On the Morality of: Circumcision

“And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.”

—Exodus 4:21-26, another wonderful and not at all baffling example of biblical morals

In the next election, San Francisco may vote on a referendum to ban circumcisions within the city limits. Predictably, some Jewish groups are calling this anti-Semitic. A little more puzzlingly, the National Association of Evangelicals is against the idea as well. (I suppose they believe that prophecy about the 144,000 converted Jewish evangelists can’t come true if they aren’t circumcised.)

In the past, I was noncommittal about circumcision because I’d read that it offers partial protection against the spread of some STIs, especially HIV. If that were true, then it could be justified on the ground of health benefits, just as we could defend a policy of preemptively removing every baby’s appendix. But then I found out that the evidence for this claim is flimsy at best. One much-hyped study which claimed to find a dramatic protective effect from circumcision actually showed only a 2% absolute difference in transmission rates between the experimental and control groups.

That said, circumcision isn’t nearly as harmful as female genital cutting, the express purpose of which is to prevent women from taking pleasure in sex. Still, the moral principle that opposes one works equally well against the other. Absent a medical reason, there’s no justification for cutting off healthy, functional, innervated tissue from any baby, regardless of gender. No parent should have the right to surgically remove body parts from their child just to make their appearance comply with cultural or religious norms. (How does this weigh on the rare cases of babies born with vestigial tails? I’m still thinking about that.)

There’s a simple and obvious solution which it seems San Francisco’s Jewish community won’t even consider: If circumcision is so important, why not just wait to have it done until boys are old enough to volunteer for it? Why is it so important to do it before a child can possibly give informed consent? I can’t help but wonder if the real worry is that, if children of Jewish parents were allowed to make the decision for themselves, they wouldn’t want it. There may well be some people who think that the only way to ensure the survival of this, frankly, primitive and barbaric custom is by doing it to children before they can object.

What is society’s interest here? Consider this thought experiment: Imagine there was a religious sect that makes it their practice to chop off the little finger on the left hand of every boy that’s born. When outsiders propose that finger-removal should be banned, they react vehemently, claiming it’s a vital part of their cultural identity and a visible sign of God’s covenant with them and their ancestors, and since you don’t need that finger, it does no harm to the boys. Furthermore, they say, the procedure has health benefits: little fingers often get cut, bruised or broken, and by removing them, we significantly reduce the risk of that happening. They say that banning finger-removal would trample on their religious freedom and was obviously an unjust and racist persecution aimed specifically at them.

In this case, I’d hope it was obvious that society’s interest in protecting the health and bodily integrity of all its citizens, including children, outweighs the right of parents to bring up their children as they see fit. I see no reason why we should reach any different conclusion just because the ritual in question is more familiar and affects a different body part.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Missing and Presumed
Weekend Coffee: August 30
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 14
Atlas Shrugged: The Problem of Original Property
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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