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Culture & Religion

The Unholy Circumcision Debate

When a German court in Cologne ruled last month that baby boys could not be circumcised for religious reasons, Jewish and Muslim groups erupted in protest while a chorus of voices arose to defend the ruling. Walter Russell Mead denounced the development as a sign that “it is now once again a crime to be a Jew in the Reich.” Brian Earp applauded the decision on moral grounds: “it is unethical to remove healthy tissue from another person’s body without first getting his permission,” he wrote. Religious freedom should not serve as an “excuse” for “mutilating your baby’s penis.”

I propose that everyone try to calm down. Removing a baby’s foreskin should not provoke a criminal investigation under international human rights law, but bris defenders need to do a better job of explaining their position to a non-religious audience.

When they use terms like “mutilation” to describe the removal of a tiny piece of skin and suggest that circumcision is an “enormity” for which the death penalty may be insufficient punishment, anti-circumcision activists are pushing the debate in a hysterical and needlessly provocative direction.

At the same time, defenders of ritual circumcision err by framing their argument in exclusively theological terms. When Abraham Foxman describes the brit milah (the Hebrew term for the circumcision ceremony on a Jewish baby’s 8th day of life) as “a fundamental and ancient precept of Judaism…one of the most sacred elements of the Jewish religion,” he argues that banning circumcision would be the ultimate affront to Jews. God tells us we have to circumcise our boys, the argument goes, so our country must permit us to do so.

This claim is rhetorically strong but insufficient, as a recent video exchange between Brian Earp and Ari Kohen illustrates. After Kohen proposes a distinction between the biblical mandate behind male circumcision and the merely cultural justification for female genital cutting in some Muslim countries  and argues, on this basis, that the former should be permitted while the latter should not  Earp asks a very tough question:

“If it could be convincingly argued that…there was in fact a religious mandate that Allah had required female genitals to be cut into in a certain way, then that seems to you to be a legitimate reason for the practice to be carried out on a wide scale in societies that are governed by Islamic belief. Is that the case?” (drag to the 9:00 minute mark)

Kohen hedges in response: “no, not necessarily,” he begins, then quickly returns to the idea that there is a “different bar” when the state interferes with religious, as opposed to merely cultural, practices. But Kohen articulates no standard for determining when a genuine religious commitment crosses a line. 

This “let us do what God requires us to do” stance sweeps right past John Geisheker’s claim that removal of the foreskin “poses inarguable physical injury and psychological harm for the child” and Andrew Sullivan’s charge that circumcised children suffer a deprivation of religious liberty.

Both Geisheker and Sullivan are, in my view, fundamentally mistaken. Still, their arguments must be addressed head-on. If ritual male circumcision really is a form of brutality, if it can be compared with hypothetical commandments to remove a male baby’s nipples or to punch people in the face, if it amounts to “making martyrs” of children, if it permanently disfigures and destroys the lives of baby boys, then no religious liberty claim can save it. If bris were really an ancient form of torture, no one should defend it  divine commandment or no.

But male circumcision is none of these things. Though somewhat less popular than it once was, the practice is widespread in the United States for both ritual and non-religious purposes; it is safe; and it has potential medical benefits to the individual and society at large.  

A majority of parents in the United States decide to remove their baby boys’ foreskins for a combination of religious, cultural and medical reasons. It is true that after years of recommending the procedure for all infant boys, the American Academy of Pediatrics switched to a neutral position in 1999. According to the chair of the task force that reviewed 40 years of data, “circumcision is not essential to a child’s well-being at birth, even though it does have some potential medical benefits.” But “not essential” is not quite “gratuitous mutilation.” It is ridiculous to depict more than half of American parents as human rights violators.

Does circumcision cause “physical injury and psychological harm”? The AAP recommends the use of an anesthetic in circumcisions, and most doctors have adopted this practice. But Geisheker’s claim about long-term harms is far-fetched and would be a distinct surprise to the tens of millions of American men who were circumcised as babies. Like any medical procedure, circumcision carries some risk. The risk of serious complications seems to be minimal, though some ultra-orthodox Jews expose babies to a heightened risk of contracting the herpes virus when they employ “metzitzah b’peh,” a technique in which the mohel uses his mouth to suck blood from the wound. New York City has strongly discouraged and proposed requiring parental consent for such a practice, but this does not offer enough protection for infants. In my view, metzitzah b’peh can and should be legally banned. 

The more serious contention against circumcision is that the procedure violates the child’s religious liberty and bodily integrity. Some propose a minimum age of consent of 16 or 18 for the procedure, when young men would be able to submit themselves to circumcision after weighing its benefits and harms. Besides presenting a much more painful and psychologically challenging choice at this age, the proposal is built on an untenably narrow view of parental rights.

Parents make thousands of decisions for their young children that are both life-shaping and irreversible. Some parents drill holes into their daughters’ ears as toddlers or enter them in beauty contests. Many parents raise their children in a particular religious or spiritual tradition well before they have a chance to consent to such a life. (One religious group that deviates from this rule is the Amish church, which baptizes its youth only after they decide to join the church themselves as adults.) And most parents decide to immunize their children against diseases, shots that all entail some risks. Calling into question the right of parents to circumcise their sons calls into question the ethics and legality of all these decisions and more. 

To follow Steven Mazie on Twitter click here: @stevenmazie

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