December 6, 2021

Defenders of male circumcision have double standards, says bioethicist

Medical authorities have a double standard about circumcision, argues Yale bioethicist Brian Earp in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Any form of female circumcision invites nigh-universal condemnation, but male circumcision is widely accepted. This is an offence against bodily autonomy, he says. Parents should wait until a child is old enough to make up his own mind whether to have his foreskin reduced.

Earp tests one justification for male circumcision – its health benefits. It is often argued, against intactivist critics, that circumcision prevents urinary tract infections or STIs.

“even if one accepts the health claims that are sometimes raised in this context, they cannot justify such disparate treatment. Rather, children of all sexes and genders have an equal right to (future) bodily autonomy. This includes the right to decide whether their own ‘private’ anatomy should be exposed to surgical risk, much less permanently altered, for reasons they themselves endorse when they are sufficiently mature.”

Advocates of male circumcision cannot have it both ways, Earp contends. If it is defended on health grounds, they should accept arguments for female circumcision for the same reason. If they condemn any form of female genital cutting as a violation of bodily integrity and autonomy, then they should also condemn male circumcision.

Earp says that the intactivist cause is becoming more popular amongst bioethicists and legal experts.

Attacking male circumcision is an incendiary issue, largely because Jewish and Muslim communities have practiced it for millennia. Writing in the National Review, bioethics writer Wesley J. Smith ripostes that male circumcision is not a cultural issue, like FGM. Instead, “infant circumcision — I won’t use the woke terms deployed by the author instead of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ — is commanded explicitly in Jewish scripture”.

He goes on to say that: “Articles like this one are aimed, ultimately, at attacking religious freedom and imposing a utilitarian secularist cloak over all of society.”

16 thoughts on “Defenders of male circumcision have double standards, says bioethicist

  1. A fair and most excellent point-by-point qualification. At this time political cowardice and bullying have prevented any country from even beinging to restrain this superstitious genital surgery.

  2. Male circumcision and female genital mutilation are ethically equivalent. Either way you are amputating healthy body parts from children who cannot give informed consent, often for religious or cultural reasons. No one’s religion or culture gives them the right to harm children. There is some evidence that FGM has medical benefits, but no one will even do studies on it because it’s so unethical. There is no reason why male circumcision should be treated any differently, yet there are endless junk studies trying to justify a barbaric religious practice. It is a total double standard. The medical community needs to do so much better. No one should be performing circumcision on healthy minors.

    1. And, dear reader, the same ethicist (scientist) explains in this lecture:

      http://pressepuce.com/2019/07/fgm-laws-are-being-sacrificed-to-protect-male-circumcision-argues-yale-scholar-brian-earp/
      In the presentation, Brian describes how policies, and even laws, are being changed regarding some forms of female genital cutting on minors. He believes that in order for male circumcision to remain legal and not violate equal protection laws granted by the U.S. Constitution, pro-circumcision advocates are attempting to reduce or eliminate the restrictions on female genital cutting.

  3. While a ban on infant male circumcision might be unattainable at this point, certain harm reduction strategies could certainly help.

    1.  Unqualified people should be banned from circumcising anyone!

    2.  Qualified but incompetent circumcisers should be banned from circumcising anyone else! 

    3.  Dangerous traditional practices such as metzitzah b’peh (oral suction of the circumcision wound) should be discouraged by public education and other suitable measures.

    4.  Before anyone is circumcised, an independent doctor must certify in writing that the person is free of any bleeding disorders and any other contra-indications and is strong enough to withstand the surgery.

    5.  If a child is to be circumcised, both the mother and the father must give informed and written consent to the surgery. No child should be circumcised against the objection of a parent.

    6.  If a man or an older child is forcibly circumcised against his will, this should be treated as a sexual assault, and the perpetrator prosecuted accordingly.

    These rules won’t interfere with most circumcisions and they won’t resolve the ethical question raised by infant circumcision, but they would help stop some abuses and give some protection to those who are circumcised.

  4. While a ban on infant male circumcision might be unattainable at this point, certain harm reduction strategies could certainly help.

    1.  Unqualified people should be banned from circumcising anyone!

    2.  Qualified but incompetent circumcisers should be banned from circumcising anyone else! 

    3.  Dangerous traditional practices such as metzitzah b’peh (oral suction of the circumcision wound) should be discouraged by public education and other suitable measures.

    4.  Before anyone is circumcised, an independent doctor must certify in writing that the person is free of any bleeding disorders and any other contra-indications and is strong enough to withstand the surgery.

    5.  If a child is to be circumcised, both the mother and the father must give informed and written consent to the surgery. No child should be circumcised against the objection of a parent.

    6.  If a man or an older child is forcibly circumcised against his will, this should be treated as a sexual assault, and the perpetrator prosecuted accordingly.

    These rules won’t interfere with most circumcisions and they won’t resolve the ethical question raised by infant circumcision, but they would help stop some abuses and give some protection to those who are circumcised.

  5. Male circumcision continues because it is a trauma. Psychologist know and research confirms that traumatized people have a compulsion to repeat their traumas on their children. This is why, for example, that adults that were abused as children are more likely to abuse their children. Repeated traumas do not become less traumatic over many years. Traumas inflicted two thousand years ago and today are similarly traumatic. Religious and health claims are excuses to defend traumas. Most Jews do not follow other commandments in Jewish scripture. Circumcision is an exception. Also, no national health organization recommends circumcision and a dozen oppose it. Aside from American, Muslims, and Jews, less than 5% of the world circumcises males. For more information see circumcision dot org.

  6. From an ethical standpoint, one needs to ask the questions: Would you be okay with someone surgically removing your own healthy body parts without your consent or against your will? (Many U.S. men had this done to them while they were helpless to stop it, of course). Do you think it’s okay to treat others differently than you yourself want to be treated? Where do you draw the line between which violations of another person’s body are acceptable and which ones aren’t? Genital cutting? Other forms of sexual assault? Slavery? Do some people have a right to bodily integrity while others don’t?

  7. A brief look at the religious and cultural arguments reveals their moral poverty. The Torah condones human sacrifice and commands genocidal actions, among other horrors (e.g., treatment of homosexuals) that our modern humane views reject; “freedom of religion” arguments are disingenuous at best. But “bodily integrity” arguments are little better; should children with cleft lips and palates have to wait to adulthood to find relief? And then there is the confusion engendered by use of a word that is highly equivocal; removal of the clitoral hood is the closest analog to male circumcision; labeling clitoridectomy and infibulation with the same terminology (including ‘genital mutilation’) is disingenuous and sophistical. But in both genders, the original purpose seems clearly to reduce or eliminate sexual pleasure–such was explicitly the argument when (male) circumcision was introduced by (largely Christian) surgeons around the end of the 19th century in the West–and they even pretended to know that the infants felt no pain. The moral rule to “do no harm” is of little value without the injunction to employ no deceit–to others or to oneself.

    1. Cleft lips and palates are clearly defects in development. So is a club foot or an undescended testicle. However, the foreskin is a normal part of the body and not a birth defect. There is something wrong with arguing that the genitals of one gender are sacrosanct but the genitals of the other gender may be reshaped.

      1. It’s bizarre, when I was born in July 1945, I was premature and a doctor with a truss blocked my right testicle from a descent. The doctor my mother had wanted to pull it down although his incompetence stopped its descent. He also insisted a circumcision be done. We never went back. I kept my foreskin and the underdeveloped testicle. Today I wish I had both known full well a full term baby would have met a circumcision.

  8. I am a circumcised male Jew. I also believe that people have the right to question practices. If scientists want to study the positive effects of female genital mutilation, let them do so.

    I have yet to see any studies like that, but admittedly I haven’t looked for them. I have seen only writings about the harm done to women.

    Jews are practical people. I believe that if they would have discovered that the benefits of male circumcision does not outweigh the drawbacks, they would have discontinued it long ago.

    Admittedly, I have no idea what it’s like to have a foreskin. Some people claim that it enhances sexual pleasure. Personally, I can’t imagine something being more pleasurable than sex without a foreskin. Something more pleasurable might be fatal!

    1. You are right it can be fatal, but I won’t go into how only that sex was meant for procreation and to go beyond that is somewhat fatal. However this can be controlled through self discipline and the power of God.

  9. As someone who suffered a late male circumcision for medical reasons I can clearly state that it would have been better done as a newborn and Earp is expressing a lack of understanding of traumatic impact of surgical intervention on body awareness. A quick review of functional anatomy will reveal that male and female birth anatomy are different.

    1. You need to get to know Dr. Brian Earp better. He understands this topic as well as anyone I have encountered on the topic. You may also want to get to know Ronald Goldman PhD. There’s NO justification for genital cutting rituals performed on children of ANY sex!

    2. So what are you using this as a veiled excuse to circumcise everyone? There are studies, several, that show the actual need for circumcision may be less than one in 200. 199 surgeries so one circumcision would take place in childhood.

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