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.