Mark of Belonging

Why Circumcision Is No Crime

A decade ago, who would have guessed that controversies about male circumcision would roil a number of European countries and achieve some resonance in the United States? But that is what has happened. These events have raised important questions about individual rights, parental authority, religious liberty, and the nature of morality.

The issue of male circumcision reached the front pages of newspapers around the world in June 2012 when a court in Cologne, Germany, ruled that circumcising young boys inflicted grievous bodily harm and that the child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” trumped parental rights, despite the fact that the parents were acting in accordance with long-established and fundamental requirements of their religious faith. Although the case that reached the court concerned Muslim parents, its implications for Jews was obvious, and the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany condemned the decision as “an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the self-determination of religious communities.” Meeting a month later, Muslim and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement defending circumcision and calling on the German government to take action. Michael Bongardt, a professor of ethics at Berlin’s Free University, contended that “the often very aggressive prejudice against religion as backward, irrational, and opposed to science is increasingly defining popular opinion.” On the other side, a leading criminal-law expert called for a national discussion about “how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate.” With her country’s troubled past weighing heavily on her, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared, “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practice their rites.” By December 2012, the Bundestag passed legislation protecting parents’ rights to have young boys circumcised.

The controversy was not confined to Germany. In 2011, doctors in the Netherlands organized against circumcision, denouncing the practice as a “painful and harmful ritual.” Denmark became embroiled in a debate about whether to require medical supervision for all circumcisions or even to prohibit the practice outright. A socialist member of parliament declared that his Red-Green alliance advocated a ban on circumcision, and the Social Liberal Party—a member of Denmark’s ruling coalition—followed suit. One of the country’s most prestigious newspapers published an article describing circumcision as a ritual involving “black-clad men” who torture and mutilate babies. Meanwhile, Norway’s Center Party announced that it opposed circumcision, as did Finland’s third largest party, the populist True Finns. In a statement submitted to Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare, the country’s Pediatric Society called circumcision the “mutilation of a child unable to decide for himself” and advocated abolishing the procedure. In a meeting in Oslo on September 30, 2013, the five Nordic children’s ombudspersons released a joint resolution advocating a ban on nontherapeutic circumcision for underage boys.

These events are taking place against the backdrop of massive Muslim immigration to many European countries. In an analysis written for the Jewish People Policy Institute, Dov Maimon and Nadia Ellis comment that “as long as Jewish [animal] slaughter and Jewish circumcision were carried out on a very small scale, they were not regarded as a public-policy issue worthy of attention and were tolerated under special arrangements. The scaling-up of these practices as a result of the growing Muslim presence in several European countries now seems to require official regulation.” A backlash against Muslims that affects core Jewish practices as well makes this perhaps the first time ever that the term “anti-Semitism” applies with tolerable accuracy.

 

NO SUCH DEMOGRAPHIC tidal wave has reached the United States, making it harder to explain why activists in San Francisco were able to collect the thousands of signatures needed to place a circumcision ban on the city’s fall 2013 ballot. As in Germany, the state’s legislature intervened, passing a bill prohibiting localities from banning the practice. Nonetheless, U.S. activists are working to place such measures on state and local ballots across the country, and one of the movement’s leaders declared that “the end goal for us is making cutting boys’ foreskin a federal crime.”

This is hardly a trivial challenge to religious free exercise. Although the status and timing of male circumcision in Islam are debated among rival schools of jurisprudence, no such ambiguity exists among observant Jews. The Torah could not be clearer. In Genesis, God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.... And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations.... And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” As if to underscore its importance, this command is repeated in Leviticus. The covenant between God and the Jewish people is central to Judaism, and circumcision is at the heart of the covenant.

Calling into question this solemn obligation is a body of international laws and norms that has developed since World War II. Maimon and Ellis lay out the issues in their analysis. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes...freedom, either alone and in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” On the other hand, Article 5 states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment...” Many Europeans and not a few Americans regard circumcision as an instance of such “treatment.” Before the Bundestag acted, 45 percent of Germans opposed circumcision; after legislation protecting the practice was enacted, anticircumcision sentiment shot up to 75 percent. In Britain, opposition to nonmedical circumcisions now approaches 40 percent of the population.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child declares that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” But the convention leaves no doubt about the ultimate authority to make such determinations: while taking into account the rights and duties of parents, it is the role of each signatory government to define and protect the best interests of the child.

Although the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantees the same rights of religious free exercise as the Universal Declaration, its Article 3 states that “everyone has the right to respect for his physical and mental integrity.” Opponents of circumcision contend that it is a patent violation of the infant’s physical integrity, carried out when the newborn is totally helpless and unable to understand what is happening, let alone consent to it.

This concern lies at the core of the resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in October 2013. The Assembly, the resolution states, is “particularly worried about a category of violation of the physical integrity of children, which supporters of the procedures tend to present as beneficial to the children themselves despite clear evidence to the contrary. This includes...the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons.” The author of the report justifying this resolution argues that “circumcision applied to young boys clearly is a human rights violation.” Not only does it violate children’s physical integrity; it is also undertaken without their consent. The author is “convinced that children, if they were given a choice, would not decide to be harmed by a medical operation, which is not entirely beneficial to them.” Parents’ decisions should reflect what their children would want for their own development, and the state must step in when decisions diverge from that standard.

 

THE CIRCUMCISION CONTROVERSY raises a number of densely overlapping issues. I begin with the most obvious—the limits governments may legitimately place on religious practices. That there are such limits is widely acknowledged. Few believe that the free exercise of religion includes the right to conduct noisy revival meetings at 2 a.m. in residential areas. A neo-Aztec sect might claim that its beliefs require virgin sacrifice; a neo-Canaanite sect might say the same about the firstborn. It seems safe to say that neither group would be permitted to act on its belief. Nor—to move a bit closer to our topic—would a religious group be allowed to amputate an infant’s limb, whatever narrative might be invoked to justify the practice.

Moving from hypothetical to real cases, parents and guardians may not invoke their religious beliefs, however sincerely held, to withhold medical care from minors. When a child in a Jehovah’s Witness family experiences internal bleeding, the parents are not allowed to block a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. When a child in a Christian Scientist family experiences a life-threatening infection, the state may intervene to administer antibiotics, regardless of the parents’ beliefs.

All these cases involve clear-cut physical harm to minors, inflicted through acts of commission or omission. A fair reading of the evidence on circumcision yields no such conclusion. A number of studies find that the practice reduces the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, a conclusion endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. To be sure, when the circumcision is botched, there are negative consequences. And there may be sound medical reasons for banning or regulating some risky methods of conducting circumcisions. For example, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a consent form before allowing the person performing the circumcision to perform oral-genital suction, a practice (standard in some parts of the Orthodox Jewish community) to which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced eleven cases of infant herpes during the past decade, a few resulting in death.

But many opponents of circumcision regard these empirical considerations as irrelevant to their case. The point, they say, is the right to physical integrity, which prohibits inflicting any irreversible changes on children’s bodies without their consent, which they cannot give prior to reaching the legal age of responsibility. Medical considerations limit the scope of this right: parents can authorize surgery to treat birth defects that impair normal functioning or threaten life. They may also repair congenital defects that might subject their children to ridicule or social exclusion. Infant circumcision meets none of these tests; the foreskin is not a birth defect.

Traditional Jews cannot accept this logic. They believe that failing to circumcise their male infants eight days after birth would subject both parents and children to grave spiritual harm—potential exclusion from the community. Invoking an allegedly inviolable right to physical integrity is hardly dispositive. What justifies such a broadly drawn right and gives it priority over the right to practice one’s religion, which has long been regarded as a core human right? The exercise of religious beliefs should be enough to warrant the practice of circumcision unless opponents can demonstrate the likelihood of significant medical or physical harm, which in most cases they cannot.

Yeshiva University legal scholar Suzanne Last Stone argues that the language of human rights “has become the dominant mode of public moral discourse, replacing such discourses as distributive justice, the common good, and solidarity. Indeed, it has become something of a faith of its own.” In this vein, traditional Jews would argue that the language of human rights hardly exhausts the realm of moral and spiritual goods. There are obligations as well as rights, and not all obligations rest on consent. No one consents to be born, but one enters the world with obligations—to honor one’s parents, for example—the significance of which emerges over time. From the traditional Jewish perspective, similarly, the children of Jewish parents do not choose Judaism; they are born into it, and they are subject thereby to a wide range of obligations they do not choose. Through education, they learn the meaning of those obligations and gain the capacity to choose how best to meet them. The element of choice is not entirely absent: some individuals born into Judaism may decide to repudiate membership in the community, while others born outside the community may decide to enter it and freely embrace its obligations.

Entering into unchosen relationships is hardly the exclusive province of traditional Judaism. In Catholic doctrine, baptism is the Christian equivalent of circumcision, the “circumcision of Christ.” Like circumcision, baptism can be administered to children as well as adults, a proposition affirmed by Origen, Cyprian, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, among others. One is forced to wonder whether the human rights community’s insistence on adult consent as a necessary source of authorization represents a secularized version of the Protestant rejection of infant baptism—and whether it is an accident that the epicenter of antipathy to infant circumcision is located in heavily Protestant northern Europe.

 

OF COURSE, PARENTS must act on behalf of their children until they reach adulthood. Legitimate civil concerns—the necessity of formal education, for example—limit parental discretion, as do the fundamental rights of children to life and the means to it, such as necessary medical care. The author of the Council of Europe report argues for a third category of limitation as well—namely, parents’ good-faith effort to decide for their children as their children would decide for themselves. Parents, she insists, should become the “spokespersons of what their children would wish for their own development.” In the case of circumcision, she has no doubt what this principle implies: “I am convinced that children, if they were given a choice, would not decide to be harmed by a medical operation which is not entirely beneficial to them.”

It is hard to discern the basis of her confidence, because the concepts of “development” and “benefit” are incompletely specified. Some parents subject their children to religious education that the children resent and reject as soon as they are able. Other parents do the opposite on the grounds that their children should make religious decisions for themselves as adults—only to be reproached by their grown children for having deprived them of a serious religious education when they were best able to absorb it. The maxim of deciding for children as they would decide for themselves offers little guidance in practice. Some children who are forced early on to learn a musical instrument end up grateful to the parents who insisted they should. Children’s desires and preferences evolve unpredictably in response to experience, much of which is unchosen and some of which is unpleasant.

Still, the critics insist, there is a distinction between education and a surgical procedure. Adults may reject the education they received when young, but they cannot reject their circumcision. It is the “irreversibility” of the procedure that clinches the case for not imposing it on infants.

As a technical matter, circumcision is not irreversible. (I will spare readers the details.) The broader point is this: for better or worse, much of what parents do is irreversible. Where they choose to live will determine their children’s native language and culture, and the decisions they make about their children’s secular and religious education will be indelible. My friends who were raised as traditional Catholics tell me that their adult practices and beliefs—however far removed from those of their parents—do not efface the effects of childhood experiences. To be human—creatures of plasticity as well as instinct—is to be shaped by the “cultural womb”: by the decisions of myriad others long before we can participate in determining our own direction. Parents have no choice but to do the best they can, relying on their own understanding of what is right and good, in full knowledge that they will make mistakes, some of which will have lasting impact.

For traditional Jews, circumcision is a God-given obligation, the key to and symbol of membership in an ancient and worthy community. Rearing their children in that community, they believe, is the greatest gift they can give them. If excising a male infant’s foreskin were the moral equivalent of amputating his hand, the state would have no choice but to intervene. Only the commitment to an abstract and dubious right of physical integrity could blind observers to the obvious distinction between these two things. There is no reason for the law of the state to follow suit.

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Commenting Guidelines

Circumcision is not universal among Jews. Circumcision is inconsistent with significant Jewish laws and values. For example, the human body must not be altered or marked. The Torah also prohibits the causing of pain to any living creature. Since circumcision causes extreme pain, some Jews believe that circumcision is not ethical. Jewish values place ethical behavior above doctrine. For those who want a ritual, a growing number are turning to alternative equivalent rituals for male and female infants. This is consistent with reforming Judaism to be more egalitarian. Jewish boys who are not circumcised are accepted by others and have had bar mitzvahs. Every year many boys in the U.S. and elsewhere lose their lives as a result of forced circumcision. See: http://circleaks.blogspot.com/ AND  http://wisewomanwayofbirth.com/circumcision-dirty-little-secrets-exposed/ AND http://www.circumstitions.com/death.html. The prepuce is a unique organ that serves valuable protective, sensory, and sexual functions. Circumcision surgery is painful, traumatic, harmful, and irreversible. Amputation of the prepuce causes sexual damage and psychological harm. I endured traumatic corrective surgery at age 5 for meatal stenosis and other complications due to forced circumcision by an unethical American doctor who committed medical fraud. As an adult, I feel violated and mutilated. I protected my son's bodily integrity. He is whole and intact. The idea that circumcision is a preventive health intervention is a total lie, manufactured by those who already had it done at birth and by an American medical profession that profits daily from this unnecessary and risky surgery. Foreskin is awesome. It is the most functional and best part of the penis. Plus, it's unconstitutional to take it off of someone else who can't consent, unless it is to save their life. Circumcison is a human rights violation and medical fraud. Today's parents say NO to circumcision. When we know better, we do better.

Excellent sources for information on infant circumcision are http://www.circumcision.org/ and http://www.jewishcircumcision.org/.  In my comment, I quoted information from http://www.jewishcircumcision.org/info.htm.

Forced circumcision, rape, enslavement, or other abuses of children, male or female, cannot be excused by claiming "A voice in my head told me to do it." or "I read it in a book." or "The devil made me do it." Time for the civilized world to stop pussy-footing around and call it what it is - violent child abuse of an epic scale and a fundamental violation of human rights that leaves the victims sub-normalized for life. We need to start talking about compensation.  All men who were sexually mutilated as children should be justly compensated for the loss of their mobile foreskin and its Ridged Band and the subsequent impairment of their sexual capacity which left them sub-normalized for life. Victims of forced partial penis amputation should at the very least receive free restoration devices and Viagra and/or Cialis for life, paid for by the doctor or mohel who victimized them.

With all due respect, your comment is nonsensical, in a very literal sense.  The claim that circumcision is inconsistent with Jewish law and values is obviously not tenable, given that the source of those things not only permits it, but expressly requires it.  That type of obvious contradiction would - in a rational human being - require reevaluation of the inferences and chain of logic that led you to believe the Torah might not be on board with circumcision.

Of course, to an intactivist zealot, such reevalution is impossible.

Feel free to make whatever arguments you want about the horrors of circumcision.  They are inane, and easily rebutted, but at least they are internally consistent.  But trying to tie those arguments to the Torah and "Jewish values" is laughable.

Circumcision is a crime.  The crime is robbery.  That's what people call it. when you take something which does not belong to you.  What does "thou shalt not steal" mean to you?

Some of the sentiment against circumcision is no doubt genuine and understandable, but perhaps some of this feeling has been stirred by the very real "mutilations" we have seen in certain cultures that have practiced female "circumcision" of infant girls.

I wish most of this energy would be directed against real crimes, like abortion for the convenience of the mother, sale and abuse of young women as slaves and sex objects, rape, etc.

 

First of all, a oollection of links to no end of information about circumcision

http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-circumcision-debate-li...

is the most important since it collected links to most important pieces and then some since the re-irruption of the controversy in Germany three years ago,

http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/10/michael-wolffsohns-foreski...

http://www.circumcisioncomplex.com/fundamentals/

http://eewiki.newint.org/index.php/Is_male_circumcisionyou%3F_bad_for_

http://academia.edu/1403058/Circumcision_Sabbath_Food_and_Purification_R...

http://analytic-comments.blogspot.com/2012/08/psychotherapeutenyahoogrou... (psychoanalysts add their thought)

http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1471-2431-13-136.pdf

Making it a taboo to compare male with female sexual
mutilation is the biggest scandal of the controversy. In both
instances the most sensitive and most erogenous zone of the
human body is amputated and severely damaged. In both
instances, what counts primarily is the cutting of human
sexuality. The imposition of control by the patriarchy. A
good look at a book on embryology will show the development of
the nerves and tissue and how they are the same.

What is lacking in all the talk about circumcision is
discussion of its archeological dimension - that it is the
left over of human sacrifice. What kind of god is it that
demands that of an infant? If the Bris constitutes the
identity of the male, what about the identity of a Jewish
girl? Or is this an entirely homosexual ceremony?

Also, unfortunately it is / has been circumcision that
has MADE for no end of anti-semitic sentiments. Freud found
that it was the chief reason for unconscious anti-Semitism.
And the myths surrounding it are at the core of the “blood
libel.” Thus, it's time to eliminate the Brit Milah because if
that is the chief reason for being anti-Semitic or
anti-Abrahamic [Islam too practices the rite] then why hang on
to this left-over of human sacrifice? that traumatizes the
child, cutting off 5,000 nerves, that is the equivalent of
female circumcision in the sense that it eliminates everything
but the clitoris,and only serves the Ultra Orthodox to
maintain their power? After all, reform Judaism sought to
eliminate the rite in the 19th century, and Jewish identity
depends on being born by a Jewish mother, or converting. Here 
a link to an archive of the entire German and then some
debate, note especially Michael Wolffsohn's two pieces .
Circumcision has been controversial also within Jewry forever.

A wash cloth before and after sex or a clean mouth are
equally effective and leave the pleasure zones intact! Or
castration! That would eliminate any kind of danger from that
source!

 

I have always been under the belief that the argument supporting circumcision is that it makes the penis much more sanitary. Also it was a Jewish tradition.

The argument about it being more sanitary rang true to me from practical experience as I was not circumcised. I was told that it was my father’s prerogative at the time.

My two sons were circumcised (my decision) for sanitation reasons. In my opinion is it was not a mistake.

It certainly was not as much torture as reading some of the sanctimonious drivel above.

 http://voices.yahoo.com/to-snip-not-snip-circumcision-debate-7988732.html

The article suffers from failure to mention the crucial distinction between the ancient token cut of milah versus the modern surgical version of periah.  Milah left most of the tissue intact, but periah is a functional mutilation resulting in loss of all normal protective and sensory function afforded by the prepuce.  If all circumcisions were still milah, the author would be correct in his assessment.  Unfortunately, the radical version of periah is what actually occurs in modern hospitals, which are therefore objectively complicit in what ought to be considered a crime of non-therapeutic mutilation, despite the subjective ignorance of many doctors and parents.

You, like the author, fail to distinguish between the ancient biblical token cut of milah versus periah, the modern removal of all functional tissue, leaving the glans completely exposed, with loss of protective and sensory function.  See the article on Circumcision in the Jewish Encyclopedia for this crucial distinction.  It is periah that causes all the damage and should be banned as criminal mutilation. 

Energy should be directed against all forms of mayhem committed against people, especially the innocent babies, born and preborn.  Babies should be neither killed nor cut.

Circumcising for hygiene is as absurd as removing the eyelid for eye hygiene. How can a cut/wounded/mutilated tissue be cleaner than the one all baby boys are born with, especially when you put the bleeding and now smaller penis stump in a diaper with urine and feces? The destruction of the foreskin creates an abnormal state in which the glans is exposed and in constant contact with outer clothing, and for the infant, with urine soaked diapers. Ammonia burns on the glans, especially around the urinary opening, which is known as the meatus, can be a particularly troublesome problem for the circumcised male infant. I endured traumatic corrective surgery at age 5 for meatal stenosis due to forced removal of my protective prepuce. The prepuce protects the sensitive glans throughout life and keeps it internalized as God and nature intended.

The fundamental right to bodily integrity (no scare-quotes needed) goes back a long way, at least to the 18th century:

"Besides those limbs and members that may be necessary to man, in order to defend himself or annoy his enemy, the rest of his person or body is also entitled by the same natural right to security from the corporal insults of menaces, assaults, beating, and wounding; though such insults amount not to destruction of life or member...."
- Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) by Sir William Blackstone

"As in Germany, the state’s legislature intervened, passing a bill prohibiting localities from banning the practice."
The German law was merely unconstitutional. The California law (AB 768) makes any regulation of circumcision impossible, so that a father can if he likes (in theory) instruct a driving instructor to circumcise his 17-year-old with a boxcutter for failing his test.
 
"circumcision is at the heart of the covenant." Or only a sign of it? It can hardly be other when only males are subjected to it. At least 105 rabbis (including one professor of religion) are prepared to officiate at the naming of boys without surgery (Brit Shalom). It is the No True Scotsman fallacy to say they are "not real Jews".

The claim that "the practice reduces the incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases" demands more than the usual degree of scepticism precisely because of the vast load of historical baggage the practice carries. Circumcision was already customary in the US for "moral hygiene" (punishing and reducing the pleasure of masturbation) before all the medical benefits were "discovered". The AAP's half-hearted support (it found the benefits were insufficient to recommend it) has been denounced by 38 top European paediatricians, heads and  spokespeople for the paediatric associations of Austria, Britain, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and senior paediatricians in Canada, the Czech Republic, France and Poland.
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/03/12/peds.2012... The

There is no evidence whatsoever that infant circumcision reduces the incidence of anything affecting children that can not be prevented by other means or treated as it occurs. Most of the developed world does very well without it. It is not enough that it "reduces the incidence". Hemiorchidectomy (cutting out one testicle) would undoubtedly halve the rate of testicular cancer, which is aggressive and deadly, at very little cost to fertility, but we wouldn't dream of doing it to newborn baby boys. (When boys were wholly castrated in Italy to preserve their high singing voices, it was justified in much the same terms as circumcision is today.)

It is interesting how "medical" circumcision becomes a justification for religious circumcision, and vice-versa. Yet this ducking and weaving is characteristic of the circumcision debate, making it unlike any other.  

"What justifies such a broadly drawn right and gives it priority over the right to practice one’s religion, which has long been regarded as a core human right?" The key word is "one's". Circumcision is done to someone else, affecting her or him lifelong.  Her or his rights to the disposition of her or his own body are also lifelong, and trump anyone else's rights to practise their religion on her or him.

The spiritual aspects of both circumcision and baptism can be ignored or repudiated if the object of them so chooses, but only of baptism can the physical aspect be wiped off with a paper towel.  

Excising a male infant’s prepuce may not be the moral equivalent of amputating his hand (are you confusing moral with physical?), but it is closely equivalent to the minimal end of the female genital cutting spectrum (excising a female infant's prepuce). Yet most of the developed world unequivocally condemns ALL female cutting without reservation. This loving Malaysian mother's description of her daughter's "circumcision" in the name of Islam could hardly be more similar: http://www.circumstitions.com/fgc-malay.html

"...some individuals born into Judaism may decide to repudiate membership in the community" but they can not "repudiate" their circumcisions, and foreskin restoration - constant or regular tension causing skin to grow, but not nerves - can never be complete.

The reason individual human rights are so important here is that circumcision is so invasive and so intimate to the individual. Does it count for nothing that more and more men (many of them Jewish) are coming out and saying they hate that this was done to them, perhaps even to the point of renouncing their community? How can you claim that the community's rights still trump theirs?

The elephant in the room is sexuality. It is no coincidence that this act goes to the essence of a man's sexual function, nor that "circumcision ablates [removes] the most sensitive part of the penis" (Sorrells et al. "Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis" BJU International 99 (4), 864-869), a claim that was not refuted by the study's predictible critics. Taylor et al (The prepuce: Specialized mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision, Journal of Urology (1996), 77, 291-295) found a ridged band of nerves running around the inside of the foreskin at the tip, specialised like those of the fingertips and lips. Does anyone deny, or demand studies to prove, that the lips are important to the pleasures of kissing. It is in vain for circumcised men to say how good their sex is, when they have no idea what they are missing. Before circumcision was widespread, everyone from Philo Judaeus of Alexandria in the 1st century CE to Maimonides in the 12th, knew that the foreskin itself conferred pleasure: they gave the blunting of that pleasure as one of the purposes of circumcision.

Fascinating essay and discussion. I would appreciate continued discussion ofthe legitimacy of male compared to female circumcission. My  initial reaction is supportive of the argument of legitimacy of males but not of females due to the physiology and sexual pleasure issues. However, I imagine there are some clerics and even women who defend female circumcission on simlar eligous grounds. Anyone making that argument?

 

 

The one thing committed opponents of the rights of Jewish people to circumcize their male offspring should know is that, in the end, Jews will remain committed to the practice. The critics of circumcision will be left free to write books and pamphlets, shout their opposition from the rooftops, pass laws making the practice illegal, fine and jail those who practice it; and, if they wish, may even go so far as to attempt to remove babies in danger of being circumcised from their homes. But Jews will continue to practice it. Openly. Without hesitation or shame or concern for the tender feelings of their opponents. Often while laughing out loud at them. Forever.

I am not Jewish but when I was born, circumcision was a fairly standard medical practice or therapeutic reasons. In fact, I did not know I had been circumcised until I was about 10 years old when my mother told me in a discussion about Jews.

There are still some good reasons for male circumcision, including a reduced tendency for the transmission of AIDS. I have never found any noticeable problems with sexual activity and my experience indicates that I did not have any trauma from the operation, which is a very minor one indeed.

Thank you for our rational and personal post.  My husband (non-religious) is circumcised but when our son was born our pediatrician urged not to have the procedure done so we did not.  When our son was about 3 he began having infections of the foreskin which were very painful for him and required repeated treatment with antibiotics.  The infections subsided, and he has had no trouble we know of as an adult, but I've always wondered whether circumcision would have been preferable to those infections.  There are arguments on both sides, and people who have had bad and good outcomes from both circumcision and lack of it. 

There certainly are, but when you compare apples with apples, tribal with tribal, surgical with surgical, there’s very little between them.
Female circumcision, removal of the prepuce (hood) is a close analogue of male circumcision, removal of the prepuce (foreskin). It was covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield in the USA until 1977, legal until 1996, and still done to millions of girls across Indonesia and Malaysia in the name of Islam.
This is not to be confused with what they do to girls in Africa. That is much more comparable to what they do to boys in Africa, killing scores of boys in Eastern Cape Province alone every year, and emasculating many more. When done to non-consenting people of any age, both are human rights violations.

Amy L: Where circumcision is not customary (and doctors are taught more about the foreskin than just how to cut it off, and anatomy textbooks actually show the foreskin, unlike some in the USA), the lifetime risk of ever needing to be circumcised is one in thousands. The infections you mention are usually caused by meddling, attempts to retract the foreskin before it is ready, tearing it away from the glans and creating a wound that gets infected.

To speak of such "bad outcomes" from "lack of circumcision" implies that having a whole body itself causes disease. It does not. Is breast cancer a bad outcome of lack of infant mastectomy?

I rather suspect that attitudes toward circumcision are strongly correlated with one's own status or, in the case of women, by one's own mate and family. For my own part, my last name provides a clue to my own bias. I will say that I've never in my life heard of a single circumcised male who ever expressed the slightest remorse or wistfulness. If one has greater intensity of sensation from having an intact foreskin, my immediate reaction is to say no thank you. My own life's experience is that the sensation from a circumcised penis is quite sufficient to provide a world of pleasure and sometimes a world of trouble. But don't take my word for it: it's been the subject of good peer review research.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23937309

 

My own opinion is that circumcision has certainly passed the test of time.  No parents should be forced to circumcise their son. And no parents should be forced not to circumcise their son. It's way to much government intrusion into something very personal, which is a non-existent problem.

I rather suspect that attitudes toward circumcision are strongly correlated with one's own status or, in the case of women, by one's own mate and family. For my own part, my last name provides a clue to my own bias. I will say that I've never in my life heard of a single circumcised male who ever expressed the slightest remorse or wistfulness. If one has greater intensity of sensation from having an intact foreskin, my immediate reaction is to say no thank you. My own life's experience is that the sensation from a circumcised penis is quite sufficient to provide a world of pleasure and sometimes a world of trouble. But don't take my word for it: it's been the subject of good peer review research.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23937309

 

My own opinion is that circumcision has certainly passed the test of time.  No parents should be forced to circumcise their son. And no parents should be forced not to circumcise their son. It's way to much government intrusion into something very personal, which is a non-existent problem.

^^ That type of obvious contradiction would - in a rational human being - require reevaluation ^^

Well put.  Forced genital cutting is utterly inconsistent with "Thou Shall Not Steal."  

 

Indeed, do reevaluate.   

To echo what A. Stanton said, certainly Orthodox Jews are going to circumsize their male babies whether it is legal or illegal.  We circumsized when it was forbidden by the Greeks and Romans.  Please don't make us into criminals.  

Interesting that this discussion concerns male circumcision onlu, Except for those who practice it, female circumcision is considered an abominable cruelty.

Hi Leo, You can't seriously compare so called "female circumcision" to male circumcision. The female analogy to male circumcision would be removing only part of the clitoral hood.  To my knowledge, this, by itself, is virtually never done.  What is done, instead, is to remove part or all of the clitoris, which would be analogous to amputating the penis. Additionally, the procedure may include removal of the labia. Finally, there is no mention at all of this procedure in the holy scriptures (Quran, etc.) of the cultures which practice this, in contradistinction to this being God's command in the Old Testament of the Bible.

As I wrote, male circumcision is a thousands of years old religious ritual and social tradition which has fully passed the test of time.  No one ever had a problem with it: the boys and men who had it done to them; the families, including spouses, of these boys and men.  Society at large.  No problem   It seems to me that the only people who think it is a problem are busybodies who want to remake all of manhood literally in their own image.

I am in complete agreement that there is no compelling reason to mandate circumcision. But neither is there any compelling reason to mandate that circumcision can't be performed.

Good grief, Jesus himself was circumcized on the 8th day, according to the requirements of scripture.  True enough, the Jerusalem Council determined that circumcision was no longer a requirement for Christians, but Paul even had Timothy circumcized, to make Timothy a more acceptable evangelist to the Jews, in recognition of how very important this tradition was and remains for Jews.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

 

Commonweal should be commended for starting the process of confronting the world’s biggest institutionalized child sex abuse problem, male genital mutilation, even though they’ve begun at Step Zero, Denying That There Is a Problem.

 

Catholics already know something about how hard it is to deal with institutionalized child sex abuse. Male genital mutilation should no more be tolerated than female genital mutilation or child rape. Every form of child abuse is simply indefensible. Mr. Galston’s apology shows us where trying to defend the indefensible leads. Compassion is misrepresented as ethnic hatred. Coercion is misrepresented as freedom. The informed are misrepresented as ignorant. Those caring souls who stand up for the bodily integrity of the most vulnerable are misrepresented as bigots. 

 

In Europe, the opposition to genital mutilation of either sex comes from compassion for the suffering of children and the adults they will become and a commitment to the human rights outlined in the European Charter[1], the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] and the Convention on the Rights of the Child[3]. European advocates for children should not be maligned as bigots for this noble work.

 

Watch a video of a boy being circumcised[4] and it will be suddenly no longer “hard to explain” why thousands of signatures were collected in San Francisco to stop this act of torture and clear violation of a defenseless child’s body and basic rights.

 

“The Torah could not be clearer” on circumcision. Except that really it could. The first version of the Covenant, Genesis 15, is kept with an animal sacrifice, not circumcision. So which version should take precedence? Why is one an absolute requirement and not the other?

 

Coercion isn’t freedom. An infant being circumcised knows nothing of religion. All he knows is that he is being attacked. Without question, he rejects this assault on his person, not in words but in the only way available to him, desperate screams and struggling to free himself from his assailant. His will to be unmolested is the only will that matters here. His freedom is the only freedom that matters here. It’s HIS body that is being injured, an injury that will impact his whole life.

 

Coercion isn’t freedom. Nearly every circumcision is inflicted by coercion, usually because the victim is too small to resist but also, for many adult victims, because they were not informed of the harm to their sexual function or that their condition could be treated by less drastic means or that circumcision will not prevent any disease if a condom is not used and if a condom is used, circumcision adds no protection.

 

Intactivists are not rejecting empiricism. Studies alleging circumcision health benefits have been vigorously criticized by professionals[5,6,7,8] and must be seen in the context of nearly two centuries of false claims of circumcision benefits[9]. The HIV-prevention claim in particular has not been found to hold for the US Navy population[10], or for populations in Australia[11], the Caribbean[12], and the UK[13]. Nations with very low circumcision rates, such as Finland and Japan, have very low prevalence of HIV. 

 

One needs to be in deep denial to believe that surgically removing the most sensitive part of the penis does not cause harm. That harm includes not only the immediate, unnecessary and traumatic surgical assault on a healthy child, frequently with complications[14], sometimes death[15], but also, for the grown victim, less satisfying sex lives for both the circumcised male and his partner[16] and much greater chance of erectile dysfunction[17]. “The evidence that circumcision injures human sexual response and function is now overwhelming and conclusive,” conclude Doctors Opposing Circumcision[18].

 

It’s beyond absurd to equate circumcision to baptism, to equate pouring water over a child’s head to cutting off the most sensitive and pleasure-giving part of his anatomy. Circumcision really is irreversible. Foreskin restoration is helpful for circumcised men to regain the look of being intact again. It does not reverse the most important damage, the loss of nerves and the sensation they would have produced. No one can regrow an amputated body part. Even a slave can be set free, but an amputee can never be made whole again.

 

If parents always did what’s best for their children, there would be no need for an Office of Child Protective Services in every city and county. Kids need the State’s intervention because there is no one else who can act on their behalf until they are old enough to protect themselves.

 

——

 

1 European Charter, Article 3.1: “Everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity.” http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf

 

2 UDHR Art. 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a3

 

3 UNCRC Art. 3.24: “States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.”

http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

 

4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXVFFI76ff0&t=4m02s

 

5 Boyle, G. J. and Hill, G. (2011). Sub-Saharan African randomised clinical trials into male circumcision and HIV transmission: Methodological, ethical and legal concerns. Journal of Law and Medicine. http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/23477339/1441224426/name/JLM_boyle_hill.pdf

 

6 Green et al. (2010). Male circumcision and HIV prevention: Insufficient evidence and neglected external validity. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. http://atlc.org/Resources/Downloads/AJPMGreenetAl2010.pdf

 

7 Van Howe, R. S. and Storms, M. (2011). How the circumcision solution in Africa will increase HIV infections. Journal of Public Health in Africa. http://www.zimeye.org/wp-content/live_images/2012/01/44-419-1-PB.pdf

 

8 Gisselquist, D. Denied, withheld, and uncollected evidence and unethical research cloud what really happened during three key trials of circumcision to protect men. http://dontgetstuck.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/denied-withheld-and-uncolle...

 

9 Timeline of Circumcision Rationalizations/Pretexts; http://sites.google.com/site/completebaby/timeline

 

10 Thomas, Anne G, PhD; Bakhireva, Ludmila N, MD, MPH; Brodine, Stephanie K, MD; Shaffer, Richard A, PhD. (2004), Prevalence of circumcision and its association with HIV and sexually transmitted infections in a male US Navy population, Naval Health Research Center, Report No. 04-10. http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA458066

 

11 Circumcision Information Australia, Statements by Medical Authorities. http://www.circinfo.org/doctors.html

 

12 Rodriguez-Diaz, C. E., Clatts, M. C., Jovet-Toledo, G. G., Vargas-Molina, R. L., Goldsamt, L. A. and García, H. (2012), More than Foreskin: Circumcision Status, History of HIV/STI, and Sexual Risk in a Clinic-Based Sample of Men in Puerto Rico. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9: 2933–2937. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02871.x. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02871.x/abst...

 

13 Doerner R et al. Circumcision and HIV infection among men who have sex with men in Britain: the insertive sex role. Archives of Sexual Behavior, early online edition, DOI 10.1007/s10508-012-0061-1, 2013. http://www.aidsmap.com/Circumcision-makes-no-difference-to-HIV-infection...

14 Young, H. Complications of Circumcision http://circumstitions.com/Complic.html

 

15 Bollinger, Dan. Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths, THYMOS: Journal of Boyhood Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2010, 78-90. DOI 10.3149/thy.0401.78. http://www.mensstudies.com/content/b64n267w47m333x0/?p=0c3326efadee440fb...

 

16 Frisch M, Lindholm M, Grønbæk M. Male circumcision and sexual function in men and women: a survey-based, cross-sectional study in Denmark. Int J Epidemiol. 2011;40(5):1367–1381; doi: 10.1093/ije/dyr104 http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/5/1367

 

17 Dan Bollinger and Robert S. Van Howe, Alexithymia and Circumcision Trauma: A Preliminary Investigation, International Journal of Men's Health, 2011, Volume 10, Number 2, Page 184. DOI: 10.3149/jmh.1002.184. http://www.mensstudies.com/content/2772r13175400432/?p=a7068101fbdd48819...

 

18 Doctors Opposing Circumcision, Genital Integrity Policy Statement, Chapter 6: Long-Term Adverse Effects of Circumcision. http://www.doctorsopposingcircumcision.org/DOC/statement06.html

 

Hi Henry, 

 

Conflating female genital mutilation with male circumcision is an odious comparison, for reasons I explained above.  It's an entirely illegitimate comparison.  Where are the legions of circumcised men or boys, bemoaning their inadequate sexual function and emotional scars from the horrors of the procedure? 

 

You quote a cherry picked study, purporting to show compromised function and satisfaction. I quoted a (more recent) meta-analysis of the entire world's literature refuting this spurious claim.  You now make the additional claim that circumcision produces erectile dysfunction. That's absurd, to anyone who has an even rudimentary knowledge of the pathogenesis of ED. No, it doesn't, based on known mechanisms. And real world data prove that it doesn't.

 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/23361453/

 

With regard to circumcision and STDs, that's a straw man, in the context of the present discussion. 

 

With regard to anecdotal horror stories -- that's all they are. There are anecdotal horror stories associated with lack of circumcision, breast feeding, vaccination, and letting your kids walk to school.

 

Circumcision has passed the test of time.  Arguably more convincingly than just about any other medical or surgical procedure.  Leave families alone, please. This goes beyond the pale of proposed government intrusiveness.

 

Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach

PS to Henry: 

 

In contradistinction to your citations of "white papers" by "Doctors in Opposition to  Circumcision" and small studies in 3rd and 4th tier journals, I have, as explained, cited a recent meta-analysis of the entire world's literature, relating to false allegations of diminished function or satisfaction in circumcised men.

 

Regarding STDs, I agree that the data aren't entirely definitive for several types of STDs, but I believe that the preponderance of evidence from good studies, published in first tier medical journals,  strongly argues in favor of a protective effect from HIV, with several important studies showing not only statistical associations, but benefit with prospective interventions. 

 

e.g.

 

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0802556

 

One particular class of STD, however, is pretty much beyond dispute, and that is the protective effect of circumcision, not only against HPV associated penile cancer, but also against cervical cancer in female partners of circumcised men. With the rather dramatic increase in oral (and probably anal) sex, I think it's likely that the risks of oral and anal cancers are likely to be higher as well in the case of partners of so-called "intact" men.

 

Here's a large study, published in a first rate medical journal.

 

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa011688

 

Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

 

I would add to many of the positive responses to circumcision.  I think that the Gentile opposition to circumcision needs to be taken into account as an inherent bias in the "secular" courts.  Jewish identity is in contradistinction to Gentile identity. This is history, not belief.  To prohibit, by secular law, this identification appears to be part of an historical pattern of opposing Jewish peoplehood.  We know what that means in historical terms.  Using secular law to backdoor this issues IS the codification of bigotry.

Secular governments are ill disposed to recognize religious claims, especially where peoplehood and nationality bear a close relationship to religious identity. The "fear" is that this undermines central identification of, and control over, the citizen.  Jewish identity is endlessly debated.  Many suppose the Enlightenment (led predominantly by Gentiles), an enemy of any religion, ended such "ancient" or "tribal" associations. This of course is founded on a watered down Christian view that such views were abolished after the advent of Christianity - except the Jews continued to live despite that.  The Jewish people were not allowed to vote on this - it was forced onto them (some would call that tyranny of the majority).  In the US, respect is given to Native Americans as nationally (i.e., tribal) distinct peoples, despite simultaneously being US citizens.  One belongs to the Navahoe nation and is a US citizen.  Similarly, a person can be part of the Jewish people and nation, and be a citizen in any modern nation. The Torah does not declare the Jews to be a "religion", in fact the Hebrew word for "religion" (Dat or Das) never appears in Scripture - but declared by G-d that the Jews are and to be  a holy nation and holy people appears hundreds of times.  If the premier book of Western civilization calls the Jews a people and nation, I find it highly questionable how reasonable the Enlightenment (18th century) assumptions can be taken in the 21st century reflected in the presumptions of modern secular courts.

A final thought.  The Gentile world over the last 2,500 years have done their best across multiple regions, religions and government systems to eliminate the Jewish people and nation. How is a Jew to assume that the current "legal" and "medical" approach not merely some innate bias to continue with that eliminationist ideology?  Where is the ethical and moral basis for that Gentile world to tell the Jews that it now, finally, really, really, means well for Jewish children, when its pattern has been to eliminate - by any and all means - the Jewish people? I find that arguement specious at best. It maybe that the rabbis had it more than right when they said, "Esav (the western, Christian world) hates Yaakov (the Jewish people). This certainly appears to be the case on this issue. This issue is a litmus test for Jewish - Gentile (especially Christian) relations. For fellow Jews, I would suggest, that this is yet another sign to leave the exile and return to the one country that will allow Jews to live as Jews - Israel. We have been a blessing on the world, when it has allowed us to contribute.  We have paid our dues, and this is what we get. The lesson should be branded on our hearts and minds.

Hi Alan, This whole, absolutely ridiculous "intactivist" movement is a combination of personal bias, tinged with bigotry, on the fringes.  Henry quotes Europeans.  In Europe, circumcision is relatively rare, except among Jews and Muslims.  Uncircumcised men imagine in their heads how horrible circumcision must be; throw in a dash of anti-semitism, and you've got these militant intactivist movements.

Contrast this with the United States, where, for several decades, the vast majority of males were circumcised, regardless of religion or ethnicity. No nation has had a more extensive experience with circumcision than the USA.  We are truly the world's experts.

Surely there must be an army of circumcised fathers who had personal experience with the horror of the procedure, right? -- and are the lay people at the forefront of a large and well-supported intactivist movement -- since they have actually experienced the trauma and horrible sequellae -- right ?  We must have a veritable epidemic of erectile dysfunction, compared to the Europeans, which cannot be otherwise explained by obesity and hypertension, right? We must have legions of unsatisfied women, crying out for the kind of fulfillment which can only be experienced with an uncircumcised man, right?  Our pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms must be filled with infants suffering complications, right?  Our mental health clinics must be likewise burdened, right?  And, most of all, the doctors who have to deal first hand with all of these horrors must be leading the charge to end the procedure, right?

Well, here's the official policy statement on circumcision by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is congruent with the policy of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/08/22/peds.2012...

  • From the American Academy of Pediatrics

Policy Statement

Circumcision Policy Statement

  1. TASK FORCE ON CIRCUMCISION

 

Abstract

Male circumcision is a common procedure, generally performed during the newborn period in the United States. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) formed a multidisciplinary task force of AAP members and other stakeholders to evaluate the recent evidence on male circumcision and update the Academy’s 1999 recommendations in this area. Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it. Specific benefits identified included prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has endorsed this statement.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

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About the Author

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.