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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Wht I can’t see is why insurance companies cover the procedure if it is not medically necessary(most circumsisions happen in hospitals, I imagine).

  • http://curiousmusing-curiousmind.blogspot.com Leila

    The danger of circumcision on older boys is that complications are a lot more likely to happen, at least to my knowledge. I have two cousins who had their circumcisions done in their early teens and they didn’t stop bleeding the whole night. It took my Dad dragging them back to the hospital, demanding a real surgeon as oppose to the religiously ordained one to see to it they didn’t die from blood loss (It was that badly done).

  • M

    We’re expecting a baby in November and received advance registration paperwork for the hospital. There is a page in the packet explaining how many insurance companies won’t cover the cost of circumcision. They ask you to sign off that you’ll be financially responsible for the procedure if your insurance rejects the claim. I believe it costs $250.

  • Austin Green

    I actually appreciate the fact that I am circumcised for several reasons. But common consensus seems to be that I am the strange one, so whatever.

  • Nathaniel

    I have roughly the same thoughts as you. I an doubly glad you didn’t start going on about how “circumcision mutilates babies” and other such statements. Sorry penis activists, I don’t feel particularly mutilated, and my penis is a fully functioning organ, just with perhaps a little less sensitivity.

  • Doug Kirk

    I see the argument pop up that not only is it more expensive to do on mature men, but that there are a lot of extra complications that make it inherently dangerous except for it being performed on an infant a lot whenever circumcision talk comes up.

    While I think this is really just a blatant defense of the indefensible and not supported by actual data, I may be entirely mistaken. While I can imagine that it is more costly and requires more anasthesia to perform on an adult, and the greater amount of foreskin removed would give greater room for errors, I cannot simultaneously imagine that the number of severe side effects would be so much higher that performing this as an infant should be mandatory. Especially considering the large numbers of side effect free circumcisions for hardening of the foreskin or penile cancer that occur across the globe often-times on pre and post-pubescent boys. But again, I may be way mistaken; I just can’t find any data on the matter.

    I would genuinely like to know, what are the risks associated with post-pubescent circumcision and how much worse are they statistically than infant circumcision? Does anyone have any non-anecdotal information on that?

  • jemand

    Infants have the foreskin literally fused to the glans, there is a significant chance for complications because of that– I wonder how much the lower rate of complications is ONLY because more infant circumcisions are done by volume and therefore doctors get more practice on it, rather than inherent difficulty of the procedure.

  • ronald marczyk

    Please take this simple test: take your right index finger and gently make small circles in your left palm. Now, contrast that by doing the same circular movement on the back of your hand just below your knuckles. Notice the big difference in sensation? The foreskin protects the sensitive nerve endings on the end of the penis. when it’s removed, the glans becomes dried out, thicker and tougher over time, greatly decreasing sensation. Circumcision is a very important decision, and should be left up to the male child to decide when he gets older. Many claim that circumcision is a more serious operation in an adult male, but I find this logic faulty. It’s equally serious for both.

    As an RN, I have witnessed many male children being circumcised. After being strapped to a backboard with velcro to immobilize the limbs, and with no anesthesia, the foreskin is gripped with a hemastat, and as the cutting begins, the baby screams and howls. Around the turn of the century this was believed to stop boys from masturbation when older because they would remember the pain. Oh, and I love the tradition of the moil in the Jewish tradition put the penis in his mouth to stop the bleeding. This is a horrific and barbaric practice. If clitoridectomies are wrong, circumcisions are equally wrong.

  • Andrew A.

    @Nathaniel

    Being circumcised, I do feel I was mutilated, if even just slightly. Without lubrication, my skin reaches its extents too quickly and becomes painful almost instantly. This was not the case when I was younger and my skin was more elastic, and I owe this pain to a lack of skin that would be present had I not been circumcised.

  • Eric

    To talk about pros, cons, autonomy, studies, and such is to already have fallen into error. Circumcision just doesn’t get off the ground as something to even think of deciding about. It is based on the absurd notion that being born male is so problematic that it requires considering surgical intervention. The fact that there are huge communities of billions of people who seem to get by just fine without even thinking of circumcision is all the evidence you need that being born male is not some kind of crisis requiring even thinking of surgical intervention.

  • Emburii

    I really don’t understand the defense of it, either; ethically, it’s still making significant changes to a person’s anatomy without their consent based on someone else’s idea of how it ‘should’ be. I’m of the opinion that any interference, other than for legitimate medical reasons, should wait until the individual with the genitalia is able to give meaningful consent, whether they be male or female or intersex. It’s their body, let them decide.
    Weirdly enough, this is one area that I find myself at odds with some feminists. “FGM is bad and circumcision is so mild’, well yes it is, in comparison, but it’s still compromising someone’s autonomy for unproven cultural practices. Far better to hold a consistent position that bodily modification should be the choice of the individual, full stop.
    Then again, how often do MRAs even acknowledge FGM as a problem? Rather than being willing to defend human rights overall including for women, they generally whine ‘but what about the men! men shouldn’t be mutilated either! protect the men!’ rather than ‘stop involuntary surgery, period.’ They’re not interested in human rights so much as claiming victimhood for themselves.
    In the end, the choice should be with the individual who will have to live with the outcome.

  • Chet

    Frankly, I’m dismayed that FGM trolling of circumcision threads is so commonplace that even Ebon feels the need to disclaim male circumcision as “not as bad as FGM.”

    Just because you can point to a more barbaric practice, that doesn’t justify a less barbaric practice. The existence of murder doesn’t make assault ok.

    I think the most risible defense of the practice is that it’s a “personal choice.” Um, no, your choices are personal when the consequences are to your own person. You can’t make a “personal choice” on someone else’s body!

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Frankly, I’m dismayed that FGM trolling of circumcision threads is so commonplace that even Ebon feels the need to disclaim male circumcision as “not as bad as FGM.”

    Just because you can point to a more barbaric practice, that doesn’t justify a less barbaric practice. The existence of murder doesn’t make assault ok.

    You didn’t really stop to think in between the first sentence and the rest, did you?

  • CailinBan

    As a European, I find it amazing that you Americans are even still having this debate. Male circumcision is (outside religious groups) a totally non-issue here. It’s not even discussed, considered or debated. It just never happens. (Again, except for religious reasons, which I don’t condone either, or rarely for medical reasons.)

    And I totally agree that it should not be done until the boy in question is old enough to decide for himself.

  • Paul

    Leila, your post #2 contained its own refutation. It was because the circumcision was not done by a doctor and done poorly that the complications arose, not because it was done on a person older than a baby.

  • Chet

    You didn’t really stop to think in between the first sentence and the rest, did you?

    Why do you say that? I don’t see the contradiction. If the subject is male circumcision, then the practice of FGM – which has never been legal in the US – is irrelevant. It’s not necessary to compare male circumcision to FGM to argue that it is bad, and the practice of FGM hardly represents a minimum level of mutilation that a practice must exceed to be worthy of censure.

    It comes up because of a concerted effort by otherwise well-meaning individuals to deny the legitimacy of any feminist cause that primarily impacts men. But feminism is for men, too.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I can’t really weigh on this because I was born without a penis. My son hasn’t been circumcized but that was more because I didn’t see the necessity, not because I have any hardcore opinions against it.

    I did see a show once about a guy who sells devices for people who want to restretch their foreskin. It involves weights and looks like a form of self-torture.

  • Renton

    I agree that circumcision is immoral. Its not as bad as FGM, but operates under the same principle, that parents have the right to surgically alter their child’s body without their consent. The degree of injury or mutilation is not the issue. The issue is whether medically unnecessary surgical alterations can be made to a child’s body without its consent. A newborn is not capable of giving informed consent to circumcision. I was circumcised and, while my genitals are still functional, resent having such a permanent decision made without consulting me, the one affected by it. FGM and circumcision are the flip side of the same coin. Parents should not have that sort of authority over their child’s body. Everyone seems to forget that children have rights do, they are not simply the property of their parents.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thedudediogenes The Dude Diogenes

    Circumcision is anti-sex. As Ronald in #8 points out, the foreskin protects the glans from losing sensation. In other words, sex would (probably) feel better with a foreskin right? Wish I could find out, but unfortunately I was circumcised without my consent while an infant. Ridiculous.

  • Discoverer

    Chet wrote:
    It’s not necessary to compare male circumcision to FGM to argue that it is bad
    comment #16

    This principle, expressed in general terms (e.g. not about body mutilation), is one I can agree with whole-heartedly. I don’t see anything wrong with comparing ethical situations when the topic is “which is worse?” But when the topic’s “is this wrong at all?” then shouldn’t we only have to explore the reasons and consequences of the subject at hand, and not get too distracted? Some people act as if this is equal to dismissing the alternate subject, but I find that to be an extremely ungracious, and perhaps even often disingenuous position. It seriously hampers the ability to have a debate in good faith.

    Heh, and I can’t resist: those who say “whatever” to circumcision, and can take it or leave it, don’t know what they’re missing.
    :P

    Sorry guys, but compare your experiences some time with those of your still-whole brothers (if you know any, as I do), and you will learn some inconvenient truths. Those without a foreskin will have less sensation, and fewer types of sensations. The foreskin is perfectly suited to stimulating the erogenous zones of the glans, as well as being more sensitive than the glans itself. Those who masturbate can do so without lubrication, and can maintain the highest pleasure levels of pre-orgasm for longer. So, why is there still debate?

    I get so mad when I think about the cavalier way in which our bodies were treated when we were too young to object — especially since it makes me suspect the whole purpose is to stymie the pleasure we get from sex. Don’t we all agree that these ancient religious hang-ups are pointless, and even harmful? Don’t we? Why would we then defend one of the most blatantly damaging hold-overs of that poisonous mindset?

    Do those who are ‘cut’ and can’t really do anything about it now, feel emasculated in some way and have to voice their approval of the process no matter what? Do we really have to fight against the ‘dick waving’ of the churlish as well as the absurdities of religions?

    I was also quite surprised, frankly, when you wrote in your OP, Ebon:
    In the past, I was noncommittal about circumcision because I’d read that it offers partial protection against the spread of some STIs”
    I don’t even care if such medical claims were true, and the numbers as high as ‘twenty times as likely’. If we started cutting things off that were vulnerable to disease, we wouldn’t have anything left!

    Circumcision is wrong — evil and immoral — and in anyone under 18 it should be banned.

    There, I said it.

  • Alex Weaver

    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.

    I don’t know why you would be noncommittal on that basis since there’s no plausible mechanism for it having benefits that exceed those of using a frickin’ condom which are already widely available and work either way.

    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.

    It’s certainly not as harmful as the more serious and extensive forms, but apparently there’s a whole spectrum of practices. One concrete example is that recently a procedure of simply pricking the clitoris with a needle was suggested as a replacement for more severe mutilation that would allow the child’s stupid relatives to feel that they kept their “tradition” without doing nearly so much harm, and rightly rejected because it’s still unnecessary and barbaric. Yet I don’t think there’s any rational way to claim that this would be more harmful than circumcision.

  • Jormungundr

    @#8:

    when it’s removed, the glans becomes dried out, thicker and tougher over time, greatly decreasing sensation

    I could have sworn I read a study that interviewed men who were circumcised while adults and they claimed no perceived decrease in sensitivity afterward. Where are you getting this information that sensitivity is “greatly decreas[ed]“?

    After being strapped to a backboard with velcro to immobilize the limbs, and with no anesthesia, the foreskin is gripped with a hemastat, and as the cutting begins, the baby screams and howls.

    I could have sworn that infant nerve endings in parts of their bodies were insensitive and that they didn’t really feel pain in their ears, toes or foreskin until many months after birth. This quote is shocking and evocative. Is it a factual description of agony felt, or a cheap attempt at shocking us with a manufactured horror story of babies howling in pain?

    apparently there’s a whole spectrum of practices

    All of which result in a minimum of the clitoris being removed. That’s what I was taught in an international gender studies class. I haven’t heard of the ‘just pricked with a needle’ thing. How common is this compared to the regular methods that result in a minimum in the loss of the clitoris?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I could have sworn I read a study that interviewed men who were circumcised while adults and they claimed no perceived decrease in sensitivity afterward. Where are you getting this information that sensitivity is “greatly decreas[ed]“?

    I see claims thrown around both ways every time this issue comes up, but as of yet none offering anything more than subjective experience as the evidence. You can demonstrate this one way or the other by studying the brain during sex, as has previously been done in investigations of men and women.

    Even if it turns out that these sensitivity claims are vastly exaggerated, I don’t think it matters much. Hopefully everyone can agree you shouldn’t take to cutting other people’s bodies without their explicit consent and a very strong reason.

  • jemand

    The infants don’t feel pain I thought was a fantasy people told themselves back when there were not safe ways of anesthetizing infants. I did NOT think doctors still believed this?

  • Jormungundr

    infants don’t feel pain

    …in their ears, toes and foreskins. That’s what I heard. Things like some cultures like to pierce a newborn’s ears a few days after birth and that there is no acknowledgment of pain by the infant is viewed as evidence for this.
    Has anyone applied the The Children and Infants Postoperative Pain Scale to infants getting circumcised?

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    When the religious seek exemptions to secular law, it is usually to take a knife to some living creature.

    Imagine if a little girl or boy walked into public school with bandages on their ears, because their parents had sliced off their earlobes.

    I’m just going to hazard a guess here and say that those parents would have some explaining to do right quick to the authorities.

    Imagine if this was done for religious purposes — that the parents were part of a minority cult who believes that 1 Timothy 2:9 demands this act be done, so that neither men nor women (and there are proscriptions for both sexes against wearing earrings — if you choose to understand the Bible so) may wear adornments, which are proscribed by our Lord and Creator.

    In much the same way that FGM is performed, so that women will not enjoy sex and become unbearable harlots, tempting all the men around them.

    Would we let those parents off the hook for slicing off their children’s earlobes? Would that be ok with everyone?

    What if someone could doctor up some statistics about minimizing the potential for accidents and infections caused by earrings?

    I find it helps to remove the argument from its context and place it in a different context.

    A secular state may make secular laws, like don’t take knives to your children’s bodies.

    Allowing religious exemptions to such laws is not just insane, but it undermines our secular state.

    I find it hard to believe that we are even having this conversation.

    It is NOT an expression of religio-cultural-racial hatred for a secular democracy to promulgate secular laws with secular and legitimate or compelling or important state interests. If secular law incidentally infringes on free exercise of religion, too bad, so sad. And, how could it be otherwise?

    It IS a violation of the Establishment Clause to allow anyone to claim a religious exemption to perfectly valid secular law.

    It will also further our secular democracy’s devolution into religious communitarianism and, then, dissolution.

    And, as always, women and children will suffer the most.

  • jemand

    http://www.terrylarimore.com/BabiesAndPain.html

    I’m not an expert but that’s what I found on google.

  • Mrnaglfar

    In regards to the vestigial tails being removed, moral intuitions are probably different in part due to tails not being present in normal children, whereas foreskin reliably develops in normal boys. The tails are not thought of as part of the ‘essence’ of what a platonic human would be, so removing them is not viewed as damaging anything intrinsically human.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

    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.

    Another reason might be the risk of the baby dying before he gets circumcised. If circumcision is a passport to Heaven – which I’m not sure about, being sadly unfamiliar with Judaism – then I can understand Jewish parents being anxious to circumcise their sons as early as possible.

    The reason you cited presumes a cabal of puppet-masters or some such; I think it’s more likely that the vast majority of circumcision advocates are well-meaning (if perhaps deluded).

  • http://darkenedstumbling.blogspot.com/ Leum

    Circumcision is not a passport to Heaven. Judaism is generally unconcerned with the afterlife, especially Reform Judaism (the most common branch of Judaism in the US). Circumcision is a mitzvah (commandment), performed to mark the infant as a Jew and to celebrate his entry into the Jewish people. It’s performed on the eighth day after birth as per Leviticus 12:3; the date on which it is performed is just as much a part of the mitzvah as the ritual itself; delaying it till the age of maturity would be a violation of Jewish law. In Orthodox circles, there might be fear that the child’s father will be struck dead for his failure to ensure the performance of the mitzvah.

    I am in two minds about the legality of circumcision. One one hand, I am inclined to agree with the assertion that it should not be performed on minors, on the other, I think banning it would create more problems than it would solve. Jews and Muslims aren’t going to stop circumcising just because it’s illegal, even if other parents would, and I worry that if it were illegal boys whose circumcisions were botched might not be given appropriate medical attention. Circumcision is a relatively harmless procedure, so I don’t believe the harm generated from allowing it is very great.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    Circumcision isn’t alcohol or marijuana or prostitution.

    The point isn’t that people are going to do it anyway, so we should regulate it and make sure that it is done safely.

    The point is that one person is violating the bodily integrity of another human being without their consent.

    There is nothing, which defines a human being as legalized chattel so much as that.

    And, that is the current, legal sub-human status of children.

    That is what we must fight against.

    Children are not the property of their parents. They are human beings.

  • Eric

    As I predicted a few posts back, almost all discussion here has gone horribly wrong: Here’s what’s wrong:

    Discussion about sensitivity.
    Citing this or that study.
    Personal anecdata.
    Discussion of autonomy.
    Comparison to FGM.
    Comparison to ear piercing, a mostly reversible procedure.

    We need to be discussing basic medical ethics here. Is being born male a condition for even considering surgical intervention. The burden of proof is on those who would think of doing it at all. There’s no “trial” for circumcision where we weigh the evidence until we first establish that the normal configuration of the human penis is problematic enough to consider intervening. The normal configuration needs to be established as so problematic that a DA would be persuaded to seek an indictment, and the grand jury could concur. The burden of proof is on those who would even dream of circumcising. With your talk of autonomy and citing of studies, you already accept the “trial” is legitimate. It is not. The case for circumcision has never gotten off the ground, it’s a dog that won’t hunt.

    Some have said FGM is illegal in the US. That is not entirely true, At the same time male circumcision was introduced in the US in an antisex effort by doctors as crazy as General Ripper in an effort to preserve our precious bodily fluids, many girls were subjected to genital alterations, including having their clitorises burned off with acid, to stop “compulsive masturbation”. Even today girls with “aberrant” genitals as a result of adrenal hypertrophy are subjected to clitoral reduction.

    And there are many other attacks on the sexual organs that are commonplace in the US, The episiotomy was developed as a way to facilitate forceps assisted birth on an anesthetised woman. But it’s now commonplace in over half US births. This is in spite of the fact that getting a first degree tear is no worse than an epieotomy, and that an episoitomy increases the risk of higher degree tears. Sounds like FGM to me.

    As for people who circumcise for religious reasons, who cares? They have segregated themselves from the community of people who can be reasoned with. You believe you need to alter the genitals of a child because a Special Book told you that a Magic Man in the Sky told a Mythic Ancestor he wanted you to? You are now outside the realm of reason and argument. The only way to make you stop is for those of us who disagree to acquire the secular power that can make you fear us more that you fear your mythic god.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    I agree with this. So, so much. You read my mind.

    It should be EVERY Atheist’s belief that the right to practice whatever religion you want CEASES with the boundaries of your own body.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    Also, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the popular counterargument of pointing out the “inconsistency” of being pro-intact while being pro-choice. Completely different, of course, but that red herring could be devastating for those on the fence about it.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    I know that you aren’t arguing against this, J. James, but I just want to take the opportunity to state:

    Being pro-intact and being pro-abortion are entirely consistent.

    In the one instance, the parent is violating the bodily integrity and the personhood and the autonomy and the humanity of the child.

    In the other instance, the state is violating the bodily integrity and the personhood and the autonomy and the humanity of the woman, by forcing her to cede her body to another. (Makes no difference whether you think a fetus is a person or no. BTW, I don’t. And, no international law recognizes this either.)

  • cat

    I agree that infant circumcision is wrong and that a ban is not necessarily out of anti-semetic bias. However, this specific ban does have one of its main promoters who published a really ethnically bigoted/racist comic about Jewish people, which muddied the waters a bit.

    On FGM, it is in no way true that FGM has always been banned in the US. It was common as a medical procedure to treat hysteria or masturbation in girls during the 1800s, and removal or compression of the clitoris in girls born with enlarged clitorises is still very, very common. It is not that FGM and IGM don’t have a major history to be dealth with. However, circumcision does not have to be as bad as FGM or IGM to be bad. If the many members of the anti-circumcision crowd would stop commonly equating the issues, it would make more progress.

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com EvanT

    And to imagine that Christianity once split in two over the issue of whether circumcision was necessary. But it looks like circumcision in the US is more about conformity than religion (of course I’m not American and I may have been misled by a certain ‘Sex and the City’ episode :P )

  • Chet

    If the many members of the anti-circumcision crowd would stop commonly equating the issues, it would make more progress.

    I don’t see any member of the anti-circumcision “crowd” equating the issue. I see every single member of the anti-circumcision “crowd” falling all over themselves to agree that FGM is a hundred times worse, oh yes it is, no question! And also I see a substantial number of FGM trolls appearing to suggest that as long as even a single woman in the world is experiencing or has experienced the mutilation of her genitals, we absolutely cannot be allowed to do anything about the many hundreds of thousands of men who have experienced the mutilation of theirs.

    Somebody mentioned “anti-Jewish bigotry” which reminds me of another risible circumcision “defense” I recently read: we have to circumcise all infant boys, or else people will know who the Jews are. (Maybe the Jews could just stop mutilating their sons?)

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Chet,
    What thread are you reading? First it’s all this lamenting over anyone saying that FGM is worse that circumcision, which you then agree with and now it’s hordes of FGM trolls claiming that circumcisions should go unabated until we eradicate FGM? FFS.

  • Mike

    From #26

    “It is NOT an expression of religio-cultural-racial hatred for a secular democracy to promulgate secular laws with secular and legitimate or compelling or important state interests. If secular law incidentally infringes on free exercise of religion, too bad, so sad. And, how could it be otherwise?”

    What part of
    “Congress shall MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”
    is confusing to you
    (The first amendment of the US Constitution)

  • jemand

    @Mike, ok! Knock yourself out! Chop off your entire dick if you think that’s what jesus commands!

    Oh wait. You mean you want to conduct surgery on someone ELSE because of your PERSONAL beliefs?

    Uh…… nope! Not a free exercise case then! Your child might want to join a religion that requires a foreskin when they reach majority! You do not know this, and your freedom of religion does not extend to someone ELSE.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    To be fair to Mike, he may only be raising an objection to an uncharitable reading of what Sarah wrote. Yes, “secular” rules that impinge on freedom of religion (by outlawing it or something similar) would be disallowed by the 1st amendment. That’s not what Sarah was getting at IMO (not to speak for her, and she can correct me if I’m wrong).

    Her objections were more along the lines of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater. Sure, outlawing such acts violates our freedom of speech to some extent, but the state has a compelling interest in outlawing such outbursts. The state must enact laws that have secular purpose and be supported, and if that purpose is at cross purposes with some religious cult practice, then too bad. Just because a religious cult claims that they need to mutilate little boys or girls should not be grounds for allowing the practice to happen in a secular sense.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    The current state of the law is in fact that if the states make laws that incidentally infringe upon religious exercise — too bad, so sad. The states cannot be compelled to provide religious accommodations to all comers.

    The federal govt tried to do this. They tried to compel the states to provide religious exemptions to secular laws (with secular and legitimate state purposes) in the form of the federal RFRA.

    The SC said no go. The feds forcing the states to provide religious exemptions to secular laws IS a violation of the Establishment Clause — the very one you’ve quoted above.

    So, the RFRA still exists, but it only applies to the federal government. So, if you can think of any federal law you really really want to violate — you can create a religion based around the violation of that law and go to town.

    So, what are the Republican Christianists up to?

    Well, of course, they are all about creating and attempting to promulgate and implement their own state versions of the RFRA.

    Because, what’s the first thing you do when you’re trying to fix the budget?

    You make sure that religious parents can slice up their kids with impunity, as long as they claim religious exercise.

    Think about it, Mike.

    If everyone can claim a religious exemption from any law they don’t care to follow, then our laws are meaningless.

    Also, when government turns a knowing blind eye to constitutional, civil and human rights abuses, in the name of religion, then there is nothing that is an Establishment Clause violation so much as that.

    I’m actually a First Amendment lawyer (I’m not a bar member yet, so I don’t practice), so I think I understand the First Amendment, but thanks for pointing it out to me.

  • Mike

    You are correct OMGF about my objection.

    It makes me very nervous when a person or group of people decide that they know what is best for everybody and then go about attempting to remake society to bring about such ends

    Weather it is a “Religious Theoracy” or a “Communist Dictatorship” as the former Soviet Union such such restrictive forms of society are never beneficial.

    One of the drawbacks of a free society is that many people will use their freedom to make decisions that you or I think are bad or even repugnant. But the other options are even worse

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    If anyone wants to get incensed about something,

    get incensed about the fact that our secular democracy is being destroyed.

    get incensed about the fact that our secular, liberal, constitutional, democratic republic is devolving into religious communitarianism.

    get incensed about that.

    There is no democracy, no human rights, and, especially, no women’s nor children’s rights, without secularism.

    And, if we allow carte blanche religious exemption to secular law, then there is no secularism.

    Get incensed about that.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    Miss Sarah, I think that you may be right in some instances and wrong in others. There are places where religious dominionism is thrashing back against the tide of secularism, but I honestly believe that it’s a levee that’s closer to breaking than we all think.

    Society is becoming more secular than at any point in history, and our influence and growth is accelerating rapidly. Religious outrage is everywhere, to be sure, and they even win sometimes. But I think it’s a wounded animal striking back in it’s death throes. It may not be on the verge of collapse, but it’s nearing. I can feel it.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    I’m afraid that I cannot agree with that assessment, JJ, as much as I wish I could.

    As a woman, I have never witnessed the brazen and bald-faced attacks on the humanity and citizenship of women as are currently being perpetrated by the Republican Christianists.

    If you want a Christian Theocracy, you have to first get control of the vaginas residing within your nation-state. (And, don’t be fooled — most of this has to do with creating a WHITE American Christian Theocracy. Despite any protestations to the contrary, brown babies, anchor babies, and immigrant babies need not apply.)

    And, what are they doing?

    If you want state religion, you need state pussy.

    I don’t appreciate our democratically elected representatives (and the SC too, for that matter) trying to turn my vagina into state controlled property based upon religious edicts. Especially when they are supposed to be abiding by their oaths of office to uphold our SECULAR and GODLESS Constitution.

    So, as much as I wish I could say that I see religionism and communitarianism on the wane, I actually see a resurgence. And, much of it justified by cultural relativism and obscurantism.

    This is why I chose to return to the US.

    Because if secularism falters, American women have no rights.

    This is why we need the ERA, and we need it now. Like never before.

    Right now, like Scalia says, if the majority wishes to impose religious law upon American women, under the guise of moral majority opinion, they can, and, abysmally, they do.

  • Phillip Moon

    For a reason I was never told, my Christian parents had me circumcised. Quite frankly, it wasn’t until jr. high that I realized that some boys had differently configured penises. For me, it was done, I didn’t and don’t know any different and that’s fine. But I would vote with the anti-circumcision folks because this really is something that should only be done on a willing and fully informed victim subject.

    And yes, I can see a sharp decline in circumcisions in Jewish boys. I sure as hell wouldn’t have had it done. “You want to cut off what?”

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Sarah in Comment #43:
    Quote “So, if you can think of any federal law you really really want to violate — you can create a religion based around the violation of that law and go to town.”

    The RFRA has protected Native Americans use of peyote and land they consider sacred, at least to some extent. Rastafarians, who hold cannabis use to be a sacrament, appear out of luck.

    As for the main issue of this article, I was circumcised shortly after birth. The main impetus for this was my grandmother’s fear of STDs due to my grandfather not being circumcised. He later was in middle age, due to a non-STD infection. Of course, that could no doubt have been prevented by keeping clean. My personal theory has been that circumcision among Jews arose for hygienic purposes-the lack of excess water made it hard to keep yourself clean, thus also the elaborate cleanliness rituals over women during menstruation, after childbirth, unclean foods, etc.

    That said, while I have never regretted losing a foreskin, it’s my belief that nobody should perform this without consent. Some religions obviously conflict with this, but as Sarah said, too bad, so sad.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    Miss Sarah, I can’t say that I get where you’re coming from, because frankly, as a young man, I can have no idea what the travails a woman faces are. But I do understand that you’re a warrior fighting for the liberties of your comrades and yourself. It seems hopeless at times, particularly when dealing with those old white men that for unfathomable reasons decide that you’re restricted from making your own decisions. But I have a different perspective than you do. You face right up to those that would do you most harm- but I? I’m from Jesusland. Just like you. But this time it’s different.

    As wacky as religion can get here, I see that among my peers, the next generation, even the religious are overwhelmingly for women’s equality and there are brave, unashamed Atheists such as myself and others that are completely open and accepted in their beliefs. Abortion is still about 50-50 here, but it’s so much better now than with the previous generation and the one before that. It was taboo to even speak of it. No longer. It used to be that Atheists and feminists hid their beliefs from the wider world- but now I see acceptance.

  • Jim Baerg

    Regarding the discussion on secular laws & religious freedom: I think this is highly relevant.
    http://secularconscience.blogspot.com/2011/06/against-religious-freedom.html

    HT to Butterflies & Wheels

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    Great, great article. Thanks, Jim.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    My religion is going to be one in which my high priestesses, who also have to be qualified MDs, perform late term abortions as a sacred ritual to honor the Goddess.

    Then, I’m going to claim exemption to the federal late term abortion ban under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

  • billf

    My wife works at a outpatient surgery center. She used to be pro circumcision. She confirms “After being strapped to a backboard with velcro to immobilize the limbs, and with no anesthesia, the foreskin is gripped with a hemastat, and as the cutting begins, the baby screams and howls.” as mentioned in comment 8.

    My wife says the babies screams are “blood curdling.” She says they don’t scream for very long and seem to calm down fairly quickly, but anyone who says they don’t feel the pain doesn’t know what they are talking about.

    She is not pro circumcision any more.

  • ildi

    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.

    I certainly don’t think such a policy is defensible. How is any sort of invasive (not to mention expensive) procedure with the potential complications that surgery has justified on the grounds of any potential health benefits, especially if you don’t have the right of refusal? By that logic we should give all babies reversible vasectomies/tubal ligations to prevent unintended pregnancies. (I’m pretty sure that’s how it works in the world of Star Trek.)

  • http://gazinglongintoanabyss.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @ Comment #53: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Florynce R. Kennedy, 1973. Test the law.

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    Thanks, Michael.

    Love that.

  • http://neurovoresnuclearnetworknews.blogspot.com/ Neurovore

    Yes, both male and female circumcision are ridiculous practices that should be abolished immediately. I am not exactly sure why mentioning the idiocy of male circumcision often causes anti-FGM activists to get defensive. Banning FGM does not automatically mean that male circumcision should get a free pass. Also keep in mind that there is an entire range of female circumcision practices ranging from removal of the clitoral hood to the entire vulva. All of them are absurd and all of them are banned in most civilized countries. Why do we allow the perpetuation of similar practices on males? Why can we not label it as male genital mutilation like it really is? Are the circumcision advocates really that powerful?

    I am not entirely familiar with the details of the history of circumcision in the US, but I think the reason why people get so adamant about defending the practice here is because it has become so engrained in the culture that banning it would be anathema to many people just like outlawing bullfighting would be perceived as a grave insult to the culture of many communities in Spain and Latin America where it is still practiced. The reasons behind circumcision have always been stupid and cruel, but it has become so “normalized” that people who argue against it are automatically dismissed as being weirdos. I could never imagine bringing this up with my father who had me circumcised because of his rather irrational belief that it somehow automatically prevents penile cancer (Which is extremely rare, even in uncircumcised males) because I would quickly be laughed out of the room as he is very conservative and is often prone to magical thinking.

    I think that the main reason why routine circumcision of males became so popular here was from anti-masturbation advocates during the late-1800s which caused a movement to bloom, similar to the “temperance” movements during the same century which later gave rise to the prohibition movement of the 20th century. As with any practice, once it becomes widespread people will invent reasons to continue with it as they go along just because everybody they know does it and their parents did it as their parents before them did so it becomes a very deeply entrenched meme. Circumcision in the US started out as an anti-masturbation practice for non-jews, then later on the justifications for it morphed into being a measure to promote good “hygiene”, and now the same dubious claims are being made under the guise of STD prevention even though the evidence for this has been inconclusive at best. In any case, you should be wearing a condom ANYWAY as having unprotected sex is extremely dangerous and circumcision does not automatically mean that you are protected against STDs.

    While I am not against Islam or Judaism, I believe that there should be no exceptions for allowing male circumcisions to continue on religious grounds without the explicit consent of the person in question after he reaches eighteen years of age. Violations of this law would be met with charges of child abuse. This should be no different than cases where religious fundamentalists withhold medical treatment for their children because they believe that medical conditions can be healed by faith or prayer alone. It does not matter what your religion commands in this case, as it is causing you to infringe on the rights of bodily integrity and freedom from physical harm to somebody else without a valid medical reason. The child should be allowed to make his own decisions concerning this matter when he reaches psychological maturity.

    @SuperHappyJen

    From what I hear, it is not painful at all, as the tension placed on the remaining foreskin is very gentle. The remaining foreskin is not so much “stretched” rather that the tension causes new skin to grow over time.

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com Jon Jermey

    Ritual circumcision causes over 100 deaths every year in the US alone. Do we need any more reasons to ban it?

    http://www.icgi.org/2010/04/infant-circumcision-causes-100-deaths-each-year-in-us/

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org Paul Crowley

    If it were a small, little known cult who wanted the exception instead of a major religion, would anyone think it sane or reasonable to indulge them?

  • Brian Westley

    Your finger-cutting religion isn’t even that far-fetched…

    In places with high rates of sickle-cell anemia, survivors of that condition are noted to have stubby fingers (due to circulation problems); in some cases, children who show early signs of the disease have part of a finger cut off as a kind of sympathetic magic to help them survive.

    Here is an example:
    [Sickle cell] trait does not seem pleasant today, but for some tribes in Africa the trait is socially selected for and part of their society. In the Igbo tribes (having a 25% of the tribe as sickle cell carriers) it is thought that the malformations, such as the bossed skull, that sometimes come with the sickle cell anemia trait and disease are beautiful or that they confer some association with the spirits of the dead (such as shortened fingers or toes). Even those not afflicted with the trait tend to cut off fingers or mutilate their children in some way to be more “protected” from the early death that a previous child has suffered. Some of the same mutilations are characteristic of the sickle cell disease and children already born with them are called “obanje” by the Igbo tribe (translated as “children who come and go”). The “obanje” are considered special and may be mutilated further with the notching of the ears or the cutting of one of their fingers to protect them from being taken away early or from returning to become another “obanje”. This characteristic of the “obanje” is not localized to one tribe, but is seen in many tribes with a similarly high population percentage of sickle cell carriers. Evidence even suggests that perhaps this trait of missing or amputated fingers has been going on from the prehistoric ages.

  • Kathleen

    I’ve been an atheist my entire adult life. Recently my husband and I have begun to discuss having a child. If we have a boy, I won’t hesitate to have him circumcised for hygienic reasons. This is something that is a personal decision that is best left to families and should not be legislated.

  • Hibernia86

    Though I am a circumcised male, I never had an opinion on circumcision until recently. What finally convinced me was that the benefits were minimal or nonexistent and the child is given no choice in this permanent change to their body. These two points together have made me an opponent of circumcision.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Kathleen]: Recently my husband and I have begun to discuss having a child. If we have a boy, I won’t hesitate to have him circumcised for hygienic reasons.

    How did you miss the part where the supposed hygiene benefits are exaggerated to non-existent? I advise you to explore the evidence rather than make long-term decisions for other people based in ignorance.

  • Jormungundr

    I won’t hesitate to have him circumcised for hygienic reasons

    These are imaginary. There are no actual hygienic reasons.
    How about don’t, and then let him decide when he is older. He will never have a urinary tract infection thanks to being uncircumcised, so there is no downside to not doing it.

  • Sam Webber

    You could just give him a bath if you’re worried about hygiene


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