How to make a terrible argument, the Matt Steinglass way



Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Alan says:

    Personally, I think that the “my dick” argument, properly phrased, is the strongest one. In any other context, just about nobody would dispute that alterations shouldn’t be done on someone else’s body unless it is immediately necessary to correct a disease or defect (and no, having a healthy foreskin is not in itself a “disease or defect”.) When you are arguing about AIDS from sexual transmission, regardless of the validity of those studies, that means by definition it will be many years before such a thing could happen, and by then the individual would be old enough to make an informed decision on his own. That plus the potential loss of pleasure as a result of the procedure, or even just because the individual prefers it the other way, is enough not to do it as an infant. Keep in mind that once the foreskin is gone, it is gone. By contrast, anybody who prefers it cut has a choice to do it later.Report

  2. Avatar Roscoe says:

    Thanks for another reasonable rebuttal . I see Hanna Rossin’s at it again on the Dish; she just can’t help herself. And as to the reactions to those trying to have a reasonable discussion about the medical benefits, which is more hysterical, the guy shouting “It’s my dick,” or the Jewish woman whose kid went through a bris shouting, “Lose the foreskin!”? Again, I do think this is a cultural issue being conflated into a medical one. If it becomes a CDC recommendation, then Medicare will pay for it, and doctors will continue acting like it’s expected, making the default position to cut rather than not to cut. If, as in Canada and Great Britain, circumcision is an elective or cosmetic surgery, it will not be paid for by Medicaid and perhaps more insurers will stop paying for it, and the cultural mores will change just like they did in those countries, to a default position of not cutting. This is not good news to some people.Report

    • Avatar Joe says:

      This has long been the case in the UK, circumcision hasn’t been paid for by insurance since the late 40s. The current rate of neonatal circumcision is like 5% or less, mostly for religious reasons. It isn’t very common in Canada anymore either, their national insurance also doesn’t pay for it (except for one province), and the current average is about 20% (though there are wide variations geographically nowhere is it higher than 40% or so.Report

      • Avatar James says:

        I believe that it is less, Joe, although our doctors are still overly keen on the procedure & ignorant of the prepuce in many cases. A vestige from a bygone era, that.

        Freddie: all I thought of the original article, & more. A masterful dissassembly of a godawful post.Report

        • Avatar Joe says:

          Is it really? I get such a mixed picture of the Canadian situation. I recently read an article (from March on the CBC website) that was talking to a Doctor about implications for Canada. One thing he said was that circumcision hasn’t been taught in a while so many newer doctors aren’t even familiar enough with the procedure to perform it competently. Hopefully that situation will continue (not teaching it and just not doing it).Report

          • Avatar James says:

            I meant in Britain, Joe. We don’t have a very big Muslim or Jewish population, & tbh I’m not even sure if most of the former are continuing it (we don’t have the infrastructure of say, Turkey, where I’m visiting right now for it. They’re performed by a tiny group of lay surgeons, who from time to time kill an infant. Quite shockingly the last one to do this was not even prosecuted. Some were also offered via the NHS in some parts of Scotland, but this very concerning practice seems to have been dying out).

            Stats I’ve read from Canada say either 9% or 11%. Recently the last province which offered them as part of nationalised healthcare stopped after some excellent lobbying. It’s gotten some bad press in op-ed pieces & generally just seems on the way out, as far as I can tell.

            Glad to hear what you’ve read seems to match that.Report

  3. Avatar Jonathan says:


    That was fantastic, Freddie. Thanks for that.


  4. Avatar Tony says:


    Luckily, no one is arguing that we should take away the parents rights to determine the medical treatment of their children, nor or they arguing that we should prevent people from taking part in religious practices.

    I’m not interested in stepping in on most parental decisions because they’re legitimately and effectively made by parents. But deciding that your kid can’t have Frosted Flakes is not the same as saying your kid can’t have his healthy foreskin. Society should prohibit parents from circumcising their healthy children, full stop. Parents have no such right to circumcision. We get this correct with the anti-FGM act that prohibits the parental excuses for girls that we allow for boys. It is hypocritical to deny boys equal treatment.

    Religion is correctly prohibited as a reason, as well, because religious freedom is an individual right, not the right of parents over their children. I don’t seek to prohibit non-physically harmful rituals. Parents may raise their children in their religion, but that authority ends where it causes physical harm. The male is the only person qualified to decide if he needs to remove his foreskin to please his God.

    Circumcision not mandated by the government but allowed by parents still results in forced circumcision for the child. Accepting this as reasonable is the “if you don’t like circumcision, don’t circumcise your son” approach. This is flawed. The case against circumcision centers on the boy as a (healthy) human being, not the boy as a son of parents making a choice. What would constitute a valid subjective parental choice on this and how would it be enforced? At best it would be inconsistent and illogical.Report

  5. I missed this ages ago, but here goes. Basically, there are two different arguments circulating. One is the medical, epidemiological argument. The other is a rights-based argument. On the medical, epidemiological argument, while it’s true that female-to-male heterosexual transmission is a minor vector for HIV in the US, the US has a high prevalence of HIV, compared with, say, Western European countries; so we’re talking about a lot of people. If you did a back of the envelope calculation of how many HIV+ men in the US would not be HIV+ if they were circumcised, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a number of less than several thousand. (You’d have to posit that heterosexual sex accounted for less than 1% of transmissions to men.) If one compares the lengths to which the US is willing to go to prevent other fatal diseases like BSE (mad cow), which affect far fewer people, one would say that a low-cost, non-mandatory public-health recommendation like this certainly merits consideration. I think the CDC does a good job of weighing these pros and cons.

    The rights-based argument has, in my view, almost no merit. Parents routinely request surgery on infants for cosmetic reasons, such as removal of sixth toes or correction of harelips. If such surgery were to involve either a non-trivial risk of complications, or a limitation of the child’s future potential, either for physical or social reasons, that would be one thing; we don’t want parents binding their children’s feet. But circumcision is safer and less invasive than removing a sixth toe or fixing a harelip. Are we arguing here that parents have no right to pierce their children’s ears at age 4, as many traditions do? And if we accept the rights-based argument, what room is there for a cultural “carve-out” for traditions that practice infant circumcision, ie Muslims and Jews, as Andrew Sullivan wants? I still have no idea what your position on this is, after numerous posts.

    I see exactly two legitimate grounds for objection to a CDC recommendation. The first is that the risk of complications from circumcision outweighs the benefit from reduced transmission of sexual disease, including HIV, or that they are nearly enough balanced that it’s not justified to make a recommendation. The second is the finding that circumcision may reduce sexual pleasure. Either of these arguments is legitimate grounds for opposing the recommendation. But the argument that a grown adult who feels aggrieved because of the neutral medical decisions taken by his parents when he was an infant has experienced a serious violation of his rights seems to me simply ridiculous, and complaining about circumcision only slightly less so than complaining that your parents gave you an innie rather than an outie, or bottle-fed rather than breast-fed; it seems possibly more ridiculous than complaining that your parents pierced your ears when you were a child, as many traditions do. It does not surprise me that libertarians would take such arguments seriously, because libertarians have trouble dealing with any moral issues that involve concerns that cannot be reduced to individual negative rights, including many issues related to the way families bring up children. That’s why I am not a libertarian.

    To respond to your ad hominem attacks, I have been aware that the findings on the positive effects of circumcision stem from sub-Saharan Africa ever since the first such studies emerged in 2001 or so, when I was living in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s nothing you presented in any of your posts that I didn’t already know, except for the data on appendicitis, which is irrelevant; if you want to argue that we should recommend preventive appendectomies as well as circumcision, go ahead.Report

    • Oh, I note in one of your comment threads that you aren’t actually opposed to parents circumcising their children. So apparently the rights-based argument doesn’t hold much water for you either. You say you are opposed to “routine circumcision” for medical reasons when the medical reasons seem unconvincingly established. But you think it should be up to the parents, who in some cases will choose to practice “routine circumcision” because of their cultural background. In fact, if most people in the US choose to follow what is now the standard cultural predilection in the US, most US parents will choose to have their kids routinely circumcised. And you seem to think that’s fine. And so do I.

      This then becomes a pretty narrow argument. We are talking about a CDC recommendation, nothing mandatory. If I understand you correctly, you think there should be more of a bias against recommending a surgical procedure for medical reasons unless the medical reasons are pretty convincing, and you don’t think the high rate of prevention of female-to-male HIV transmission in vaginal sex meets that bar. Okay, like I said, that’s a reasonable argument.

      And if that had been the sole argument that was going on around this issue, I wouldn’t have written a snarky post.Report

    • Avatar Tony says:

      A sixth toe is a physical abnormality. A harelip is a physical abnormality. A foreskin is not a physical abnormality. The case for proxy consent is not equal for all three.Report

      • What do you mean by “abnormality”?Report

        • Avatar Tony says:

          I mean that most people are born with 5 toes on each foot. If parents wanted to trim that to 4 for non-medically indicated reasons, we’d all (hopefully) be appalled. Your example of 6 toes is outside the realm of typical human anatomy. The foreskin is not. Your comparison is flawed.Report

          • No. If a group had an ethnic or religious tradition dating back hundreds or thousands of years of removing the fifth toe, and if that had been shown to have almost no or only quite speculative medical or physical consequences, I would argue that group’s tradition should absolutely be respected.

            You are not making enough effort to get outside your own assumptions about what is “normal”. Sixth toes are a non-rare genetic characteristic; I am unaware of any negative consequences. And to me, an uncircumcised penis looks abnormal and slightly weird. Get it?Report

            • Avatar Joe says:

              Got it. The rational objectivity you bring to the issue is quite clear.Report

            • Avatar Tony says:

              I get that you think an intact penis looks abnormal and slightly weird.  It’s a common opinion and not one I’d try to persuade you against holding.  But that tells me nothing about what you may do to your son’s healthy penis.

              If a tradition had been shown to have no or only quite speculative medical or physical consequences, I would agree that the group’s tradition should absolutely be respected in reference to parents making decisions for their children.  But you are not making enough effort to get outside your own assumptions about what is and is not objective harm from circumcision.

              I posted a comment on your original entry laying out the case that circumcision causes objective harm, including non-speculative harm.  You responded with the “some men would be HIV- if they’d been circumcised” angle without addressing the harm caused by the surgery (or the ethics of imposing surgery to speculatively achieve a benefit inferior to the condoms that will still be necessary once the male begins sexual activity). Speculative benefits weighed against definitive harm are only valid for choosing what to do with your own healthy body.Report

            • Avatar James says:

              You are not making enough effort to get outside your own assumptions about what is “normal”. Sixth toes are a non-rare genetic characteristic; I am unaware of any negative consequences. And to me, an uncircumcised penis looks abnormal and slightly weird. Get it?

              If you are incapable of acknowledging the global norm then I see no reason you should be allowed to inflict your prejudice upon your child at the cost of pleasure-providing tissue.

              I can see that your culture has left you deluded about what is usual. That is a pity, not a mandate.Report

    • Avatar James says:

      But circumcision is safer and less invasive than removing a sixth toe or fixing a harelip.

      Neither of those procedures remove a substantial erogenous zone, Matt, & both of them are to correct a medical condition. When ”Having a foreskin” becomes a medical abnormality you let me know.

      & your post was still utterly terrible, btw. One of the worst I have ever seen on the internet, & I’ve been reading blogs for a while.Report

      • Avatar James says:

        As for the ”possibly more ridiculous” than ear piercing (which you can rid yourself of any time you please), just…Wtf?Report

        • A 4-year-old child can object to having her ear pierced. Some do. Overriding that child’s objection is a more morally weighty decision than overriding a baby’s protests; a baby protests about half the things that are done with it, regardless. If you complained that your parents had overridden your objections at age 4 to having your ear pierced, I would consider that less ridiculous than your absurd backward projection that you might have complained about something your parents did to you when you were 8 days old. Both, however, are ridiculous.Report

          • Avatar James says:

            Complaining about the loss of an erogenous zone is ridiculous? You have never encountered people valuing pleasure before? The name ”Bentham” means nothing at all to you?Report

      • The distinction between “correct a medical condition” and “remove an integral part of the body” is, certainly in the case of a sixth toe, completely arbitrary. People often have their kids’ sixth toes removed “so they won’t be teased”. People often have their kids’ foreskins removed for the same reason. I see no reason to interfere in parents’ decisions in either case.Report

      • You know, it’s interesting, but have you thought about how full of contempt that comment was? “Having a foreskin” became a medical abnormality for Jews in about 2600 B.C. I think; I’m not sure when it became a medical abnormality for Muslims, or for various African tribes that practice circumcision. You need to think more about the meaning of the words “normal” and “abnormality”.Report

        • Avatar Freddie says:

          The important question, in my position, isn’t whether parents should have the right to circumcise their children– I think they should have the right to– but whether the official medical apparatus of the United States should be recommending it as routine for dubious medical benefit.Report

          • Right. And then the argument proceeds over how dubious the medical benefit is, which I don’t have much of a stake in. Though, as I said, I don’t think it’s at all an obvious question; there are a substantial number of people in the US who would be HIV- if they were circumcised.

            As I said, the reason I wrote a post ridiculing the “it’s my dick” position was that the position that parents have no right to circumcise their children seems to me to be almost without merit, and reflects a misunderstanding of identity formation that still seems to me to be pretty silly.Report

        • Avatar James says:

          You know, it’s interesting, but have you thought about how full of contempt that comment was? “Having a foreskin” became a medical abnormality for Jews in about 2600 B.C. I think; I’m not sure when it became a medical abnormality for Muslims, or for various African tribes that practice circumcision.

          No it did not. They were born with just the same amount of foreskins as any other tribe, it is simply that less kept them.

          You need to think more about the meaning of the words “normal” and “abnormality”.

          No, I do not. If your partitions of humanity ever render people non-human I shall start consider those groups to be separate from humanity. Until them, I shall assume that the same medical rules apply to those groups as apply to the rest of their species.Report

          • Avatar James says:

            As for contempt, yes, I do have a huge amount of contempt for the removal of sections of people’s genitals without their consent. That is one of the most contemptible acts I can think of.Report