Why circumcision should be abhorred

A couple from the US state of Georgia was arrested for tattooing six of their seven children with crosses. The mother bemusedly commented:

I’m their mother. Shouldn’t I be able to decide if they get one?

No, madam, you shouldn’t. Children are not possessions; parents do not own them. They are human beings with inalienable human rights. To permanently and unnecessarily scar a child without their express and informed consent (and when they are not old enough to comprehend the consequences) is a violation of those rights.

Tattooing (or branding) children, is, of course, a rare occurrence. Far more prevalent is a form of child mutilation that barely raises an eyebrow: circumcision.

Anyone with a sensitive cell in his or her body instinctively abhors the idea of female genital mutilation, yet male circumcision is seen as perfectly acceptable.

It is not. Circumcision is unnecessary, irreversible, and intensely painful. Yet it is often justified on aesthetic or religious grounds – or it may simply be a fashion followed unquestioningly by parents, ignorant of the fact that the practice is not only unethical, but is tantamount to criminal assault if not carried out for genuine medical reasons.

It is simply an ancient and barbaric ritual with no place in any modern society.

Circumcision happens thus (the squeamish should skip this paragraph): First the infant’s arms and legs are strapped down to prevent movement. The child’s genitals are then dabbed with an anaesthetic and lubricating solution. A pair of what can only be described as scissors are then used to cut down the length of the foreskin. A metal hood is then firmly placed over the head of the penis, keeping the foreskin outside. A sharpened metal ring is then placed around the child’s penis, and the ring closes over the foreskin, trapping it between the blade of the ring and the protective metal hood. The pressure severs the foreskin completely, completing the circumcision.

And that’s when it is done properly, under modern hygienic conditions. Now ask yourselves how many millions more circumcisions are carried around the world in a grossly unhygienic manner?

Consider that circumcision has taken place for thousands of years, and we must acknowledge millions of infants circumcised throughout history, cut with knives, sharp stones, razor blades or other instruments – without pain relief.

Jewish law has a proviso that allows parents who have had three boys die from circumcision to leave the fourth unmutilated (what charity!)

More sinister still, Jewish circumcision has a more traditional form, during which the mohel will suck the blood from the cut penis with his mouth. This practice went relatively unpublicised until baby boys in New York City became infected with herpes thanks to a practitioner who had the condition.

If my description of the procedure alone is not enough to convince you of the barbarity of circumcision, I challenge you to watch an online video of any standard circumcision of a baby boy. It is harrowing. I am not ashamed to admit that, while watching one, I had to mute the sound: the infant’s screams of pain were too much for me to endure.

However, if a consenting adult male wishes to have his foreskin removed (or any other part of his body mutilated), then so long as he does not endanger his own life, he is welcome to do so. It is consent that is paramount.

You may have heard that there are medical advantages for circumcision – and it is true that the American Academy of Pediatrics notes a 1 percent drop in urinary tract infections among circumcised boys. Women, however, are 30 times more likely to get UTIs than men, yet no-one in their right mind would suggest the cutting of the labia and clitoral hood in order to improve hygiene and reduce the risk of infection.

Shamefully, the World Health Organisation recommends circumcisions in areas badly affected by HIV, instead of recommending educating the public regarding the use of contraceptives. The idiocy is profound: mutilate a man’s penis instead of leaving it intact and educating him. Cut him instead of teaching him. I have no doubt that the widespread influence of the Catholic Church in AIDS-hit countries has affected the WHO’s decisions about the dodgy fixes they endorse regarding the HIV. We well know the Vatican teaches that condoms don’t prevent HIV (for the Holy See, AIDS might be bad, but condoms are worse.)

And Judaism certainly has a lot to answer for, too, having provided the blueprint for this revolting practice. Without genuinely believing that God wants infants to be mutilated, there would be no religious justification to continue doing it. Those who believe in a Divine Creator who wants children mutilated should accept that such a deity must be extraordinarily racist and cruel. He is a semite-supremacist, because he favours the tribe and descendents of Israel over all other humans. And he is exceptionally cruel because, though God supposedly knows all there is to know, he could think of no better way to make a covenant with humans than through ritual mutilation.

Furthermore, they must conclude that morality is defined by the wishes of God. That is, something is good because God says it is. And if that is the case, the act of murdering one’s parents and the act of stealing a pencil are wrong for the same reason. That this God-defined morality would justify circumcision just goes to show that the oft-quoted, “If God is dead, anything is permitted” is downright wrong: God need only command you to do something and it would be a moral action – be it killing your child as a sacrifice, murdering homosexuals or mutilating your children’s genitals.

One of the greatest Torah scholars of all time, Maimonides wrote:

The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision.

Telling indeed. It also seems that Maimonides was right when he said:

The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable.

The foreskin is the male version of the clitoral hood (during embryonic growth, the hood becomes the foreskin) and as such, is packed with pleasure-sensitive areas. According to a study of sexual pleasure in adult males, it was concluded that the most sensitive areas of the penis are on the foreskin (Sorrells et al). Severing it irreversibly limits sexual pleasure.

This is precisely what Maimonides had in mind, but whilst he viewed it as a justification of circumcision (sexual lust being an excessive indulgence and all), nowadays we may cast off such Bronze Age notions.

While 30 percent of all men are circumcised worldwide, only 0.8 percent of those are Jewish. The majority, 68.8 percent, are Muslim. Justifications for the practice are predominantly cultural and scriptural: the Prophet Mohammed was circumcised and he circumcised his children, too, and that is justification enough for Islam. Since the Prophet can do no wrong, anything he does is what God wants.

These religious notions of divine covenant and sexual “purity” were born in the fearful infancy of our species, and we should now free ourselves from such primitive nonsense.

Finally, be wary of any modern justification of circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics stated unequivocally in 2005 that:

There is no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn.

It is therefore unconscionable to inflict genital cutting on children, male or female. That male circumcision does not provoke the same instinctive disgust as female genital cutting is a profound indicator of the power of tradition and convention.

The vile influence of religious dogma is like a magnet to the moral compass. The old adage holds true: Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for a good person to do a bad thing, that takes religion.

In this case good people are mutilating their children’s genitals, utterly unaware that, without religion, this barbaric and grotesque practice would never have existed at all.

First published January 21 2010 at freethinker.co.uk