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Circumcision, indoctrination – A violation of children’s rights

June 8, 2011

There’s a bill in San Francisco to ban circumcision that has generated some controversy which I’ve been following. At the heart of the controversy is a clash between the rights of the child and the right of parents to practice their religion. I’m an advocate of the 1st amendment, but in my opinion, the right to exercise one’s religion ends where someone else’s individual rights begin, and our three boys remain intact. If they want to have their own foreskins removed when they’re adults, fine, but I wasn’t willing to make that decision for them.

There’s an excellent blog post in the Washington Post from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein which I think is worth reposting in full here. I particularly like the paragraph that I’ve bolded below.

A Serious Dilemma Over Circumcision

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Let’s put aside the question of whether the people behind the bill to ban circumcision in San Francisco are anti-Semites. Their comic-book depiction of the villainous Jew, which certainly feeds on vicious stereotypes that have stirred up much trouble in the past, certainly suggests that their motives may not be of the purest. But let’s put all that aside, for the moment, and just assume, for the sake of argument, that the promoters of this bill to outlaw ritual circumcision have nothing in mind but the autonomous rights of the individual, in this case, the rights of newborn boys.

Let’s also put aside the various questions that have been raised about whether male circumcision has health and/or hygiene benefits, so that having the foreskin removed is ultimately good for the baby, just as vaccinations are. After all, nobody asks an infant whether he wants a series of painful injections. But let’s put that whole set of questions aside, too, and just assume, again for the sake of argument, that there are no overwhelming medical benefits (or harms, for that matter) derived from male circumcision.

So then, putting all this aside, what’s there left to argue? Just this, and it’s a serious philosophical dilemma: where do the rights of a parent, specifically their rights to practice their religion, end in relation to the rights of a child? To what extent is a child to be considered as owned by his parents, to do with him or her what they will?

We have, as a basic Constitutional right, the freedom to practice religion, No matter what one’s views of these religious practices are, no matter how illogical or primitive they may appear to one, there it is: People have the right to practice their religion, and even a religious skeptic like me thinks this is a necessary requirement of a free society. There it is, the First Amendment, and an excellent thing that amendment has proven itself to be.

But children also have rights, and there are times when the rights of children conflict with the religious rights of their parents. Increasingly, sentiment has grown on the side of children’s rights in these cases rather than the side of parents’ religious rights This is why there are laws for compulsory education, and why there has been intervention when parents’ religious views keep them from seeking medical treatment necessary for their children’s welfare.

Our increasing sensitivity to children’s rights is part of our increasing sensitivity in general to human rights. And this, too, seems to me an excellent thing. The insistence on human rights seems most pressing when one is dealing with the powerless, and who are more powerless than children? Children are not merely the possessions of their parents, with no rights of their own, and children’s right can come in conflict with those of their parents.

So what do we do when these rights—the religious rights of parents, the rights of powerless children—clash? We have these clashes all the time. So, say there is some sect that believes, at least according to everyone who’s not in the sect, some utter rot, which the believing parents, in the tradition of believing parents from time immemorial, indoctrinate into their children, threatening these little tots with hell’s fury if they even dare to harbor any doubts. Has the welfare of these children been harmed by their parents being allowed to indoctrinate them with their views? I’d argue yes. I think that to have your head crammed with superstitions that frighten you away from the pleasures of seeking truth freely and rationally is to suffer a real harm, a stunted life. But allowing parents to indoctrinate their children with their own falsehood is so inseparable from granting the parents their right to practice religion that in these cases the children’s welfare must, regrettably, be sacrificed. You can’t have the First Amendment to the Constitution without allowing parents the right to indoctrinate their children with rot. Unless we’re willing to repeal the First Amendment—a terrible idea!—a certain amount of harm to children is inevitable. It’s a balancing act, of course, as it always is when opposing rights clash. And at least we have some laws on the books for compulsory education, so even the most indoctrinated of children has some chance of maybe finding herself to some good books.

Now, at last, I come to circumcision. I can’t speak as well for Islam, but I do know that male circumcision is regarded in Judaism as unusually important, as indicated by the Hebrew word for circumcision, bris, which translates as covenant. This is a practice that goes to the heart of Jewish religious emotions, membership in a historical community. Just as you can’t very well allow for freedom of religion without allowing parents to indoctrinate their kids with their own superstitions, you can’t allow Jews their freedom of religion without allowing parents the right to circumcise their sons.

It’s yet again a balancing act, although I think that here, in the case of ritual circumcision, the harm to the welfare of the child is fairly minimal, as compared to the harm inflicted on children’s minds by indoctrination. But maybe I just feel that way because I’m a philosopher, so I feel that mental mutilation is worse than token bodily mutilation. Or maybe, even more to the point, it’s because I’m female!

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

For my LDS readers, I’ll remind you that in Moroni 8:8, Jesus says, “the law of circumcision is done away in me,” and in D&C 74:3-5, we find “the claw of Moses should be done away among them, That their children might remain without circumcision; and that the tradition might be done away, which saith that little children are unholy; for it was had among the Jews; But little children are holy, being sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ.”

This is reasonable guidance that is unfortunately largely ignored by LDS parents of boys, at least in the U.S.

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  1. Very strong piece. FGM is illegal in the United States when performed on girls under the age of 18 (regardless of religious beliefs) and most people are horrified to think it takes place. Yet we don’t extend the same horror when it’s young boys who experience genital mutilation. Of course, when we think about the areas of the world that practice each, it’s not hard to extrapolate issues of race/ethnicity as well.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Kiro permalink

    Maybe one of the reasons we don’t see it as horrible in males is because of the growing body or research supporting the protective role of male circumcision in preventing transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

    Did you know that male circumcision is one of the most promising current therapies for the preventing the transmission of HIV to males from infected females? It looks like it may also play some protective role in preventing the transmission of human papillomavirus – but the data is not so clear about that. In other words, there may very be good medical reasons for circumcision and it might be a good idea. Handling it when one is young and still has a positive babinski reflex and can use sugar water as an analgesic rather when one is older, can feel every little thing that goes on down there, and will need some serious pain relief for a good while after the procedure might be considered a good idea.

  3. Jonathan permalink

    I won’t disagree with you on these matters.


    It leads me down a different vein, and one that you will find I am quite passionate about. That is abortion. Yes, I know, a can of worms. I won’t provide a treatise on my reasoning here. However, those who read this post and support your view while opposing abortion seem to me to have a disconnect. The most persuasive justificaiton for abortion (though not to me) that I’ve seen justifying the killing of a child is that a fetus is not a person. It may be genetically human, but has not attained personhood. To keep this brief, if circumsizing a non-sentient child who will never remember the experience is wrong, particularly if our reasoning is that it deprives a future sexually active adult from experiencing the full joy of sex, why is it acceptable to completely take away the life of a non-sentient child who obviously will never remember the experience, especially since we are analogously but more significantly depriving him or her of “future personhood.” It seems to me that you put it best when you said (with greater generalization on my part), ” the right to exercise one’s religion [or any other inherent right] ends where someone else’s individual rights begin.” How can we kill a child when IN MOST CASES that child is merely an inconvenience to the mother who bears it? The mother’s right to ongoing sex without natural consequence ends where the child’s right to life begins.

    Hope that was clear, especially considering it is brief by necessity. I don’t even know how you feel about the issue at this point, Kevin. Just wanted to get on my soapbox for a moment.

  4. Someday, the world will be horrified that during the dark ages of humanity in the 21st Century, people mutilated their infants.

  5. Jonathan permalink

    I wish I could edit my posts for errors. I meant to say those who “support your view and condone (not oppose) abortion have a disconnect.” Hopefully I am clear enough throughout, but that was a significant mistake.

  6. Kiro- I don’t know about this “study” but condoms do the same thing, and they are less invasive than mutilating a baby boy’s genitals permanently. Did you know that circumcision was always a “medical” procedure in search of a cure? Puritans practiced it in early america because they thought it would help deter masturbation. I personally didn’t have my baby cut open because one day she might need her appendix removed, but if the baby is healthy, why cut it up? It’s contrary to the doctor’s hippocratic oath to “first do no harm.”

  7. Mark permalink

    FGM is rightly banned because it is mutilation. Circumcision is no such thing.

  8. , There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    * Jews Against Circumcision

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    The Kindest Un-Cut Feminism, Judaism, and My Son’s Foreskin by Professor Michael S. Kimmel

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors ,

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