Circumcision, Religion and the Rights of the Child

By Christina Love

What follows is my contribution to a conversation on Facebook about circumcision (specifically metzitzah b' peh - a rare part of Jewish circumcision.)

I will say that I am not Jewish or religious (spiritual, yes), but I am a Genital Integrity Educator. The subject of intact genitalia, namely foreskin (an organ al mammals have), and circumcision are topics I cannot resist, so I'm weighing in here.

When it comes to circumcision, one must consider their own bias. In many cases, the countless psychological issues it is infused with prevail over logic and research. Circumcision is practiced by many tribes and religions around the world. However, 85% of the world's men are intact. Among Muslims, it is cultural and the age of the boy being circumcised varies. Circumcision is not specified or required by the Qur'an. Among Jews, it is said to be a Covenant and required on the 8th day of life. However, a child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, regardless. Hygienic justifications for genital cutting arose out of the many claims used to justify the practice of circumcision that began in Western English-speaking countries in the late 1800s. Circumcision was purported to cure masturbation, which at the time, was thought to cause all sorts of other maladies (i.e. epilepsy, blindness, paralysis, etc.). See:

Currently, the circumcision rate in the United States is approximately 50%, the majority of which are infant sons of non-Jewish, non-Muslim, Americans. The most popular reasons cited by these American parents are to 'look like dad' ('He'll wonder why he's different,' aesthetic, social conformity, etc.), for 'hygiene' and to 'prevent infection' - namely urinary tract infections (UTIs) and HIV/AIDS.

We are social creatures with a need to belong, but if logic and research prevailed, non-religious circumcision would be abandoned overnight. Although the state of one's sex organs evoke ego in a way that appears absent from having or missing one's tonsils, consider our history with routine tonsillectomy. Once we became aware of the tonsils' functions, removing them for preventative measures became obsolete. Now this surgery is a last resort: Today, we simply do not accept amputating body parts for prevention of disease (i.e. removal of breast buds in girls to preclude the high probability - 1 in 8 - of breast cancer later in life; removal of diabetics' feet to avert infection and amputation; etc).

Many religious texts refer to stoning people, killing, and having slaves. I'm no expert in this area, but we've clearly discarded these things as inhumane and cruel. And no one, at least in this country, would be able to plead innocence from the above on the grounds of their religion.

If we were talking about cutting girls' genitals, would it suffice to justify the practice because of a religious or cultural mandate? Should we allow it for the sake of tolerance? Since 1997, it has been a felony in the U.S. to cut a minor-aged girl's genitals in any way (even a nick) regardless of culture, custom, religion, or parental preference: Globally, female genital cutting is less common than male genital cutting, and more of the world is ready to abandon it via laws that prohibit it. While I was in Washington, D.C. demonstrating for Genital Integrity Awareness Week, two Sudanese fathers with their families proudly explained that cutting girls is now illegal in their country. One of the women had been cut as a child, but their young daughter was kept intact. I asked about the sons; the boys had been circumcised and both fathers defended their reasons for doing so.

How can we cling to the notion that one sex has rights that the other does not? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the equal rights of men and women without distinction of any kind, including religion, and declares in Article 3 that everyone has the right to security of person:

Today we hold in high regard the tolerance of different religions, various cultures, and countless human belief systems - 'can't we all just get along and create peace on earth?' But some things have been rejected as unacceptable behavior in today's world (i.e. bloodletting, animal sacrifice, tattooing children, etc.). How can we uphold the human rights of infants while making exception only for those born of one sex and to parents who practice particular religious acts? That's the crux! We've outlawed female genital cutting of minors, regardless of parents' religion, but ignored male genital cutting of minors because it's too hot to touch with two major religions involved (as witnessed with the June court ruling in Cologne, Germany). The German court concluded that circumcision was not in the interest of the child and should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent. After condemnation by both Jewish and Muslim leaders, German lawmakers approved a bill in December that explicitly permits male infant circumcision, thereby allowing a parent's right to proxy consent to trump a child's right to bodily autonomy. &

Religious freedom of one person ends where another person's body begins when it comes to cutting off healthy, functioning parts or marking the flesh permanently. Additionally, all American boys would truly be served by the American Academy of Pediatrics (which claims dedication to the health of all children) if they retracted their most recent position statement on circumcision and fully disclosed all of the research and risks, including a thorough analysis of the functions of foreskin. According to an article in Pediatrics, "[pediatric health care providers] have legal and ethical duties to their child patients to render competent medical care based on what the patient needs, not what someone else expresses. ...the pediatrician's responsibilities to his or her patient exist independent of parental desires or proxy consent."

All children have a right to their bodily integrity being protected. Unfortunately we have not yet fully awakened to the human rights violation of permanently altering and amputating the most sensitive part of a non-consenting minor-aged boy's genitals. All movements take time. Slavery in the U.S. did not end overnight. This, too, will one day be a thing of the past.

Here are intelligent, insightful and thorough related resources:

~Functions of the Foreskin: Purposes of the Prepuce

~Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

~Global Survey of Circumcision Harm

~Questioning Circumcision

~The Other Side of the Circumcision Debate

~Jewish Circumcision Resource Center

~Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power
I remember when I first learned about the phenomenon of female genital cutting. I was appalled. ... "It's who we are, who we've been for thousands of years." "No one will marry us if we're not cut." "Intact genitalia are ugly." "They are unhygienic." Then, I realized... we say the same things. ... Holding a child down and forcibly removing genitalia is sexual abuse. We would not hesitate to use that label for an individual or culture that countenanced sexual fondling of children. Why do we think slicing off genitals is acceptable? ... Neither in biblical texts nor in the Talmud has brit milah been commanded for hygienic reasons. ... The truth is that the whole baby is pure, body and soul, including his tender genitals, and it is both a mitzvah and our most sacred duty to protect him. -Miriam Pollack
~Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective "Challenging circumcision can be an attack on Jewish identity only if Jewish women don't count, for Jewish women have survived and kept their identities intact for millennia without any need of altering their bodies." -Miriam Pollack

~Miriam Pollack on Jewish Circumcision (two videos)

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