The Circumcision Conundrum

It’s considered cruel to surgically alter the genitals of baby girls. Yet when it comes to baby boys, it’s common practice in a wide range of very civilized countries, and it’s not getting talked about all that much. Except now, when a proposed circumcision ban in California has raised the issue and gotten people talking.

So I might as well add my voice.

People who are against circumcision for boys often compare it to “female circumcision”, which is also called Female Genital Mutilation because it’s so extreme. Let’s get one thing clear: they aren’t the same. We can argue about parents’ rights, the child’s right to an intact penis, whether it’s okay to make a decision like that for the baby, and so forth . . . but when it comes down to it, whether a man is circumcised or uncircumcised is not going to make a major difference to his adult sexuality. He’ll still be able to have sex, have orgasms, father children, and whatever else he could’ve done with a foreskin. It is a ritual that probably won’t lead to any significant effect in the future.

Women in Kurdistan

Image via Stop FGM in Kurdistan.

The same can’t be said for Female Genital Mutilation. In even the least severe forms, the clitoris is damaged or removed entirely. That means she probably won’t ever be able to have an orgasm or even significant sexual pleasure as an adult. It fundamentally changes the nature of sexual experience for her, and takes it in an intensely negative direction. It’s a definite act of violence against the infant’s normal functioning.

That is why female and male circumcision can’t honestly be compared. Circumcising a male child may be overstepping a boundary, but it doesn’t rob the infant’s future in the way female circumcision does. It should also be said that most modern circumcisions are done in medically-controlled situations, with anaesthesia, while most female circumcisions take place in tribal settings. Not the same.

That objection aside, we can look at male circumcision more rationally, separating it from the kind of severe damage females experience when their genitals are cut. It isn’t life-impairing, and it doesn’t really have a strong effect one way or the other. So does that mean it’s acceptable?

At this point, we get into sticky ground where it’s easy to offend people. It’s particularly true since circumcision is a Biblical practice, rooted in the story of Abraham, a key patriarch in more than one tradition. Although circumcision is often thought of as a Jewish practice, and is part of the Jewish tradition, it’s also practiced on non-Jewish males for a variety of different reasons, most of them secular.

The most common reasoning I’ve heard, however, is extraordinarily simple: “the baby’s father was circumcised (or not), so we circumcised the son (or didn’t)”. Is that sufficient? I’m not so sure. To me it seems like a weak reason to proceed with any form of surgical alteration, lack of future effect notwithstanding. The reason for the original trend of circumcising (or leaving uncircumcised) the infant is lost in time. All that remains is a shallow surgical tradition. What’s the point?

And for me, it all comes down to the problem that this child is not my property. I don’t believe I have any right to make that kind of decision to alter my child’s body without his permission – which, obviously, an infant really cannot give. Maybe in the future, my uncircumcised son will decide he wishes he were cut, but if he feels strongly about it he can always choose to have the procedure done himself. But if my circumcised son one day regrets our decision to have him circumcised, it’s a lot harder to restore the severed foreskin.

It seems obvious that we don’t consent to most major cosmetic alterations to our infants without good reasons. Most of us would be shocked if one of our friends took their newborn to the tattoo parlour to get inked because Mom and Dad both have the same tattoo and they’re looking to make it a family tradition. It won’t injure the child’s life anymore than a circumcision, sure, but it’s also not a parent’s right. A child should own his (or her) own body.

But I also know that to be 100% consistent in my reasoning, I would have to refrain from other, more culturally acceptable forms of modification on my baby’s body – like, say, piercing a daughter’s ears. She could always decide not to wear earrings in the future if that’s what she wants . . . but she can’t get rid of the holes in her ears that I put there without her permission. The effect on her is most likely not going to be major, but I’m not certain whether I can live with the knowledge that I imposed my choice on her body, and in effect told her who I thought she ought to be: a girl who wears earrings.


Image via CTV.

But as I said before, the effect is probably minimal – for earrings and for circumcision. I’m not here to judge anybody’s parenting choices, though I would like to hear what others have to say. Please comment if you’ve got an opinion to share!


Posted on June 12, 2011, in Ethics, Other People's Business and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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