Every once in a while, the subject of circumcising male newborns and boys rears its ugly head – no pun intended – and the discussion rarely takes long to veer into ethnocentrism, if not outright intolerance.
With the best of intentions, and without realizing it, many people who object to the practice end up making statements that belie their stated respect for the rights of others.
The debate – if we can call it that, since the word connotes a certain civility that’s mostly absent from all the shouting – is usually confined to the fringes, with so-called “intactivists” railing into an echo chamber until something happens to thrust the debate back into the mainstream.
The latest such event occurred earlier this summer when a German court in Cologne ruled that a child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” trumps his parents’ religious rights. It said those parental rights “would not be unduly impaired” if children were allowed to decide when they’re older whether or not to be circumcised.
The ruling came in the case of a four-year-old Muslim boy who experienced complications after being circumcised by a doctor.
The court decision prompted many German hospitals, as well as some in Austria and Switzerland, to stop performing non-medically necessary circumcisions until the legality of the procedure could be clarified. (At the moment, Germany has no law against the practice, unlike female genital mutilation, which is illegal.)
These developments brought German Jews and Muslims together to ask the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel to explicitly allow male circumcision. They were backed by Jewish leaders around the world and in Israel, including Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who have noted that circumcision is a fundamental rite in Judaism.
In the meantime, a German rabbi who performed the procedure was reported to be facing charges filed by a Bavarian doctor based on the decision in Cologne. Subsequently, and aide to Merkel pledged that the government would act soon to make religious circumcision legal in Germany, which is home to approximately 100,000 Jews and millions of Muslims.
The events in Germany are disturbing enough, but the power of the Internet has amplified the latest flare-up in the ongoing debate over male circumcision.
One need look no further than the comments section of any recent online article or posting on the subject.
For example, check out the strong defence of circumcision in the Canadian Jewish News by the inimitable Rabbi Dow Marmur. His argument – that anti-circumcision rhetoric has led some misguided progressive Jews to denigrate the practice in the name of human rights – has garnered the most comments on a CJN article since the paper launched it’s new website last year.
Yet aside from the issue of minors not being able to consent, much of the debate around male circumcision centres on the highly dubious claim that it’s analogous to the much more barbaric practice of female “circumcision.”
But to equate the two is like comparing apples to filing cabinets.
The latter is more properly known as female genital mutilation, a usually illegal procedure that often involves the partial or complete removal of a woman’s (or, more often, a girl’s) clitoris.
Female “circumcision” is mutilation, plain and simple. It isn’t remotely analogous to male circumcision, no matter what anti-circumcision advocates contend.
And unlike male circumcision, female genital mutilation has no health benefits.
When performed on an infant, it’s a relatively benign procedure (especially when done by someone who specializes in it and uses the quickest and least painful method possible, the Mogen clamp) and the healing is very, very quick. As well, any benefits from circumcision are, apparently, highest the earlier the procedure is done, as the American Association of Pediatrics said recently in its latest policy statement on the issue.
Furthermore, circumcision is a central, time-bound component of Judaism, as well as a key ritual in Islam. Banning it is an assault on freedom of religion, and it verges on being Islamophobic and antisemitic if protecting children from their parents’ “barbaric” religious beliefs is the only basis for arguing that male circumcision should be disallowed.
(The irony of this kind of well-meaning intolerance bubbling up in Germany should be lost on no one, and the German federal government is acutely aware of this, I’m sure.)
But raising the issue of consent to justify opposition to circumcision is also a bit of a red herring.
The relative risks involved in circumcision are similar to those involved in vaccination (and perhaps less serious), yet parents and state bodies endorse (and even fund) the vaccination of infants in many parts of the world. Indeed, parents make all kinds of choices about the physical, emotional and moral well-being of their children that can’t wait until the age of consent.
A valid objection to the vaccination analogy – although it doesn’t totally negate it – is that not vaccinating a kid could endanger his or her schoolmates. (Of course, there’s also evidence that suggests the female partners of circumcised men have lower rates of high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, as well as lower rates of bacterial vaginosis and trichomonas vaginalis, so perhaps the endangerment objection doesn’t hold water.)
If you don’t like the vaccination comparison, try this one: thousands of Canadians sign waivers allowing their kids to play sports of all kinds, particularly hockey (but also football). Such a decision potentially endangers them far, far, far more than circumcision, yet no one thinks twice about it, because most people acknowledge that the benefits of sports outweigh the risks.
Perhaps someone should charge parents and coaches for endangering young lives. Or maybe all of our kids will one day sue us when they realize we put them in unnecessary danger by allowing them to play violent sports.
Another irony is that many – although not all – people who might come out against circumcision would have little trouble endorsing gender reassignment surgery and the “mutilation” it would entail, despite the controversy that still surrounds it and the question of whether people who undergo it are truly exercising free choice.
(Of course, advocates of sex reassignment surgery would never endorse similar compulsions to amputate a healthy limb among people who suffer from a rare condition known as body integrity identity disorder, because the “choice” to cut off a body part in that case isn’t really a choice at all.)
Ultimately, the disagreement over circumcision is about competing sets of rights and freedoms – in this case, parents’ freedom of religion and their right to raise their children as they see fit versus society’s collective responsibility to protect children. There’s also the difficulty of weighing relative harm (or lack thereof) against one of these rights.
Many anti-circumcision arguments seem to be based on pure ignorance of the procedure itself and its centrality to two major faiths.
Indeed, the extreme positions taken by some anti-circumcision activists, with their charges of religious barbarism, can sometimes border on antisemitism, Islamophobia or racism. And even people who don’t intend to take hard-line positions can inadvertently stray into intolerant territory.
(As to whether a person can be antisemitic, Islamophobic or in any way intolerant without intending to be, it’s definitely possible. It’s simply a question of effect rather than intent.)
I have no problem with anyone who chooses to circumcise or not circumcise their baby boys. But opponents of circumcision need to be careful about sounding off so strongly on the issue if they really don’t understand how offensive banning it would be relative to the harm they perceive (which is highly dubious).
The lesson? It’s important to think clearly and fully about issues such as circumcision before offering poorly thought-out judgments, whether in a court or an online forum.