Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: should there be a separate ethical discourse?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: should there be a separate ethical discourse?
This month, the Guardian launched a campaign in conjunction with Change.org (the petition is here) to end “female genital mutilation” (FGM) in the UK—see Dominic Wilkinson’s recent analysis on this blog. I support this campaign and I believe that FGM is impermissible. Indeed, I think that all children, whether female, intersex, or male, should be protected from having parts of their genitals removed unless there is a pressing medical indication; I think this is so regardless of the cultural or religious affiliations of the child’s parents; and I have given some arguments for this view here, here, here, here, and here. But note that some commentators are loath to accept so broadly applied an ethical principle: to discuss FGM in the same breath as male circumcision (and perhaps intersex surgeries), they think, is to “trivialize” the former and to cause all manner of moral confusion.
Consider these recent tweets by Michael Shermer, the prominent American “skeptic” and promoter of science and rationalism:
This sort of view appears to be common. One frequent claim is that FGM is analogous to “castration” or a “total penectomy,” such that any sort of comparison between it and male circumcision is entirely inappropriate (see this paper for further discussion). Some other common arguments are these:
Female genital mutilation and male circumcision are totally different. FGM is necessarily barbaric and crippling (“always torture,” according to Tanya Gold), whereas male circumcision is no big deal. Male circumcision is a “minor” intervention that might even confer health benefits, whereas FGM is a drastic intervention with no health benefits, and only causes harm. The “prime motive” for FGM is to control women’s sexuality (cf. Shermer in the tweets above); it is inherently sexist and discriminatory and is an expression of male power and domination. Male circumcision, by contrast, has nothing to do with controlling male sexuality – it’s “just a snip” and in any case “men don’t complain.” FGM eliminates the enjoyment of sex, whereas male circumcision has no meaningful effects on sexual sensation or satisfaction. It is perfectly reasonable to oppose all forms of female genital cutting while at the same time accepting or even endorsing infant male circumcision.
Yet almost every one of these claims is untrue, or is severely misleading at best. Such views derive from a superficial understanding of both FGM and male circumcision; and they are inconsistent with the latest critical scholarship concerning these and related practices. Their constant repetition in popular discourse, therefore—including by those like Shermer with a large and loyal audience base—is unhelpful to advancing moral debate.
What is going on here?
To see the source of the problem, we need to begin by defining our terms—“FGM” and “male circumcision.” For FGM, The World Health Organization (WHO) gives us four major types, with multiple subdivisions:
- Type I — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy). Type Ia, removal of the clitoral hood or prepuce only; Type Ib, removal of the clitoris with the prepuce.
- Type II — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision). Type IIa, removal of the labia minora only; Type IIb, partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; Type IIc, partial or total removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora.
- Type III — Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation). Type IIIa, removal and apposition of the labia minora; Type IIIb, removal and apposition of the labia majora.
- Type IV — All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.
The first thing to notice about this list is that “FGM” is not just one thing. Disturbingly, there are many different ways to nick, scratch, or cut off parts of a girl’s vulva, ranging from, at the lowest end of the “harm” spectrum, pricking the clitoral hood (under anesthesia, and with sterile surgical equipment, as was proposed in the “Seattle Compromise” — note that this would qualify under FGM Type IV), up through various types of ‘piercing’ that do not necessarily remove tissue (of course, such piercing is common in ‘Western’ countries as a form of perceived “cosmetic enhancement”*), to interventions that alter the labia, but not the clitoris (the clinical term is labiaplasty – note that this is also popular in ‘Western’ countries), to, at the highest end, excising the (external) clitoris with a shard of glass and stitching together the labia with thorns. It is important to point out that the most severe types of FGM (such as the form just mentioned) are comparatively rare, whereas it is the more minor and intermediate forms that are more common.
* Nota bene, such “cosmetic enhancement” surgeries in ‘Western’ countries are typically carried out under conditions of informed consent (a point to which I will return, as I think the moral analysis turns on this factor), although there is an alarming trend among some teenage girls in these countries — some as young as 13 or 14 — of having their labia reduced (or undergoing other forms of “designer vagina” surgery), apparently with the permission of their parents. Global health agencies such as the WHO, however, have been strangely silent on this issue, preferring instead to focus their FGM-eradication efforts almost entirely on the continent of Africa.
In this African context, genital cutting (of whatever degree of severity) is most commonly performed around puberty, and is done to boys and girls alike. In most cases, the major social function of the cutting is to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, and it is typically performed in the context an elaborate ceremony. Increasingly, however, African, Middle Eastern, Indonesian, and Malaysian genital alterations (again, of both boys and girls) are being carried out in hospital settings by trained medical professionals—and on infants as opposed to teenagers–on the model of male circumcision in the United States.
Understanding the harm
It should be clear that the different forms of cutting listed above are likely to result in different degrees of harm, with different effects on sexual function and satisfaction, and different chances of developing an infection, and so on. But as Obermeyer notes in her systematic analysis of health consequences for FGM:
It is rarely pointed out that the frequency and severity of complications are a function of the extent and circumstances of the operation, and it is not usually recognized that much of [our] information comes from studies of the Sudan, where most women are infibulated. The ill-health and death that these practices are thought to cause are difficult to reconcile with the reality of their persistence in so many societies, and raises the question of a possible discrepancy between our “knowledge” of their harmful effects and the behavior of millions of women and their families.
Notwithstanding these gradient differences for types FGM, as well as the gradient consequences that vary along with them, all forms of FGM—no matter how sterilized or minor—are deemed to be mutilations. All are prohibited in Western democracies. Again: I am in support of the motives behind such legislation. I do not think that a sharp object should be taken to any girl’s vulva unless it is to save her life or health, or unless she has given her fully-informed consent to undergo the procedure. In the latter case, of course, she wouldn’t be a “girl” anymore, but rather an adult woman, who can make a decision about her own body.
What about male circumcision?
The story is very different when it comes to male circumcision. In no jurisdiction is the practice prohibited, and in many it is not even restricted: in some countries, including in the United States, anyone, with any instrument, and any degree of medical training (including none) can attempt to perform a circumcision on a non-consenting child—sometimes with disastrous consequences. As Davis notes, “States currently regulate the hygienic practices of those who cut our hair and our fingernails … so why not a baby’s genitals?”
But just like FGM, circumcision is not a monolith; it isn’t just one kind of thing. The original Jewish form of circumcision (until about 150 AD) was comparatively minor: it involved cutting off the overhanging tip of the foreskin—whatever stretched over the end of the glans—thus preserving (most of) the foreskin’s protective and mechanical functions, as well as reducing the amount of erogenous tissue removed. The “modern” form is substantially more invasive: it removes one-third to one-half of the motile skin system of the penis (about 50 square centimeters of sensitive tissue in the adult organ), eliminates the gliding function of the foreskin (see here for a video demonstration), and exposes the head of the penis to environmental irritation.
Circumcision—and other forms of male genital cutting—are performed at different ages, in different environments, with different tools, by different groups, for different reasons. Traditional Muslim circumcisions are done while the boy is fully conscious, between ages 5 and 8, or possibly later; American (non-religious) circumcisions are done in a hospital, in the first few days of life, with or without an anesthetic (usually without), and using a range of different clamps and cutting devices; metzitzah b’peh, done by some ultra-Orthodox Jews, involves the sucking of blood from the circumcision wound, and carries the risk of herpes infection and permanent brain damage; subincision, carried out in aboriginal Australia and elsewhere, involves slicing open the urethral passage on the underside of the penis from the scrotum to the glans, often affecting urination as well as sexual function; testicular crushing is an initiation rite in some parts of Africa and Micronesia; circumcision among the Xhosa in South Africa is done as a rite of passage, in the bush, with spearheads, dirty knives, and other non-sterile equipment, and frequently causes hemorrhage, infection, mangling, and loss of the penis—see here for some disturbing pictures—as well as a very high rate of death. But even “hospitalized” or “minor” circumcisions are not without their risks and complications: in 2011, nearly a dozen boys were treated for “life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis” as a result of their non-therapeutic circumcisions at a single children’s hospital in Birmingham in England.
Here is the important point. When people speak of “FGM” they are (apparently) thinking of the most severe forms of female genital cutting, done in the least sterile environments, with the most drastic consequences likeliest to follow. This is so, notwithstanding the fact that such forms are the exception rather than the rule. When people speak of “male circumcision” (by contrast) they are (apparently) thinking of the least severe forms of male genital cutting, done in the most sterile environments, with the least drastic consequences likeliest to follow–because this is the form with which they are culturally familiar. This then leads to the impression that “FGM” and “male circumcision” are “totally different” with the first being barbaric and crippling, and the latter being benign or even health-conferring (on which more in just a moment). Yet as the anthropologist Zachary Androus has written:
The attitude that male circumcision is harmless [happens to be] consistent with Western cultural values and practices, while any such procedures performed on girls is totally alien to Western cultural values. [However] the fact of the matter is that what’s done to some girls [in some cultures] is worse than what’s done to some boys, and what’s done to some boys [in some cultures] is worse than what’s done to some girls. By collapsing all of the many different types of procedures performed into a single set for each sex, categories are created that do not accurately describe any situation that actually occurs anywhere in the world.
So it depends on what you’re talking about. Do those who oppose FGM (and that includes me) think (as I do) that even certain “minor” or “medicalized” forms of such cutting—done without consent, and without a medical indication—are inconsistent with medical ethics, deeply-rooted moral and legal ideals about bodily integrity, the principle of personal autonomy, and a child’s interest in an open future? Or is it only the wholesale removal of the clitoris – with a broken piece of glass – that inspires such condemnation? If the former is the case, then consistency would seem to require that one be opposed to the non-therapeutic, non-consensual circumcision of boys as well: not only is it much more invasive than several “minor” (yet prohibited) forms of FGM, but it is numerically a much greater problem, occurring several millions of times per year.
Cutting comes in degrees. Consequences vary. This is true for boys and for girls alike, and at some point the harms overlap. As a result of this realization, many scholars of ritual cutting are choosing to abandon the terms “FGM” and “male circumcision” (which presume a strict moral difference between them), and are using instead such terms as FGC, MGC, and IGC. These stand for female, male, and intersex genital cutting respectively; and they make no moral claims per se. Instead, the moral character of the genital cutting—regardless the person’s gender—can be assessed separately in terms of actual physical harms, as well with respect to such considerations as whether the cutting is therapeutic, consensual, or otherwise.
So let’s not be misled. There are many kinds of “FGM” as well as many kinds of “male circumcision” and the consequences vary for each one. But perhaps there are some other important differences between male and female forms of genital cutting – apart the sex or gender of the person being cut – that could serve to justify their strict separation in terms of ethical discussion. Let’s look at some further possibilities, from the set of common arguments I listed above.
Male circumcision … might … confer health benefits, whereas FGM [has] no health benefits, and only causes harm.
Both parts of this claim are misleading. First, how do we know that “FGM” (or FGC, as I’ll say from now on) does not confer health benefits? Certainly the most extreme types of FGC will not contribute to good health on balance, but neither will the spearheads-and-dirty-knives versions of genital cutting on boys. What about other forms of FGC? Defenders of FGC—including some medical professionals in countries where FGC is culturally normative—regularly cite such “health benefits” as improved genital hygiene as a reason to continue the practice, and at least one study has shown a link between FGC and reduced transmission of HIV! Indeed, the vulva has all sorts of warm, moist places where bacteria or viruses could get trapped, such as underneath the clitoral hood, or among the folds of the labia; so who is to say that removing some of that tissue (with a sterile surgical tool) might not reduce the risk of various diseases?
Fortunately, it’s impossible to perform this type of research in the West, because any scientist who tried to do so would be arrested under anti-FGM laws (and would never get approval from an ethics review board). So we simply do not know. As a consequence of this, every time you see the claim that “FGM has no health benefits”–a claim that has become something of a mantra for the WHO–you should read this as saying, “we actually don’t know if certain minor, sterilized forms of FGM have health benefits, because it is unethical, and would be illegal, to find out.”
Indeed, Western societies don’t seem to think that “health benefits” are particularly relevant to the question of whether we should be cutting off parts of the external genitalia of healthy girls. Without the girl’s consent, or a medical diagnosis, it’s seen as impermissible no matter what. By contrast, a small and insistent group of (mostly American) scientists have taken it upon themselves to promote infant male circumcision, by conducting study after well-funded study to determine just what kinds of “health benefits” might follow from cutting off parts of the penis. Why is there a double standard here? (Actually, there is an answer to this question; and it hinges on prejudicial cultural influences on what constitutes science and medicine—as well as on what sorts of research questions are deemed worthy of funding, among other problematic factors.)
Let’s look at one example of a “health benefit” that has been attributed to MGC: a lowered risk of acquiring a urinary tract infection. When it comes to girls, who get UTIs after the age of 1 fully 10 times more frequently than boys do, doctors prescribe antibiotics and try other conservative treatments; they also encourage girls to wash their genitals and practice decent hygiene. When it comes to boys, however, circumcision apologists tout the wisdom of performing non-therapeutic, non-consensual genital surgery, to the tune of 111 circumcisions to prevent a single case of UTI. Yet as Benatar and Benatar explain, “UTI does not occur in 99.85% of circumcised infant males and in 98.5% of un-circumcised infant boys.” And when it does occur, against those odds, it is both “easily diagnosed and treatable with low morbidity and [low] mortality.” So let’s review: washing the genitals for girls, foreskin amputation for boys?
With respect to reducing rates of HIV transmission in Africa—another health benefit that is frequently cited for MGC—remember that those studies were carried out on adult volunteers under conditions of informed consent, not on infants. I have no problem with a mature adult requesting surgery to remove a part of his own penis as a form of partial prophylaxis against HIV (in environments with very high base rates of such infection); that is certainly his right. Of course he would need to wear a condom either way to achieve any kind of reliable protection, but it’s his body, and it’s his decision to make. It’s quite a different matter, however, to circumcise an infant—who is not at risk of HIV or other STIs unless he is molested, who cannot consent to the procedure in the first place, and who might prefer to practice safe sex strategies when he does become sexually active, rather than forfeit a part of his penis. See here, here, here, here, and here for further discussion of the “health benefits” arguments for MGC. The upshot is that they are not compelling, particularly in developed nations with functioning healthcare systems and access to soap and clean water.
So what other differences between FGC and MCG might justify their strict compartmentalization? Back to the arguments from above:
The “prime motive” of FGM is to control women’s sexualities – it is sexist and an expression of male power and domination. Male circumcision has nothing to do with controlling male sexuality.
There is a lot to say here. First, female genital cutting is performed for different reasons at different times in different cultures; likewise for male genital cutting. Contrary to common wisdom, however, it is not the case that FGC is uniformly “about” the control of female sexuality. For example, in Sierra Leone:
Among the Kono there is no cultural obsession with feminine chastity, virginity, or women’s sexual fidelity, perhaps because the role of the biological father is considered marginal and peripheral to the central ‘matricentric unit.’ … Kono culture promulgates a dual-sex ideology … [The] power of Bundu, the women’s secret sodality [i.e., initiation society that manages FGC ceremonies], suggest positive links between excision, women’s religious ideology, their power in domestic relations, and their high profile in the ‘public arena.’
In nearly every place that FGC is performed, it is carried out by women (rather than by men) who do not typically view it as an expression of patriarchy, but who instead believe that it is hygienic (see above), as well as beautifying, even empowering, and as an important rite of passage with high cultural value. (The claim that such women are simply “brainwashed” is a gross oversimplification.) At the same time, the “rite of passage” ceremonies for boys in these societies are carried out by men; these are done in parallel, under similar conditions, and for similar reasons–and often with similar (or even worse) consequences for health and sexuality: see this discussion by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Nevertheless, anthropological research does suggest that FGC is, in some cultures–especially in Northeast Africa and parts of the Middle East–intimately tied up with sexist expressions of patriarchal values; in these settings, the emphasis on female sexual ‘purity’ can more readily be discerned. As I have argued elsewhere, such an asymmetrical focus on female virginity in Islam (as expressed through genital cutting as well as through other practices) is extremely problematic and morally unjustifiable. However, it is important to note that, speaking generally:
The empirical association between patriarchy and genital surgeries is not well established. The vast majority of the world’s societies can be described as patriarchal, and most either do not modify the genitals of either sex or modify the genitals of males only. There are almost no patriarchal societies with customary genital surgeries for females only. Across human societies there is a broad range of cultural attitudes concerning female sexuality—from societies that press for temperance, restraint, and the control of sexuality to those that are more permissive and encouraging of sexual adventures and experimentation—but these differences do not correlate strongly with the presence or absence of female genital surgeries.
Indeed, in cultures where forms of FGC (and MGC) are culturally normative, many women regard the cutting as part of their cultural heritage and vigorously defend against the efforts of Western agencies, and sometimes the men in their own societies (see also here), who seek to wipe it out. Such a realization has led to the emergence of a counter-discourse among some Western feminists, who regard anti-FGC campaigns as a form of cultural imperialism. On this sort of view, the fight against FGC is inextricably bound up with a broader colonial and neo-colonial project of “white people saving brown women from brown men” (as well as from themselves). Thus as Nancy Ehrenreich writes in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review:
… the mainstream anti-FGC position is premised upon an orientalizing construction of FGC societies as primitive, patriarchal, and barbaric, and of female circumcision as a harmful, unnecessary cultural practice based on patriarchal gender norms and ritualistic beliefs. … Lambasting African societies and practices (while failing to critique similar practices in the United States) … essentially implies that North American understandings of the body are “scientific” (i.e., rational, civilized, and based on universally acknowledged expertise), while African understandings are “cultural” (i.e., superstitious, un-civilized, and based on false, socially constructed beliefs). [Yet] neither of these depictions is accurate. North American medicine is not free of cultural influence, and FGC practices are not bound by culture—at least not in the uniform way imagined by opponents.
Dustin Wax makes a similar argument:
In the case of anti-FGC advocacy, the voice of “brown women” is almost entirely absent, literally silenced by an insistence that the horrendousness of the practice precludes any possible positive evaluation, and therefore the only valid voices are those that condemn FGC. All contradictory testimony is dismissed as the result of “brainwashing,” “false consciousness,” “fear of male reprisal,” “anti-Westernism”, “ignorance,” or other forms of willful or unwillful complicity.
What about the other side of things? The usual claim is that male circumcision has “nothing to do” with controlling male sexuality. While it is probably true that most contemporary, Western parents who choose circumcision for their children do not do so out of a desire to “control” their sexuality (just as is true of most African parents who choose “circumcision” for their daughters), male genital cutting has been historically steeped in just such a desire, and it is implicated in problematic expressions of power to this day. Contrary to common wisdom, male genital cutting has indeed been used as a form of sexual control, and even punishment, for a very long time; the Jewish philosopher Maimonides argued that diminished sexual sensitivity was part of the point of doing circumcisions (to reduce excessive “lust” as well as “concupiscence”); circumcision was adopted into Western medicine in the Victorian period largely as a means to combat masturbation (as well as other expressions of juvenile sexuality); and forced circumcision of enemies has been used as a means of humiliation since time immemorial: this practice continues among the Luo of Kenya among numerous other groups. To return to the specific question of patriarchy, in Judaism, only the boys are allowed to “seal the divine covenant,” so the ritual is sexist on its face.
But it’s different in different communities. Moreover, the “reasons” given by most parents are not necessarily the same as the “reasons” the practice originally came about, nor the “reasons” for which it was consciously performed (i.e., as a “cure” for masturbation) in previous eras. As the renowned anti-FGC activist Hanny Lightfoot-Klein has stated: “The [main] reasons given for female circumcision in Africa and for routine male circumcision in the United States are essentially the same. Both promise cleanliness and the absence of odors as well as greater attractiveness and acceptability.”
So what are the implications here? Given that both male and female forms of genital cutting express different cultural norms depending upon the context, and are performed for different reasons in different cultures, and even in different communities or individual families, how are we meant to assess the permissibility of either one? Do we need to interview each set of parents to make sure that their proposed act of cutting is intended as an expression of acceptable norms? If they promise that it isn’t about “sexual control” in their specific case, but rather about “hygiene” or “aesthetics” or something less symbolically problematic, should they be permitted to go ahead? But this is bound to fail. Every parent who requests a genital-altering surgery for their child – for whatever reason under the sun – thinks that they are acting in the child’s best interests; no one thinks that they are “mutilating” their own offspring. Thus it is not the reason for the intervention that determines its permissibility, but rather the consequences of the intervention for the person whose genitals are actually on the line. So what kinds of consequences follow from FGC and MGC? Let us clear up one familiar legend:
Male circumcision is “just a snip” and in any case “men don’t complain.”
Before addressing these oft-repeated claims about male genital cutting, let us reflect on the analogous female forms that tend to dominate popular discussions. The interventions associated with extreme forms of FGC are gut-wrenching to think about. Many people find FGC to be “barbaric” and “inhumane” in part because they can call to mind grotesque and vivid images of slicing and cutting—perhaps with a shard of glass—and they react with a mix of sadness, horror, and disgust. Much less disturbing, however, are the images apparently called to mind by male circumcision, as evidenced by the widely repeated (but false) declaration that circumcision is “just a snip.”
Male circumcision is never “just a snip.” It is a frequently traumatic intervention; it is usually extremely painful, even in hospital settings, since adequate analgesia is rarely given; the same is true in ritual settings; and indeed sometimes the excruciating pain of circumcision is used as a test of masculinity. As Nelson Mandela reported about his own (tribal) circumcision:
Flinching or crying out was a sign of weakness and stigmatized one’s manhood. I was determined not to disgrace myself, the group or my guardian. Circumcision is a trial of bravery and stoicism; no anaesthetic is used; a man must suffer in silence [Before] I knew it, the old man was kneeling in front of me. … Without a word, he took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai [knife]. I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins; the pain was so intense that I buried my chin in my chest. Many seconds seemed to pass before I remembered the cry, and then I recovered and called out, ‘Ndiyindoda!’ ['I am a man!']
In infant circumcision, the “snip”—if there is one—only comes at the end: the foreskin must first be separated from the head of the penis, to which it is adhered throughout much of childhood, then it is either stretched out and sliced, or crushed, or torn, or even strangled to the point of necrosis. When any of these things is done with unsterilized equipment, by a medically untrained practitioner, in environments with limited access to healthcare, the risk of serious infection, loss of the penis, and death is dramatically increased. I suggest that readers of this blog watch this video (of a hospitalized, American circumcision) or this one (of a traditional Muslim circumcision) or this one (of a Jewish circumcision), or this one (of a circumcision in Uganda) so that they can permanently lay to rest the idea that circumcision is “just a snip.” It is time to retire this phrase; it should not be used any more.
As to the notion that “men don’t complain” – that is simply false. Just as some women who have undergone forms of FGC complain passionately about what was done to them without their consent, so too do some men who have undergone forms of MGC. Here are some examples of thoughtful and articulate complaints about MGC by resentful, circumcised men: here, here, here, and here. This man lost his penis. Several thousands of men are attempting “foreskin restoration,” which is an arduous process of stretching skin from the shaft of the penis using weights, tapes, and other materials, in an attempt to “restore” some semblance of their pre-circumcised state. This is not an insignificant number. Of course, when men do complain, their feelings are often trivialized; but they continue to complain nevertheless – in increasing numbers, and ever more vocally as they find the courage to speak out.
Many men do not complain, of course; but then many women who have undergone various forms of FGC do not complain either: in a survey of 3,805 Sudanese women, of whom 89% had experienced FGC, 96% said they would do it to their daughters and 90% favored the continuation of the practice generally. Yet it is enough that some men do complain, and that some women do as well: in both cases a healthy part of their body was removed, and without their informed permission. In Western societies, we teach our citizens that they have a right to bodily integrity: we forbid the tattooing of children, for example, and we tell them that adults should not so much as touch them inappropriately. In this sort of social and legal environment, complaints about having a part of one’s genitals removed without one’s own consent should be treated with serious concern. Finally:
FGM eliminates the enjoyment of sex, whereas male circumcision has no meaningful effects on sexual sensation or satisfaction.
Again, this depends. Obviously more minor forms of FGC – such as ritual ‘pricking,’ some kinds of piercing, or even removal of the vaginal lips – will not eliminate erogenous sensation; however, does this make any of these interventions permissible, if they are done without consent? The answer, in my opinion, is “no.” Even the risk of damaging sensitive nerve tissue with a ‘prick’ should be avoided unless the person taking on the risk is acting freely as an informed adult. Or what about removing “just” the clitoral hood? The clitoris might lose some sensitivity over time, as it rubs against environmental factors (just as the penile glans seems to do after male circumcision; in fact the clitoral hood and the foreskin are anatomically analogous structures), but perhaps some sensation would be preserved, and in any case sexual enjoyment cannot be reduced to stimulation of the clitoris or even ability-to-orgasm. Does that make ”clitoral unhooding” OK?
Not if it’s done without consent.
Finally, what about one of the most invasive forms of FGC – the excision of the external clitoris? According to a recent review published by the reputable Hastings Center, “Research by gynecologists and others has demonstrated that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery [including excision] have rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction, and their frequency of sexual activity is not reduced.” Indeed, in one study, up to 86% of women who had undergone even “extreme” forms of FGC reported the ability to orgasm, and “the majority of the interviewed women (90.51%) reported that sex gives them pleasure.” These counterintuitive findings might be explained by the fact that much of the clitoris (including most of its erectile tissue) is actually underneath the skin and is therefore not removed by even the most invasive types of FGC: only the glans of the clitoris (the “part that sticks out”) can be excised. But this does not make make the surgery somehow “OK.” Every girl’s body is different, and the value she will end up placing on having in intact clitoral glans cannot be known in advance–even in cultures in which the glans is socially stigmatized. At the end of the day, if a fully-informed adult woman chooses genital surgery for herself, it may be permissible on some analyses. However, it is not permissible on children.
What about male circumcision? The same sort of reasoning applies. While the majority of circumcised men (whose circumcisions were not seriously “botched”) report that they experience sexual pleasure during intercourse, and even enjoy sex quite a lot: (a) they do not have a point of comparison, unless they were circumcised in adulthood, so they cannot know what sex would feel like had they not been circumcised (the same point applies to FGC done early enough in childhood) (b) the risk that a “botch” might in fact occur means that the surgery should be undertaken voluntarily, insofar as it is non-therapeutic in nature, (c) some men whose circumcisions did not result in “botches” may nevertheless experience adverse sexual outcomes, simply through the loss of erogenous tissue, and (d) some men’s sexual experiences are hampered via psychological mechanisms, including through the resentment they may feel at having been circumcised before they could object.
Scientists are divided over the “average” effect of (expertly performed, perfectly executed) circumcision on key sexual outcome variables. What is not controversial, however, is that any sensation in the foreskin itself is guaranteed to be eliminated by circumcision (just as any sensation in the labia or the clitoral glans will be eliminated by labiaplasty or excision, respectively), as are “any sexually-relevant functions associated with [the foreskin's] manipulation. In other words, a man without a foreskin cannot ‘play’ with his foreskin, nor can he glide it back and forth during sex. That these can be pleasurable activities, with great subjective value to genitally intact men and their partners, is uncontroversial.” Finally, the most extreme forms of male genital cutting (e.g., when it leads to penile amputation) eliminate sexual capacity altogether.
As Sara Johnsdotter has pointed out, there is no 1:1 relationship between amount of genital tissue removed (in either males or females), and subjective satisfaction while having sex, so “FGM” (and male “circumcision”)—of whatever degree of severity—will affect different people differently. Each individual’s relationship to their own body is unique, including what they find aesthetically appealing, what degree of risk they feel comfortable taking on when it comes to elective surgeries on their “private parts,” and even what degree of sexual sensitivity they prefer (for personal or cultural reasons). Thus each individual should be left to decide what to do with his or her own genitals when it comes to irreversible surgery.
To summarize, if “FGM” is wrong because it “destroys sexual pleasure” – then forms of “FGM” that do not destroy sexual pleasure must (on this logic) be considered permissible, or else they should be given a different name. But if “FGM” is wrong because it involves cutting into the genitals of a vulnerable child, without a medical indication and without consent, thereby exposing the child to surgical risk (without the presence of any disease), and (in some cases) removing a healthy part of her body that she might later wish she could have experienced intact, then male circumcision is equally wrong on those grounds. This is true whether sexual pleasure is “destroyed” or whether it isn’t, and whether a complaint is made later or not.
Explaining the double standard
Given everything that has been said so far about the relevant objective “overlaps” between male and female genital cutting, why exactly have they become so compartmentalized? Rebecca Steinfeld, a political scientist at Stanford who studies ritual cutting, has speculated as follows:
Alongside the differences in harm and misperceptions about the contrasting settings and ages at which the procedures take place, the double standard stems from two further factors: sexism and ethnocentrism. Male bodies are constructed as resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are seen as highly vulnerable and in need of protection. In other words, vulnerability is gendered. And little girls are more readily seen as victims than little boys. The consequence of this … is that patriarchy often allows men’s experiences to remain unquestioned.
Familiarity also creates comfort, and since MGC has been practised in the West for millennia and been routine in English-speaking countries for a century, we’re desensitised. By contrast, since FGC is geographically or culturally remote, it’s more liable to be seen as barbaric.
On this last point, Andrew DeLaney (unpublished manuscript) gives a similar analysis:
It is safe to say that [male genital cutting] is a norm in the United States, despite any activists’ efforts to raise awareness about it. In the words of one law professor describing her generation, “Everyone was circumcised.” … FGM, on the other hand, is likely a completely foreign idea to the vast majority of people living in the United States or the rest of the western world, with the only exposure to it being horrific reports that are presented based on cases or reports out of Africa. With this being the case, moral objection to the practice of FGM is taken as self-evident, with research and activism being conflated and data on FGM that is sometimes not actually investigated taken as true. All the while, [male genital cutting] occurs as a completely normalized practice.
To return to the Guardian and the Change.org petition, it is of course to be welcomed that a prominent global newspaper is campaigning to protect the rights of girls to be free from non-therapeutic, nonconsensual cutting into their genital organs. I cannot state enough that I am in support of such efforts (although I do not favor the use of the term “FGM” for the reasons I have already given). My argument has been that they should not be stopping there. Female, male, and intersex genital cutting should be done exclusively with a medical indication or with the informed consent of the individual. Children of whatever gender should not have healthy parts of their most intimate sexual organs removed, before such a time as they can understand what is at stake in such a surgery and agree to it themselves. It is time to stop the compartmentalization exhibited by Shermer and others and recognize that there is “1 cause” here: respecting children’s rights and protecting them from harm.
When Binta Jobe [not her real name] was nine, she was taken into the Gambian bush where she suffered female genital mutilation at the hands of an amateur surgeon without anaesthetic. She is now a 23-year-old asylum seeker in the UK, trying to prevent her three-year-old daughter from a similar experience if she is forcibly returned to the Gambia. Continue reading
By Brian Earp
This is a rough draft of a lecture delivered on October 1st, 2012, at the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights (Helsinki, Finland). It will appear in a revised form—as a completed paper—at a later date. If you quote or use any part of this post, please include the following citation and notice:
Earp, B. D. (forthcoming, pre-publication draft). Assessing a religious practice from secular-ethical grounds: Competing meta-ethics in the circumcision debate, and a note about respect. To appear in: Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights, published by Springer. * Note, this is not the finished version of this document, and changes may be made before final publication.
* * * * * *
Hello. My name is Brian Earp; I am a Research Associate [Editor’s note: now Research Fellow] in the philosophy department at the University of Oxford, and I conduct research in practical ethics and medical ethics, among some other topics. As you saw from the program, my topic today is the ethics of infant male circumcision—specifically as it is performed for religious reasons.
I should begin by saying that in debates on this topic, I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a very serious reluctance to address the issue of religious motivation directly. And this is true even among those who are otherwise outspoken in their opposition to circumcision on other grounds. For example, in 2007, Harry Meislahn of the Illinois chapter of NOCIRC—a prominent anti-circumcision organization—was asked if he would argue that Jews should discontinue circumcising their babies, along with secular or non-religiously-motivated parents who might be doing it out of a sense of cultural habit, or because they thought it could be good for the baby’s health. He replied: “No. I don’t prescribe for Jews, at all. This is an absolute loser. I’m not Jewish. … I withdraw from this field because it generates lots of heat [and] very little light” (quoted in Ungar-Sargon, 2007).
(He went on to say, however: “I would maintain that a Jewish baby feels pain just as a non-Jewish baby feels pain, and there are Jewish men, just like non-Jewish men, who are real angry that this was done to them.”)
The philosopher Iain Brassington has recently expressed a similar concern. On the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, he wrote: “Though I [have] mentioned the [recent] decision of the German court that ritual circumcision constituted assault, I’ve wanted to stay clear of saying more about it [because] it seemed too potentially toxic” (Brassington, 2012, para. 2). To give another example, the bioethicist Dan O’Connor from Johns Hopkins University—in an article entitled “A Piece I Really Didn’t Want to Write on Circumcision”—has recently said that: “when [a reporter] calls my work and ask[s] if there is a bioethicist in the house who will give the anti-circumcision viewpoint, I beg off. … I would be a terrible interviewee anyway, [since I would have to preface] my every argument against circumcision with rambling spiels about what loving and caring parents my [Jewish] friends are” (O’Connor, 2012, para. 10).
Finally, as a philosopher colleague of mine wrote to me in a recent email: “To be honest with you, I am strongly anti-circumcision. The reason I don’t [write papers on the topic] is that I have a large number of circumcised Jewish … friends who I think would be offended if they found out [about my views]” (personal communication, May 17, 2012).
Like all of the individuals I have just mentioned, I find myself in the position of being largely skeptical about the moral permissibility of ritual circumcision—for reasons I will give in just a moment—and yet I am well aware that since I myself am neither Jewish nor Muslim, I have an especially good chance of offending someone who is when I subject the practice to critical scrutiny. This chance is, of course, magnified by the fact that circumcision is seen by some as being a central, or even obligatory, ritual in each of these religions. And just like the bioethicist Dan O’Connor and the philosopher-colleague whose email I quoted above, this potential for causing offense extends to many of my closest friends, to colleagues of mine, and to a pretty wide range of people I have no particular interest in irritating.
So perhaps there is a reason to hesitate. Because religious convictions are a deep, and certainly emotionally-charged, aspect of the lives of so many, attempts to question a religiously-motivated practice—especially by one who is not religious, or differently religious—can lead to outcomes that are very far from productive. To illustrate, here is a quote from a comment I received on my Facebook page in response to a post I published on this topic in 2011:
Sorry Brian, you’re entitled to your non-Jewish opinion, but we’ve been doing very nicely for 5,771 years with this ancient tradition of our people. And I don’t even know who the hell you are, but this kind of nonsense just pisses me off. (quoted in Earp, 2011).
So, as I say, sometimes the conversation doesn’t turn out to be as productive as I’d hoped. Part of what I think is going on here, is that we have an unwritten rule in polite society that says that certain ideas or practices are out of bounds for critical discussion. The English humorist Douglas Adams made a similar point in a speech he gave in Cambridge in 1998. Talking about religious customs specifically, he said:
Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about [that], but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. (Adams, 1998)
Now, obviously I don’t have any arguments about whether—or when—it’s OK to use a light switch. I do want to focus, however, on this idea about respect. I don’t think it actually is showing respect to anyone to give an automatic pass to anything she says or does just because it might have to do with her religious practice. I think that sort of avoidance has much more to do with fear than with respect—fear that you might upset the person, or fear that you might sound stupid for not knowing more about the custom, or fear that the conversation might turn out to be awkward, or whatever the fear might be.
Respect, it seems to me, is very different from this. Respect has to do with taking certain positive things for granted. In my own experience, for example, I sometimes talk with my Jewish and Muslim friends about my views on the ethics of circumcision. Some of these friends are in agreement with me that ritual circumcision may be, at the very least, morally suspicious; but others hold a different view. Whatever their perspective, however, I respect these friends enough to know that they’ll listen to my arguments with an open mind, really consider what I’m saying, and engage in debate productively. And most of the time, to be sure, they respect me enough to know that I’ll extend them the same courtesy, which I will. Respect is not about avoidance, then, at least in my opinion. It is about the opposite of avoidance—it is about engagement, conversation, communication—so long as these are done in a fair-minded and well-intended way.
I also think that there is something potentially very condescending about the idea that someone’s feelings—religious or otherwise—might be so fragile and irrational that instead of just saying what you really believe, and having an honest conversation about it, you should tiptoe around, and blush, and make excuses, and pretend that you don’t mean what you mean or think what you think. That doesn’t seem like real respect either—and I think my religious friends would be quite rightly insulted if they thought that I was operating out of this kind of mindset when I talked with them about their beliefs and practices.
So, having said all that, in what follows, I am simply going to trust that I can engage directly with the ethical arguments for and against religiously-motivated circumcision, without having to hedge or qualify, or worry about whether I might offend someone for whom this practice is seen as being too sacred to talk about. People are free to disagree with me, of course, and I will be happy to take on board any constructive criticism they may have to offer. I am open to changing my views. But I do want to spend the rest of my time dealing directly with the arguments.
I will start with an argument against religiously-motivated circumcision, and then I will consider some common objections.
The premise of my argument is this. As a rule, it should be considered morally impermissible to sever healthy, functional tissue from another person’s body—perhaps especially if the tissue cannot “grow back,” and even moreso if it comes from the person’s genitals—without first asking for, and then actually receiving, that person’s informed permission.
Now, ordinarily, and with respect to almost every case we could imagine, this would count as a foundational ethical principle. It does presume that the individual is an appropriate unit for moral analysis; it does presume that individuals have certain rights, among which is the right to bodily integrity; and it does presume that the infringement of that right can only be permitted under conditions of informed consent (or in circumstances like a medical emergency).
Of course, someone could question or even deny any one of those presumptions, but then they would have to come up with a better way to ground their own moral theories that didn’t inadvertently create a justification for having parts of their body cut off without their permission. I’m not saying this is impossible, but it’s something to look out for. And actually, I think there is a competing meta-ethic hidden within religious defenses of circumcision—and it’s one that downplays the relevance of the individual, and specifically the individual as a child, to independent moral consideration—but I will come onto that point a little bit later on.
For now, let us assume that the ethical premise I’ve given is a reasonable one, and let’s take it for granted to see what follows. Well, since ritual circumcision involves the removal of healthy, functional, erogenous tissue from the genitals of a newborn or young child, and since babies and young children are incapable of giving meaningful consent to such a procedure, our principle is obviously violated, and therefore circumcision is unethical on this theory.
Now, this is not just abstract philosophy. As most of us know, a recent decision by a German court in Cologne—which said that ritual circumcision is a form of assault—relied on ethical reasoning very similar to what I have just laid out. And as we also know, this conclusion was not very readily accepted by a large number of religious leaders within Judaism and Islam, and even within some corners of Christianity. This last part should be a little surprising, of course, since the founder of Christianity—Paul (or Saul) of Tarsus—was explicitly and even energetically opposed to the practice of circumcision, as he made very clear in his letters to the earliest Christian churches. And, as Sami Aldeeb pointed out in his speech yesterday (see Aldeeb, 2012), this was the official church position for a pretty long time.
But, leaving that aside, what this reaction to the Cologne decision means is that we can look at some objections to the argument I have given that are not just hypothetical, but that have actually been given—and very recently—as serious attempts to defend ritual circumcision against the charge that it is an unethical practice. And I would like to consider a few of these objections one at a time.
The first objection is that religious circumcision is an ancient tradition, and one that is felt to be very important to the practice of Judaism or Islam. For example, Dieter Graumann, the president of the German Central Council of Jews, has said, “Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced … for centuries” (quoted in Hall, 2012). He then went on to criticize the Cologne ruling as being “outrageous” and “insensitive.” An Islamic representative, Ali Demir, made a similar point: “this is a … procedure,” he said, “with thousands of years of tradition behind it and [a] high symbolic value” (ibid.).
Now, as I was preparing this talk, I wondered about whether I should count these sorts of statements as being actual “objections” to the ethical case made by the German court. Seemingly, it should go without saying that something’s having been done for a long time does not in any way amount to an argument for its moral permissibility. The thing might actually be morally permissible, of course, but this just wouldn’t be the way to show it. The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to believe that I couldn’t just pass over the “ancient tradition” argument as a sort of a straw man. This is because this exact line of reasoning has been repeatedly cited in recent weeks, by a number of influential religious leaders, in a seemingly sincere attempt to shape public discussion on this topic. So I need to spend a little bit of time responding to this view, with what would otherwise be a statement of the obvious:
Many practices that are now regarded as being very clearly unethical had been going on for an extremely long time before anyone had the idea to question them. Examples include slavery, footbinding, the cutting of female genitals, and beating disobedient children with sticks. Usually these practices persisted without much alarm for one of two reasons. Either the moral standards that they would eventually be seen as violating had not yet had been developed, or those standards did exist for other cases but just weren’t commonly seen as applying to the practice itself until enough people sat down and made the connection. I think what’s happening right now with circumcision is not so much the first of these, but more the second. In other words, the relevant ethical principles—about bodily integrity, consent, protecting the vulnerable in society, and so on—have been available to us for quite some time now. It’s just that we’re so used to circumcision as a cultural habit, that many people fail to see how patently inconsistent this practice is with the rest of their own moral landscape.
My colleague Anders Sandberg has given an argument for this view that I think is worth considering in a little bit of detail. He writes:
It is interesting to consider a fictional case: suppose I come up with a religion that claims [that] 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 [a] status quo bias and [something about] 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 set, not based on actual harms, but … on a social acceptability scale and who has institutional power. This all makes perfect sense sociologically, but it is bad ethics. (Sandberg, 2012)
Now, I don’t think that Anders’ scenario is completely water-tight, and I don’t think that a theologically sophisticated religious person would find the “male nipples” example to be an appropriate or a complete analogy. But I do think that Anders is onto something when he suggests that if the “ancient tradition” objection does carry any weight in this conversation, it is for sociological reasons rather than ethical ones. In fact, I don’t see that this objection does any argumentative work for the defender of religious circumcision: It might work as a rhetorical strategy to affirm the social capital of his religion, but it isn’t an argument.
OK, I would like to move on to a second objection that I have heard a number of times in response to the Cologne decision, and one that is potentially a little harder to deal with. This objection is that circumcision is divinely mandated and hence obligatory for religious Jews and, according to some interpretations, maybe Muslims as well. In Judaism, as we all know, the mandate is even specific about the exact timing of the procedure: according to the book of Genesis, the baby’s foreskin must be removed on the eighth day after birth. And this timing is, according to a number of vocal religious commentators, quote, “non-negotiable.”
I want to start with this idea about non-negotiability. My first question is, according to whom? Certainly people like Dieter Graumann, the president of the German Central Council of Jews I mentioned before, has repeated this claim (see, e.g., Gedalyahu, 2012). And so have a number of influential, usually conservative or Orthodox Jews, some of whom have been saying some very authoritative-sounding things on behalf of, quote, “the Jewish people” (see, e.g., Harkov, 2012). But this seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous. As anyone who knows any actual Jewish people can attest, “the Jewish people” is not a collection of uncritical sheep who all think the same thing. “The Jewish people” do not uniformly adhere to the exact same theology. And, specifically, “the Jewish people” includes a large and growing number of individuals—including, in my view, individuals with exceptional moral insight—who simply do not believe that circumcision is a “non-negotiable” component of their religion (e.g., Goldman, 1998; Goodman, 1999; Glick, 2001; Milgrom, 2012; Pollack, 2013; Sadeh, 2013; Ben Yami, 2013; Ungar-Sargon, 2013; Steinfeld, 2013). I suppose someone could argue that certain conservative representatives within Judaism are theologically correct, and everyone else is deluded, but that would take a lot of time and energy and it would be an argument that would probably fail to convince anyone who didn’t already hold that view. Also, it would be much harder to express as a simple axiom, which is what the newspapers seem to appreciate. So instead we are confronted with a string of public declarations that make it sound like Judaism a monolith and that there are no meaningful debates to be had about the religious requirements implied by certain passages within the Torah.
Another point is this—and, again, I wish I were attacking a straw man here, but based on the mainstream, public debate I have seen going on in the last few weeks, I feel that some very basic points about the philosophy of religion need to be brought up as reminders. First, even though a person or a group of people may sincerely believe that a given practice is divinely mandated, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is divinely mandated. Second, even if something really is divinely mandated, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is non-negotiable. Third, even if something is felt to be non-negotiable, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is morally permissible. And this brings us very quickly to the classic dilemma about what you’re supposed to do when God tells you to do something unethical.
We all know the puzzle about Abraham and Isaac: God tells Abraham that he must sacrifice his son. So what should Abraham do? There are a couple of well-known possibilities in logical space here. One option is that Abraham should assume that he’s misunderstood something. Since killing innocent children is unethical, and since God is a morally perfect being, God must not really have said that. Another option is that he starts to wonder if maybe he wasn’t really talking with God after all, but maybe it was Satan, or maybe just a voice in his own head. Or he can conclude that God is not as morally developed he used to think, or is even a source of evil. Whichever way he chooses to go, the correct answer from an ethical perspective is: No, I will not kill my son.
Obviously a lot of people have looked at this case over the centuries, and I’m not the first one to give the analysis you just heard. As a number of commentators have noticed, there is a pretty big conflict in this story between the requirements of morality and the requirements of the divine mandate. Kierkegaard (1843) thought he could solve the puzzle by talking about the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This is the idea that we should use our faith to rise above mere ethics and morality and enter into a higher, and more absolute relationship with the divine. Now I think that this is a very dangerous thing to propose. And I think it has real consequences, one of which is that the religiously-motivated suspension of morality has been a source of a lot of suffering, for a lot of people—including marginalized and vulnerable people—for a very long time.
But my sense, in fact, is that the large majority of contemporary religious believers don’t actually do this. What I mean is, when something is felt to be unethical, what they actually do is one of two things. Either they revise their understanding of what is divinely required in the first place; or else they engage in some very complicated psychological maneuvers—many of them unconscious—that lead them to conclude that the thing must not be unethical after all, even though it really looks like it is from every other perspective. So for circumcision, for example, they might downplay the harms, risks, and drawbacks of the procedure; or they might use euphemisms like “snip” or “flap of skin” when they talk about what it is that is being cut off; or they might emphasize the postulated health benefits (while ignoring disputes over their scientific credibility); or they might exaggerate the differences with female genital cutting, or exaggerate the similarities to vaccination, or whatever: a whole range of strategies that make it seem like circumcision isn’t so bad to begin with.
I have seen one major exception to this approach, however. And this comes from an interview conducted by the filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon (see Ungar-Sargon, 2007). The clip starts with an Orthodox Rabbi named Hershy Worch talking about circumcision. He says:
It’s painful, it’s abusive. It’s traumatic, and if anybody who’s not in a covenant [with God] does it, I think they should be put in prison. I don’t think anybody has an excuse for mutilating a child. … Depriving them of [part of their] penis. We don’t have rights to other people’s bodies, and a baby needs to have its rights protected. I think anybody who circumcises a baby is an abuser, unless it’s absolutely medically advised. Otherwise – what for … ?
After a moment of what I interpreted as stunned silence, you can hear Eliyahu ask a pertinent question:
How does this covenant alleviate your ethical responsibility that you just so articulately posed? How is it that being in this covenant exempts you from that term … How can you not call yourself an abuser?
The Rabbi actually cuts him off and says:
I’m an abuser! I do abusive things because I am in covenant with God. And ultimately God owns my morals, he owns my body, he owns my past and future, and that’s the meaning of this covenant – that I agreed to ignore the pain and the rights and the trauma of my child to be in this covenant.
Now, I must tell you that—in an important sense—I have a lot of respect for this Rabbi. I think that his statements reach a level of honesty, and accuracy, and even Kierkegaardian philosophical consistency, that has otherwise been lacking from the public conversation on this issue. Here is someone who acknowledges, without hedging or qualification, that he is mutilating the penis of an infant. But he doesn’t take this knowledge as an excuse to go back to his scripture and re-interpret the original commandment, nor does he allow himself to believe that circumcision is a harmless little snip. He just doesn’t resolve the dissonance. Instead, he takes responsibility for his religious commitments, as well as for his behavior—and I think that in doing this, he gives us a rare and unmediated example of the power of religious belief to justify (what the Rabbi himself acknowledges is) the painful assault of a child.
So what should we do with this? I started with the idea that it should be considered morally impermissible to remove healthy, functional tissue from another person’s body without obtaining that person’s permission. And since circumcision violates that rule, I said it was unethical. Then I tried to show that the “ancient tradition” objection doesn’t get us off the hook, nor do the points about circumcision’s being divinely mandated or non-negotiable. So at this point, it seemed like we should be able to stick, at least provisionally, with the conclusion that circumcision is indeed a morally impermissible act.
But now we have something different. Now we have this idea to think about that maybe there’s something bigger than ethics – something like this direct relationship to the divine.
I said at the beginning that I thought there was a hidden meta-ethic behind religious defenses of circumcision, and I think that now we’re beginning to see what it might be. I think it’s this idea that an individual human being, such as a child, is not really the ultimate object of moral analysis. Instead there are other obligations, obligations that come from a community identity, from concern about historical continuity, or ritual continuity; obligations that come from a special covenant between a god and a group of people. And the effect of all this is that the individual child becomes a sort of non-entity. His body becomes not his body. His pain becomes an instrument in fulfilling a higher purpose.
And so, I think before we can get anywhere in this discussion, we are going to have to acknowledge that that is a very different meta-ethic. I think we have to acknowledge that certain religious commitments are based on a particular view of the universe, and that this view is in direct conflict with a “Western” moral focus on: individuals, on human rights adhering to those individuals as individuals, and on the notion that children and infants, above all, need special protection because they can’t defend those rights on their own.
I don’t have a good answer to this conflict. Obviously one can, in theory, adopt any meta-ethical view under the sun. One can adopt a view that says that parts of children’s bodies may be removed without their consent, if that is what a god requires; or one that says that animals should be set on fire and burnt at the altar (again, if that is what a god requires); or one that says that sparing the rod will spoil the child; or that our daughters should be stoned to death if they disobey, or whatever we want. All of these views are logically possible, and many of them are historically accurate. Many of them find direct textual support as well in the holy books of major religions.
But that isn’t how we tend to think about things in modern, Western societies; and it isn’t how we’ve set up our laws. We have a different sort of worldview that we use to make sense of concepts like individual rights, including the right to bodily integrity. So the idea I want to leave you with is this. If we think that there is any chance that we should give up these basic concepts—so that we can defer to a worldview that says that things like community identity are more important than individual identity (and the right to decide what happens to one’s own flesh)—then we’ll have to pay the price of that choice and face it honestly. And that means that the very same individuals who are asking for the religious freedom to perform circumcisions in a secular society, might have to be prepared to give up their own right to complain if someone wanted to cut off a part of their body, or interfere with their genitals without their consent. That is, as I say, a logically possible universe. But it isn’t one that I would want to live in, and I am not convinced that you can have it both ways.
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Goldman, R. (1998). Questioning circumcision: A Jewish perspective. Boston: Vanguard publications.
Goodman, J. (1999). Jewish circumcision: an alternative perspective. BJU international, 83(S1), 22-27.
Hall, A. (2012, June 27). Religious groups outraged after German court rules circumcision amounts to ‘bodily harm.’ Daily Mail Online. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2165431/Religious-groups-outraged-German-court-rules-circumcision-amounts-bodily-harm.html.
Harkov, L. (2012, August 22). German rabbi circumcision case sparks outrage. The Jerusalem Post. Available at: http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=282134.
Kierkegaard, S. (1843/1946). Fear and trembling. In R. Bretall (Ed.) A Kierkegaard Anthology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Milgrom, L. (2012). Can you give me my foreskin back? Open letter to Bent Lexner, Chief Rabbi of Denmark. Originally published as ‘Kan du give mig min forhud tilbage?’ in the Danish Daily Politiken. English translation available at: http://justasnip.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/can-you-give-me-back-my-foreskin-full-translation/.
O’Connor, D. (2012, September 14). A piece I really didn’t want to write on circumcision. BioethicsBulletin.org. Available at: http://bioethicsbulletin.org/archive/piece-i-didnt-want-to-write/.
Pollack, M. (2013). Circumcision: Gender and Power. In Genital Cutting: Protecting Children from Medical, Cultural, and Religious Infringements (pp. 297-305). Springer Netherlands.
Sadeh, E. (2013). Circumcision from the perspective of protecting children. Available at: http://www.savingsons.org/2013/06/circumcision-from-perspective-of.html.
Sandberg, A. (2012, June 28). “It is interesting to consider a fictional case …” [Web log comment]. Posted to: Earp, B.D. (2012, June 28). Of faith and circumcision: Can the religious beliefs of parents justify the non-consensual cutting of their child’s genitals? Practical Ethics (University of Oxford blog). Available at: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/06/religion-is-no-excuse-for-mutilating-your-babys-penis/.
Steinfeld, R. (2013, Noveber 26). It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision. Haaretz. Available at: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.560244.
Ungar-Sargon, E. (Producer and Director). (2007). Cut: Slicing through the myths of circumcision [Film]. Los Angeles: White Letter Production Studios.
Ungar-Sargon, E. (2013). On the impermissibility of infant male circumcision: a response to Mazor (2013). Journal of Medical Ethics, doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101598.
 Just as with Mr. Meislahn, he did nevertheless go on to say more. See: http://blogs.bmj.com/medical-ethics/2012/07/17/more-on-circumcision-in-germany/.
 Some of these articles were published after the present lecture was delivered. They are cited here simply to give an indication of some of the most recent Jewish voices opposed to circumcision.
VIDEO DEBATE LINKED TO BELOW – ARI KOHEN AND I DISCUSS THE ETHICS OF RELIGIOUSLY-MOTIVATED CIRCUMCISION
Ari Kohen doesn’t like my recent post about circumcision—the one in which I argue that it is unethical to remove healthy tissue from another person’s body without first getting his permission. I then go on to say that religious justifications cannot override this basic principle. Here’s that post again.
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. 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 my post 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.