Cry Babies: Circumcision and the Defense of Barbarism
“Congress,” begins the first amendment to the United States Constitution, “shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress, of course, makes plenty of laws that do this, as they well should. Jews, if they like, have divine justification for stoning to death unfaithful women; Muslims, as we well know, have specific commandments that prescribe the murder of unbelievers; Christian Scientists are instructed to neglect modern medicine and have consequently watched their inherently irreligious children die, all the while lamenting their fate rather than their ignorance. It should surprise no one that the subscription to these distinctly religious ordinances is in each case punishable by secular law. Congress must naturally intervene into private religious practices when those practices damage the health of our society and the persons therein.
The debate erupting in California surrounding the morality and legality of infant male circumcision should have absolutely nothing to do with religion. That the practice derives from barbaric religious tradition is incidental to the fact that it has dangerous physical, not spiritual, consequences, and concerns a person who has not the cognitive or vocal faculties to speak on behalf of his own genitals. Earlier this year a bill was introduced in San Francisco that, if voted into law this fall, would make the circumcision of men under 18 a misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. The Male Genital Mutilation (MGM) Bill has provoked a counterattack which calls the bill anti-Semitic, anti-Christian or anti-Muslim, depending on who is doing the yelling. The validity of these claims is unfortunately aided by the detail that the President of MGM Bill, a San Diego-based group rallying in support of the eponymous bill, has published a series of troubling and truly odd comic books, entitled “Foreskin Man,” in which an Aryan iron-pumper in blue tights battles a gang of Hasidic thugs led by a monstrous, white-eyed mohel ravenous for infant flesh. This ridiculous and shockingly hateful series has given ammunition to an otherwise irrelevant, one-sided argument, led by a host of religious leaders who fear that their freedom to separate an unknowing infant from a significant portion of his penis is being threatened.
The preoccupation of circumcision advocates seems to be distinctly misplaced. Last week, Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced (the emphasis is mine) the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011 to impede the proposal. It seems, perhaps, misguided that the Congressman should concern himself with the right of parents to disfigure the genitals of their child rather than the right of the child to be excused from its own butchery. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach penned an article last month denouncing the Californian proposal and its many European and Scandinavian precedents, stating, without a trace of irony (let me call the reader’s attention to his bizarre use of the word “draconian”):
Sweden has a reputation of being a pretty laid-back nation but it stiffens in the face of circumcision. In 2001 when it enacted a draconian law requiring a medical doctor or an anesthesia nurse to accompany a registered circumciser and for an anesthetic to be applied to a baby beforehand. Swedish Jews and Muslim banded together to object and the World Jewish Congress condemned the law as “the first legal restriction on Jewish religious practice in Europe since the Nazi era.”
With his sympathetic recitation of a misleadingly suggestive historical association and his peculiar resentment toward hygienic precautions, one need not wonder just whose rights Boteach is interested in defending.
When the debate is not distracted by religious moaning, it is focused on the controversial notion that infant male circumcision actually benefits male and, ultimately, female health. Men whose penises have not been disfigured or rendered otherwise useless by the procedure are, according to a report by the British Medical Journal, eight times less likely to contract HIV without the nuisance of foreskin. It has been said that circumcision can likewise reduce the risk of contracting and transmitting sexually transmitted infections like herpes and syphilis. The British Medical Journal has also reported that male circumcision can reduce the risk of cervical cancer in women by removing the skin under which the Human Papilloma Virus thrives.
The trouble, of course, is that much of this research has been either thoroughly refuted or deemed insufficient. The practice has indisputably Abrahamic origins, not secular medical ones, as one may discover in Genesis 17, wherein god commands that the foreskin be removed from each male infant on the eighth day of his life lest he be “cut off from his people” (whether god intended the pun is unknown). The superstitious foundations of circumcision certainly cause its retroactive medical justification to be called into question. There is, of course, the frightening legacy of urethra damage, disease transmission and fatal infection that plague the history of circumcision. (This is to say nothing of the truly repulsive, vomit-inducing practice of metzitzah b’peh, in which a mohel removes the infant’s foreskin and sucks the blood from the wound, a custom which led to three cases of infant herpes—one of which was fatal—in New York in 2005) In any event, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued this policy statement:
Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.
The bill, it must be remembered, emphatically does not forbid circumcision; it forbids the circumcision of creatures who are too young to provide meaningful consent. (Included in the bill is an exception for those under the age of consent for whom the procedure would provide some direct medical benefit.) If an adult man, after considering the preceding findings and weighing them against the documented risks, feels that it is in his best hygienic interest to have his foreskin removed, by all means, he may have it done. That we are systematically circumcising our eight-day old infants so that they may more successfully avoid sexually transmitted infections sounds much less like an informed decision based on the recommendations of professionals and far more like a pseudo-medical justification for Bronze Age barbarism. Performing the preventative torture upon an infant with the odd comfort that the child will not remember it has been likened feebly to infant vaccination, which overlooks the great inconsistency that circumcisions are decidedly more painful and fundamentally irreversible. I challenge any adult male to consider partaking of each procedure and conclude that the two can be conflated with such ease.
If we adults shudder to think of undergoing the procedure (as I certainly do), I wonder how it is that we feel so categorically fine about inflicting the horror on an infant who has, by laws of biology, no say in the matter. It surely seems peculiar that so many of the procedure’s advocates feel terribly bad about terminating the life of a gestating child but are quite happy to torment the thing once it’s born. Also, if the reader will permit one last digression, Christopher Hitchens has keenly pointed out that it must be quite difficult, if one is so inclined, to reconcile such allegedly blatant biological waste with the argument from design.
However, let this be clear: this bill has nothing to do with religion. Nowhere in the bill is a specific religion identified—and none need be—because circumcision is not a uniquely religious practice. The bill has only to do with the preservation of bodily integrity and the prevention of unnecessary anguish in those who are far too young to give permission, though sufficiently old to cry out in protest. Let the procedure be performed only upon those who elect to suffer it. Circumcision has no medical relevance to an eight-day-old person. If our concerns are medical, let them be considered by the relevant party when he is of proper age to do so; if our concerns are religious, let them be dismissed as vestiges of cruel and credulous nonsense.