My discomfort with circumcision

Anti-circumcision activist

At the beginning of the month, we posted on the San Francisco ballot-initiative to outlaw circumcision of male babies.  The bill – called the Male Genital Mutilation bill – received significant national attention due to its alleged roots in anti-Semitism.

Now it’s making news again.  The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports that a group of Muslims and Jews[1] have filed a suit arguing that the bill is unconstitutional because it infringes on the right to freely practice religion and the “rights as a parent to choose what’s good for [the] child.”

Viscerally, I’m of course on the side of those filing the suit – I stand by my fellow Jews, and I support our right to carry on traditions.

And intellectually, as a fairly principled libertarian, I’m a strong believer that a family can raise its children how it wants, without interference from the government.  Home schooling?  I’m really glad I wasn’t home schooled, but I definitely support the right of the family to make that choice.

But how far does this freedom extend?  To take the point to its extreme, I certainly wouldn’t support the clitoridectomy practices of some in Kenya and Tanzania, even if the perpetrators claimed it as a religious practice and as a right to raise children privately without state influence.  Similarly, I don’t think parents should be able to bind the feet of their children at an early age, even if it’s a cultural practice.

Obviously these examples aren’t analogous; unlike circumcision, clitoridectomy and foot-binding have physical effects that materially change the child’s life.  The examples do, however, serve to show that there is a limitation to what parents can do to their children, even if in the private domain and part of a religious practice.

So where to draw the line?  I’m not sure, and this makes me uneasy about the circumcision debate.  I’d like to think that circumcision is somehow “grandfathered” in because we’ve been doing it for so long and because so few circumcised men have actually complained about it.

But what if we take a more comparable analogy – say tattooing a big Star of David on the baby’s back, or removing one of the baby’s kidneys?  In both cases, the child’s life will not be physically altered (you can survive just fine with one kidney), and the majority of people will never notice the tattoo or the absent kidney (just as most people never notice the absent foreskin).  Would I support these measures?  The kidney one seems especially offensive to me, but the tattoo one strikes me as wrong too.

So though my first reaction is to jump on the side of the Jews litigants, I’m not entirely comfortable with the logical defense of circumcision as distinguished from tattooing and kidney removing.  Can somebody clear this up for me?  Thanks!

And many thanks to Cory Andrews for keeping the GTJ staff current on this subject.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.

Want to write a response to this piece?  Or have an idea for another story?  Email GTJ’s blog editor, Noa, at

[1] Shame there aren’t legal disputes over circumcision in the Middle East… might similarly bring Muslims and Jews together…


18 replies
  1. Candace
    Candace says:

    The difference between circumcision and tattooing a Jewish star on a baby is that one is solely religious and one is not. Circumcision is not just a religious practice. In fact, it is one of the most widespread practices on newborn males in the U.S. About 75% of American men are already circumcised – clearly way over the small percentage of Jews + Muslims.
    The difference between circumcision and removing a baby’s kidney is that the latter has no health benefits. Removing a baby’s kidney is not associated with a decreased risk of HIV, for example. There are a number of health reasons that would lead a non-Jewish or non-Muslim parent to choose circumcision for their newborn son.
    As for Jews and Muslims, it is a matter of religious tradition in which the state should have no business intervening.

    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      1) It is become safer and safer to not be circumcised, so the health additive of circumcision is becoming less and less.

      2) Let’s say a religion said it was their practice to tattoo their babies’ backs. Would that make it ok?

      • Candace
        Candace says:

        1) Well, that is a debated issue in itself, and answers vary from doctor to doctor. Either way, it is the parents’ job to do their research and make their own decision based on what they think is right for their children (just like the thousands of other health decisions parents must make for their children before they are 18.) If your child is born with a cleft lip and palate, should we take that decision from the parent and wait until the child reaches 18 to see if they want to under go the surgery?

        2) Parents get their newborn daughters’ ears pierced all the time! Should that be banned too?

        The ban is absolutely rooted in anti-Semitism, which is my main issue with it.

        • Stephen Richer
          Stephen Richer says:

          I am not disputing that anti-Semitism is involved here.

          Nor am I disputing that parents must make decisions that will materially affect the future life of the child.

          But I think we agree — as a society — that there are limits to what the parents can do to a child in the name of freedom of religion and the right to raise a child independently. As noted in the article, female genital mutilation is a clear offender.

          But where do we draw the line? Like I said, would it be ok for a religious person to chop off the small toe of his child if it were for religious purposes? Loss of the small toe would not impact the child’s ability to function in anyway. It would simply be cosmetic, much the same as circumcision. But I am uneasy with the notion of parents being able to chop off the littlest toes for religious purposes. And I see no logical distinction between this and bris.

          Separate the issue from the anti-Semitism — that is another problem altogether.

          • masortiman
            masortiman says:

            Im a little skeptical of arguments based on thought experiments (like cosmetic/religious toe removal) based abstract possibilities that havent actually occured, hence lacking in societal context or the ability to empirically examine their meaning.

            One reason I am not a libertarian 😉

    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      Not disputing that the bill is largely motivated by anti-Semitic sentiment. See my original post on the subject — it includes all the horrible depictions of supposedly evil Jews trying to snip little babies.

  2. LB
    LB says:

    Because circumcision is, healthwise, beneficial at best, harmless at worst. Parents make all sorts of decisions for their children before the age of consent- the food they eat, the values instilled, the language spoken, the clothes they wear, the medical treatment received. In today’s self-centered world, there are some people who rebel against anything they didn’t get to choose for themselves.

    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      Science has advanced to the point where penises that are not circumcised can be as healthy as penises that are circumcised. So the health aspect of this debate is less and less a point.

      I agree that parents make lots of decisions that affect the child, but where do we draw the line, please see my response to Candace.

  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    Your intellectual unease with circumcision is presupposed by the notion that it is bad for the health of the baby or somehow is a defect on the body. Both assumptions that have no merit in science or western culture.

    Clearly, there are people in San Francisco who are trying to change the latter, that is the perception and attitudes of the American people towards circumcision. Most probably however, these people have no cogent arguments to support their new found radical position and they are very likely are self hating Jews. How else do you explain a group of random liberals suddenly adopting a position promoted by the Hellenists, Romans, Inquisitors, and Nazi’s.

    Once you realize that the practice, from a health perspective, is at worst neutral and at best good for the baby, then there is no cognitive dissonance at all. Nevermind the greatness of G-ds covenant with the Jewish people.

  4. Tony
    Tony says:

    Circumcision is not harmless or without physical effect. It is surgery. It creates a wound. It removes healthy tissue and nerves. It leaves a scar. It carries the risk of further complication. Those further complications are rare in the extreme, but they occur. Is a child who is a statistic unharmed if he accidentally loses part of his glans during the surgery, for example?

    These alterations are objective and occur in every case. They’re not eliminated by what a deity commands or the possibility that it might reduce the risk of female-to-male HIV transmission in a high-risk population (i.e. not the United States) . Whether or not someone values a claim like that more than the trade-offs is subjective and where the debate here rests: consent versus imposition.

    I’m fine with anyone’s decision that circumcision’s potential benefits – whether ritual, cultural, or cosmetic – outweigh the negatives for himself. I can’t see a compelling reason why I, or anyone, should care. To each his own. But I’m not okay with someone drawing that conclusion for another person without need or consent, even a parent for their well-intentioned reasons, and thus imposing circumcision on their healthy child. The only thing we can prove about circumcision on an individual basis is that it inflicts some level of harm. All else is speculation. There’s no logical defense for permitting its imposition on a child under civil law.

    Given that there is objective harm without objective benefit, not forcing it on a healthy child who can’t consent is a libertarian position. (I’d argue it’s the libertarian position based on individual liberty, but that’s not necessary as the starting point.) A law that protects individuals from harm, even minor harm from their parents that many people don’t mind, is defensible as a valid libertarian function of government. Basically, each individual owns his or her body, except male minors don’t fully own their genitals? That can’t be right.

    P.S. The comparison of female and male genital cutting is in principle, not in practice. Non-therapeutic on a non-consenting individual, not “ZOMG the foreskin is at least as important as the clitoris.” (The latter claim is absurd and not made nearly as often among activists as I think people who don’t like the comparison believe.) The comparison is about self-ownership, proxy consent and equal protection of rights.

  5. Aaron
    Aaron says:

    Let me use a different analogy: are you okay with parents being able to force their children to get braces? There are some medical benefits, but it’s largely a cosmetic matter. Of course, there are also some health risks. It can be a tough decision, which is why I think parents should be the ones making it, and I would imagine most of you would agree.

    The government requires orthodontists to be licensed and to practice in a safe manner. Likewise, it would be perfectly permissible, perhaps even beneficial, for the government to license performers of circumcisions. The difference with female genital mutilation is that it cannot be performed safely because the very act is harmful. If San Francisco were to propose dealing with the small risks of circumcision by regulating it, I would be okay with that. But to ban it outright is ridiculous.

    PS Where are people getting the idea that high-risk HIV populations only exist outside the US? Here in Washington, one in thirty residents is HIV positive. In San Francisco, where this ban is proposed, the infection rate isn’t much lower than in DC. HIV is still a big, big problem in the US and the health benefits of lowered transmission rates should not be underestimated.

    • Tony
      Tony says:


      The very act of male circumcision is harmful. There are trade-offs that some people value, but the surgery itself inflicts harm. Female genital cutting that is less harmful than male circumcision is still illegal because it’s still harmful. That’s the point. Inflicting harm without need or the individual’s consent violates that individual’s rights. There’s no valid distinction for protecting rights by gender. Harm is harm. If we want to think of it like the harm distinction between battery vs. murder, that’s fine, but the latter being worse doesn’t excuse the former.

      I don’t deny that high-risk populations exist within the United States. But they are a subset of the U.S. risk. The primary risk is male-to-male sex and IV drug use. The conditions where circumcision may help are specific and identifiable. Female-to-male transmission in groups with high HIV rates. But it is not predictable at birth that any individual male will eventually be a part of that subset, or that he won’t practice safe sex. It’s also worth remembering that the the studies in Africa involved adult volunteers, not children. That matters.

      The possibility of flaws in the HIV studies must be considered, too. I’m willing to ignore them and accept the findings because it doesn’t change the legal/ethical conclusion. Regardless, the studies found the relative risk reduction for circumcised versus intact to be approximately 60%. The absolute risk reduction was far less impressive at approximately 2%. Absolute risk is the important number.

  6. masortiman
    masortiman says:

    “Basically, each individual owns his or her body, except male minors don’t fully own their genitals? That can’t be right.”

    on the contrary. Children below the age of reason do not own their bodies period. Its the parents responsibility to make ALL cost benefit decisions for them, and the state steps in only when its absolutely clear (as it is not hear) that the decision is overwhelming, in PRACTICE, harmful, and constitutes abuse.

    The ability to engage in circumcision at a later age is not an adequate response to the benefits (health OR socio-religious) The operation itself is more serious at later ages. AFAIK few or no of the folks who were circumcised as infants and are happy with it wish they could have had the opportunity to be circumcised as adults instead. A parent who chooses not to circumcise an baby who will nonetheless get circumcised as an adult is doing them a net harm.

    Im sorry if that is not a libertarian position. Have I wandered into a libertarian blog by mistake?

    • Tony
      Tony says:

      Not on the contrary. Proxy consent is decision-making authority, not ownership. I agree that the state may only legitimately interfere with proxy consent when there is clear evidence of harm.

      The disconnect here seems to be in acknowledging the fact that all surgery inflicts unavoidable harm, including circumcision. Look at the evidence and it’s clear that circumcision involves objective harm, as explained earlier. There’s nothing special enough about the parent-child relationship or circumcision that permits removing healthy tissue from a child for non-therapeutic reasons.

      There is a trade-off with circumcision, of course, as there is with any surgery. That trade-off is the objective harm versus the subjective possible benefits for non-therapeutic circumcision. The only guarantee is objective harm. The rest is just speculation without input from the patient. That’s why state intervention in favor of children and against parents is not only legitimate, but required here in order to respect individual rights. It’s the foundation of the anti-FGM law in both California and at the Federal level, for example, since even harm less than the harm male circumcision causes is illegal. The child ends up harmed. That’s the discussion.

      For your last part, you’re imagining a right to grow up circumcised that doesn’t exist. Being possibly riskier in adulthood does not erase the ethical flaws of non-therapeutic child circumcision. It’s debatable that circumcision at a later stage is more serious. Regardless, there are trade-offs (e.g. proper pain relief, dictating amount of foreskin removed, consent, …) between child and adult circumcision. What you value, another person won’t. Just like you can’t declare non-therapeutic child circumcision an automatic net benefit, you can’t declare voluntary, adult circumcision a net harm for all. Your evaluation is subjective, just like everyone’s. There’s no correct way to determine “net” in a non-therapeutic context, whether in childhood or adulthood for circumcision.

      I’m a libertarian, yes, but that was also a premise of Mr. Richer’s original blog entry.

  7. liberalG
    liberalG says:

    why must one get circumcised as a baby? if it is truly that beneficial wont the child make that decision for himself and shouldn’t he have that ability? Why is it legal to exploit the powerlessness of a child to enforce the parents will?


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