We Don’t Own Our Children

As they so often have, Iceland is leading the way in the Western world. The Icelandic Parliament is considering a bill to ban male infant circumcision for non-medical reasons. If it passes, it would make them the first European country to do so. Predictably, religious leaders are up in arms, whereas a majority of the public and the medical community is in favor.

I wanted to respond to a particularly angry editorial attacking the ban by Frank Furedi (who identifies as a humanist, oddly enough). He argues that bans on circumcision were common in anti-Semitic regimes through history:

The Seleucid Emperor Antiochus would have thoroughly approved of the anti-circumcision outlook of the Icelandic parliamentarians. In 167 BCE, Antiochus ordered all Jews to leave their sons uncircumcised or else face death…

For Jewish people, the practice of circumcision has, and continues to be, integral to their religion and their identity. Which is why, to any Jew with a historic memory, the current crusade against circumcision will seem like merely a less brutal version of the age-long project of demeaning their identity and forcing them to become like other people.

This is a version of the old, fallacious “Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore vegetarianism is morally wrong” argument. You can deplore racist and religious oppression without believing that we should automatically do the opposite of any policy of a racist state.

Nor does it follow that, because a group of people historically suffered bigotry and violence, all their cultural beliefs and practices should now be sacrosanct. This is the same argument used by ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews who protest that not allowing them to segregate public streets by gender is just like the Holocaust.

The campaign to ban circumcision in Iceland is led by Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, a Progressive Party member of parliament. Her recent comments suggest she doesn’t have the slightest concern about the impact of her plans on the ability of Jewish and Muslim people to practice their religion…. Her claim that everyone has the right to believe but the rights of children come first is another way of saying not everyone has the right to their religious belief – especially if you are a Jewish or Muslim parent.

No, it’s saying that everyone has the right to choose for themselves what religious beliefs they want to follow. But people don’t necessarily have a right to make those same choices on behalf of others, not even if they’re the parents and those others are their children. This is especially true when the practice in question entails parents surgically altering their children’s bodies – a radical, irreversible procedure with serious risks, as opposed to some harmless symbolic ritual.

As I’ve asked before, even if circumcision is so vital to Judaism, what’s wrong with waiting until children are mature enough to decide for themselves whether they want it? Why is it so desperately important to do it to infants?

Do religion’s apologists believe in an irrational, cruel god who will punish children because of a choice made by their parents? Or are they just afraid that, that if people had the right to make this choice for themselves, too many would decide not to go through with it?

The fact is that parents need the authority to perform all sorts of acts that the child cannot consent to. Like circumcision, almost every major decision made by parents can have long-term consequences… It is precisely because parental decisions are so important that parents need the freedom to make such decisions in a way that they think works best for their way of life.

This disturbingly exceptionless statement would lead you to conclude that parents should be able to beat, burn or starve their children as punishment. Obviously, society no longer accepts this evil logic. We’ve long since come to accept that parents’ power isn’t unlimited – although in some areas, such as withholding medical care in preference to faith healing, we have a long way left to go. (Is Furedi okay with this as well? He steers well clear of the question.)

But that isn’t the most horrifying part of Furedi’s essay. This is:

But there is no such thing as children’s rights. People having rights presupposes their capacity to exercise them.

What a ghastly, evil belief!

If it’s true that children have no rights, then by this logic, they should be like pets – a piece of property that you can sell, give away or even have destroyed, just because you want to. Seriously, how does this argument not lead to the conclusion that parents should be able to abandon or murder their children on a whim?

The correct view is that children’s rights don’t cease to exist just because they’re not equipped to exercise them. That’s a parent’s whole job! We have the right and the responsibility to make decisions on our children’s behalf, but it’s not an arbitrary dictatorial control. Parents are their children’s guardians who have a duty to make the decisions that are best for them – not their owners who can do with them as we see fit.

As you may notice, Furedi doesn’t attempt to argue that circumcision is good, valuable or desirable. His only argument is that children have no rights, while parents have the right to practice their own religion no matter what it says, so if a religion instructs parents to cut part of their children’s penises off without anesthetic, they should be allowed to. Tradition is all, and human rights and well-being count for nothing in his repulsive moral scheme.

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