Every year or two, people debate the merits of and challenges presented by circumcision. The catalyst last year was San Francisco’s citywide ban on the practice. This time around, it’s a German court’s decision that circumcision amounts to grievous bodily harm.
The majority of the critiques of circumcision take one of the following forms:
"I am not an adherent of a religion that calls for male circumcision, but I find the practice abhorrent" or "I do not understand anyone who believes that male circumcision is necessary for any reason; it is simply barbarism."
What happens next is generally that adherents of Judaism or Islam respond, explaining that a ban on male circumcision is a violation of religious freedom. The critics then explain their feeling that religious observation should always be trumped by considerations of bodily integrity. In other words, believe whatever you like right up to the point where it causes you to harm someone else.
There are examples of these arguments that are better and that are worse.
Better is Andrew Sullivan’s argument, as he approaches the issue from the perspective of a religious believer:
I have a rather expanisve [sic] view of religious liberty, so I would veer on the side of permissiveness here. But that it is an assault on a child seems obvious to me. If it were done not for religious reasons, it would be banned….
And the religious liberty involved is obviously not the child’s. If he wants to, he can get his genitals mutilated later as a sign of his religious commitment - when he is old enough to be able to make such a choice of his own free will.
Unfortunately, the short video with which Sullivan leads off his post isn’t likely to persuade many people of the seriousness of the argument. In a minute and a half interview, a young Canadian man explains that he’s glad his parents didn’t have him circumcised because he likes masturbating and having sex as a circumcised man, and he can’t imagine the mechanics of doing those things if he’d been circumcised. This isn’t an argument, of course, and I suspect Sullivan wouldn’t be persuaded by an interview with another young man who was circumcised and said that he really likes masturbating and having sex as a circumcised man.
What’s more, I’m pretty confident that the whole debate can’t simply be about whether or not men will enjoy sex more or less. After all, all of the high-minded rhetoric of the critics centers around freedom of choice, bodily integrity, and human rights. The persuasive argument is that the babies can’t give their consent, can’t make choices for themselves. Thus, critics say, the parents’ religious belief is trumped by the child’s (unspoken) interest in bodily integrity. It’s not nearly as persuasive to say that a central tenet of the parents’ religious belief is markedly less important than the child’s future interest in masturbation that feels really, really good.
And that’s why I’m sure that the anti-circumcision advocates are also out there vigorously seeking injunctions against all of those stores in the shopping malls that will pierce the ears of infants. Right?
A worse argument than Sullivan’s is Brian Earp’s, which is that any deity that would mandate “the removal of sexually-sensitive tissue” is no deity to be worshipped:
What of Jewish (or Muslim) children who reject their parents’ faith? Who don’t believe in God? Or who do believe in a God, but in a loving one—say, one who would never mandate the genital mutilation of babies? Those grown-up babies have had their penises irreversibly scarred in the service of beliefs they do not hold as adults….
Even if I sincerely believed that the creator of the universe had commanded me to remove genital tissue from my son without his permission, I would have to decline on ethical grounds.
Earp, again, begins with the argument about sexual pleasure. But then he runs into the problem of simply not understanding religious belief. And so his argument is easy for him to make in a way that likely isn’t quite as easy for Sullivan. Earp, I suspect, isn’t a religious believer and thus it’s quite simple for him to say that he would decline to do what his religion mandates on ethical grounds. Someone who actually believes in the teaching of a religion likely doesn’t think that God has made some sort of ethical error in mandating male circumcision. Nor could a believer so cavalierly reject the notion of a covenant with God, which is what the circumcision represents.
But that’s not the only place where Earp goes wrong. And it’s where Sullivan goes wrong as well. Both make wide-ranging comparisons between male and female genital mutilation. (Note that this is the term used by Sullivan; Earp frequently writes about scarring.) But this is a false comparison, unless by female genital mutilation these critics are referring only to the mildest type of female circumcision (which involves cutting the clitoral hood and which affects only a small proportion of the women and girls subjected to genital cutting).
When most people hear about female genital mutilation, by contrast, they think of infibulation (which involves the cutting of the clitoris, labia minora, and part or all of the labia majora, followed by stitching together of the vulva). And this is the precisely comparison that Earp wants to bring to mind, given that he ends his piece with a quotation about the horrors of infibulation (which Earp refers to as circumcision, interestingly). If we wanted to accurately compare male circumcision with infibulation, male circumcision would need to involve the removal of the male genital organs in their entirety. The comparison is meant to shock and horrify, to suggest that critics of FGM are hypocrites if they don’t also criticize male circumcision. But the comparison is wrong, both because the two types of genital cutting are not comparable and because the intent behind circumcision is very different from the intent behind infibulation.
There is a debate to be had about what to do when parents’ religious beliefs impact their children. But that debate won’t happen if critics of circumcision persist in belittling the importance of religious belief, focusing on relatively weak claims about sexual pleasure, and making erroneous comparisons between circumcision and infibulation.