More on Circumcision in Germany

Søren Holm sometimes jokes that, if you want your conference well-attended, you should have a paper on the ethics of circumcision.  I don’t know how well-attended the recent IAB satellite on the topic was – the first half clashed with Peter Singer doing his thing, which can’t have helped it, and I couldn’t go to the second because I was giving a paper of my own.

Anyway: though I mentioned the decision of the German court that ritual circumcision constituted assault, I’ve wanted to stay clear of saying more about it.  Partly it’s because I’ve been busy; but there’s another reason: it seemed too potentially toxic.  For example, Jonanthan Sacks’ column about the decision in the Jerusalem Post noted that many attempts to ban circumcision have been motivated by antisemitism; the not-so-subtly made claim is that there’s an undercurrent of antisemitism here.  (An appeal to human rights is, he claims “is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today”.)  Of course, that won’t show that such attempts have to be motivated by antisemitism, or that thinking the court’s decision correct is an indication of latent antisemitism: they don’t, and it isn’t.  Even if it’s true that the only way to launch an assault on Jews is to use the language of human rights, it doesn’t follow that every human-rights claim is an assault on Jews – even when it touches on something that is associated with Judaism.  I didn’t want to open myself to an accusation of antisemitism, so thought it best to keep quiet.

But the debate is rumbling on (it was featured on the Today programme today, for example); and one of the notable things is the poor quality of most of the arguments brought against the decision.  This doesn’t in itself mean that the decision is correct – poor arguments might accidentally bring you to the correct answer – but if the general direction of the poor arguments is the same, and there haven’t been many decent arguments produced that go the same way, then that does raise questions about the conclusion in which they’re headed.  Having said that, there has been one better argument against the decision that I’ve come across; I’ll come to that later.  It’s some of the poor arguments, rather than the position in the service of which they’re advanced, that I have in my sights here.

Take Angela Merkel for starters, who has come out against the ruling, citing the importance of the freedom to practise one’s religion.  Writing in Spiked, Frank Furedi made a similar claim.  Such claims are, it seems to me, bogus.  Allowing that there’s a right to practise one’s religion doesn’t commit us to the idea that that’s the only right.  There’re others.  Appeals to a right to bodily integrity also seem fairly easy to make.  At first glance, this means that we have to decide which of these rights is the more important if and when they are found to be incompatible.  (Furedi spends a lot of time talking about parents’ rights to bring up their child as they see fit, but the only time he mentions appeals to the rights of the child is to dismiss them as a mere cover for a more insidious attack on the parents: “they claim to be speaking up for the rights of the child and protecting infants from their parents.  In reality, this is an attempt to neutralise the rights of parents by subjecting their behaviour to the exigencies of a child’s consent…”  That’s the lot.)

But this brings us up against a much thornier question, which is whether a there really is a right to practise those aspects of one’s religion or culture (or things that are not central to, but are strongly associated with one’s religion or culture) that infringe others’ rights.  Sometimes there might be: for example, we might think that churches have the right to ring bells for a few minutes every week, even though some people living nearby may prefer otherwise, just so long as it isn’t for more than a few minutes.  But there might not be such a right in other cases.  People living within earshot of church bells presumably chose to live where they do (I’m assuming that the bells were there first; it’s not so clear that there’s a right to install new bells); and the violation of their rights is easily ended when the bells stop.  People circumcised as small children don’t get the choice, and if there’s a violation of their rights, it’s harder to end.  It’s unlikely that forbidding a person from circumcising his child makes it impossible to practise the other aspects of his religion or culture (any more than forbidding a peal of the bells prevents the service happening); neither does it prevent the child who would have been circumcised adopting fully that religion or culture at a later point.  So it might be that forbidding circumcision forces a change in the way that a religion or culture is observed – but religions and cultures do change over time, and maybe this would be one of those times.  (Jews and Christians are beginning to accept the idea of female clergy; it’s a slow process, but it’s a nice demonstration of how long-held and deeply-held traditions can alter.  Not so long ago, the idea of a female bishop would have been unthinkable; now it isn’t.  Is it possible that, even if the idea of adult circumcision is widely unthinkable among certain groups now, it might not be forever?)

As it happens, I struggle to see how anyone could make a claim that he has a right to cut someone else.  Insisting that it’s an established tradition, mandated by a cultural or religious law and custom, won’t cut the mustard either, simply because it’s that law and custom that’s under scrutiny.  The question comes down to one of balancing a parent’s desire to cut, with the son’s right not to be cut, and – as far as the courts are concerned – a moral and jurisprudential question about whether we want to live in the kind of society that allows parents the right to cut their children, or that allows their children the right not to be cut without their desire.  (Note that it’s not even a matter of consent, since that still implies a situation in which the opening gambit of any conversation is “I would like to cut you: may I?”)

Admittedly, male circumcision is fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, notwithstanding what some “intactivists” insist.  It doesn’t have the same deleterious consequences as female circumcision, or foot-binding, or things like that.  But there is a sense in which they all belong in the same category, in that they’re all versions of the frequently-undesired mutilation of the body in ways that are not in the physical best interests of the person whose body it is.  A medic in the piece on Today raised a question about whether the circumcision ruling might have implications for things like parents getting their children’s ears pierced; that’s something else that belongs in the category, though.  (If an adult – male or female – wants to be circumcised, then that’s up to them, just as the decision to have a piercing or tattoo is.  It mightn’t be a decision that you or I would make, or would even understand; but there’s lots of things to which that applies.  Furedi argues that “Jews have struggled, fought and died for the right to be circumcised”; but noone is questioning the right to be circumcised.  They’re questioning the right to have other people circumcised.  There’s a difference.)

Furedi’s piece (and I realise that I’m concentrating mainly on that) is embarrassingly bad as a whole.  Apparently, courts deciding that it’s not OK to mutilate your children is a sign of bigotry plain and simple; and, anyway, it’s not even really mutilation:

[M]ale circumcision as practised by Muslims and Jews involves the removal of the foreskin. And the fact that millions of boys are circumcised for non-religious reasons, either at birth or later in life after a health complication, shows that it is not a form of mutilation.

So how can an operation condemned as ‘sexual mutilation’ in one instance be advocated as an unobjectionable and sound medical procedure used to improve someone’s health in another instance? It seems pretty clear that it is not the physical aspects of circumcision that disgusts the moral crusaders, but rather itscultural meaning for some communities.

Um… no.  The fact that many people are cut with knives on the surgeon’s table and that that’s an unobjectionable medical procedure does not show that being cut with a knife is not a form of mutilation.  It is.  pari passu, the same would seem to go for circumcision.  Hell: it’s mutilation even when the surgeon does it.  What makes all the difference is that, when the surgeon does it, it’s to prevent something worse happening.  It’s baffling if Furedi can’t see that – though, Spiked being Spiked, it’s not wholly obvious that he actually can’t, and Poe’s law could come into play here.

I mentioned that there is a better argument in favour of keeping circumcision legal, and it was advanced by the Imam in the Today piece: it’s that forbidding it might either force the practice underground, or simply mean that people head elsewhere.  It wouldn’t be hard for German parents to nip across into, say, Luxembourg, to get their sons circumcised; but it’s also possible that there’d be a rise in the number of unregulated circumcisions in Germany itself.  And that’s potentially worrisome.  Better to keep it legal, the argument would go, so that it can at least be regulated.

Stronger though this argument is, I’m not sure that it’s all that strong in the end.  To see why, consider how it might be applied to other procedures such as female circumcision.  For sure, having it legal would perhaps be a way to ensure it was done as safely as possible; and having it done safely is better than having it done dangerously.  But we tend to take the attitude that it is better yet that it not be done at all, and the law is directed to that end.  If such policy makes sense in respect of female circumcision, then it’s not obvious why it couldn’t make sense in respect of the male version.  Yes: if parents are going to have their sons cut, it’s better that they do so in as safe a way as possible.  But the “if” is important, and the German court denied that they should be able to have their sons cut.  And that’s the morally important bit.


UPDATE: Giles Fraser has a piece in the Guardian here (h/t Nathan Emmerich).  I’ve probably said enough in this post; but his claims don’t seem as strong as the Imam’s, but are at least more interesting than the “freedom of religion” stuff.

UPDATE 2: Jean Kazez outlines a liberal Jewish argument against circumcision here.


  • a_random_guy

    I think another aspect that one should consider is this: This actually has little or nothing to do with “freedom of religion”. Circumcision of infants is all about the parents and their beliefs and has nothing to do with the child. In other words, the parents are *denying* the child its own freedom of religion. An infant is not – cannot be – religious. A child simply follows where the parents lead.

    A fully-informed decision to follow a particular religion cannot be made before around the age of 16, because the mental development necessary to understand the concepts only develop in the mid- to late-teens. Hence, any irreversable religious ritual, such as circumcision, should only be performed with the consent of a person old enough to understand the underlying concepts.

  • Keith Tayler

    Not sure reasoned argument will influence theists. Obviously, for reasons you and others give, children should not be mutilated by their parents just because they believe in a deity that demands it. Even if we assume this weird omniscient exists, it must be open to reasoned argument in order to have knowledge of everything. Time for the religions of Abraham to start questioning whether Abraham was right and the demands of their God. In the mean time (a long time I guess) we should try to help them by protecting children from ritual circumcision and indoctrination. (We should close “faith” schools and keep religion out of schools. But that is another reasoned argument.)

  • Julian

    Many thanks as always for an enlightening post. Just a couple of things that I am trying to sort out in my own head.

    Circumcision straightforwardly harms infant male children, although in the majority of cases the harm is probably a minor one. Consent is irrelevant as infants quite obviously lack the wherewithal. I take it those who support circumcision would accept that there must be some reasonable limits to the freedom to impose harms on children in the name of religion. If we were to see the revival of an Aztec style religion that demanded the nightly sacrifice of infant young in order for the sun to rise the following morning, the clamour to suppress it would be strong. One question then becomes how much physical harm can be imposed on children in the name of the religious freedom of the parents. And, prima facie, the answer to that should be very little or none.  But perhaps there is another question. Harms can be offset by benefits. What if there were symbolic benefits – I know it is argued that there are potential physical benefits to circumcision such as cleanliness and reduced vulnerability to STDs, and these  might usefully be thrown into the balance but that’s not what I’m chasing here. What if there were symbolic benefits to circumcision that can legitimately be weighed in the balance?

    This is tricky. I understand the arguments of those who say that  circumcision should be delayed until the child is sufficiently mature to make his own decision. In this way non-consensual harming is avoided and the future choices of the individual maximised. Win-win. But this seems to be predicated on something like a voluntarist understanding of identity – that it is something we choose. What I am scratching my head over is how to square such a… let’s call it for the sake of argument a liberal voluntarist account… with what I take it – and my knowledge here is not great – to be an account of identity as given rather than chosen, but a gift only given if the symbolic marking of the gift is made on the infant male’s body. Let me try and put myself in the shoes of a believing Muslim or Jew. Like all parents I passionately wish for what is best for my child. In addition to life, health, education etc I consider that his vital interests are tied up with being a member of the community of faith into which I was born. By not circumcising my child I am not preserving his future autonomy, I am denying him entry to the community in which I believe he will find the most fulfilling of lives and therefore directly harming him. You rightly mention that a thorny question here is the extent to which an individual’s freedom to practice her religion should enable her to infringe the rights of others. But there is also a clash between those who want to prevent the infliction of clear physical harms to a child via therapeutically unnecessary circumcision, and those parents who see the well-being of the child fundamentally tied up with his enrollment, via circumcision, into a community of – more or less – believers. How are we to adjudicate between them?

    I want to try and put the shoe on the other foot by way of a thought experiment. (I’m not totally convinced that this works, but I’ll have a go.) Say I am a passionate believer in the centrality of reason and free Socratic enquiry in the pursuit of a good life. Bad history has caught up with me and I find myself living in a totalitarian theocratic state in which these activities are anathema. I wish to educate my son into these habits of thought, but if I do so it is likely to hamper his ability to participate in the mainstream of society and could therefore be said to be harming him. Am I morally entitled to harm my child in that way? Say I decide that I am willing to accept those harms. Societies change, tyrannies crumble and analytical skills are wonderfully transferable. The state discovers my intention. In seeking to prevent me harming my child it removes him from my care. In a surprisingly broad-minded moment (implausible I know) it even says that it is preserving his future autonomy. If he wants to pursue such anti-social thoughts, then let him make that decision as an adult. The question here is whether an education that begins at the age at which we can choose it is as effective as one that begins as soon as we can participate in it. Would John Stuart Mill have been as gifted had his father waited until he was competent to choose? We seem to grow into our identities as much as we choose them.

     I don’t quite know where to go from here. I think you are right in accepting in part the argument about consequences – that if circumcision is banned it will go underground and therefore lead to greater harms to the children it seeks to protect. This has not, however, prevented the banning of female genital mutilation and so may not in the end be persuasive. I think we do however have to consider the consequences of banning a procedure that is integral to two major world religions – accepting that there are arguments internal to the religions about just how integral it is. In the end I would plump for an unlovely – and possibly un-philosophical – compromise. Given that the harms are relatively minor, given the undeniable good faith of the parents, and given the various consequences of a ban, it should remain lawful, although I would probably insist on it being undertaken by trained paediatric surgeons.