Why the decision to circumcise must be left to parents

A ban would force the practice underground, and could lead to more botched jobs

Barry Curtis@indyvoices
Friday 08 November 2013 14:50
Orthodox Jewish women surround an infant following his circumcision ceremony
Orthodox Jewish women surround an infant following his circumcision ceremony

The issue of male circumcision has been making headlines in Europe. The Council of Europe decreed that non-medical circumcision is a “physical violation of the integrity of children” and wants Europe to debate the issue with a view to an eventual ban on the practice. Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Greenland look likely to ban the practice as their Children’s Ombudsmen have taken the view that male circumcision is abusive.

Members of the public have written on internet news comment boards that male circumcision is akin to female genital mutilation and child abuse. They have compared it to removing a kidney, suggesting there is much confusion over this issue in society. Others don’t understand that the foreskin is merely surplus skin and not even really a part of the male organ.

The fog of confusion in society over the issue means that bans may be occurring without clear debate, leading to bad policy. Furthermore a paranoid American group called The Intactivists, who mis-inform internet debate, argue their sexual performance has been limited by being circumcised, therefore feeding into the powerful victim-orientated politics of today in which it’s fashionable to blame everything on one’s past.

Researching whether circumcision is actually harmful can be a difficult task as different websites say different things. The group Doctors Against Circumcision say that non-medically necessary circumcision can lead to sexual difficulties in later life, low self-esteem, and even death if the operation goes wrong – fuelling fears of groups like the Inactivists. However, I think it’s more important to concentrate on the authoritative studies, that is those which consider all the evidence impartially.

In that light, it is valuable to note that the American Pediatrics Association, the World Health Organisation, the Centres for Disease Control, and UNAIDS, have all concluded that circumcision, if practiced correctly, does no harm whatsoever, and that there might even be some health benefits.

The highest quality studies referenced in the US National Library of Medicine say there is no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation or satisfaction. Given that these are the most respected medical authorities in the world, I think we have to trust their evidence.

In the rare cases where circumcision is botched, one can argue that the surgeons ought to be better trained. Indeed a ban on the practice would likely push circumcision underground, and increase the risk of bad surgery. Thus a ban, rather than leading to increased safety of babies, would lead to more suffering.

The classic liberal John Stuart Mill argued that only things that are clearly harmful to someone else can rightly be prohibited by the State. This is why liberal democracies can justify laws against child abuse, rape, murder, etc. But if the most authoritative evidence suggests circumcision is not harmful, the case for a ban has not been made.

Some have argued that even if it is not harmful generally, it is still “abusive” because the body is altered, or “mutilated” they say, and not left to develop as nature intended. But this argument is also wrong. For example parents frequently get their children to wear braces on their teeth, purely for cosmetic reasons.

Some claim that circumcision remains abusive however, because the baby has no say. In accordance with Judaism, a baby is circumcised on the eighth day - so clearly it cannot consent. But parents are not being abusive here - they are making decisions which will affect the socialisation of the infant for its betterment as they see it, and ought to be trusted with that decision. Of course, when the child grows up and hits adolescence he may resent the decisions his parents made like many adolescents do. That is, however, part and parcel of life.

The best people to raise a child are its parents and the immediate community around it because they are the ones who love the baby the most and have a vested interest in its prospering. Arguably the worst people to raise children are those  who would do so from afar, like EU bureaucrats. In any case where no harm is caused, parental autonomy must be respected.

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