Circumcision - unless for legitimate medical reasons - is one of those issues we seem perpetually to be debating and I sincerely fail to understand why. I literally don't get it.  I understand that religious people hold deep convictions on this matter; in a strange sort of way, though, the religious people almost aren't the problem. WE are the problem, we who feel the need to honour their grisly traditions, we who allow them to mutilate babies - who cannot possibly have any notion of the belief system into which they are being presumptively inducted - because they believe it should be done.

Ask yourself seriously; if a parent asked a doctor (or anyone else) to cut their baby's ear off, would we consider that person a fit parent?  What if they demanded not only the removal of the ear, but that the procedure be carried out in unsanitary conditions and without anaesthesia?  Now what if you learned not only that people were ritually removing babies' ears in unsafe conditions for religious reasons, but were in fact up in arms at the prospect of being made to ask permission to do so?!

Male circumcision has been associated not only with communicable diseases as already detailed, but also with long-lasting psychological trauma, reduction in sexual response and confidence, and even with increased pain response throughout the body later in life.  I know many men who have been circumcised (not all for religious reasons, as I have already said the practice is very common in the USA even among the non-religious), and almost all of them resent it to varying degrees. Sex is a crucial aspect of being human, one of our most primal drives (arguably the primal drive among males) and an essential part of our individual and cultural well-being. I cannot begin to imagine how violated and angry I would feel if I were forced to spend my life wondering how different - even, torturously, how much better - my enjoyment of sex might have been if someone had not wantonly lopped off an important part of my anatomy when I was too young to defend myself.

Over again we hear the same tired old arguments in favour of circumcision (apart from the religious irrelevancies, I mean); that it reduces risk of infections, that cleanliness is more assured, that it reduces risk of penile cancers, that it's desirable - weirdly - that a male child should "look like his father".  Leaving aside the absurdity of that last one, the rest, I believe, will be shown to be on balance not worth the risk of the procedure.  We are learning, now, to follow where evolution leads us in medicine. In the same way that more pioneering surgeons are now accepting that the best place to attach an ACL graft is almost always where the original ACL was (because evolution has shaped our complex knee joints over millions of years, through epochs in which ACLs attached in a non-optimal position would have been punished far more than they are today) I would not be surprised at all if in twenty or fifty years we learn that it really is best, medically, to leave the foreskin in place.

And aside from all that, of course, there's the issue of how far parents' (or Rabbis') "rights" to practice a religious or cultural custom should outweigh the rights of the child not to be permanently affected by that custom, both physically and psychologically.  I would have no problem - in principle, although I might find myself objecting to excessive parental/cultural pressure - if an adult male, able to weigh up the risks and assess for himself the importance of the decision, were to decide to be circumcised.  If that is what he wishes to do, I struggle to find any arguments that would justify anyone in opposing that decision. But to make a permanent and life-altering decision like that for a child too young to have any opinion on the subject... that, I contend, is deeply wrong and should not be considered acceptable.

We are, all of us, guilty of overlooking grisly and amoral acts committed in the name of religion that we would not even consider allowing for other reasons. I believe the gratuitous and dangerous mutilation of an infant's penis falls into that category, and I would like to see media outlets push past the unspoken taboo of religious custom and address that, rather than trivialising it by focusing on the very worst outcomes imaginable.


  1. "But to make a permanent and life-altering decision like that for a child too young to have any opinion on the subject... that, I contend, is deeply wrong and should not be considered acceptable." Are you against random abortions too?

    And, circumcision is not nearly as bad or big an issue for guys who had it done to them as your article would suggest. I'm not Jewish or Muslim, am for healthy medical practices (not sure what these two faith movements' opinions are on this?), am circumcised and believe that as long as procedures are safe, state institutions should provide for these people to have them performed. State ought not interfere with 'church' in these matters.

    1. Meant to add on the ear thing, almost all people would prefer to go through life with both ears while going on without a foreskin is generally no biggy.

    2. Abortion has to do with the pregnancy having an impact on the mother, and her choices related to that. The infant's circumcision has no such impact on her. It's not the same.

    3. It's the same in sense that both abortion and circumcision impacts the baby - former on his being alive and latter on his foreskin and life without a foreskin - which is pretty normal

  2. Circumcision is clearly a nonsense to anyone not blinded by religious/cultural issues and I've never understood the practice myself.

    Without wishing to derail the topic too much, I was amazed to read the following on a Christian parenting web-page arguing against circumcision:

    "Modern circumcision and evolution go hand in hand; you can't have one without the other."

    Who knew?

    Damn that hypocrite Dawkins for encouraging such abuses!

    The article is at http://www.udonet.com/circumcision/christian.html if you feel like checking it out. There are probably many more howlers in there but it's a long piece and quickly descends into BibleBabble and my patience for such stuff is limited.

  3. I do wonder what I'm missing. I intend to not circumcise my son(s), and it's going to be a little weird for me trying to teach them to take care of their foreskin, because I don't have any experience with that.

    Response to the American Pediatric paper that came out recently:

  4. You're trying to apply reason to a cultural tradition, where it seldom has much impact. This is being done simply because "we've always done it this way," not because of any objective benefit. Plus a dose of "God commands it because he couldn't be bothered to make your sons born that way in the first place," which is a stellar example of clear-thinking, rational argumentation.

    The alleged medical benefits are after-the-fact justifications cooked up to support a practice that has NO medical benefit. There's no reason to expect these claims to be accurate, because the supporters of the practice don't actually care about medical benefits--they're just making excuses to justify mutilation.

    If they try to pretend it's all about reducing the risk of disease, ask them about removing one ovary or one testicle from every newborn to reduce cancer risk. If they're for it, they're at least consistently deranged. If not, their obvious and stinking hypocrisy is exposed for what it is.