San Francisco's Circumcision Ban

The City of San Francisco will have on its next ballot a measure that would ban circumcisions performed on minors in that jurisdiction.  There is nothing in the proposed language that would allow for religious exemptions for Jewish or Muslim families wishing to circumcise their sons for religious reasons. 

The legal blogs are all over this, discussing it in terms of both parental rights and religious rights.  (It's honestly pretty dense reading, I didn't get through all of it, and they reference quite a number of other cases.  But here's a good roundup for the curious.)  I had declared myself cautiously in favor of the ban in conversations with friends/family, but in the ensuing discussions, I discovered I actually felt far stronger about it than I'd thought.

It still bothers me a little that there's no religious exemption.  Being of a minority faith which is still struggling in many ways to be treated fairly under the law, I find the idea of laws that ban a practice originating in a particular religion to be troubling. 

On the other hand, the vast majority of circumcisions in the U.S. are not done for religious reasons, but for reasons like "not looking different," or "so he looks like his father," or "just because that's what's done."  Given that circumcision offers only minimal, mostly potential health benefits (the US Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine circumcision) and is generally a cosmetic procedure, why is it acceptable for parents to choose such an intimate bodily modification for an infant incapable of consent?  When a mother was featured on TV last week for having had her 8-year-old daughter given Botox injections, there was a righteously outraged wave of condemnation.  How can we logically condemn one parent for having a minimally-invasive, semi-permanent (Botox injections fade after about six months, IIRC) cosmetic procedure done on a child, while accepting a much more intimate and absolutely permanent *surgical* cosmetic procedure performed on days-old infants without comment?

And I even find it harder and harder to advocate for a religious exemption, the more I consider it.  Those who would have female "circumcision" - more accurately described as female genital mutilation - performed on their children are not permitted to do so (it's legally banned in California, at least), deep-held cultural values notwithstanding.  Which makes it logically inconsistent to advocate upholding the ban on FGM without exception, while wanting a religious exemption for a circumcision ban.

So I suppose in the end, it comes to this:  I don't believe parents should be making permanently-body-altering decisions for their children, period.  I don't care what religion the parents hew to, or what their cultural beliefs dictate they do to their kids.  It's unethical, to perform such procedures on those too young to independently decide for themselves.  If people choose to have body modifications made as adults, that's their prerogative.  If you want to get circumcised, go for it.  Have fun.  But something like that should require active, informed consent, and an infant is absolutely incapable of giving such.

What do you think?  I'd like to hear other perspectives on this.


VijiiS said...

Honestly, I'm not particularly fond of the idea of a religious exemption, either. There are so many people who say, "Well what about the Jews?!" I'd hate to put it this way, but at the end of the day... What *about* them? People say that well, it doesn't really hurt the child, but if it were my religion to take a small nick  of cartilage permanently out of my infant's ear after birth, would that be okay? I think that a lot of times the reason that religious circumcision is treated differently is because it's a tradition, and that's not a good enough reason.

I think that when an issue is a moral one, about infringing on the rights of another, whether they're your kid or not, there isn't room for religious exemptions. This isn't a hijab or yarmulke that the kid can remove at will. An infant can't choose his religion, and, well, I think bodily integrity should be respected first and foremost. I wish there were something to make everyone happy, but it's not that simple. In the end I do feel that circumcision infringes on a child's rights.

Sonneillon said...

I had my first son circumcised, primarily because he was my first son and I was told that it's harder to keep the penis clean and urinary tract infections, which are difficult to notice in kids because they can't tell you "It burns when I pee!", would be a higher risk.  As it turned out, there was no trouble keeping his penis clean, and he never got a UTI.  So if/when I have another son, I will not be circumcising him.  Having been through it once, I have more confidence that I can handle it.  I'm not saying it was the right decision to make, because I believe as you do, that parents should not make that kind of decision for a child incapable of consent, but at the time, that was the information I had and I didn't want him to have prolonged suffering if he had a UTI and I couldn't tell the 'it burns when I pee!' crying apart from his acid reflux crying, his 'my facial hemangioma huuuuurts!' crying, or his general, normal crying over any other issues.

I'm sorry that I did it now, and as I said, I wouldn't do it again.

Bieeanda said...

I'm honestly torn on this one. My parents decided against circumcision in the wake of David Reimer's botched operation (I'm not sure if they're aware of the nightmare his world was turned into afterward or not). Most of the arguments I've seen -for- it have been aesthetic (yeah) or difficult-to-prove claims that the process makes a male more resistant to STD transmission, couched in an understandable anxiety over counter-arguments that the process has reduced their capacity for sexual sensation-- which is again, difficult to prove.

I do find arguments that conflate it with female genital mutilation to be problematic. Anatomically and surgically speaking, removing the prepuce is the equivalent of cutting off the clitoral hood, not infibulation or excising the labia majora. It's an appeal to emotion that I feel weakens arguments against both sorts of surgical procedures, by making the argument against male circumcision seem much more exaggerated, and female genital mutilation much more benign.

The religious angle is a minefield. At the bottom of things, it's a permanent mark of affiliation, a baptism that can't be refuted or reversed, like the ear clipping VijiiS suggested, or even a tattoo or brand. Tradition is a large part of it, but there's also a very real anxiety about cultural assimilation and dissolution at work. This is especially true for Jews, who have a very long history of being marginalized and worse.

There is one incontrovertibly good thing about the measure as it stands: it's engendered conversations like this. Most of the time, male circumcision is quite literally an 'out of sight, out of mind' topic.

Jadelyn said...

Agreed.  Although a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter that for Jews, the circumcision is more than just tradition, it's an actual commandment, meaning if they don't do it they are in violation of their covenant with God.  So, more than a tradition.

However, I still feel it's unethical.  An irreversible procedure performed on an infant is not okay, even in the name of a deity.

Jadelyn said...

I'm sorry the doctors told you that.  I do hope this didn't come off as condemnation against well-meaning parents?  I'm sorry if it did.  You made what you felt was the best choice given the information you had; it is what it is.

Jadelyn said...

From what I've read, the medical angle (STI transmission) is more applicable in developing nations than in a developed nation, and that even then it's only a moderate benefit. 

I don't mean to conflate FGM and circumcision, and I apologize if it seemed that I was; there *are* parallels in terms of bodily autonomy, consent, and cultural tradition, and that's what I was intending to draw attention to, but they are absolutely orders of magnitude different in terms of results and effects on those whose bodies are modified that way.

I agree that the religious angle is a fraught one.  Out of curiosity, does anyone know of another religious tradition which requires a permanent body mod be performed on infants or young children born to parents within the tradition?  Interesting that you bring up cultural assimilation as an aspect, I hadn't thought of that side of it, tbh.  I would never want an ethno-religious group to be forcibly assimilated, for sure.  I'm just not sure I can reconcile respecting that desire for one's traditions with a required practice involving bodymods performed on non-consenting children.  :-/

But yeah, the conversations have been...interesting, to say the least.  Lot of good stuff going around tumblr that I've seen.

Bieeanda said...

In the western world at least, I think the argument of STI resistance and hygiene vs. sexual sensation is a red herring. It's the first thing that comes up, 90% of the time, and a lot of arguments rarely proceed beyond it.

Regarding male circumcision and FGM, I didn't mean to insinuate anything about you or your post. You're absolutely right, there are -definitely- parallels between the two. I just worry that connecting the two makes it easier to dismiss arguments against male circumcision as exaggeration. I'm not sure that's really avoidable though, so... I just worry.

I wasn't thinking of violent assimilation, though I suppose being prevented by law from performing an important ritual could be perceived as such, but rather long-term erosion and the loss of young people to the host culture. Symbolically at least, performing the circumcision shortly after birth creates an (ahem) intimate connection between the child and his people... though there's definitely an argument to be made that the prevalence of circumcision among non-Jews has already damaged that. I can understand the concerns, but I don't think the argument for infant circumcision on the basis of religious tradition stands up.

Sonneillon said...

No, you didn't come off that way.  You just said you wanted some other perspectives on it, so that was mine.  I was a new mother with no faith in my untested ability to perceive the needs of my infant.  Hind-sight, as they say, is 20/20.  And since I grew up in a Christian household, circumcision is one of those things that everybody did and it was considered totally normal and nobody questioned whether it SHOULD be done.  And I think if somebody had just asked me that question at some point - "Do you really think you should make a permanent alteration to the genitals of a child who is incapable of consenting to such a procedure?" - that would have been all it took for me to make a different choice.  But because it was so normalized, I wasn't thinking of it from that perspective.

Jadelyn said...

Good point about how it's phrased in general discourse.  You just know it's what most people do, and it's never phrased as irreversible body-mod, which I think would make most people think twice about it. 


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