Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is circumcision mutilation?

So this is interesting.
A San Francisco group looking to outlaw the practice of circumcision in the Bay Area is one step closer to getting its way...
If the measure passes, circumcision would be prohibited among males under the age of 18. The practice would become a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail. There would be no religious exemptions.
And it seems Santa Monica is considering a similar measure. The Santa Monica article contains a number of gems from the head (no pun intended) of the group backing the measure, such as comparing the "mental scaring of circumcision" to what rape victims endure, stating that adult males that get circumcised feel "a sense of loss", and this:
"If you raise your child to be smart and practice safe sex," circumcision is unnecessary..."If you're raising a dumb kid who won't use a condom, then go ahead and cut off two-thirds of his nerve endings and one-half of his penile skin."
It's interesting this is starting in San Francisco; a place so liberal they now want to protect us from our constitutional protections. How can a city with "Pro-Choice" practically printed on the official letterhead get away with restricting parents' right to chose?

My wife thinks this is a thinly veiled attack on Jews - or at least on non-Christians. I don't see antisemitism at the core of this, but I am sure many bigots will eventually sign on. Unless they decide it would be better to see us suffer diminished sex lives; could go either way, really. I think the debate started as a side-effect of increased public awareness, and opposition to, female genital mutilation. That's horrible, but, unfortunately, usually happens in far away places where our protests do no good. So, deciding that all cutting of children's genitals is equal, people started looking at male circumcision.

The two practices are NOT comparable. The difference is like trimming your nails, or having them ripped out. Like removing a mole from your arm, or amputating your hand. Granted, there's risks with any medical procedure, but I have never met, or even heard stories from, anyone who had a modern circumcision go awry.

Historical circumcision was a horrible thing. But all "medicine" was pretty barbaric in the days before antiseptic practices and sterilized instruments. Many rabbis would use their mouths to draw blood away after cutting, which is both disgusting and an excellent way to spread infection (especially if you're living in a time before flossing). I am strongly on-board with the idea that anyone practicing "traditional" circumcision in this manner should serve some jail time.

But for modern circumcision, performed by trained professionals with sterile implements? I'm less concerned.

I never really bought the "it reduces sexual enjoyment" argument; generations of Jewish men have complained about their sex lives, but typically that was because they lost sensitivity, but because they were married to Jewish women. On the other hand, I don't buy the "it reduces vulnerability to STDs" argument either. The "30% reduction!" is pretty exciting, but less so when you consider that reduced a 10% infection rate to 7%; neither of those are population-shifting numbers. Looking more closely, most of those studies measured the impact of circumcisions performed on grown men. I'm willing to bet the reduced infection rate roughly corresponds with the reduction in their total sex life during the recovery period. Not to mention that any adult male religious enough to get circumcised is probably also religious enough to avoid a lot of sexual contact.

So where does that leave us?

Technically, circumcision is genital mutilation. But only in the same sense that ear piercings are auricle mutilation. How does that weigh against being part of a tradition stretching back thousands of generations? I don't think it's fair to say "Let the child decide when he's old enough!" Elective cosmetic surgery on a sensitive body part right as you're entering college? Not likely. And not even a very reasonable request. The penis changes a lot during puberty; I don't know if nerve sensitivity increases during that period, but I was much more aware of it afterwards.

In the end, I'm still left with doubts. Would I want my own son circumcised? I'm not sure. Would I condemn someone else for circumcising their son? Not likely. Is this law a good idea? Absolutely not. But for reasons larger than antisemitism. It attempts to curtail the debate through legislation, rather than persuasion.

As a response on puts it:
However, the crucial legal question is whether the medical opinions and evidence can trump the religious liberty of Jewish parents to make this decision to follow the tenets of their faith. Does the state, in effect, have the right to change the doctrinal content of the Jewish faith by moving this rite from the first week of life to the, well, first week of adult life?
Where do we draw the line? At what point do we permit a discomforting practice to occur on religious grounds, and when does public health and safety trump even constitutional rights?

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