the continuing oddity of the circumcision debate
The continuing debate on circumcision and HIV infection is very strange.
Circumcision is tangential to the politics that interest me. While I’m convinced of my position on circumcision for medical gain, and particularly the relative effectiveness of such a procedure in sub-Saharan Africa compare to other parts of the world, the issue just isn’t of great interest or importance to me. It’s not the kind of issue that ordinarily animates me. And yet I find myself increasingly pushed towards emphasizing this issue by the bizarre certitude of people unable to articulate an argument for routine circumcision and by the strange disrespect that many people have towards people who hold my opinion.
I read on and comment on a lot of blogs, and I say with great confidence that the debate about circumcision occurs in a very different way from many other arguments in blog comboxes. We diagree with each other online about many contentious issues, from the trivial (Mac vs. PC) to the deadly serious (Israel and Palestine). Obviously, there are many trolls and disingenuous people who don’t bother to form real arguments or to engage on a substantive level. But more or less, people know to at least try to engage their opponents’ arguments and to keep their objections on a relevant level. They equally tend to understand that beginning from a position of obvious disrespect towards your opponent is not productive and not in keeping with good discourse.
Yet on the issue of circumcision, that is precisely how the conversation proceeds. I have had the weird experience of weighing in on this issue in several different fora, presenting what I see as the statistical and epidemiological case against routine circumcision for medical reasons, and having people both fail to come up with any sound medical reason for supporting circumcision, and yet continuing to insist that everyone should be circumcised. Frequently I receive no rebuttal to my reading of the data and the literature at all, and yet people insist that I am mistaken. I haven’t yet heard a meaningful challenge to my reading of the demographics of the HIV virus in this country, to the limits of circumcision’s potential to slow the spread of HIV, and the vanishingly small odds of American males receiving a meaningful medical benefit to the procedure; and yet despite that paucity of a response, I continue to hear that “everyone knows” that we should be circumcising all of our infant boys. You would be amazed at how many people think that “I don’t see what they big deal is” represents some sort of logically rigorous rebuttal to my position.
I think that some of the louder elements of the anti-circumcision movement argue in a way that does not best represent their position, and to their detriment. I disagree with many of them about funding circumcision procedures and education in sub-Saharan Africa, where this procedure really could have great medical value. And I disagree strongly with a small sliver of them who oppose parent’s rights to circumcise their children as part of religious observation. And yet I find myself increasingly sympathetic to them, and I understand why they radicalize, as they are greeted with such an odd and unfortunate combination of antipathy and a lack of logical rigor from counter argument.
Look, think about it this way.
Say, for the sake of argument, that circumcision is a purely aesthetic change. I don’t think that’s true, and while I find some of the claims about sexual pleasure likely inflated, I also think that such concerns are dismissed with a speed that is embarrassing for the people so dismissing. But let’s say for the sake of argument that a circumcision merely changes the physical look of the penis and nothing else. Let’s further set aside the oddity of preventative surgery, and further let’s leave aside the medical benefit, dubious or no.
Here’s my question: how many of the people intent on ridiculing opponents of routine circumcision would recoil at the idea of a parent tattooing their child? I think very many would. Tattooing an infant just seems wrong, to most of us. Should a parent be allowed to do it? I have to say yes. That doesn’t mean that I give up the right to argue that they shouldn’t. Part of being a responsible parent is preparing children for their adulthood, and in part that means preserving for them the choices that they will make as an adult. That’s why we recoil at arranged marriages for children, after all. So even if a circumcision involves only an aesthetic change, I must ask, how is that materially different from tattooing your child? Both are permanent changes to a child’s body, and both are undertaken without their consent at a time when they are too young to understand what is happening to them. A permanent choice is being made about their body.
And that’s the point; it’s their body. As I said above, it’s incredible the number of people who seem to think that saying “what’s the big deal” constitutes some sort of a meaningful rebuttal. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a big deal or not. It’s not even a matter of you ever becoming convinced that it’s a big deal. It’s a matter of recognizing and respecting that at some point, the child will become an adult, and that it may be a big dealt to them. It is their body, after all, and as much as I think parents have the right to determine medical treatment for their children I equally think that parents should respect boundaries to that authority in the interest of self-determination for their children, who will eventually become adults.
I find this debate to resemble nothing more than the abortion debate, where many on the pro-life side can’t understand why women who want abortions can’t just have the baby and give it up for adoption. And there, too, you often here people wonder “what’s the big deal” with carrying a baby to term. What pro-choice people like myself have said is that whether or not it is a big deal to an individual or any number of people is immaterial in the face of the fact that it is the pregnant woman’s body, and it is her right to make decisions about her own body. This is similar to the argument about circumcision, where whether or not any great number of us see what the big deal is about circumcision is immaterial to the question of whether we respect the autonomy of a person to make up his own mind about the value of the procedure. It’s his body, and this debate takes place in the context of a medical benefit which even many of those who support routine circumcision admit is dubious for the average American man. People like to say that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. I think if women had penises, circumcision would be anathema.
What I have asked, and continue to ask, is why parents who don’t have religious convictions pushing them to circumcise their sons don’t wait until those sons are adults and let them choose for themselves. Or, if they prefer, wait until adolescence, when a 12 or 14 or 16 year old boy can hear about the benefits and drawbacks from supportive parents and make a decision about his own body. I have not heard anything approaching a coherent objection to this. Yet people persist in opposing it. Why? Why do people feel so strongly in favor of a medical procedure of dubious medical value, performed on infants who cannot yet understand what is happening to them? The only reason I can think of is the only one that really matters to most people: in the United States, circumcision is the norm. And people, despite all of their liberal, tolerant self-identification, like enforcing norms. They just don’t like admitting that this is what they’re doing. So they dress it up in this slight medical justification, and they use ridicule and exclusion to do their arguing for them.
Whenever people feel strongly about an issue without being able to articulate why, it usually tells us more about them than about the issue. I think there are a lot of primal emotions about what is “weird” and what is normal going on under the scenes with this issue. By all means, let’s have a debate, but let’s please have one with less marginalization of one side and less assertion about what is and isn’t a big deal.