Cutting bits off babies

Normally I can see two sides to an argument, but the circumcision debate seems like an open and shut case to me, ethically speaking.

I don’t like moral dogmas, so I wouldn’t make a commandment of it, but I think ‘Don’t cut bits off people without their informed consent’ is a good general ethical principle. We might be flexible with this principle in the case of medically necessary procedures where children might be too young to give meaningful consent, but I think it’s a good general principle. The reasons behind it are pretty easy to grasp – respect for the dignity of a person requires respect for the integrity of their body; respect for the autonomy of a person requires that they give consent for irreversible procedures affecting their body (like cutting pieces off their genitals).

Given this principle, I can’t see any reason why children under an age where they can meaningfully consent should have bits cut off them, and the judgement in Germany today that found this seems totally correct to me.

(I know some people make a medical argument for male circumcision but the health benefits of circumcision would have to be very very strong to amount to a plausible medical necessity. Instead, what few benefits are alleged for the practice are contested at best, plausibly outweighed by the disadvantages, and certainly don’t amount to enough to override the presumption that such a procedure should have consent.)

Of course some Jews and Muslims are going to be upset by a ban and I think we should be sympathetic up to a point

It’s difficult for many people to think rationally about procedures and practices that have the authority of tradition about them. It’s even more difficult when that antiquity is reinforced by the sanction of a revered religion. Any person’s most profound convictions being challenged in an unforeseen way is going to feel oppressive to the person so challenged and a severe – perhaps even traumatic – challenge to their identity. It is emotionally extremely difficult to accept that what your parents did to you and what you have done to your children is harmful and unethical. When the longstanding practices of a cultural minority are banned by the wider community, of course that minority may feel oppressed. But I’m sure that advocates of sati felt the same – this sort of psychic trauma is the cost of progress – and the rights of vulnerable people (children in this case) should always outweigh it.

More understandable is the emotional charge given to the debate by the fact that those defending it are themselves circumcised. It’s hard to think of a more personal and intimate issue that the condition of your genitals and we should remember that the Jewish and Muslim opponents of a ban are men who are circumcised, women who have circumcised husbands, parents who have circumcised their children. A ban on circumcision can feel like an implied judgement on their own physical condition and that of their children, especially when one of the arguments made by supporters of a ban is the decreased pleasure during sexual intercourse experienced by circumcised men. It’s difficult to engage in a disinterested ethical consideration of consent from this position (I’ve noticed that American and Australian friends who are circumcised for non-religious reasons can also feel this embarrassed discomfort when discussing the case for a ban on religious circumcision).

These explanations might elicit our sympathy, but they are not enough to outweigh the ethical case for a total ban on genital mutilation of either boys or girls. Hopefully the UK will one day move towards that.


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