Opinion: Why do we allow new-born babies to be circumcised?

As a Liberal, I believe that religious freedoms are important and need legal protection, but they are no more important than any other kind of personal freedom. People should be able to live according to their religion as long as it exists within accepted law just as people should be able to live according to whatever other ethics or ideas they have as long as doing so exist within the law. We must never fall over ourselves trying to grant special freedoms on a religious basis that we wouldn’t afford to any other citizen, nor must we deny freedoms simply because they represent something we do not like.

We have accepted, as a society, that the liberty of children must be restricted in certain areas, hence as you grow up you find more freedoms being given to you. An excellent example is on body modification. If you want a tattoo and you are under 18, according to the Tattooing of Minors Act 1969, you must wait. We’ve decided, as a society, that anybody should be allowed to get a tattoo if they want it, but that we must prevent children from making decisions (or having decisions made by their parents) that will affect the rest of their lives.

Another law on body modification states that children under the age of 16 cannot legally consent to a genital piercing (or for girls, a nipple piercing), and any such piercing would be considered indecent assault. This is not the law for any other body part – we have set a legal precedent for genital modification.

Why, then, do we allow new-born babies to be circumcised on the wishes of their parents? It’s an ancient religious tradition? Well I’ve already stated that I think religious views should be respected equally to any other personal view. I don’t think a parent’s wishes to circumcise their child should be legally respected any more than another parent’s wishes to have their child’s genitals pierced. Should people be allowed to be circumcised? Yes, if they consent to it.

San Francisco is to vote on a ban on circumcision for children. This is probably the right way forward – let people show their own opinions. Of course, the undisputedly more damaging female circumcision is banned under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act (1985) and I’ll call that a good start.

Obviously, there are exceptions. Circumcisions are routinely performed for medical as well as religious or aesthetic purposes. You would be insane to try to ban circumcision as a medical procedure when it is genuinely reccommended. This is a different issue.

Ordinarily, I’m not the type you’d find supporting an undiscriminating ban on something like this, but I believe that somebody should make their own decision on an issue like this. I look forward to hearing your opinions.

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42 Comments

  • You make a good case (I probably agree) but I think one of the differences between circumcision and nipple piercing is that it’s a lot less hassle to be circumcised at birth than to go through that difficult choice – and pain! – as an adult. I also wonder whether HIV should be mentioned here: is there a public health obligation, in some countries particularly, to circumcise boys before they are sexually active?

    I’m suspect though of your suggestion that a vote is a good way to resolve this issue. In the UK people might be happy to vote to ban circumcision as it’s something that “other people” do, that minorities do; whereas elsewhere the reverse may be true. Like many human rights issues, it should be decided on principle, not tyranny of the majority.

  • I think actually, that you’re quite right Adam. Issues of human rights shouldn’t really come to a public vote.

    I fully accept that there are some advantages to circumcision and that if you speak to people who are circumcised, the vast majority are probably very happy about it! I wouldn’t ever seek to stop people from being circumcised, I’d just like to put that decision in their own hands.

    And I’ve heard the argument that circumcision is so unpleasant to have done that it’s best done in infanthood before you can remember it. That arguent doesn’t hold a lot of sway with me, the majority of adults don’t realise how serious the circumcision procedure on babies is and just saying that you can do it to the baby based on the fact that it won’t remember it in its adulthood… I don’t feel comfortable with that.

    Thank you all for your views so far 🙂

  • This is a marvellous example of a policy that makes sense in theory but were it to be tried in the real world, would be a disaster. Getting Jewish or Islamic votes is tough enough as it is without making (what would be seen as) a massive assault on their religious freedom into the bargain. Those with Jewish friends will know of the long-ongoing concerns over the EU and kashruth being banned – this would be many times more serious from their perspective. We should be trying to gain voters, not push them away.

  • I think you really need to be careful here. This would be seen in many Jewish and Muslim communities as trampling on the community’s rights to practice their religion as it has been for many hundreds of years (longer for Judaism. It’s not like this is a new issue,a quick reading of Acts 15 shows that this exercised early Christians as well. They ended up in a live and let live scenario.

    I would suggest that even where the practice to be made illegal (and that process initself would take more years then I would care to consider given the almost certainty of objections to both the ECHR and ECJ) you would probably end up pushing it underground and create huge resentment. And where do you stop ? Many people use the same type of arguments against healthy feotus abortion, some even where abnormalities are shown. Any parent will tell you that in their mind the rights of their baby did not start in the delivery room whatever the law states. At some point we have to let the parents make the decisions, good or bad.

    As strange as it may seem to those of us from other communities, stopping Muslim families following their religion could very well prove as good a recruiting measure for extremists as invading Iraq, it will be seen as an attack on Islam.

    Unless a real groundswell of feeling is found from within these communities I would suggest taking the same approach as the Council of Jerusalem and letting the individual communities decide.

  • Sorry re-reading my comment I should have made clear it was not a human rights issue that exercised the newer communities but both the practicalities of adult circumcism and whether the teaching of Jesus negated the ritual need for cleansing..

  • The proposed measure in San Francisco would extend the protections against genital cutting which females enjoy to males. The existing law denies anyone the right to use religion as an reason to cut the genitals of girls, so there is ample precedent for this proposed law to protect boys.

  • I suppose we should ask people who were circumcised as babies: do they have any problem with what was done? An interesting moral twist and I’m sure such a survey must already have been done…

  • The only point of this article was to argue that the current situation is not consistent with the law, and in my opinion, fairness cannot exist without consistency. Valuing religious freedoms more than any other personal freedom is not liberal. Why should parents who want their baby to have a genital piercing be denied such a procedure, if they really want it? Because we, as a society, have decided that such a thing requires personal consent and a baby cannot consent to such a thing. As I’ve already said, I’m sure that almost all circumcised people are happy with their state, but I personally believe that people should be able to choose such a thing, instead of having it foisted on them.

  • As someone who was circumcised at birth, I do wish it had never been done to me. I had no say in it, I had no choice. Personally I see it as genital mutilation, not as bad as female genital mutilation, mind you, but mutilation nonetheless.

    I also find it sad that so many people still do it for no reason other than “the invisible man in the sky told me to.” This is 2011, not 1011.

  • Piercings and tattoos most certainly are not a “modern fad”, they’ve been practiced here in northern Europe for centuries.

    Please don’t construe my article as something that it is not – I am not trying to lobby Federal Executive on this issue, I am not advising on policy in any form, I am simply stating my case of my opinion on an ethical issue. My personal opinion is that permanent non-medical body modification should always require consent, and I don’t think that is a particularly radical opinion to hold.

  • As a Jewish American who believes in basic human rights, I want to thank Richard for writing such an insightful article.

    One thing I disagree with though – “Of course, the undisputedly more damaging female circumcision is banned under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act (1985) and I’ll call that a good start. ”

    It’s the conventional wisdom that female circ is much more damaging then the common male circ, as practiced in this country, and it’s true that some forms are, but the most severe forms are actually not the most commonly practiced ones. There are a number of forms of female genital cutting which are equal to, or even less severe than the common male “circumcision,” for example ritual pricking, where a single drop of blood is drawn. More detailed analysis here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98f3IavuEgQ

    I could go on at great length about this issue myself, but I’ll close for now with this moving account from a survivor: http://blog.shealevy.com/2011/05/17/an-open-letter-to-mohel-michael-henesch

  • Paddy Beck (MRS) 26th May '11 - 6:20pm

    First, please NEVER use the term “circumcision” when talking of FGM (female genital mutilation or cutting). My husband is a paediatric surgeon who says that what is done to girls is equivalent to full or partial amputation of the penis (according to which of the 3 types of FGM is carried out).
    Secondly, in many parts of the world including Australia and US circumcision is not restricted to religious groups but is a common practice but admittedly one on the decline. Many see the procedure as one related to hygiene.
    In south Africa the Xhosas have circumcision as part of their coming of age rites whereas the Zulus (a related nation as both are Ngunis and their languages are close see Nelson Mandela’s autobiography) never do. But there is now incontrovertible evidence that circumcision reduces the transmission of HIV substantially as it also does with cancer of the cervix among women partnering circumcised males. Proper hygiene may reduce the risk of the latter.
    Certainly more and more people including medical practioners would agree that circumcision should be delayed until the boy is old enough to understand the background to the procedure and should have a choice at that time. However I think in a multi cultural society like ours it would raise all sorts of accusations of racism, anti semitism and/or anti islam etc. and any proposal of this kind should come from medical people and not from a political party.

  • I respect your reasoning, but think it would in practice be a massively authoritarian measure. Taking power from parents and giving it to the state. Also- female and male circumcision are completely different and not comparable.

  • “Abraham” has made a point that I would have liked to have made, which is that there are a range of procedures under the umbrella of what we call “FGM”, most of which are far more dangerous and severe than what we’d normally call male circumcision, but which can exist in similarly severe and less severe forms, all of which are illegal in this country.

    I chose not to make that point because frankly I am far from an expert on female genital modification and didn’t feel qualified to make that point without saying anything ignorant.

    I am also surprised to see people using the argument that the historical incumbency of male circumcision being practiced in this country is a reason to consider it ethically justifiable. I don’t believe you can take any such thing for granted, as liberals we cannot afford to be afraid of contemplating an issue whether it is traditional or not.

  • The Links between Hpv’s and Cervical cancer and having uncircumcised partners is a known fact

  • Type 1a FGM is the removal of the clitoral hood(foreskin) from a female. This type is performed on Muslim girls and is called Sunat. The removal of the clitoral hood in less invasive than the removal of male foreskin, but as been illegal in the U.S(along with every other type of FGM) since 1997. Muslims are not allowed a religious exemption for female, so why should there be one for male?

  • I must concur with Mr. Potter here: you have written an excellent, well-reasoned op-ed. I also concur with your conclusion that it is a choice best left to the competent adult to decide how his genitals are going to be configured. Childhood circumcision or genital modification outside of a clear medical need that cannot be dealt with by less drastic measures (very rare) has got to go.
    With respect to male circumcision compared with female “circumcision” (the latter is a real misnomer) of children, the two practices are absolutely comparable. They are both genital mutilations performed on people who cannot consent or protect themselves from having their body mutilated. They both reduce sexual sensation (the foreskin, it turns out, it the primary erogenous zone of the penis) AND create abnormal genitals that cannot possibly function as they are supposed to.
    Male circumcision has the added effect of abnormalizing the man’s sexual response and performance in a way that has a negative effect on his female sexual partner (if he is hetero). It makes it difficult to impossible for her to reach orgasm through intercourse. Living in the US where 80% of adult males have had their foreskin amputated, almost all in early childhood, I can tell vouch for this effect and the negative effect it has on our quality of life.
    Regarding religious practices and upsetting the superstitious if they cannot practice their genital mutilation customs, this is the 21st century. We outlaw all sorts of religious practices such as polygamy and human sacrifice. Get over it! Those who cannot handle the change find someplace more open to such practices, such as Saudi Arabia.

  • Alec Macph said: “It’s good that you didn’t, because you would have. As I and others have explained, all manifestations of FGM go beyond what the removal of the prepuce represents. Anything which removes either the labia or clitoris – cf. glans and corpus cavernosum – is _not_ comparable to circumcision.”

    It’s not true that *all* manifestations of “FGM” go beyond simply removing the prepuce. There are plenty of groups whose perform “FGM” which is clearly less invasive than MGM. Example here: http://tinyurl.com/3rfsbjf or http://tinyurl.com/293ga7y are just two examples. You’ll note that in both cases it’s done by the parents by a doctor for religious/cultural reasons. Girls are protected *** no matter *** the degree and *** no matter the reason, why shouldn’t boys enjoy the same protection? Personally, I believe they deserve equal protection in the law.

    Suzzane said: “The Links between Hpv’s and Cervical cancer and having uncircumcised partners is a known fact”

    It’s a good thing we’ve had a highly effective HPV vaccine for over six years now then isn’t it.

  • I was circumcised as a baby and I am pleased that it was. It was not for any religious reason.

  • Jack Holroyde 27th May '11 - 10:03am

    I’m with Squeedle. I had it done at birth because my Dad had had it done.
    No big religious reasons or anything.
    Wish it had never been done.

    Maybe have it as something that can be done with approval by application? That is, you have to have a good reason to want to circumcise your child – be that religion, health etc.
    It won’t prohibit in any way, but it would make it more work and potentially discourage those who only have it done ‘because’.

  • All this talk of religion… I know of four men who will have read this who were circumcised without their consent in childhood, who are not religious, nor from religious families. In all four cases it was done by the doctor while they were in for another procedure while they were in, and hygiene reasons were cited. Having had… Um… Relations with two of the afore-mentioned men, and knowing the others well enough to ask, I think I can categorically state that circumcision DOES affect sexual function (and I can give details of how if people want) and for non-religious people, should certainly be banned unless there is a PROPER medical reason for doing it (as opposed to “oh well, while i have him here and under anaesthetic”).

    For religious people, perhaps some form of education along the lines of the fact that circumcision was valid for hygiene reasons in got countries in the 5th century, but we have clean water and soap these days? I dunno. I’m an atheist, but i know how strongly people cleave to their religions, and while I agree in principle with the idea of banning childhood circumcision totally, politically it would make legalising abortion look like a walk in the park.

  • 1. As noted, “female circumcision” is often a euphemism for more severe genital mutilation. True female circumcision – the whole or partial removal of the clitoris hood – can be medically justified in certain circumstances, as can male circumcision.
    2. Most of the time, male circumcision is not necessary. Phimosis often results in circumcision as a quick fix, but there may well be satisfactory alternatives – as I have observed in the flesh.
    3. A friend of mine was circumcised at birth as part of standard hospital procedure where he was born. It wasn’t until later life that he realised that the penis was supposed to give pleasurable sensation. An overzealous circumcision, even one with no visible signs of going too far, can result in the near-complete loss of one of the most significant aspects of human experience: the ability to orgasm and the concomitant opportunities for building relationships with the full range of psychological and hormonal interaction.
    4. As far as I understand it, there is no surgical definition of the circumcision required for religious purposes, at least in Judaism. There is arguably a middle ground where a symbolic pricking of blood would be allowed, but no more until the normal age of consent (16). If there were an outright ban, without any scope for an agreed symbolic procedure short of prepuce removal, I would be wary of circumcision being deemed “medically advisable” in potentially spurious cases (in which e.g. a bar mitzvah candidate might feel obliged to submit to a delayed bris before turning 13).

  • So girls are allowed protection under the human rights act but not boys? Just because the procedures done on boys aren’t as brutal, doesn’t mean it’s something that is acceptable or something to be encouraged. Frankly, what is wrong with wanting to live in a world where no child can be ‘mutilated’ for religious or unproven hygene reasons.

    Also the people who are posting that this should be the parents decision, please could you answer Richard’s point re tattoos? If the parents are to be trusted with this decision over lawmakers, why are parents not allowed to tattoo their kids when they are a few days old? It’s not the parent who has to live with this.

  • I’ve already said, just because male circumcision isn’t as bad as what happens to females doesn’t make it right.

    I’m starting a new religion, under the rules all males born will have the little finger on their left hand chopped off. They’ll live, don’t worry. All females will have their left arm removed, a bit more dangerous I admit, they could die, but it’s to appease my god, it has to be done, don’t worry.

    Of course it would never be allowed to happen, both rituals would be banned. They wouldn’t ban the girls’ ritual but allow the boys’. But somehow today circumcision is acceptable because what happens to the boys is not as bad as what happens to the girl?

  • Liberals fight for the inividual not for the state nor for communities whether they be religious or not. We should not just fear the tyrannical state but also tyrannical communities who oppress the children that are born into those communties. We should empower individuals not communities. Wherever there is a conflict between the two the individual must come first. We should fear the oppression that comes not just from states but also society and social groups. If you think otherwise read Mill and wonder if you would not better be suited to the Labour party. Its not just the state that can be authortarian.

    To those who say this has been for hundreds of years, so what? The death penality and many other awful things existed for many years but the passage of time does not make an unjust act just. If you think otherwise join the tories who prize tradition and worship history.

    To those who say that this is people’s lives we are talking about as if this is some defence for genital mutilation I think you need to grouw up. Simply repeating that lines does not make it anymore persuasive, its still vacuous. Who are you to permit other people to take away a part of someone’s body?

  • @Richy – you said,

    “I chose not to make that point because frankly I am far from an expert on female genital modification and didn’t feel qualified to make that point without saying anything ignorant.”

    You are right – you have no knowledge of it because it is called Female Genital MUTILATION not modification! Sorry, but you do need to know what the exact term is – you also need to know the implications. This is done merely for MALE pleasure and to save face in the communities in which it is practised. It’s all about “honour” and “possession” of the female and her functions by the males. The sad part is that it is often performed by mothers or, if the mothers won’t do it, the grandmothers – frequently with a rusty razor blade. THAT is an infringement of Human Rights of the girls concerned.

    Circumcision is not even in the same “box” as FGM and should not be considered in the same light at all.

    I do not think that this is a topic which should even be brought up on a forum such as this, it is not a political issue.

    There have several comments both for and against male circumcision, which is what you are really getting at in your article.

    It cannot be compared with tattooing and piercing (which are actually forbidden in Judaism as a matter of interest).

    What is evident, with one or two exceptions, is that most of the folk who have posted their “educated” opinions clearly have no knowledge of the religious significance of this tradition and the reason for it – they are just going by what they have heard or what they think they know.

    You may all think you have the answers but I believe you will find it much more helpful to read some books about male circumcision in Judaism, Islam, Xhosa, Zulu and other African cultures. One or two posters here mentioned those other cultures – it is not just Jews and Muslims who circumcise their males.

    Many male children have been circumcised without any religious connotation at all, either for medical reasons or purely for health and cleanliness purposes.

    For your information – a Mohel (ritual circumciser in Judaism) receives very long and comprehensive training before he can be a Mohel – it is considered to be a special role and has status in the community. Many of them are also GPs in their own right, so it’s not a matter of some scalpel-happy Jewish male adult with side ringlets (peyot) hacking off a foreskin. It is a very carefully performed procedure which is a big ceremonial event in the Jewish family with the male child as the focus, it is his special day.

    What you will never see is a botched circumcision done by a Mohel! You may know of botched circumcisions done by surgeons (I know of one myself) but these can generally be put right.

    We have much more important issues which need to be addressed in the UK than the accepted Religious practice of circumcision. If you pursue with this, especially without full knowledge on the topic, you will proceed along a very dangerous path!

    For your information – I am a Jewish mother with two sons, no complaints from them!

  • David Platt 27th May '11 - 4:05pm

    Of course your sons haven’t complained Rebekah, they don’t know any better. They don’t know how good a fully functioning penis actually feels. If they were circumcised after they became sexually active rather than before, they may well indeed have some complaints.

  • Dave Thawley 27th May '11 - 7:08pm

    As some who has trained in Psychotherapy and Psychology it has always been of concern. What damage does this do psychologically. I am not suer if anesthetic is given but if it isn’t this is just child abuse if you ask me. If any other part of the body was cut by the parents then the kid would be taken away (if they were caught) but for some reason this is allowed. Thanks for a great peace here. I bet it felt risky to publish but it was well worth the chance so thank you

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