The Columbus, Ohio newspaper, The Republic, just today printed the story Religion: Battle Over Circumcision, describing the battle that is erupting in San Francisco over a November 8 ballot that would ban male circumcision. While much of the article tries to distract readers from the issue by making reference to Foreskin Man and how it incites the anger of religious groups like Jews. I think the real issue is not what the author of “Foreskin Man” is up to, but the fact that there is an initiative in the works that would see the circumcision of any male under the age of 18 for any reason, including religious reasons, as an illegal act, and whether or not this is discriminatory on religious grounds.
The author of the article, Terry Mattingly, quotes Marc Stern of the American Jewish Council, “What you have here is an assault, by a popular referendum, on a central ritual in a recognized ancient religion,” said Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee. While the current initiative may seem brazen, “it’s really nothing new. It’s easy for historians to find sources showing how the Greeks and Romans mocked the Jews for practicing circumcision.” In the eyes of religious persons like Stern this initiative is an attack on the practice of an ancient religion.
What Stern seems to think is that, because circumcision is an important aspect of faiths like judaism, and because of the fact that this religion is ancient, we should forgive their barbaric practice of getting infant boys drunk on whine and then forcibly removing the flesh from their penises. And what is more, demanding that this barbaric practice be brought to an end is supposed to be equivalent to the behaviour of Greeks and Romans towards Jews, “mocking them”, because of their practice of infant male genital mutilation.
The Republic is not alone in its disfavour for the San Franciscan initiative. WPRI Eyewitness News in East Providence, Rhode Island, claims that if we are going to ban infant male circumcision we ought to also ban piercing the ears of little girls. The author of the article, Amitai Etzioni, believes that over and above this initiative challenging protected religious freedoms, it attacks the relationship between the parent and the child, and the right of the parent to make decisions for the child, even if those decisions are based on religious reasons (except in extreme circumstances). He writes:
“U.S. law has long allowed people to follow their religion in refusing medical care — for themselves and their children — in all but the most extreme situations, when the life of a child is directly endangered.
As I see it, the proponents of a circumcision ban challenge more than basic religious freedoms; they contest the relationship between parents and children. Parents make decisions in line with what they consider best for their kids every day. Some parents send their children to public schools because they cost less and are more diverse than private ones. Some parents allow their children to ride their bikes to school on roads with no bike paths and others give car keys to their 16-year-olds. Some parents stay home, others turn their children over to nannies.
A very poorly supported claim that circumcision is harmful, in the face of evidence that it might be of some benefit, is not enough to prevent parents from making decisions for their children on circumcision, ear piercing and much else.”
So, Etzioni has a number of problems with this initiative, including: it denies parents the right to base medical decisions for themselves and their children under most circumstances; it contests the relationship between parents and children; and, the position that it is harmful is poorly supported and should not prevent the practice of infant male circumcision when there is evidence to demonstrate that it may be beneficial. I wll come back to these issues shortly.
In a Washington Post article by rabbi’s Basil Herring and Joel Finkelstein, they write:
“That such a notion should have garnered enough signatures to have qualified for a popular referendum in San Francisco (and potentially elsewhere) is deeply troubling. For even if (as expected) it will be defeated in the end, that outcome will offer scant comfort to the millions of Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who for good reasons circumcise their sons at birth. It defies comprehension that in this land of liberty and justice serious consideration can be given to outlawing the fundamental practice of Jews since the beginning of Jewish history. We thought that we had left such things far behind in our journey through eras and lands of religious bigotry and cultural intolerance.
Proponents of the ballot issue argue that there is a state interest in opposing the consequences of circumcision. But only state interests of the highest order and greatest clarity should be permitted to override religious liberty claims. And given the substantial medical evidence that circumcision has positive benefits, that standard cannot be met here.”
They go on to write:
“Far more troubling, and ominous, is what would appear to be a gathering assault on the religious freedoms enjoyed by faith minorities in this land that so proudly celebrates the separation of church and state. There are many examples. There are growing efforts to forbid adherence by Muslims to Sharia law. Some hospitals and medical care facilities have adopted end-of-life policies that would violate deeply held principles of some minority faiths. Some corporate employment policies do not allow “conscience clause exemptions” based on religious beliefs. There are ongoing challenges to accommodation of practices such as Shabbat eruv construction. The list goes on.
Crucially such concerns should not be seen as merely parochial concerns of some Jews. To the contrary, like the First Amendment that so critically ensured every citizen’s right to free exercise of religion, they reflect the long tradition of recognizing that the price of liberty, as Andrew Jackson said, is eternal vigilance. As long as the practices of any minority faith are threatened, we are all of us – religious or non-religious – at peril of the loss of our fragile freedoms in a world of increasing homogeneity and conformity.
And thus, to ignore or downplay the significance of anti-circumcision activist groups that would presume to oppose others’ faith or practices, no matter how frivolous or outlandish it might appear, would be not just folly but a clear and present danger to all of our freedoms. And thus, the time to oppose them, in concert with all freedom-loving Americans, is now.”
So first of all, they state that only those matters of most serious concern should allow the state to interfere with the religious practices of its citizens, so protecting the separation of church and state. Second, they state that this is just another step in a trend to limit religious freedoms; the secular world is and will continue to attack the rights not only of religious persons but of all persons.
According to these apologists for infant male circumcision, there are no real hazards associated with this practice, but there is research that suggests it might be beneficial. I would like to challenge this.
First up is an article from The British Medical Journal, authored by Geoff Hinchley. He writes:
Improved understanding of the normal anatomy of the infant foreskin means there is now rarely a therapeutic indication for infant circumcision, and the procedure is not supported by international medical opinion.Ritual (non-therapeutic) male circumcision, however, continues unchecked throughout the world, long after female circumcision, facial scarification, and other ritual forms of infant abuse have been made illegal. The law and principles pertaining to child protection should apply equally to both sexes, so why do society and the medical profession collude with this unnecessary mutilating practice?
In this short paragraph, he succinctly states that there is seldom a therapeutic (“medical”) reason for performing this procedure, and that it is also not supported by international medical opinion. He also refers to it as an act of mutilation. There are several other documents that speak to the potential perils of male circumcision:
Important to note is that these all agree there are very real negative consequences resulting from male circumcision. These negative consequences include:
loss of sensitivity in the penis due to the destruction of nerve cells;
unintended consequences of surgery (a risk in any surgery);
infections (including urinary tract infections);
herpes when the circumcision is performed orally;
1 in 500,000 die (about 16 die each year in the UK alone); and,
is not an effective means of reducing the risk of health risks like penile cancer.
Considering the negative consequences, even if some are only potential in nature, speak to the fact that there are very real harms associated with the practice, and there are not really any medical benefits to it.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was established and accepted by the UN. Relevant rights contained within it are:
Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 7: All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 25 (1): Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Article 28: Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
Article 29 (2): In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
Article 30: Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.
First and foremost, Articles 29 and 30 stipulate that these rights shall not be used in any way that violates the rights of another person. This means that, while Article 18 provides for the right to freedom of religion, this right cannot be exercised in such a way that it violates the rights of others, such as the right to life or security of person. What is more, these rights are extended to all persons from the moment of birth.
What does this mean? That you cannot claim that your religious rights are being infringed upon when religious persons are prevented from circumcising their children: male or female.
Returning to The Circumcision Apologists
Returning to Etzioni, it is clear that this initiative is not designed to interfere with the right of parents to make decisions for themselves and their children, even if the rationale for the decisions is religious in nature. However, there are very real reasons for denying parents the right to circumcise their children, just as there are very real reasons why it is bad for parents to kill their children for reasons of insubordination, even though this is demanded of them by the bible. And, as I have already been demonstrating, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that it is harmful and the overwhelming medical opinion is that it is an unnecessary procedure.
With respect to rabbi’s Herring and Finkelstein, there is very good medical reason to ban the practice of male circumcision, especially given the overwhelming opinion that it is unnecessary. Because this is concerned about the welfare of infant boys (and boys through to the age of 18), it is not an attack on the rights of religious jews or muslims.
And with that these apologists are left without justification.
What I Perceive to be the Real Issue
This is not about the ethical or unethical thing to do as far as religion is concerned. They are more concerned with preserving tradition in the name of tradition, even when there is evidence to demonstrate why it should not be performed on anyone without their consent.
But religion believes religion knows best. And those that take to this banner are not quick to respond favourably to reason, as reason runs directly counter to the construct of faith.
To the jews and muslims, and the christians who support them: you are more than welcome and entitled to your religion. But the second your religion (or religious practices) harms other people, you have reached the limits of your religious rights.
And if you have a problem with it, I more than welcome you to tell me why insisting on allowing the religious practice of male circumcision on infants is acceptable.
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