With the exception of the physical punishment of children, the topic of male circumcision appears to be the most controversial parenting issue in the United States. Now that San Franciscans will be voting in November on whether to outlaw male genital cutting that is performed on minors, emotions are running high. The loudest voices among the critics are people of faith, since many Jews and Muslims believe that they are religiously mandated to circumcise their sons.
Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Comittee, calls the proposed ban "an assault . . . on a central ritual in a recognized ancient religion." The San Francisco proposal is seen as being so iconoclastic that Evangelical Christians have joined forces with Jews and Muslims in opposing it. Even though Mormons tend to circumcise for cultural rather than religious reasons, one Mormon blogger calls the ban "unconscionable," partly because it does not offer a religious exemption. Two congressmen, one who is Jewish and one who is Muslim, are so alarmed by the San Francisco measure that they are co-sponsoring a House bill that would prevent a municipality from prohibiting circumcision for males under the age of eighteen.
Proponents point to male circumcision's medical benefits; it has been shown to reduce penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. The circumcised penis is easier to keep clean. But, as I point out in Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, hospital surveys show that the most common reasons parents give for circumcising their sons are not religious nor medical, but cultural. Parents say they want their sons to look like their fathers and fit in with other American, circumcised lads.
Opponents of male circumcision, on the other hand, say that the recipients of the procedure should be the ones to decide whether their genitalia are left intact, noting that the procedure is painful, cannot easily be reversed, and carries risk. In Breaking Their Will, I further explain that most Americans are not aware that some of those risks can be life-threatening; some babies have died from hemorrhaging and other complications. Yes, there are some medical benefits to male circumcision, but those benefits tend to involve problems that are very rare in the U.S. I also point out that the foreskin is not a throwaway part of the body; on the contrary, it has the important role of protecting the infant's sensitive glans penis.
According to the Canadian Children's Rights Council (CCRC), "At birth, the foreskin is normally fused to the underlying glans, protecting that delicate organ and, also, the urinary meatus. As the child gets older, the foreskin very gradually loosens and becomes retractible. . . . Modern circumcision . . . forcibly detaches the protective foreskin from the glans and removes what would eventually become a third or more of the adult's total penile skin covering."
Only in extremely rare instances is male circumcision medically necessary. This explains why no major medical organization advocates for routine male circumcision. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision."
In Breaking Their Will, I question whether we are hypocritical in how we look upon female genital cutting. All forms of female circumcision are illegal in the U.S., even though some types of this procedure are relatively minor. In fact, one could say that one form of female circumcision—the excising of the clitoral hood—is the genital equivalent of removing the male foreskin. The AAP, which categorically opposes female genital cutting yet does not oppose male genital cutting, admits, "Some forms of FGC are less extensive than the newborn male circumcision commonly performed in the West."
What about the religious mandates? It's interesting that, among the many Jewish voices opposing the San Francisco ban, I have yet to hear one mention this critical fact: In Abraham's day, only a tiny snippet of the tip of the foreskin was removed, the minimal amount needed to mark Jews as being different from other people. "No attempt was made to loosen the foreskin prematurely, so the penis was able to develop normally," says the CCRC. It was only later that rabbis insisted that more and more—and finally all—foreskin had to be removed. On the Islamic side, it should be noted that male circumcision does not appear in the Qur'an.
All that said, I do have some qualms about the San Francisco proposal. One, in the unlikely scenario that the ban were to become law, I fear that adults would choose to perform dangerous, "back alley" circumcisions. Two, I wonder if the permissible age needs to be eighteen. This idea might not sit well with intactivists, but I think once boys reach the age of thirteen, they are old enough to decide whether to have their foreskin removed. And three, I believe this country should look at placing restrictions on all procedures that alter a child's body.
I came to this conclusion after reading the view of an opponent of the male circumcision ban. The writer cast the "slippery slope" argument by stating that, if San Francisco were to pass the measure, perhaps the next thing on the chopping block (if you'll excuse the expression) is the piercing of ears of very young children, which is practiced by numerous cultures and also carries risk. I guess the writer's argument backfired with me, because I have always been bothered by parents who pierce the ears of their infants and toddlers. Sure, babies look cute wearing earrings, but they are their ears and their bodies. Can't parents wait until the child is old enough to decide for herself whether she should have her ears pierced?
Then I got to thinking that such ear piercing falls under a certain category: that of medically unnecessary, body-altering procedures that have been—and, in some cases, continue to be—widely performed on children, even though the procedures are painful, medically risky, and often difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Think Chinese foot binding, Christian tattooing, female genital cutting, tribal scarring, and other religiously or culturally motivated rituals and customs. And, as far as I'm concerned, you can add to that list male circumcision.
Therefore, I advocate for allowing parents to circumcise their sons but not until the child has reached the age of thirteen. And that goes for any medically unnecessary puncturing, tattooing, excising, or mutilating of the body of any person who is under the age of thirteen, regardless of whether the procedure is popular among religious or cultural groups.
Adults who alter a child's body for religious or cultural reasons often feel compelled to do so, and they tend to believe that they are doing it for the child's own good. Given how important male circumcision is to parents, let's give mothers and fathers the chance to have their sons circumcised, but let's also give those children the chance to refuse it.