Tradition vs individual rights: the current debate on circumcision

A protest against circumcision in the United States, where the debate about circumcision is still raging. sigmaration/Flickr

Non-therapeutic circumcision of male infants and boys has always been a controversial issue – and never has opinion been more polarised.

In the United States, medical authorities have just overturned 40 years of sound science-based policy by deciding that the health benefits of circumcision — while not great enough to recommend the procedure as a routine — are sufficient to allow parental choice in the matter and coverage by medical insurance plans.

This move has been heavily criticised by medical ethicists in both the United States and abroad. They fault the new policy not only for downplaying the risks and complications of the procedure, but also for failing to take into account basic principles from bioethics as well as human rights.

The rest of the world has moved on. In Europe and elsewhere, the question is no longer about whether there are any good “medical” justifications for routine circumcision — the consensus is that there are not. Instead, it’s about the much thornier issue of cultural and religious rationales.

In Germany, a court recently found that non-medically-indicated circumcision constitutes bodily harm and is thus unlawful. In Australia, the Tasmania Law Reform Institute has recommended that it be legally prohibited in most cases, with limited exemptions for religious practice.

In Helsinki, an international conference heard many distinguished speakers criticise unnecessary genital surgeries of all types, whether performed for medical or cultural reasons, and whether on boys, girls or intersex children. The resultant declaration formally defended the right of all children to bodily integrity.

Given its recent history, Germany is arguably the worst place in the world to see a decision in favour of child rights that could also be interpreted as directed against Jewish religious practice. Both Jewish and Muslim organisations have responded with outrage, attacking the ruling as an assault on religious freedom, and hurling accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Problematically, as Lena Nyhus has argued in The Jerusalem Post, when such serious charges are raised without adequate care and discretion, they risk losing their force.

“Outrage” is not an argument. But the claim that circumcision is “non-negotiable” for Jews because it is “divinely mandated” in Genesis does carry some weight.

Against this, a growing number of Jews believe that circumcision is inconsistent with Jewish ethics and has no place in contemporary religious practice. They point out that many things are “divinely mandated” in the Bible, but are happily “negotiated” by modern Jews — up to and including circumcision.

Biblical literalists will not find these arguments convincing, but they do not have a monopoly on the practice of Judaism.

What we are really witnessing is a clash between traditional patriarchal values, emphasising group conformity, and those of secular modernity, emphasising individual autonomy.

The most honest defenders of circumcision acknowledge that it is a cruel disfigurement, permissible only because God commanded it – witness orthodox Rabbi Hershey Worch quoted in Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s documentary film Cut:

“It’s painful, it’s abusive. It’s traumatic, and if anybody who’s not in a covenant [with God] does it, I think they should be put in prison. I don’t think anybody has an excuse for mutilating a child. … Depriving them of [part of their] penis.”

But still it must be done, because as the Rabbi concluded, “God owns my morals.”

Since at least the mid-19th century, the question for Jewish people has been the extent to which they should relinquish traditional observances and integrate into the broader society. Jewish critics of circumcision first emerged in Germany in the 1840s, igniting a debate within the religion that has flared on and off right up to the present.

In response, their conservative opponents cited both traditional arguments (cultural and religious obligation), and the new discoveries of Anglo-American doctors that circumcision was helpful against such intractable health problems as masturbation, syphilis, epilepsy and tuberculosis.

Arguments for circumcision on medical grounds are also used to justify religious-based reasoning. kityojames/Flickr.

We see the same tendency today: supporters of circumcision on health grounds cite religious requirements as a reason for why it shouldn’t be restricted, while those who support it for cultural reasons cite “health benefits” as a reason for why it should be expanded.

Regrettably, a number of analysts in the world of philosophical bioethics have been reluctant to take a public stand against this sort of vacillation. Discussion of circumcision is inhibited by the fear that objective analysis will incite accusations of intolerance.

Writing on the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, the philosopher Iain Brassington recently stated,

“Though I [have] mentioned the decision of the German court that ritual circumcision constituted assault, I’ve wanted to stay clear of saying more about it [because] it seemed too potentially toxic.”

Likewise, the bioethicist Dan O’Connor from Johns Hopkins University has said, “When [a reporter] calls my work and ask[s] if there is a bioethicist in the house who will give the anti-circumcision viewpoint, I beg off.”

Lingering in the background is an unwritten rule that says critical discussion of certain ideas is automatically out of bounds. As Douglas Adams observed, “If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like.” But if somebody mentions something about their religious practices, “you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’.”

Adams’ point is that this avoidance is not really “respect” at all. It is about discomfort, or fear of ruffling too many feathers, being misunderstood, or being accused of harbouring prejudice.

Respect is something else entirely. Respect assumes that while someone may disagree with you, she will consider your points with an open mind, and judge your argument on its merits.

Respect assumes that we should be able to look at one another’s most cherished practices in light of the ethical advances of recent centuries without getting into a shouting match.

It’s time we took a critical look at the culturally-motivated cutting of the genitals of infant boys. And we call upon our colleagues, both religious and secular, to engage in this important dialogue. Respectfully.