Can the religious beliefs of parents justify the nonconsensual cutting of their child’s genitals?
See updated material below – reply to a critic.
Of faith and circumcision: Can the religious beliefs of parents justify the nonconsensual cutting of their child’s genitals?
Circumcising minors on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm according to a German court ruling issued on Tuesday. AFP News reports:
The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents. The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised.”
Some Jewish groups are up in arms. They insist that God has “non-negotiably” required that circumcision take place on precisely the eighth day after birth; hence waiting to perform the operation until the child could consent would amount to breaking this keystone covenant with their deity. Using the force of law to delay circumcision, then, is no different from banning it outright, since a delayed circumcision is religiously meaningless.
I don’t find this argument very compelling.
If one is a fundamentalist religionist (on the order of, say, a member of the Taliban), then one is likely to follow–or strive to follow–to the letter, each of God’s requirements as recorded literally in their scripture of choice. This is true no matter how bizarre, or outdated, or even outright immoral some of those requirements might seem to outsiders. And someone like this, while dangerously mistaken about the whole order of things, at least scores points for intellectual consistency: if God says you have to do it, then you have to do it, and that’s that. “Rights of the child” and so on be damned.
Yet if one is a shred more moderate than this, as most religious practitioners are, then one is necessarily engaged in a program of deciding how to interpret said scripture in a non-literal fashion. One must therefore choose which of God’s commandments to follow (or not to follow) based on their own ethical understandings, and those of their religious community, in the context of modernity. In other words, once you ignore (or re-interpret) just one of God’s stated requirements — for example, about how you must treat your slaves, or under what conditions you must stone your daughter to death — then you can’t fall back on “God says you have to do it” anymore as a form of moral justification. Instead you must bring the whole project of ethical reasoning to bear, and the onus of thinking for yourself can no longer be batted away.
Now, many Jews plainly disagree about which of their religious customs are “non-negotiable.” Must men never shave their beards, for example, as is stated in Leviticus, or may they trim their whiskers and still be in good standing with the almighty? That’s up for debate. Likewise, some humanistic Jews, though they are still in the minority, have come to the view that circumcision–far from being “non-negotiable”–is actually unnecessary or even cruel. So there is not a consensus on the matter even within Judaism. More on this below.
Nevertheless, some Jewish leaders, speaking in authoritative tones, have criticized the Cologne ruling on behalf of “the Jewish religion.” AFP again:
The head of the Central Committee of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said the ruling was “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination” and that the judgement was an “outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for centuries.”
I want to interject that a practice’s having been performed for a long time is (obviously) no argument for its moral permissibility, especially when the discussion concerns the subjection of defenseless minors to irreversible genital surgery. I could cite some examples of other customs with a long historical pedigree but which have nevertheless been deemed barbaric by modern humans – but the point is too easy to make. In any case, as I stated before, there are whole communities of enlightened Jews who have come around to the view that the involuntary removal of sexually-sensitive tissue from non-consenting children is no part of any loving God’s plan. Here is the website for Jews Against Circumcision. Peruse it as you wish.
But these free-thinkers have not convinced the majority of their religious peers. In a blog post about the German court case entitled, “German Court Declares Judaism a Crime,” Walter Russell Mead charges outright anti-Semitism:
To ban infant circumcision is essentially to make the practice of Judaism illegal in Germany; it is now once again a crime to be a Jew in the Reich … Perhaps those convicted of wrongful circumcision could be required to wear a yellow star?
Is that really what’s going on here? Bigotry? Naziism all over again? One replier in the comments section of the post – “James” – takes Mead to task. I’ll re-print his thoughts at length, since they hit the mark exactly:
This is [a] cheap, attention-grabbing headline. … In this case, the court was confronted with a series of conflicting rights. On the one hand, the parents have the right to practice their religion and raise their child as they see fit. On the other hand, the child has a right to bodily integrity and the (future) right to his own religious freedom.
These rights necessarily conflict. When certain rights conflict, a court must try to reconcile them. If that proves impossible, a court must then weigh their various importance and determine which should take precedence. Reasonable minds can balance these rights differently. Perhaps [Mead] thinks the parents’ rights should be granted precedence. Fine. Although conflicted by this case, I may even agree. But to smear the court as antisemitic and as having declared Judaism a “crime” is pure demagoguery and utterly beneath [Mr. Mead].
The court does indeed get to a central issue: can parents permanently mutilate a child’s genitals to pursue their own religious goals? I have a rather expansive 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 so I do not see making this mutilation as illegal as it is for girls to be somehow bigoted or intolerant.
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. At some point, one can only hope this barbarism disappears. And it will have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or Islamophobia; it will be about defending the religious liberty of Jewish and Muslim males to choose their religion, and not have it permanently marked as scar tissue on their dicks. It will be about the right not to be physically assaulted as an infant, to be able to grow up with the body you were born with. And that’s a pretty fundamental human right – more fundamental in my view than the parents’ right to express their own faith by mutilating another person’s body without his consent.
Sullivan and “James” each bring up—in one way or another—the point about a child’s religious freedom: the ability of a young person to determine his own religious beliefs in his own time. Let’s explore this idea.
A newborn baby does not hold any beliefs. A newborn baby cannot be said to believe in any God, much less the God of Judaism or Islam or Christianity. A fortiori, babies cannot endorse any customs stemming from a belief in a given supernatural entity, and certainly not a custom which requires that those same pre-verbal infants be strapped to a board and have their sex organs cut into mere days into their existence.
Now, some babies, once grown, having been subjected to this procedure, and raised in a community whose educating forces compel its members to believe that the creator of the universe required that they be circumcised, may, in a way, “retroactively” consent to what was done to them outside of their control. “I don’t mind that my parents had me circumcised,” these grown-ups might say, “because I happen to believe in the same God they do, and they were simply acting on orders. When I have male children of my own, I shall one day initiate them into my religion by having part of their genitals removed as well.”
But other grown-up babies may not feel this way. 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. Surely there is room for the legal system of a pluralistic society to determine that these babies have a right to bodily integrity and are entitled to make decisions about their own penises when they are mentally competent to do so.
(I am reminded of Richard Dawkins’ admonition: “There is no such thing as a Christian child, there is only a child of Christian parents. Whenever you hear the phrase Christian child or Muslim child or Protestant child or Catholic child, the phrase should grate like fingernails on a blackboard.”)
Why is there this moral blind spot about circumcision? If other types of child-cutting procedures were being defended on religious grounds, people would be rightly skeptical. My colleague Anders Sandberg, writing in the comments section (below), makes a really good point:
It is interesting to consider a fictional case: suppose I come up with a religion that claims male nipples are bad, and should be removed in infancy in order to prevent various spiritual and medical maladies, as well as showing faith. I have no doubt that getting this new practice approved anywhere would be very hard, no matter how much I and my adherents argued that it was a vital part of our religion. No doubt arguments about unnecessary mutilation and infringement of children’s self determination would be made, and most would find them entirely unobjectionable. If my religion joined the chorus of religious critics to the German decision it is likely that the others would not appreciate our support: after all, they do not want approval for all religious surgery, just a particular one. And nobody likes to be supported by an embarrassing supporter.
But this seems to suggest that what is really is going on is status quo bias and the social capital of religions. We are used to circumcision in Western culture, so it is largely accepted. It is very similar to how certain drugs are regarded as criminal and worth fighting, yet other drugs like alcohol are merely problems: policy is not set based on actual harms, but based on a social acceptability scale and who has institutional power. This all makes perfect sense sociologically, but it is bad ethics.
As I have in a previous post, I’ll close with anthropologist Donald Symons’ unforgettable words. He refers in this passage to female circumcision (which I am not claiming is identical to or strictly analogous with male genital cutting) but it is the underlying point about “culture” as a justification for an otherwise plainly violent practice that I want you to consider:
If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up … the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible…
“Culture” cannot justify the nonconsensual genital cutting of babies. Neither can religion. 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. “God told me to do it” is simply not an acceptable replacement for moral reasoning in the modern era. The German court ruled rightly.
UPDATE – Reply to a critic, with video debate
ARI KOHEN AND I DISCUSS THE ETHICS OF RELIGIOUSLY-MOTIVATED CIRCUMCISION (added 19 July, 2012).
Ari Kohen doesn’t like the above post about circumcision–in which I argue that it is unethical to remove healthy tissue from another person’s body without first getting his permission. I then tried to say that religious justifications cannot override this basic principle.
Ari is a professor of political theory and human rights at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. In this blog post, he takes me to task for failing to take seriously the religious commitments of Jews in framing my arguments above. And while he gets some things wrong about, for example, the relevance of “sexually-sensitive tissue” to my overall reasoning; and while he misses the point of my bringing up female genital cutting entirely (I’ve since edited that passage to clear up any lingering ambiguity) – he is probably right that my approach to debating this issue is unlikely to win me any converts from within the ranks of the religious.
For a better attempt at that sort of tactic—the convert-winning kind, I mean—please read Jean Kazez’s thoughtful post here. In it, she argues the circumcision is not only unethical, but actually quite meaningless even from within a religious framework. That is, she takes the beliefs-and-values system of Judaism as a starting point, and shows how circumcision is actually inconsistent with those very ethics. It’s a wonderful post, and I hope you’ll take the time to give it a read. I also recommend Iain Brassington’s excellent reflection on the poor quality of “mainstream” arguments in favor of religiously-motivated genital cutting.
Rather than banging out a lengthy reply to Ari, though, and setting off a string of dueling blog posts (I have already hogged more than my fair share of the Practical Ethics “airways” in pressing my pet ethical project: see here, here, here, and here), I invited him to have a web-based video conversation with me, in which we talked through our various disagreements in real-time. I am very pleased to report that the resulting conversation was stimulating, fair-minded, nuanced, and even fun.
We cover male and female genital cutting; we talk about multiculturalism and religious belief in modern societies; we share a few personal stories; and we find some common ground. I think we figured out those points upon which we really do disagree, and I was also glad to find that our general views are not so different as they had seemed before. Fortunately for you, we recorded our conversation and it’s available here.
What do you think?
Here are some other excellent posts on this issue: