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Can the religious beliefs of parents justify the nonconsensual cutting of their child’s genitals?

By Brian D. Earp

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 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 This is true no matter how bizarre, or outdated, or even outright immoral some of those requirements might seem to outsiders.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 non-consenting 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].

Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan chimes in with another on-point riposte:

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 infants 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 one who would never mandate the genital cutting 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.”)

Consider this statement from Eran Sadeh, an Israeli Jew, in response to the German ruling:

I was born 43 years ago in Tel Aviv, a healthy baby with a perfect body. [Eight] days after I was born one man held my tiny legs down while another man cut a part of my penis off with a knife. I was in pain, I screamed, I bled. It’s over. But the part that was cut off from my penis is forever gone. … [C]ircumcision is nothing but a euphemism for forcibly amputating a healthy body part of a helpless child, causing irreversible bodily damage and pain and putting the child at risk. All this in the name of religion and tradition. … This will not do in a country that protects children’s human rights, especially the right to bodily integrity and the right to equal protection by the law.

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. This is how Leo Milgrom made the point, in an open letter to the Chief Rabbi of Denmark:

What must I do if I want my foreskin back? I never wanted a strange man to touch me [on] my private parts. I would NEVER ON MY LIFE allow anyone to cut off a piece of my penis. … Imagine if our neighbors – for religious reasons – had the habit of cutting [the] earlobes, the outer joint of their little finger, or the nipples of their babies. Just like that, off with them. We would never allow that to happen. Nevertheless we accept something even worse: the cutting into and cutting off [of] parts of children’s private and intimate sexual organs.

My colleague Anders Sandberg, writing in the comments section (below), spells out the implications:

[What] this seems to suggest [is] that what is really is going on is 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 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; see here for more) 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.

UPDATE – Reply to a critic, with video debate 


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 hereherehere, 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:

Robert Darby: Non-therapeutic circumcision of minors: a legal and ethical minefield

Cornelia Koch: Is the circumcision of a young boy a crime? Yes, according to a German court

Jacques Rousseau: The cutting edge of religion

Iain Brassington: More on circumcision in Germany

Jean Kazez: Religious circumcision


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See all of Brian’s previous posts by clicking here.

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149 Comment on this post

  1. LOL. How much hypocrisy, the experts of our Oxford know all right and wrong centre are so much concerned about the pain caused by removing a piece of skin, while supporting abortion, post-natal abortion, killing of the elderly…

    1. @Teresa

      Each of those are serious issues, which have their own defenders and opposition. Do you have good reasons to oppose legalised abortions for women that require it? Also “killing of the elderly” is also not as glib as you’ve made it: usually, it’s an assisted suicide with the expressed consent of a usually aged person in their last years of life. Again, this is killing of the elderly, but done for the same reason this blogpost and others were written: out of concern for being consistent in combating unnecessary suffering. Suffering I might add that is perpetuated because people express disdain for opposing views through outrage, rather than argument (I’m not accusing you of this but others).

      I’m not sure that the Centre is a conglomerate of views, since many oppose post-birth abortion as you may recall. Some probably disagree about abortion, too. The point is you need to provide good reasons. In this post, Mr Earp has given his. Instead of “laughing” at apparent hypocrisy, which it is not, why not indicate what is actually wrong. As a reader of Mr Earp’s and this blog, I would want to know why and how a post is wrong; not just that it doesn’t sit with your world view.

      (Moderator: please remove my previous post)

    2. If the foreskin is “a piece of skin” so is the eyelid. It’s actually >100 sq cm of skin and mucosa, a thin sheet of involuntary muscle, metres of tiny arteries and veins, and tens of thousands of specialised nerves. And the issue is not just pain but human rights.

    3. @Teresa

      What you are saying is, in fact, that you can’t come up with any arguments whatsoever that refute the main theme supported in this article. So, instead, you are going in for “whataboutery”, which is the standard diversionary technique employed by debaters who know they haven’t got a leg to stand on. Why can’t you stick to the issue in question?

      1. I suppose @teresa may mean the intentional abortion of a baby that is turned around in the womb by the doctor in such a
        manner as to let the lower part of the body to come through the birth canal but not the head and then a mental shunt in
        inserted into the skull then a vacuum line to “suck the brains” out of the child.

        In American it is called: Partial Birth Abortions.

        It does seem to me that @teresa has a valid point – all this discussion over circumcision and so little over Abortion – the death of
        a baby and the “approved killing of the old and disabled.”.

        1. Philip Carpenter

          George, you really are appearing to be a most unpleasant character. This kind of sensationalist – and inaccurate – commenting is bordering on the malevolent.

          Partial birth abortions, or IDXs, were outlawed in America in 2003. They are therefore no longer an issue. Additionally, they were not conducted as you describe. Your making such a statement makes me wonder about your mental health.

          Finally, do you not understand that you cannot excuse one act of barbarism on the basis that another barbaric act is worse. Especially if your chosen accusation is aat best disingenuous and at worst false.

          1. Sorry Philip,

            Partial Birth Abortions have not been completely outlawed in America – they are still allowed though somewhat
            restricted from what was once allowed: an Abortion at anytime for any purported reason.

            And yes, they were conducted as I described.

            Thank you for your kind concern about my Mental Health or at least wonderment.

            I never said anything for or against Circumcision so I did not excuse any act of “Barbarism” on the basis of another
            barbaric act, I just pointed out that @teresa had a point to make concerning so much concern over one act and
            so little about other acts. We should be concerned about all acts of evil.

            I made no accusation and had I it would not be disingenuous, let alone false.

    4. Abortion is a problem. But that doesn’t make male genital mutilation NOT a problem. We can walk and chew bubble gum. Just because there exist some problems greater than others, doesn’t mean that none but the single worst problem can get any attention.

      Circumcision is genital mutilation. You would agree if the victim is female? Not if the victim is male? Whatever happened to equal rights? Or are women more equal than men?

  2. Forced genital cutting of any other person without their expressed understanding and consent is a violation of their human rights to bodily integrity. Carving away part of a child’s sexual organ is a holdover from superstitious Bronze Age rituals acted out upon children’s bodies.

    Amputating the protective and highly erogenous foreskin of someone too young to understand or consent is in fact genial mutilation. All adults should be free and able to make modifications on their OWN bodies based on their desires or beliefs. Hopefully they are also fully informed of the possible risks and likely outcome. Children however need protection by law from such extreme measures being forced upon them.

    In recent years with access to information more readily available, and with people relaying this information widely via the internet, many severe botched circumcisions and infant deaths have come to light. The medical claims for cutting healthy genital tissue from boys are all fraudulent. Recently one of the leading proponents of circumcision, head of the Gilgal Society was exposed as a pedophile with a sexual interest in cutting boys.

    The time has come for all countries to ban any and all genital cutting of children!

    1. Yes indeed.
      Strange isn’t it?: People get horribly upset with clitoridectomy. Why it is alright when it is baby boy being cut is utterly baffling once one begins to think of it. A medical research er in Canada apparently found no medical evidence for circumcision and was castigated by the religious right when she published her views.

      Keep in up.

    2. “All adults should be free and able to make modifications on their OWN bodies based on their desires and beliefs”

      Do you really think a person should be simply allowed to cut out their own healthy eyes, or ask for their healthy eyes to be cut out by a doctor ?

      Or a foot or hand…surely it is not a violation of their Human Rights – By the way where are these Rights to be found ? – to prevent/refuse

      to cooperate in anyway with any adult who seeks to do such harm to themselves is it ?

      1. Philip Carpenter

        Really, George – now you are just being ridiculous. Get back to the point, or withdraw from the discussion. What are you trying to do? Confuse the issue?

        1. Just responding to James Lowen’s remarks at 4:20 PM on June 28th, where I quoted his remarks.

          Hardly confusing the issue or being ridiculous.

  3. Can I add my voice to the chorus of men that are voicing their objection to the fact that they were circumcised needlessly as infants. I regard it as a theft of part of my body that was sanctioned by my parents (now dead) who it seems felt that my body was their property to deal with as they saw fit. I think I can confidently say that the vast majority of men regard their penis as a very precious and special part of their anatomy. Indeed many men are rightly pleased to retain it in its intact state for their whole life. How puzzling it is then that it is considered by many parents to be entirely acceptable to cut part of it off their infant son without any consideration of his opinion as the person that will subsequently use that penis for reproductive and recreational purposes, amongst other things.

    1. I’m with you, Patrick. I was circumcised as a child because my parents were/are Muslims, a faith I rejected in my early teen years. I was subjected to a barbaric religious ritual I not only didn’t consent to but also could not have consented to given my age.

  4. “Perhaps those convicted of wrongful circumcision could be required to wear a yellow star?”

    And why was it wrong to make Jews wear a yellow star? (They weren’t ashamed of being Jews.) It was wrong because it identified them as Jews without their consent – just like infant circumcision! But at least they were physically able to take the star off.

  5. Here’s one male who’s enraged over being mutilated, aka circumcised without consent. Circumcison is literally disfiguring child rape, and sexual torture when done without anesthesia, which is often.

  6. Blimey… change the record, Brian… haven’t you already done this issue to death several times? I know it gets a lot of hits/posts, but they’re not exactly high signal:noise comments, are they..?

    1. Until the mutilation of the genitals of children, yes, males too, is banned worldwide, this topic cannot be brought forth too often.

    2. On the contrary, keep it up Brian until enough people hear that this bloody practice gets changed. Maybe Dave is a rabbi who makes his living off the fees that parents pay to have their baby boys cut.

    3. Hi Dave,

      I tend to like your comments on these various blog posts. In this case — I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I’m not interested in page views. The reason I write on circumcision is because it’s an important moral issue that I take a great deal of personal interest in. I think there is an ethical crisis. Millions of babies around the world are having part of their genitals removed without their consent. This either seems like a big deal or not. To you, it seems not. To me, it is. Because it’s a big deal to me, I write about it whenever I have something to say. The recent ruling in Germany is generating a discussion around the world, and I’d like to be a part of that discussion. I wouldn’t write on the same topic so much if I didn’t think this was really something that needs to change. View counts would matter for posts that were “for the sake of argument” or some other breed of writing on topics I took a casual interest in. This is the real deal for me. I suppose that your talking about “this issue” being “done to death” is evidence that it’s not being taken seriously as a general rule. I think I’ll keep going on “this issue” until the culture changes. Might take me some years …

      In any case, best wishes – I do generally appreciate your input.


      1. Hi Brian,

        Fair enough. I probably did rather depart from my grandmother’s maxim: “if you haven’t got anything constructive to say…” on this one. I guess I just feel it’s a fairly simple issue where you’ve set out the issues pretty clearly several times. I probably also underestimated the degree to which you feel that “This is the real deal for [you].” It’s not something I’d even heard of as an ethical issue till I started coming here, and I guess I see it as a fairly straighforward principal-agent problem linked in with a clash of religious, cultural and secular norms. But those sorts of things are bits of policy [since the question, in our sorts of society, boils down to the conditions under which the state has obligations/rights to protect the principal from the actions of the agent] that I usually avoid, because they’re long conversations that turn on hard to quantify things like “harm” and “long-term interests” and “minority rights”. I find long conversations with few moving parts kind of dull, because the joints in the conversation get over-heated. But I appreciate – and respect – the fact that this is important to you, and my comment above was completely unconstructive, and probably a bad call if this really ought to be a bigger issue in public discourse. Sorry.


        1. Not raping children is pretty big deal, and circumcision is rape. It’s disfiguring surgical rape, often done without anesthesia, truly the most evil example of sexual assault known to man.

          1. “truly the most evil example of sexual assault known to man”?
            Fine to have a discussion about circumcision, and clearly you’re against it, but that’s going a bit too far. It’s done quickly and I defy you to find me a man who remembers it.
            I’m not saying you’re wrong to be against it, but you do a disservice to a lot of people – including children – who’ve been horribly mutilated and emotionally scarred for life by equating circumcision with other types of sexual assault.
            Tell it to kids who’ve been locked in closets and repeatedly anally raped.

            1. Yes I would agree that cutting off (without consent) part of a person’s genital organ, their primary source of sensual and sexual pleasure, is a truly evil sexual assault.

              In his interview with me Jewish American anthropologist Leonard Glick, (author of Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision From Ancient Judea to Modern America) said, “I am totally convinced that cutting the genitals of children, infants or children, girls or boys is fundamentally evil.”

              Stacey, we don’t tell people who have been raped, “Oh stop complaining your doing a disservice to people who have been raped AND murdered.” There are many types of sexual assault. Forcibly cutting off part of a person’s genitals is one of them.

            2. You wouldn’t say it’s going too far if it was women who were being mutilated.

              I briefly dated a women who was raped only a month before we dated. She had her assailant call her up after the fact and tell her he had AIDS. She told me she literally wanted to kill him. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand murderous rage. That is, until I understood circumcision.

              I have felt murderous rage when I argue against retarded arguments about circumcision. I can sense my anger boiling over into a fury. I wouldn’t every kill a person unless absolutely necessary, but I think I now understand “crimes of passion.” In effect, this is proof that I suffer some degree of PTSD from knowledge of circumcision, both from watching a video on youtube, and knowing that that infant screaming in agony while it’s genitals are ripped apart, was once me, and knowing that this continues to be done to helpless infants, is itself traumatic.

              So don’t give me any this about rape. If you’ve been raped, that sucks, but at least it doesn’t destroy a huge part of your genitals. At least it doesn’t permanently deny you part of your sexuality. Circumcision is WORSE than rape. Period. Just because the trauma is hidden deep within the subconscious doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

        2. The German decision is important. I think it’s the first time a court of law, rather than a medical body or a political party, has come down on the side of genital autonomy. According to the local expert Holm Putzke, this was the final appeal and the decision is now set in stone, but it may be only local. Still, if the law is sound, it will have to be applicable to the rest of Germany. It’s ludicrous for people to Godwinate this. Germany has bent over backwards since 1945 to prevent another Hitler from ever arising, or even a Nazi party. It’s illegal to deny the Holocaust or display Nazi regalia. This is just what it seems, protection of children’s rights. Now if Germany, with its ghastly history, can hold to this, it will be much easier for countries that didn’t have a Holocaust to do so.

      2. The issue seems to be somewhat clouded in this post. Male circumcision, aside from when performed for religious reasons, is very commonly performed soon after birth for a variety of medical reasons (balanitis, phimosis et.c). This (obviously) happens without the consent of the patient, as does any medical or surgical procedure on a child who is unable to consent. The consent is given by proxy from the parents.
        In the UK, any child under 16 cannot refuse treatment that has been consented for by a parent. I cannot see how circumcision for medical reasons is any special case.
        The question therefore, is whether consent to a medical procedure can be given by a parent for a non-medical reason; and by extension, whether consent by parental proxy for anything at all is moral. The crux appears to me to be that in medicine, consent is given by proxy on the basis that the procedure is in the best interests of the patient. However, I’m sure Jewish parents would put forward a strong argument that circumcision is in the best interests of their child for religious reasons. What needs to be crystallized is who can decide what is in the patient’s best interests, because if it is the parents then surely there can be no problem with the procedure.

        John, Oxford

        1. There are plenty of “problem with the procedure” including death and loss of penis.

          Wounding children’s genitals has no health “benefits.” If one is going to grasp at junk science to attempt to justify this practice one must also consider the death and disfigurement from careless and cruel circumcisers.

          (October 2004) Rabbi Yitzhok Fischer of NY performed circumcision followed by oral/genital (metzizah bi peh) and passed the herpes virus onto twin boys, killing one.

          Amitai Moshe, age 8 days, went into cardiac arrest after a ritual circumcision at Golder’s Green Synagogue, London. He was taken from the synagogue directly to hospital and died eight days later.

          Both male and female circumcision are unwarranted attacks on the genitals of infants and children. The intent of both male and female circumcision is for controlling sexuality. (See Rabbi Moses Maimonides explanation in his guide to the perplexed.) Both male and female genital cutting happen in sanitary conditions and in unsanitary conditions. Both male and female circumcision are done with and without anesthetic. Both male and female children die from the procedure. People who violate the genitals of their male and female children have built up a culture around genital mutilation to obscure the truth and make the event a celebration, palatable to the onlookers.

          News of the deaths and other accidents of circumcision are often suppressed. A few that have come to light recently are:

          HAARETZ, Tel Aviv, 14 December 2004. The Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday ordered the former rabbi of the Gan Yavneh local council to pay a child and his parents NIS 1.18 million in damages after the child was left severely disfigured when he was circumcised by the rabbi.

          New York, October 2004 Rabbi Yitzhok Fischer of NY performed circumcision followed by oral/genital (metzizah b’peh) and passed the herpes virus onto twin boys, killing one.

          Amitai Moshe, age 8 days, went into cardiac arrest after a ritual circumcision at Golder’s Green Synagogue, London. He was taken from the synagogue directly to hospital and died eight days later.

          Many Jewish families are opting to welcome their precious baby boys without harming their genitals. Google Alternate bris for more info.

        2. A medically necessary circumcision is essentially non-existent. Or at least trivially rare, and has no bearing on the right of genital integrity.

          Some parents would say female genital cutting is in the best interest of their child for religous or cultural reasons.

          Parents do not have unlimited rights. Parents do not have a right to brand their children like cattle, and that’s exactly what circumcision is, only it’s worse than branding.

          1. a) Are you sure? Data obtained under the FOI act suggests that in some areas of England around 14% of males have been circumcised for medical reasons alone, half under the age of 16; the figure is obviously higher when cultural and religious circumcisions are also counted. There are numerous clinical indications for circumcision, and outside of work (I am a medical student) I know several people who have been circumcised to treat medical conditions. Even if it were not common, it would surely still have bearing on the “right of genital integrity”, because genital integrity is being compromised without the consent of the patient in those children unable to consent.

            b) I’m sure some parents would say that, and as I suggested above, what I think is the interesting issue is how we decide what is in the best interests of the child? On the one hand we charge parents with supplying consent to medical procedures for their children, yet in other instances it is the rest of society that decides what is in a child’s best interests.

            c) Again, I agree. Parents do not have unlimited rights, but what I was asking was whether the reasons for giving consent to a medical procedure have to be medical ones? And, if they do have to be medical reasons, then isn’t the whole “consent” idea a token gesture?

  7. Whatever the rights of this practice I think the language of ‘mutilation’ is badly chosen. Yes I was circumcised as an infant. Do I really care – well not until someone decides to tell me I have a mutilated prick! Actually quite I like it how it is. Certainly I wouldn’t insist on a child of mine being ‘done’ but I don’t see why I should be singled out by the ‘anti-religious’ brigade and told that I have been ‘mutilated’ – because I don’t feel like that about it at all.

    Other people may feel differently – but as an ‘innocent’ party here I wish people would consider my feelings in the matter!

    1. Excellent post Brian. I think the language of mutilation is entirely justified and necessary. Whenever the apologists for this practise speak they constantly and deliberately use language to trivialise the practise – fold of skin, snip, cut etc. It is important to use language that reflects the actual deed rather than protect the delicate feelings
      of those who have had this inflicted on them

  8. Thanks for a good blog post.

    The charge of anti-Semitism is laughable. Condemning ritual circumcision of boys born into Jewish communities is a defence of the rights of those boys. Anti-Semitism would be doing nothing about it.

    And it’s funny how the parents consider depriving their children of religious freedom as a legitimate expression of the parents’ same right.

  9. Excellent article. And nice addition with Andrew Sullivan.
    Should we worry about possible anti-semitism and bigotry in any argument? Of course we should. And we have a duty to point it out when we see it- when we can prove the motive is in fact anit-semitism with EVIDENCE. The absence of facts means its just one’s opinion and is usually a way of shutting down an argument when it comes to genital cutting of children.
    To live our childhood free from harm, torture and degrading treatment is an absolute right. Freedom of belief is a right as long as it does not harm another, so is a qualified right.
    These distinctions can be gleaned from the US Constitution, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and European Human Rights charters.

    1. The UN Declaration of Human Rights clearly is against circumcision, though the UN itself either doesn’t have the balls to criticize the practice, or it’s a sexist/misandrist organization.

  10. 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 me 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.

    It seems to me that fair laws and universal moral rules cannot make exceptions for some religions but not others. If you allow circumcision you should allow nipple removal (assuming roughly equal risk etc.); if you think nipple removal is unacceptable then circumcision is also unacceptable.

    1. Good analogy.

      I have another thought experiment in a different direction:

      I think I will invent a religion. It will involve using the intact adult foreskin in its religious observances – filling it with wine for some communion-like activity, say, or “docking” with a phallic idol.

      Unfortunately, circumcised men, though they would not be discriminated against (heaven forbid!), would be physically unable to take part in our most sacred rites. Thus they can never become priests, bishops, cardinals or Pope in the Church of the Sancto Posthe. Their parents have excluded them, life-long from these roles. Thus infant religious circumcision seriously infringed THEIR religious freedom.

      Don’t say that’s silly. NOTHING could be as silly as what some religion near you believes or does. And don’t say “That’s just made up”. I’m just the next L Ron Hubbard, Mary Baker Eddy or Joseph Smith (Willam Booth, Charles Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Saul of Tarsus…).

    2. Interesting! We indoctrinate our children; we alter their minds in every manner possible; we contaminate their thinking; we take over their subjectivity so they can buy and consume. Then how is it that it’s acceptable to knowingly produce a ‘slave’ mind, but it is not acceptable to remove a foreskin? Where lies the judgement, where lies the reason? Why one is ok, and the other is not?

  11. This practice will come to an end when circumcised males rise up and subject their mothers to the exact same procedure. Removal of the clitoral hood is EXACTLY 100% equivalent to removal of the male foreskin. (Mind you, ONLY the clitoral hood should be removed and absolutely nothing else.) At some point one’s mother will be old and weak and physically unable to fight back or resist, much like an infant. At that point a circumcised male should restrain his mother and forcibly remove her clitoral hood.

    If she can dish it out, then she can take it.

    The day that mothers look at their sons with fear is the day that male genital mutilation will end virtually overnight. Women worldwide will be screaming for MGM to be outlawed. Why? Because they’ll be afraid that someday their sons will visit upon them what they subjected their little boys to.

    1. C’mon, that’s just nuts. I was mutilated, or allowed to be mutilated by my parents. It’s more the fault of the medical establishment than my parents. I’d never have this performed on another person.

      circumcision will end when boys who are denied equal protection under the ban on female genital cutting sue for being denied equal protection against genital cutting, equal protection being guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

    2. I certainly hope you are wrong, that that is the only way MGC can end, because I can’t see any men proposing to have anything to do with their mothers’ genitals. Once was quite enough.

      What I think will actually happen is that the rate will fall below 50% in the US and then fall more rapidly because the “locker-room teasing” argument will work against circumcision instead of for it. When only a minimum are being done, more and more doctors will refuse to do it, insurance will stop funding it and religious circumcision will be isolated. Many of the religious will abandon the practice (that has already started) until only the ultra-Orthodox continue it (as with metzitzah b’peh today).

      Concurrently a consensus will arise that male genital cutting is a human rights outrage. Eventually those wanting to do it will be such a small minority that their claim to have any right to do it will be dismissable.

      The fly in the ointment is Islam. Just as the US has lagged behind the rest of the developed world, Muslims will insist on taking their own time. I think I may now be talking about a timespan of hundreds of years rather than decades, but eventually liberal Islamic movements will arise that will not do it. I welcome voices like Ishmael’s.

  12. Anyone who would seek to mutilate the genitals of a small child, or go out of their way to argue in support of those who do, is mentally ill.

    It’s only the smokescreen of religion that obscures this otherwise plain fact.

  13. Thank you for your well reasoned article on this issue. I too am a circumcised male who feels he’s been mutilated. The saddest thing is that the most vehement proponents of the practice seem to be circumcised males. After the “it combats disease” and “it’s more hygienic” claims have been discredited, they invariably fall back on “well it never bothered me so it won’t bother my son when I do it to him.” It makes me so angry and sad that in order to protect their own feelings, they are willing to sacrifice the bodily integrity of their child.

    1. Those men are desperate to justify their own mutilation. Often, they say they want their sons to look like them, when in reality, they can’t NOT cut their son, because it would require they acknowledge that they are missing something. Their mutilation of their sons is a strange way to justify their own.

  14. I am offended by the suggestion that male and female circumcision can be compared to any extent. Female circumcision is the removal of the clitoris. Male circumcision does not in any way interfere with the sexual functions of the male. It is not mutilation. It is perhaps outdated and unnecessary but it is not at all what your language suggests: there is no scar tissue on a circumcised penis!

    1. Be offended, because you’re wrong on every count. As a mutilated male, I can tell you there is scar tissue. I’m looking at it right now. It’s a ring of obviously mangled flesh. I can tell that I’m missing an enormous amount of sensation. Circumcision absolutely does interfere with male sexuality. It destroys the most sensitive parts of the male genitals. What tiny bit I have remaining of the inner foreskin is far more pleasurable than the glans. Circumcision destroys the mobility of the penile skin making sex more painful for women, and giving some men painful erections, because there is not enough skin. Circumcision causes cosmetic problems, like hair all the way up the shaft of the penis, which is a psychologically damaging problem I’ve suffered with for 15 years.

      Male and female circumcision are very similar. Some forms of female circumcision only remove the labia, and this is actually less harmful than male circumcision.

      You need to do some research, and not base your understanding on mere indoctrination into a culture of male genital mutilation.

  15. Circumcision is a mark of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. It is an integral part of the Jewish religion, as, for instance, infant baptism is to the Catholic religion. Many Christians feel that only adults can consent to baptism, while Catholics believe that infants must be baptized because only the baptized can enter heaven. As an atheist convert to Catholicism, I was insistent on my daughter being baptized at a young age (11 days) as both a real and symbolic start to her life in the Catholic faith. I would have been devastated and worried for her if I could not have performed this ritual. While baptism is harmless, whether you believe in it’s efficacy or not, circumcision is potentially harmful. Even so, it is not within the rights of the government to restrict this important Jewish rite and social ritual. If change comes, it must come from within the religion. The USSR restricted circumcision to eradicate Judaism. Let’s not repeat any mistakes of the past.

    1. Get real. Baptism if fine. Circumcision is not. Don’t you understand the diffference? Circumcision destroys a normal, healthy, functional part of the male genitals. Baptism is absolutely superficial. No one has right to literally carve their religion into the child’s body, for that violates the child’s rights, both to genital integrity, and their own right of religious freedom.

    2. Was it within the rights of the US Government to restrict the freedom of those who include female genital mutilation as part of their religion?

      Religious rights can be restricted. You don’t have a right to mark someone else’s flesh with your religion, which is what circumcision of infants and children does, because that permanently interferes with THEIR right both to bodily integrity and to religious freedom.

      Don’t you dare try to claim anti-semitism. This is about protecting children from sexual torture and mutilation. Watch a circumcision video on youtube, and you will see a male child held down, having his genitals literally ripped apart, as he screams in agony. As a female, priviledged to live in a society to that protected your right to genital integrity, I find your position on male genital integrity to be sexist in the extreme.

      -Victim male genital mutilation, aka circumcision.

      1. Female genital cutting is not done as part of any religious practice. I find the religious knowledge of the people here to be quite low, and to betray a serious lack of understanding of deeply held religious beliefs.

        1. Ah, so if it were part of a religious practice, that would make it ok? That is truly what you are implying. And for the record, it IS part of some religions. Religion is culture, and visa versa. It doesn’t matter which it comes from. Sexual assault is wrong regardless of the justification for the assault.

          We are simply stating that religious freedom has limits. And it ends where another person begins. It’s easy for you, you’re not a victim of genital mutilation, as I a literally scarred male am. My right to intact genitals was violated.

          Let me ask you this: Do you, as a woman have a right to intact genitals? Does your right to intact genitals supersede any other person’s right to practice their religion? Remember, it doesn’t matter if any religion actually includes female circumcision. This is a hypothetical question. DO YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO INTACT GENITALS? If your answer is yes, then if you say men can be circumcised against their will, you are a sexist.

          If genital cutting is wrong, it’s wrong regardless of the gender of the victim. If genital cutting is a sexual assault, it is regardless of the gender of the victim. If genital cutting is mutilation, it is regardless of the gender of the victim. If you disagree, you’re sexist, and against equal rights. Or you think women are more equal. You can’t have it both ways.

        2. All forced genital cutting of children is done for “social or cultural reasons” and religion falls under those headings.

        3. “Those who advocate for FGM from an Islamic perspective commonly quote the following hadith to argue that it is required as part of the Sunnah or Tradition of the Prophet:

          ‘Um Atiyyat al-Ansariyyah said:
          A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina.
          The Prophet (pbuh) said to her:
          Do not cut too severely
          as that is better for a woman
          and more desirable for a husband’.”

    3. I’m creating a new religion. It requires equality of the sexes, but it also supports circumcision. Therefore, not only are baby boys to be circumcised, but girls are to have their labia sliced away. This will be done in a medically sterile environment by qualified medical professionals.

      Who are you to stop me from practicing my religion? Understand what I’m saying here?

      You even say it’s a social ritual. Well guess what? FGM is an important social ritual, even if it’s not religious. Who are you to criticize them?

      You know what, many Jews are coming out against circumcsion, because they are conscious enough to know that cutting a child’s genitals is evil, and deserves the harshest of punishments. If rape, merely touching a person’s genitals is a crime, shouldn’t painfully touching and destroying a person’s genitals be a much greater crime.

      Your glaring sexism and hypocrisy is appealing.

  16. I would also add that I have been with both circumcised and uncircumcised men, and the former enjoy sex more!

    1. How could they? They’re missing the most sensitive parts of their genitals? Circumcision destroys most of the inner foreskin, which is actually a lot more sensitive than the glans. Circumcision denies men the full sexual experience, just like FGM does for females.

      1. I never heard any complaints. Neither were they circumcised for religion reasons. Most men in the United States are circumcised as a matter of course. I find it funny that certain commenters claim that circumcised men are justifying themselves when they say they don’t mind. Perhaps they really just don’t mind?

        1. Many circumcised women have satisfying sex live and support the practice.

          Maybe they don’t mind. Doesn’t matter. Some blind people don’t mind being blind. Does that make it ok to pluck the eyes from a child? The men you speak of know no different. Is it ok to deny a person a part of their body, simply because they will never know what they are missing? Your logic is insane, and driven by your cultural blindness, due to living in a culture of genital mutilation. Those in countries that are largely intact, recognize male circumcision for what it is, a disfiguring sexual assault.

        2. You can hear complaints here: I’ll be adding three more from this very page later today.

          Men really don’t mind having had part of their penis cut off? You’re fooling yourself, just as they are. They’ll say anything to avoid the fact, including denying it was a part.

    2. Sample of one. Maybe you attract the kind of circumcised man who enjoys sex a lot and the kind of intact man who doesn’t enjoy it so much. And N(c)=? and N(uc)=? So what is the 95% CI of your scientific survey?

      More likely is that if YOU don’t like foreskins, maybe that, um, rubs off on your partners’ enjoyment…

  17. The comparison of tradional male circumcision to female mutilation as described by one of the quotes in the article is done in such a hysterical way that it makes me question the original (and also the current) author’s sincerity. To hyperbolize this way is the result of dishonesty or delusion. The two different circumcision, male and female (and yes they are different) are rooted in entirely disjoint cultural motivations. The two circumcisions yield profoundly different psychological and physiological outcomes. The fact that this is not clearly understood by the author and some of the commenters here is quite worrisome.

    1. It’s you who is utterly clueless. You have no evidence to back up your claims whatsoever. Circumcision DOES destroy part of a child’s genitals. It does cause psychological trauma. It started with identical motivations. Maidmonides, a Jewish scholar even said the purpose of male circumcision was to reduce pleasure, and circumcision became popular in the US largely due to the work of a Dr. Kellogg who recommended circumcision to reduce pleasure.

      You’re the one who is deluded by cultural blindness. Cutting the genitals of a boy is wrong for the same reason cutting the genitals of a girl is wrong. Your reasons for doing it are inconsequential, whether it’s for a misguided and debunked medical benefits, or for cultural or religious reasons.

    2. Many thousands of men are complaining about circumcision, for both due to their suffering from both physical and psychological consequences. Many thousands of men are attempting to restore what little remnant of foreskin they have left through stretching. Are you telling me these men are content? Are you telling me these people don’t suffer? Are you telling me the man of age 30, who told his wife that he lost all sensation in his circumcised penis, due to the fact that it was circumcised, and then killed himself two days later did not suffer profoundly damaging psychological and physiological outcomes? Are you telling me, that I who have suffered 15 years of anxiety due to cosmetic problems resulting from circumcision has not suffered damaging psychological outcomes?

      Do you really want to claim that holding down a child, slicing up their genitals while the scream in agony has no negative psychological consequences? That’s insane. I watched one circumcision video, and let me tell you, it’s traumatising to watch it, and to realize that that child screaming in utter agony, was me. I’ll never get over that.

      The delusion is of those who can’t see that cutting the genitals of a child is ALWAYS wrong, unless there is some dire medical problem that absolutely cannot be addressed by any other means, which is almost never.

    3. Here are the reasons for FGC given by the people who do it. They are just as varied and irrational as the reasons for MGC.

  18. Circumcision is such an ugly euphemism, and it’s very effective at downplaying the severity of what it entails. I hate how people say they are offended and shocked that anyone would DARE compare circumcision to female genital mutilation. Both practices have varying degrees of severity, and even moderate circumcisions are far more damaging than the least severe forms of FGM (which no one has the slightest problem admitting is mutilation – in fact they’d get offended if you call it anything else). Circumcision should be called what it is: Male Genital Mutilation, instead of using a euphemism to make it sound painless, minor, and necessary. It is none of those things. And yeah it’s especially sickening to see a woman whose body was rightly protected by the law, advocate for the disfiguring of the genitals of male infants. If it were female infants no one would allow it, and rightly so. No one is saying that men shouldn’t be allowed to get circumcised, only that they have a right to choose it for themselves and not have it forced upon them when they are too young to do anything about it.

  19. Symons’ statement is spot on, but not as reductio ad absurdum: when numerous individual acts congeal into a coherent cultural practice, they do indeed become less horrific and more tolerable. It IS much less horrific to have your clitoral hood removed in Djibouti as part of a ritual tribal practice than to have it done so for no reason in a culture that supplies no positive meaning or context, no way of making sense of what has been done to you. This is not to say that I necessarily advocate FGM in any form. The point is rather that the position taken by Sullivan, Dawkins, and all these other commentators–that these surgical practices are equally condemnable no matter what form or context–is facile and theoretically unsound.

    Culture provides a context to make sense out of what has been done to us–to us ALL, whether it be prepubescent genital modification, poor diet resulting in short stature, poor educational opportunities, or being raised in a shallow suburbanite milieu, or whatever one’s personal gripe may be. There is no “pure” way of growing up, no ideal. Life is what you do with what has been done to you. Our beliefs, our capacities, our identities are all permanently and deeply shaped by things outside our control when growing up. There are lines every society must draw between permissible cultural variations on the process of child raising, but let us not forget that these lines are themselves always culturally informed.

    Male circumcision has been widely practised all over the world for millenia, and, partly due to its minimal invasiveness and some health benefits, has continued to be widely performed even in our developed Western societies. There is sufficient cultural content to male circumcision in the West for any male who has had their foreskin removed to make sense of what was done to them. Some males of course may grow up to resent it, to wish it had never been performed on them. But this is no different from wishing that one, say, grew up with a healthier and more nutritious diet. Indeed there are millions of people in Western societies, especially in the US, who have painful and profoundly limiting chronic health conditions that are entirely the result of dietary practices growing up. Is it more traumatizing to live without foreskin, or to live with obesity, chronic lifestyle diseases, and the certainty of premature death? It seems that so many otherwise thoughtful people (such as Sullivan and Dawkins, mentioned in this article) are on this issue not thinking but rather reacting viscerally to the evil sounding concept of “surgical genital modification”.

    1. Brad, I am sorry that you are suffering. Of course no one’s pain is ever “invalid”. I unfortunately couldn’t find anything in your comment responsive to anything I said, so I’ll leave it there.

      1. It seems you’re just trying to excuse the systematic rape and mutilation of children. What gives you the motivation to defend such a thing?

        1. Brad,
          I resent being called a defender of child rape and won’t accept your taunting invitations to debate. You obviously know I don’t think male circumcision is child rape, so perhaps a more constructive comment might be to explain why you believe parents having a doctor remove their baby boy’s foreskin with the best of intentions is equivalent to violent sexual assault.

          1. If a parent had a doctor remove a girl’s labia with the best of intentions, and without anesthesia, as is often the case with circumcision, would that be a violent sexual assault?

            1. I am no doctor, but this seems like a misleading clip meant to provoke a quick visceral reaction, which is precisely why this public debate goes wrong. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but from what I did see it looked like there was stitching involved, which is unusual and makes the video highly suspicious. If you want to know how the procedure is normally performed, you can find all the information you want here without having to watch a life operation: And even assuming, arguendo, the video is more or less accurate, what exactly makes this “violent sexual assault”? Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine that the medical professional in that video was performing a life saving circumcision b/c of an infection in the infant’s glans. Would you still label that “violent sexual assault”?

              Also, please read up on the lack of conclusive evidence of adverse sexual side effects as well as the widely studied and documented health benefits. Also, note that some estimates indicate that perhaps up to a majority of US males are circumcised.

              1. Your attempt to connect circumcision with a life saving intervention is indicative of your desperation to justify this. One, has there ever been a life-saving circumcision?

                Circumcision is unnecessary. Morally equating the unnecessary surgery on a healthy patient who does not consent with life-saving surgery is wholly disingenuous, and you should be ashamed for doing so. If a surgeon had to perform life saving surgery by cutting the genitals of a baby girl, would that make cutting her genitals unnecessarily NOT a violent sexual assault? Your “thought” experiment was thoughtless.

                You obviously have not done any research. There are known psychological and physical problems that result from circumcision. And most of the benefits are bullshit, and can be reached through less invasive, less violating methods.

                Circumcision doesn’t prevent HIV infection. Circumcision doesn’t prevent UTI’s, anyway, women get more than intact men, and we treat them with antibiotics. Penile cancer is so rare as to make circumcision to prevent it simply absurd, and the American Cancer Society states as much.

                If circumcision has all these health benefits, Europe would have higher rates of STI’s, but they don’t.

                Even if there were benefits, they can’t outweigh the human rights aspect. Genital integrity is a basic human right, or at least ought to be, regardless of your gender.

              2. You’re indoctrinated into a culture of male genital mutilation, and you’ll simply do whatever it takes to justify it, including making intellectually dishonest arguments. You are no different than a person living in a culture in which female genital cutting is practiced. You, like them, are stuck on the inside, unwilling to step outside.

                I’m guessing you’re circumcised. It’s not easy to acknowledge that what was done to you was harmful. So in some sense, I understand why you’re defending the practice. It’s a self protective mechanism. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any obligation to show how you are wrong so future men are protected.

              3. The majority of males in the US are circumcised. What is the relevance of that? The majority of blacks in the US in 1860 were slaves. That didn’t justify slavery any more than a majority of men being circumcised justifies circumcision. Even if all men were circumcised, it would still be just as wrong.

                1. Brad, apparently you are not familiar with the concept of a “thought experiment”. I was not morally equating or connecting circumicision with life saving operation. I was simply asking you to reflect on what about that video makes you think “violent sexual assault”. Anyway, it seems you are too emotionally caught up in this issue to discuss it rationally, which I guessed would be the case when you began your comments with insults and snarks.

                  1. Yes, you absolutely were equating it.

                    “Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine that the medical professional in that video was performing a life saving circumcision b/c of an infection in the infant’s glans. Would you still label that “violent sexual assault”?”

                    That’s what you said. You were implying that because one cutting of the genitals of a child is clearly not a violent sexual assault, another isn’t. But you miss the point that one is necessary and one isn’t. Amputating a gangrenous foot is not a violent assault, but if you amputated a healthy person’s foot, that would be. You don’t seem to see this distinction when applied to the genitals. It would be tragic for a child to need to undergo surgery that did not allow them to be anesthetized, but it’s a necessary evil. Circumcision is an unnecessary evil. If you applied your thought experiment to a girl, the result changes, demonstrating the invalidity of your thought experiment. If it were necessary to cut the genitals of a baby girl in order to save her life, I agree it would not be a violent sexual assault. It would be a necessary surgical intervention. But if there is no problem, and someone cut the genitals of a girl, I don’t care to what extent they cut them, it’s a violent sexual assault. I bet you would agree. Changing the gender changes nothing. Only your cultural bias prevents you from seeing this.

                    You’re goddamn right I’m emotionally caught up in it. You know, maybe, kind of like a victim of a disfiguring sexual assault would be. I dated a girl who was raped only a month before we met in person. And let me tell you, after some thought, I recognized many parallels to her reaction to being raped with my reactions to circumcision, to living for the past 15 years with an obvious “botched job” though all circumcisions are technically botched, and with the realization of what was taken from me, and the witnessing of a child being circumcised while they scream in agony and terror, and knowing that was once me. And while she has probably been able to significantly get over being raped in the 7 years since, I’m still stuck with the same mutilated penis, and all the associated psychological issues asssociated with that. In that respect, circumcision is rape, and actually worse because it’s permanent.

          2. Various dictionaries define rape as: an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside, any violation or abuse: the rape of justice. the crime of forcing another person to submit to sex acts.

            Many of the paraphilia described under medical definitions of “perversion” involve force and power over another person, often a defenceless person, often children.

            A pedophile strictly speaking, is an adult sexually attracted to children. Circumcisers have an obsessive compulsion (paraphilia) to cut the genitals of others, particularly infants and children. The underlying motive has to do with forcing others to experience and endure what has been forced upon them. This follows the classic pattern of all child abuse.

            Yes circumcision of children is rape, a severe violation of the child’s security and permanent damage to that child, and that future adult’s sexual organs.

            1. More often than not, child abusers/molesters/etc., are those who were themselves similarly victimized. Hence the man’s inclination to want his son’s penis to look like his.

    2. This is a thoughtful comment, but mired in circumcising culture. Circumcision’s invasiveness is not “minimal”. It borders on intolerable, and takes just a small slip of the knife to cross that border, sometimes fatally. The “health benefits” are marginal when they are not completely bogus, and readily balanced by the health and sexual deficits.

      Wishing one had not been circumcised is different in kind from wishing one had grown up with a healthier and more nutritious diet. Parents almost invariably give children the best diet they know, limited by their poverty and/or ignorance. That is very different from cutting part off one’s genitals.

      If “surgical genital modification” (or more simply “genital cutting”) sounds evil, that is because it is evil. It is a historical curiosity that of all the normal, healthy, functional, non-renewing parts of a baby’s body, this part alone may be cut off for any reason or none. What is not coincidence is that it is at the centre of his sexuality.

      1. Hugh, I don’t understand your response to the unhealtyh diet analogy. It seems like you are saying they are different in kind… b/c one involves food and another involves genitals. And? Let me try again: Parents usually try to give their kids the best diet they know, and this often fails catastrophically; and in a similar way, parents usually try to give their kids the best world perspective they know, which often is a religious one entailing foreskin removal. This latter phenomena also sometimes ends up badly with the child grown disliking what has been done to them. In both cases, parents have done something they thought was best for their child but turned out to be bad. The only significant difference I see b/w the two is that the unhealthy diet situation, the results are almost always unequivocally terrible for the child (chronic pain, lifestyle disease, premature death), whereas in the circumcision situation, the grown man very rarely has any serious issue with their circumcision.

        1. Selecting the foods your child will eat is not the same as strapping them down and physically force feeding them through a tube. In the latter case their body has been forcibly violated. Your analogy compares (inaccurately in my opinion) only results, not the acts themselves.

          1. Todd, the distinction b/w the act itself and then the consequences of the act is a helpful one. Re the consequences of the act (bad diet versus circumcision), I think it’s not unreasonable to imagine that a life of obesity and disease is usually going to be a far worse consequence than a missing foreskin (of course there will always be special exceptions in cases of medical malpractice resulting in unintended cutting, which is all many people seem to be focusing on). Re the act itself, again, I think this goes back to the visceral reaction we have to the idea of “cutting” something. It sounds barbaric, but really in the vast majority of cases where a baby boy’s foreskin is removed itis, from what I understand, a harmless, almost instantaneous procedure. Yes, in the latter case there is some sense of “force” (although if, as in the usual scenario, it is being performed on an infant, this is semantics of “force”), but that doesn’t seem like a critical distinction. Raising a child on a diet of soda and junk food, which they will consume willingly, happily, is not “force”, but it doesn’t make it any less harmful.

            1. I doubt you’d be going so far out of your way to defend female genital cutting. Or would you?

              1. There is little or no cultural basis for female genital cutting in Western society. A female who undergoes such a procedure would almost certainly end up feel isolated, abused, and violated. It is also a practice tied to cultures of patriarchy. Besides that side of things, just physically speaking female genital cutting is much more invasive and problematic. For all these reasons female genital cutting is a very different question from male circumcision, and why it is and should remain a crime in Western societies.

                1. And now your hypocrisy reveals itself.

                  “There is little or no cultural basis for female genital cutting in Western society.” What does that matter? So in places where FGM is widely practiced it’s ok? Is the rest of the world wrong to try to make cultures in other countries stop cutting their girls?

                  “A female who undergoes such a procedure would almost certainly end up feel isolated, abused, and violated” There are millions of men who feel just this way about being circumcised. But you’re just using the argument that numbers are what matter. They aren’t. What matters is human rights. What’s so hard to understand about that.

                  “It is also a practice tied to cultures of patriarchy.” So what. So is marriage. Does that make marriage wrong? What you don’t get is that the justifications don’t matter, it’s the deed that matters. If there were altruistic (misguided of course) reasons for cutting the genitals of girls, that wouldn’t make it ok. And largely, there are. These people aren’t trying to harm their girls. Anyway, it’s mostly the women doing the cutting.

                  And you don’t know a thing about MGM or FGM. Often FGM is no more invasive and damaging than MGM. And the justifications given are the same. The benefits of male circumcision are overblown. The downsides are ignored. Most people won’t even acknowledge that there are downsides, except those who live in cultures that respect human sexuality and those in cultures that don’t, but that have learned something about normal male anatomy. hundreds of children die every year from circumcision, including some every year in the US. Many men suffer lifelong complications, hairy shaft, painful erections, loss of pleasure, difficulty “finishing” etc. These problems mostly go unreported, and no one is willing to make the connection between the violent, mutilating sexual assault of circumcision and any complication whatsoever. Not to mention the near certain negative psychological damage of being held down as an infant, and having your genitals literally sliced apart, while you scream in absolute terror an agony. What a way to enter the world, eh?

                  One simple question:

                  Should women have a fundamental right to intact genitals? If so, then if equality means anything, men must also have that right, and the US Constitution even says so. By the way, that means the ban on female genital cutting is unconstitutional, because it violates the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution by denying men equal protection from unnecessary genital cutting.

                  1. Re “’There is little or no cultural basis for female genital cutting in Western society’. What does that matter? So in places where FGM is widely practiced it’s ok?”:
                    No, never said that. In fact I went out of my way in a previous comment to make precisely the point that culture is not the only factor that determines right/wrong.

                    Re ““A female who undergoes such a procedure [in the West] would almost certainly end up feel isolated, abused, and violated” There are millions of men who feel just this way about being circumcised.”
                    Yes, and that is tragic. There are many things I am sure we all wish were otherwise in our childhood. I am sure there are millions of men who suffered permanent psychological trauma b/c of being forced to endure high school gym. Does this mean we should criminalize high school gym?

                    Re ““It is also a practice tied to cultures of patriarchy.” So what. So is marriage. Does that make marriage wrong?”
                    Marriage is historically rooted in patriarchy, not currently tied to it. That vestige has little or no connection to modern western marriage. FGM is both historically rooted AND invariably connected to patriarchy and male dominance. Very different.

                    Re “The benefits of male circumcision are overblown. The downsides are ignored.”
                    Male circumcision is a widespread practice that is widely studied. The downsides are not ignored. Do some research.

                    1. Now you’re just getting desperate. Your arguments would be stupid to a child. It doesn’t matter why FGM is done. It’s wrong. It doesn’t matter why MGM is done, it’s wrong. Human rights are what matter, and you don’t seem to care about them.

                      Equating gym with a disfiguring sexual assault is intellectually dishonest. The difference is gym class is over. I’m 30 years old. Whatever happened there I could get over, not that there was anything to get over. But I’m stuck with my mutilated dick for my entire life.

                      You’re just not willing to acknowledge the downsides. No, they have not been widely studied, not even remotely. they are only starting to be investigated. The whole of Europe knows the downsides, because they have intact genitals, and they know what men, and women, in the US are missing, and yes, that’s why they are moving to ban it. THEY know better, and in the not too distant future, science will prove them right.

            2. Finding examples of worse things is not a reasonable way to justify an act. Taking your example of junk food… The effects of that may be worse in the long term than being raped. So what? It is probably less harmful to beat someone up than to kill their family, etc etc. Take any act and we can surely find examples of worse things… doesn’t make the act itself any less harmful.

              Please watch a video of a circumcision and read about the details of the procedure. It is hardly instantaneous and harmless. Not only the procedure itself, but for weeks afterwards parents must apply vasaline to the wounds, which are exposed to chafing against the diaper, as well as urine and fecal matter. Did you know that on a child the foreskin is adhered to the glans and doesn’t even retract until around 10-12 years old? So imagine the pain and damage when you forcibly pry it off and then crush/cut it from the body. In America we are so ignorant about the foreskin that even with intact males, many doctors forcibly retract the foreskin.

              1. Todd, please read my comment more carefully before hoisting up straw men. My argument is NOT “there are worse things than circumcision, thus circumcision is okay.” Rather, the comparison is between two decisions (circumcision and diet selection) that are both legal and that we leave up to parents to decide. The point is that people grow up regretting, sometimes resenting, many parental choices, choices that have profound influences on what that person grows up to be and feel and think. This does not mean that we should start criminalizing every parental choice that might be made poorly, that might result in a future detriment to the grown child. Of course we must restrict parental autonomy in some ways (e.g., you are required school your child for some minimum number of years). The regulation, or criminalization, of some aspect of parental autonomy will be a complicated issue that turns on something more than whether there is a chance that leaving that choice with the parents might end up harming some grown children.

                1. It is now legal, but that doesn’t mean it should be, and in our lifetimes it will not be. I guarantee it. In the year 2015, boys born after the ban on female genital cutting was enacted will be 18. At that point, they will be able to sue for being denied equal protection under the law from unnecessary genital cutting. The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution forbids denying a person equal protection. As it is now, men are denied equal protection from unnecessary genital cutting. Hence the ban on female genital cutting, which makes no exceptions for culture/tradition/religion, is unconstitutional. Either that ban will need to be totally rescinded, or men will finally no longer be second class citizens and gain the right to their own genitals.

                  One more thing, are you pro-choice? If you’re pro-choice, you think a woman should be able to control her own body. If you’re pro-choice, you must be in favor of men’s right to intact genitals. Any other position would be inconsistent.

                2. Max,

                  I just don’t understand why surgically altering any other healthy body part of the infant male is illegal; surgical alteration of infant female genitals is illegal, yet removing a healthy part of the male infant’s genitals falls under “parental choice”. Is the last instance really more akin to choice of diet than it is to the first two instances? Why do we criminalize cosmetic surgery without consent on everybody and leave this single exception? I just can’t make any sense of that.

                  1. I’ve addressed this in another comment already, but I will explain my point again. One of the primary reasons why male infant circumcision is legal and female circumcision is illegal (even the least invasive clitoral hood removal) in the West — and this is only the primary one, not the only one — is that there is little or no historical or cultural basis for female circumcision in Western societies.

                    Thus if some poor little girl is subjected to FGM as an infant, she will almost certainly (even if the operation is “success” w/ no unintended damage) grow up to perceive herself as an outcast, as mutilated, abused, she will likely have little cultural or psychological support as her operation would be a strange anomaly in her society. The situation is the opposite with male circumcision in the West. A substantial percentage of boys Western societies are circumcised for one reason or another (some estimates say a majority in some countries like USA). Male circumcision has a rich historical and cultural context in our societies. Boys grow up see references to it in pop culture, they will have friends who are circumcised, they will here good natured jokes about circumcised and uncircumcised penises, and so on… Of course there will be cases of medical malpractice, of negligence, of subsequent infections and all sorts of other bad consequences of SOME male circumcisions, situations that will lead some Men (like Brad), to resent their operation, as any normal man would.

                    Now, whether the incidence of medical malpractice and other detrimental consequnces of male circumcision are so substantial as to start to outweigh the autonomy of parents to choose for their son to be circumcised is a question every society must ask and think about it. From the evidence I have seen, this concern does not outweigh parental choice (especially when you consider so much else that parents have autonomy over in a child’s upbringing that often leads to terribly adverse consequences for the child). I believe heading down this path of limiting parental autonomy is a slipper slope b/c, as I’ve brought up as just one example before, we could make an even easier argument to take away, or at least regulate, parents’ right to choose their children’s diet. The US is going through a fullblown health and healthcare crisis, with millions of people suffering devestating and easily preventable lifestyle diseases and premature death. If the logic is that, since the choice to circumcise a baby boy sometimes leads to complications/regrets/lifestyle issues, thus we should criminalize that parental choice, then this same logic applies to so much else that parents routinely choose wrongly for their child: diet, education, second hand smoke, etc etc.

                    It is possible that some time in the not too distant future male circumcision practices will start to wane, as Brad claims. In that case, I might also change my position on this issue since the likelihood will increase that those small minority of boys that do get circumcised will lack the cultural and psyschological support to make sense of their bodies, to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies, to see their penises as a variation rather than an anomaly. In that scenario, where circumcision will almost invariably result in psychological challenges and body image issues, the parental autonomy side of things will no longer be as compelling. We are not there yet, in my opinion, and this is why the decision by the German court is wrong, or, at the very least, premature.

                    1. This is an issue of human rights. Children’s bodies (and the adults they become) belong to them not their parents. Cutting healthy, erogenous and protective organs from a child’s body is a violation of human rights.

                      The consequences of this unnecessary surgery imposed upon children’s bodies for superstitious or fraudulent medical claims are serious, lives are lost and ruined when the circumciser screws up.

                      Blathering on at length here using red herrings is misleading and not productive to the discussion.

                    2. Max,

                      By “The West”, what countries are you referring to? As far as I know, the United States is just about the only country that practices male circumcision for non religious reasons on a wide scale. Less than 25% of the world’s males are circumcised. Even in the US, I would hardly call the history of male infant circumcision a “rich historical context”. It began around a hundred years ago as a means to deter masturbation, which was thought to cause all sorts of disease. Why is it you sympathetically portray a hypothetical little girl who feels outcast, mutilated and abused because she is an anomaly, and yet ignore that being a circumcised male IS an anomaly if you look at the worldwide numbers (even in the US, the rate is down to 50-60% now). Here is a video of a man succinctly describing how circumcision became prevalent in the US to a talk show audience, who ask some good questions too:


                      As for the slippery slope of infringing on parental autonomy, to me, the slope looks equally steep if we look at an individual’s right to autonomy of their own body. If we can arbitrarily decide that the foreskin is unimportant enough to be cut off without consent, historical precedence or not, then there’s nothing to stop us from doing it with other body parts we deem unimportant, so long as it has been done for a sufficient period of time.

                    3. How do you define rich? Female circumcison has a rich historical and cultural context in some societies.

                      You’re just bending over backwards to justify a mutilation you fundamentally, deep down, know is wrong. You are hiding from the truth behind specious arguments, that you must know are specious. Are you circumcised? Have you allowed a son of yours to be circumcised. I would sympathize with that. It’s hard to come to grips with your own genital mutilation. I can only imagine it much harder to come to grips with having allowed it to be inflicted on your son.

        2. So one wrong justifies another wrong. Because we can’t control what a parent feeds their child, it’s ok to chop off part of their genitals. Isn’t that a bit absurd. A bad diet would have overall a more negative effect, but circumcision is 100% preventable. At least with food, you have to eat something. But with circumcision, the need is entirely fabricated. There is no need to be cutting anything in the first place. There is a need to feed a child. The parents just do it wrong.

          Again, I am highly suspicious that you would not be going so far out of your way to defend this if it were girls being mutilated, and I’d like to get your take on that.

  20. One thing the author does not mention here is that the conflict is not simply between two conflicting “rights” but between two conflicting views of what “person” means, and what “religion” means. He assumes that Judaism, and other religions, have the same conception of what a person is as he does, i.e., a rights-bearing individual who has absolute sovereignty over his/her body, and that they also have the same view of what religious conviction entails, i.e., active affirmation of a proposition as true.

    But that is not true. No religion that I am aware of believes that human individuals have absolute sovereignty over their bodies. That’s why sexual ethics is important in virtually every single religion. We are not our own, as it were, we are God’s (e.g., in Judaism), so that who we are is not simply a “rights bearing individual” but an individual who owes something to the one who created them.

    Also, religious commitments does not work – really for anyone, but especially in Judaism – in the way you describe. This is why Dawkins and his ilk really don’t understand what religion is, because they see it simply as believing certain propositions as true or false, when that’s a very small portion of it. Religion is, basically, an entire way of life for most people, and it has much more to do with material practices than intellectual assent. So for a Jew the idea that you would wait for a child to come to a certain age in order to “express their commitment” completely misunderstands what circumcision is. It’s not an expression of commitment but a material practice that makes up what it means to be a Jew, an identity that is only partially decided by the individual (again, implying a different conception of “person”).

    The real conflict is between these two conceptions, and all the German court has done is coerced one community into agree with it’s conceptions of the individual and religious freedom (which both happen to be implicit Christian views of those two issues). Of course, Germans and many other “Christian” countries have done this to Jews in the past, and while this is not on the same scale as many of those, it is indeed coercion of that community.

    The problem with much modern western thinking (especially secularist thinking) is that it assumes that IT is the universal perspective, yet fails to realize that it is just as much embedded in it’s culture and material practices as any religion.

    But the reality is that it just happens to have more guns at it’s back than all those backward, highly religious, third-world nations.

    1. This raises a problem. What is a society to do when a person grows up and leaves his parents’ religion? Or leaves that aspect of it which has marked his body? Do we accept that children are their parents’ property until they reach adulthood? Would we countenance child brides, child labour, castration or footbinding on that basis? Or does not wider society have a duty at some point to step in and say, “No, the cohesion of your subgroup takes second place to the primacy of the individual before that point”?

      1. First Hugh, there is no question of child labored or anything like that here. Simply because a group has one practice that seems offensive does not mean that they have others, and you can’t decide this stuff abstractly.

        Second, yes, children are very much the “property” of their parents in a material sense, if not in a formal sense. That is, children are absolutely dependent on their parents, and their parents are responsible to this, so that children are not fully their own until late in their childhood.

        Third, I do think that wider society has an obligation at certain points to step in. This happens all the time. Yet denying something that is so fundamental to an entire culture that is thousands of years old because it offends our sensibilities at one moment is simply myopic.

        1. If children are their parents property then it is the parents right to destroy them as well. I can legally break my computer monitor because it’s my property, but human beings cannot be property unless you mean they are less-than-human slaves. By the way, circumcision as it is practiced today has not been fundamental to the entire Jewish culture over it’s entire existence. Cultural practices change over time. I saw this posted on another forum:

          From what I understand, when the Jews first started practicing circumcision, the procedure was nowhere near as drastic as what we do today:

          “This was possible because the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision defined in the Bible was a relatively minor circumcision; named milah, this involved cutting off the foreskin that extended beyond the glans.”

          It is also interesting to note that the practice was controversial among Jews in olden times:

          “It was counter to Greek beliefs to violate the natural human form, and this caused young Jewish men to try to appear to be uncircumcised, which greatly annoyed Jewish rabbis. In response, Jewish rabbis argued that the foreskin was an imperfection that needed to be cut off in order to reveal the correct human male form. Thereafter, the Jewish hierarchal stance on circumcision was challenged by both practicing Jews and non-Jews. Throughout the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, Jewish officials continually had to justify the tradition of circumcision, and their success is apparent because circumcision remains an integral part of the Jewish religion to this day.”

          1. Well Todd, that’s why I said they a “property” (in scare quotes) in a practical sense, NOT a “formal” sense (i.e., not property such that you can do what ever you want to them). This, of course, is a very modern western notion as well, since in most cultures for most of history “property” was exactly what children were.

            However, I do not believe that children are. The point I was making is that children are fully dependent on their parents, and to think that they somehow have sovereignty over their bodies is not (empirically or philosophical) true.

            Now, as to your historical points – they might be the case. I even agree that historical it’s more complicated than it looks. However, why would it be appropriate for a non-Jewish government of Germany to decide how important circumcision is to Jewish identity?

        2. “Yet denying something that is so fundamental to an entire culture that is thousands of years old because it offends our sensibilities at one moment is simply myopic.”

          I assume you’d take the same stance with regards to female genital cutting. So were we wrong to ban female genital cutting?

    2. Really? I don’t have any concept of well-being for conscious creatures? Why would you say something so silly?

      1. You’re saying it’s our culture versus their culture, and there are no right and wrong ways to maximize human well-being. And you’re wrong. Cutting the genitals of a child reduces their well-being. Even if they never know it. Denying a person sexual pleasure is wrong.

  21. Sam B@gg (google that!)

    Wow — could not disagree with you more here. I’ve read your posts occasionally as they pop up on my facebook feed, and have generally found them agreeable. But this is a pretty horrific decision in my opinion — and nothing could be further from “practical” ethics. This is the work of a theoretician on the loose.

    Parents do all kinds of irreversible things to their children in which these children have no say. For example, they have sex and bring them into the world. They give them all sorts of genes that may be “harmful.” They teach them things about the world, give them traits and dispositions and habits and a lifestyle and a nation and siblings… the list is literally endless, in that real sense of the word literal. Every choice a parent makes before a child is 4, and many of them throughout the rest of their children’s lives, are performed without the child’s “consent.” If we took away everything — even everything “irreversible” — that parents did without their children’s permission, they would cease to be parents.

    So when does the state have a right to intervene? Generally in our pluralist societies we have decided that the state intervenes only when serious harm will come to the child; or when their capacity to be a democratic citizen would be severely and irreversibly disabled. In any case, the burden of proof is on the state to show why and how it is such a harmful practice. To say that male circumcision is anywhere near as harmful or disabling as other forbidden practices, such as repeated physical abuse, sexual molestation, or, let’s go there, female “circumcision,” is patently ridiculous: How many people who have been physically abused or molested wish it hadn’t happened to them? And what about males who have been circumcised?

    We need to be careful about using state power. That is the issue here. There is an incredibly high burden of proof that the practice at issue is harmful. But “consent” is a red herring here. Nothing parents do before the age of 4 is consensual, and everything is potentially irreversible. The fact that this particular practice is a physical manipulation seems to me to be of little importance.

    While I think perhaps Walter Russell Mead’s conclusion of anti-semitism is unwarranted — the road to hell and all that — the title of his article is not. This court has essentially ruled the practice of Judaism illegal, for no other reason than that parents are participating in nonconsensual practices with their children — that is, because parents are being parents.

    From Berlin,

    1. Um Sam,

      Male circumcision and Type 1a female circumcision are EXACTLY the same, and no it’s not patently ridiculous to make the comparison. In Type 1a female circumcision only the clitoral hood is removed. Not the clitoris, not the labia, not anything but the clitoral hood. It is no more damaging than removal of the male foreskin.

      Now if you’re going to argue that Type 1a female circumcision is damaging and harmful, then you must likewise argue that male circumcision is equally damaging and harmful, since the two practices are identical. So you are left with two options: Outlaw both, or ensure that both are legal.

      Make your choice.

      1. I can’t go blow for blow with you on the specifics of Type 1a circumcision because I don’t know enough about the specific operations in question. However, I can say confidently that there is no way the two procedures are “exactly” the same, since the anatomy is obviously quite different. I understand that they may be similar, or comparable, but not exactly the same.

        In any case, the irreversible harm that makes the case for state intervention in the case of female “circumcision” is the inability to experience sexual pleasure, and everything that goes along with that. If the type of female “circumcision” you’re referring to — like the male kind — doesn’t have any of these harmful effects, then perhaps I wouldn’t have anything against it. I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to, though, so I can’t say for sure.


        1. Well Sam, it may surprise you to learn that anatomy isn’t as different as you believe. The male foreskin and the female clitoral hood are virtually identical in structure and function: both are sensitive pieces of skin covering yet other sensitive organs for protection.

          Removal of either doesn’t prevent the person from experiencing sexual pleasure or orgasm, although it does desensitize the glans in the male penis and the clitoris in the female. Sexual pleasure is still possible, albeit different or “reduced”, if you will.

          Now to address the issue of outlawing female circumcision vs. allowing male circumcision. You argue that female circumcision (even Type 1a) should be outlawed because it has no “historical or cultural value” in Western society. Two points need to be made:

          1) It obviously has significant cultural and historical value in other societies. Are you content to let it continue in those societies?

          2) You’ve set up a nice little conundrum. You claim that female circumcision has no historical or cultural value in Western society, and then advocate outlawing it thereby preventing it from ever achieving cultural or historical value in the future. How convenient. And we’re not just talking about the more extreme forms, we’re talking about the lesser forms as well.

          How very egalitarian of you.

          As for you not knowing the specifics of Type 1a female circumcision, may I offer you a little bit of advice? If you admittedly don’t know about this-or-that topic, then perhaps you should refrain from making sweeping statements about said topic? You’ll look far less ignorant that way.

          1. I admitted that I knew little about the specific operations because I am open to the idea that if I have misconceptions about female “circumcision,” I should be corrected. It seems that is the case, and that certain types – “1a” perhaps – are less harmful than others. In other words, I’m trying to draw out the right principle here and I’m willing to revise what falls under that principle. That doesn’t change the principle: if you’re right about 1a and male circumcision having very similar effects, then so be it: both should be legal. My point stands.

            As I understood it, there are perhaps other “types” of circumcision in females that are quite common and are far more harmful, but I suppose it’s also possible that I’ve been misiniformed in every other conversation I’ve had — and everything I’ve ever read — about the topic. In any case, I have a right to an opinion about male circumcision and its relationship to political pluralism even if I am not an expert on type 1a and 2a and 3b of the female variety.

            1. Then you’re wrong. Humans have a fundamental right to genital integrity. It’s wrong to cut a girl’s genitals, to ANY degree, unless it’s medically necessary. Same for boys. It’s absurd to maintain that it’s acceptable to cut the genitals of a child. Anyone performing such an act belongs in prison with child molestors, for they are molesting a child’s genitals, AND cutting them.

              The problem is, you don’t know anything about intact male anatomy. If you did, you’d know that circumcision has huge negative impacts on male sexuality. Intact men know what we’re missing, and it’s huge.

        2. If you’re going to state that you don’t know enough about the specific operations in question, then your claim that female circumcison causes the inability of females to experience sexual pleasure is utterly without merit, by definition, and by your own admission.

          Most females who have undergone some form of female genital cutting actually report satisfying sex lives. On the other hand, there are countless thousands of circumcised males who do not have satisfying sex lives, and who do not experience pleasure, because the vast majority of the pleasure sensing nerves on their penis were destroyed.

          The combination of your admitted ignorance and certainty of your position demonstrates the truth of the following quote:

          “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
          Bertrand Russell

          1. Bertrand Russell

            How kind of you, then, to show off your intelligence with such measured and humble prose. You must be what I had in mind.

            1. Sorry, the one who said he knew nothing about FGM said it’s clearly a different kind of thing. A demonstration that those that are most ignorant of the facts of the genital cutting of boys and girls are the most certain that female circumcision is an atrocity and always completely destroys a woman’s sexuality, and that male circumcision is always harmless.

              Someone who said they didn’t know anything about FGM said this:

              “In any case, the irreversible harm that makes the case for state intervention in the case of female “circumcision” is the inability to experience sexual pleasure,”

              He defines himself as ignorant of FGM. Then he goes on to state authoritatively that female circumcision causes an inability to experience sexual pleasure. Sorry, the definition applies. I will accept your apology now.

    2. Sam,

      Why should the burden of proof lie on those who are asking that we not perform surgery on a healthy, perfectly formed body? Those who want to cut and permanently alter the child’s body are the ones who must prove that it is not only harmless, but beneficial. “The circumcised male has no problem with it as an adult” is not proof of harmlessness, because the procedure was done when they were too young to remember, and they’ve never known what it’s like to have the foreskin they were born with. Again, if you beat or rape a one day old infant they might have no recollection of it as an adult – does that mean the act did no harm? And what about the rights of the thousands of men out there who do feel they have been harmed by circumcision?

      Healthy female genitals are protected by law from cosmetic surgical alteration, and the same is true for adult males. Also you cannot legally do cosmetic surgery on any other healthy part of the male infant’s body… why is there this one exception for the genitals of an infant male and everything else is illegal?

      1. Here the question comes down to the principle of pluralism. Do we really want to regulate every act of parents that might conceivably be harmful to their children? The burden of proof is on the interfering state because interfering states are extremely dangerous, as any “practical” ethicist should know.

        Of course rape of a one day old infant is still wrong. We could come up with a number of reasons why, but perhaps more importantly, practically nobody living in our world would deny this. The case is obviously different for circumcision — and with the lack of a compelling reason (i.e. disabling harm) to prevent parents from perpetuating their culture, why intervene?

        Now, if you want to try to convince parents that because of the pain (eased by anesthetic) or the lasting (psychological?) effects of having no foreskin, they SHOULDN’T circumcise their infants, be my guest. This is what civil society is for. But you might encounter some decent ripostes: isn’t it doing more harm to their children to fail to induct them into one of the key traditions of life in the culture into which they will be raised? To make them outcasts in their own community? To make them incapable of carrying on the heritage of their families? If harm is defined only as physical pain integrated over time, then perhaps circumcision causes a greater amount, but you can’t wish these other types of harm away because you wish we lived in a different world where people don’t have cultures.

        In any case, the main point for me is: are you so damn cocksure that this is a horrific harm that you’re willing to use state power to force parents to do away with a key tenet of their lifestyle? I AM that damn cocksure that the rape of a 1-day-old infant is wrong, and therefore, I’m willing to ban it. But comparing this to male circumcision is, at best, unfair.


        1. It’s not obviously different. Circumcision is worse than rape.

          Rape is unwanted sexual contact. A child is held down, and an extremely important part of his genitals is severed. He loses thousands of nerves, and will never know what sex was actually supposed to feel like. Hence a part of his sexuality was utterly and permanently destroyed. This is clearly worse than mere unwanted sexual intercourse. I would take it up the ass several times if it meant not being mutilated. A rape victim can recover and have a normal sex life. By definition, a circumcised male can never have a normal sex life. The girl I dated, is probably over her rape. It’s been 7 years, and she, with all of her working parts can experience her full sexuality. She has recovered. I, missing a huge part of my sexuality forever, can never recover, and neither can you, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. A blind man is missing out, even if he is happy.

        2. Sam,

          No one has suggested that we regulate “every act that might conceivably be harmful”. If you disagree that removal of healthy body parts of a person who cannot consent is harmful, then I don’t think there’s anything I could say to convince you otherwise. As for your scenario of the poor person who is outcast and “incapable of carrying on their family heritage” because they were not circumcised… I’ve not seen a single one in many a heated discussion over this issue. I’ve seen only one or two intact men who wish they’d been circumcised. But there are thousands who feel circumcision is mutilation, and men who have been circumcised and are upset about it have no recourse because the foreskin cannot ever grow back. The person who is unhappy that they weren’t circumcised can always choose to have it done whenever they wish. Yes, I am sure male genital cutting is wrong and should be banned.

        3. I second Brad’s comment that circumcision (forcibly cutting off part of a child’s genital organ) is rape.

          And his assessment of your character (or lack of it) is spot ono.

          1. Completely agree, Matt. I don’t think phrases like “you fucking retard” “Could you be any more retarded?” “You’re full of shit.” “You sir, are a moron.” etc really belong on an site. I appreciate the poster has direct personal issues as a result of the things being discussed here, but this doesn’t licence personal abuse. For the folks in Littlegate House – come on guys, a bit of moderation wouldn’t go amiss.

              1. Brad, I’m afraid I’ve had to un-approve some of your more heated posts. We welcome vigorous debate on this blog, and I’m sure many of our readers sympathize with your emotional position on this issue, but we won’t allow the discussion to devolve into name-calling and personal abuse.

              2. Brian’s post is basically about the state’s obligations/rights to interfere when it perceives there to be a principle-agent problem, a problem given a new twist by the fact that there is some complex history between the state and one of the cultural/religious minorities at the centre of the issue. That’s what I see as being the content in Brian’s post that’s relevant to the practicalethics community. I don’t see any equivalence between this question of ethics, regulation and externality and the more morally straightforward issue of child rape. The equivalence you’re trying to draw turns on a much narrower equaivalence – that of harms arising from non-consensual interference with sex organs. But the issue in Brian’s post turns on states’ rights to interfere in parental principle-agent issues. Which is not the same thing at all.

                And my post immediately above was about a separate issue again – I don’t think it’s a good look for Oxford University for you to call people “fucking retards” on sites. Pretty sure that’s not what Mr Uehiro had in mind when he funded the Centre. In fact, I think it’s a sufficiently poor look that someone ought to remove a few posts.

            1. Our comments policy asks users to avoid person insults and abuse. I’ve taken steps to delete offensive comments on this post, but I’d appreciate it if people could self-moderate to the best extent they are able.

    3. Do we need to be careful about state power with regards to female genital cutting? As it is, even a ritual nick to the clitoris is banned. This is infinitely less traumatic and damaging to the girl’s sexuality than male circumcision is to a man’s. this alone demonstrates your double standard, and lack of ability to think clearly on this issue.

      Circumcision is molestation.

      It’s funny that you say it’s wrong to equate female circumcison with male circumcision, yet you admit that you don’t know anything about female circumcsion, except the myths you have gained from popular culture. You are officially a hypocrite.

  22. How is circumcision ‘mutilation’? Mutilation is defined as the removal of an essential body part. The foreskin of the penis is not essential in an individual’s life and well being. It’s not like the parents’ are cutting off his arm or leg. In this case, I believe that the right of the parents’ religious liberty extends to the so-called “mutilation” of the child. Parents’ wanting their child to be circumcised, and preaching religion into their brains is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. If done well enough, a child would have no religious liberty, just like that same child will have no freedom to choose whether his foreskin is removed or not (because it’s already removed). If parents have the right to preach their religion to their child, then they have every right to circumcise him as well.

    Furthermore, I want to point out that overly-zealous parents preaching religion to their child compromises his “bodily integrity” just as much as circumcision, albeit in a more direct way. It is well-documented that beliefs and values alters the way neuronal connections are made in the brain. If you maintain that children have the freedom to grow with their “natural” bodies, then let me ask you: what do you define as “natural”? You can see this line gets blurry when you incorporate brain anatomy into the equation. If a child was never taught to think critically, only to listen and do what their parents tell them to do, how is that any different from being forced-fed their religion they grew up with?

    1. Wow what a bizarre argument. Preaching physically changes the brain the same or more than amputation of the foreskin changes the body? Even if you could somehow prove this theory, how does that at all justify the unnecessary amputation of the foreskin? And what gives you the right to decide which parts of someone else’s body are “essential” enough to be protected from being cut off? It amazes me what lengths people will go to to try and justify senseless cosmetic surgery on an infant’s genitals. If circumcision is so wonderful, let men choose it for themselves. Unsurprisingly, very few intact men choose to get cut.

  23. Hello I’m new here.

    For more than a few years I’ve made a study of male circumcision, also I’ve collected lots and lots of links, that you will find here.

    I am a member of a Yahoo list that studies evolution in the context of psychology or visa versa 🙂

    I recently published an email to EP about circumcision, I’m publishing it here in the hope it helps. It had the subject ‘The psychology of circumcision’ the fact that no one responded, speaks volumes.

    The real deep down problem with circumcision is, many people feel truth is a matter of emotion and not logic.

    A primal emotion we all share is, the binary dichotomy of, ‘in group’ and ‘out group’, we share this emotion with many other animals.

    Before our breakthroughs with genetic understanding, it was believed that people with different coloured skin were not of our group and therefore we could do what we liked to them. Our modern knowledge of genetics tells us how alike we all are. Even to the point of being over 98% genetically the same as chimpanzees.

    The desire to belong to what you consider to be your group, has now been shown to only exist in the cultural practices, that define your group.

    This could be language, accent or many other weird and wonderful cultural practices, not limited to Chinese foot binding, putting rings around female necks and lip plates.

    One of these cultural practices is, infant circumcision, driven by the emotion that your child should be the same as you are. There is no logic to this very questionable practice, if there were any logic, evolution would have applied it millions of years ago with our deep ancestors.

    The problem is, it is very difficult to logically argue against emotion. Emotions well up, from our ancient limbic systems, they are mediated by our frontal cortex’s. Check out the story of Phineas Gage, to see why I think this.

    The nerves that are removed during circumcision, connect to our limbic system, thus the act of sex is qualitatively different for the circumcised male, the majority of males in the following countries are circumcised.

    From Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali ,Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Samoa,Tonga, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia,Turkey, Turkmenistan, United States of America, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu and Yemen.

    It is my hypothesis, that male circumcision amplifies the ‘ingroup’ ‘outgroup’ emotion slightly, probably expressed as ratios between neurotransmitters.

    My evidence for this is, that genetically, Jews are very close to Palestinians.,6903,605798,00.html



  24. In the bible, isn’t it adult males who make a covenant with God through circumcision? You could make a religious argument for delaying circumcision until adulthood along those lines. Only when an adult male undertakes this sacrifice, for his own religious reasons, does it really fulfill the covenant. Imposing circumcision on babies just preempts men ever having a chance to make a decision with any meaning. I think modern Jews do this with the thought that it’s easier on babies than adults, but I have the feeling this is either speculative or spurious. In any event, circumcision has no religious meaning at all when it’s imposed on helpless babies. Of course, adult males may not wind up choosing it at all. I suspect most would not. But then, in light of that fact, it’s bizarre for them to impose it on helpless babies. What–get ’em when they can’t resist? How can that be justifiable? If the Jewish community replaced infant with adult circumcision, I suspect circumcision would go the way of other Jewish customs like keeping kosher. It would become a religious practice just of the orthodox, though also occasionally chosen just for health reasons. But chosen by adults for health reasons–there’s no medical reason for circumcision before adulthood, as far as I know.

  25. The main difficulty in this debate is this:

    On one hand, parents have no right to perform a pre-modern, unnecessary medical procedure on their children. But, men who was circumcised at birth have no memory of it and, putting aside the whether circumcision is in any way justified, largely have no major complaints about it. Maybe they don’t know what they’re missing out on, but if it was that bad, they probably wouldn’t be so keen to circumcise their sons in this day and age. And to undergo a circumcision at an age when one can consent to it involves quite a lot of pain/suffering. I can only guess that very few men would choose to undergo the procedure. So by advocating that parents should not be able to circumcise their children, you are effectively arguing for the end of the practice of circumcision.

    But, if a German court decides to ban the practice, all it means is that Jews who wish to circumcise their children are going to do so elsewhere. It isn’t going to have any effect on whether Jews circumcise their children or not, other than perhaps by stimulating a broader debate about whether the practice is necessary, particularly on widely read blogs such as this one. So by legitimately questioning the legitimacy of a practice that is tolerated the world over, the German Court is effectively making the place inhospitable for people who wish to circumcise their children. So while the decision is not antisemitic in intention, the effect of the decision can reasonably be construed as such. And while culture might be no excuse, circumcision is a type of initiation ritual for young Jewish males. So again, the practical effect of this is a threat or a challenge to Jewish identity. Brian might argue that this is necessary , but it is nonetheless highly confrontational, given the historical relationship between the German state and Jewish identity.

    While Brian is right about all the issues of consent and the fact that medical/cultural reasons are inadequate justifications for the practice, he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the perhaps less morally pure and strident realities of the situation, some of which I have outlined.

    – If you have to consent to it then it’s not going to happen.
    – Pretty much all circumcised men aren’t bothered by it. Some might provide retroactive consent on religious grounds. Others won’t. But very few really care, maybe because they don’t know what they are missing out on.
    – Since the practice is central to notions of Jewish identity, you are effectively challenging Jewish identity by challenging the practice. Jews are quite sensitive to this given their long history of persecution.
    – If isolated courts rule against circumcision, Jews who wish to practice circumcision will go elsewhere for the procedure, or leave permanently. The practice is widely tolerated.
    – There’s minimal harm caused by it, especially since Jews tend to live in USA/Israel/UK/Canada/Australia, aside from arguments about mutilation.

    I understand that you are criticising the practice of circumcision from an ethical, but unless you can address these other practical realities, your argument comes across as strident, academic and a bit empty.

    1. Alex,

      I take issue with some of the claims you state with such certainty. “Pretty much all circumcised men aren’t bothered by it”, and, “There’s minimal harm caused by it”. You admit yourself that: “…to undergo a circumcision at an age when one can consent to it involves quite a lot of pain/suffering. I can only guess that very few men would choose to undergo the procedure.” If it is that bad for an adult, how can you say it’s okay to force it on a child just because they may not be able to remember it? Calling the practice “widely tolerated” is misleading as well. Less than 25% of the world’s males are circumcised. I’d say of those that are, nearly all were forced to be as children. No one would argue that performing non medical surgery on a protesting adult is anywhere near legal. How is it that it is suddenly okay if that adult is an infant and you are cutting his genitals and no other part of his body?

  26. If it’s the individual who must decide upon maturity, then why do we indoctrinate our children in schools? Why we impose our will upon them when they are not capable of deciding for themselves? Why not wait, let them reach a certain age and then by their own will, decide what is good for them.

    1. Indoctrination is in no way comparable to amputating a healthy body part. It is not “good” for children to cut off parts of their bodies that are not diseased. A person should have a say in whether or not they want a permanent, unalterable surgery done to their body. Is it wrong to forcefully circumcise an unwilling adult? If yes then why is it okay to do the same thing to a child?

      1. Thanks Todd! On what basis permanent alteration of an infant’s mind is different from circumcision? Do we criticize the latter because we see something, but we ignore the former because it’s subjective, hidden from view?

  27. The fundamental issue here is one in which an elective procedure (i.e. choice rather than emergency/necessity) is performed on a non-consenting patient. Ethically this amounts to surgical assault. If this were done on an adult it would be sexual assault and the perpetrators would be: imprisoned; struck off the medical register; and placed on the sex offender’s register.

    Why then should helpless children not be given the same protection under the law?

  28. We live in a muslim sociaty. When my 19 years old son was 7 or 8 years people started asking him and me when he was going to have circumcised. All this presure made me having my child circumcised. I remember he was crying in pain and telling that he wanted to die (doctor did no use enough local anesthetics) My second child is 9 years old and he refusess having circumcision. I’m not a beliver myself. If People ask me about my child’s penis, I would tell them If god wanted male circumcised he/she could have created them circumcised. When I ask some of my liberated male friends their thoughts about circumcision. One of them toled me it might course early ejeculation or beacuse penis loose the skin on the tip, this area loos its sensivity.

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