Circumcision and religious freedom

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

62 Responses

  1. Sam M says:

    “As readers know, my position is simply that no parent has a right to permanently mutilate a child for no good reason.”

    Simply, eh?

    But I guess this highlights some of the rhetorical and political excesses mentioned here before. Maybe people who are FOR circumcision are bombastic. But Andrew Sullivan is talking about BANNING the procedure. Not about education or convincing people it’s unwise. Banning.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Get the libertarians on board with a platform of “no federal funding for circumcision!!!”Report

  3. Bob says:

    It’s wrong, but some god(s) find it nifty. Shorter Sullivan.Report

  4. Ryan says:

    It clearly can’t be all that barbaric if we’re willing to allow it for the simple reason that you happen believe in Allah or Yahweh rather than Jesus, can it?Report

    • Bob in reply to Ryan says:

      As a Jewish dude I’d guess Jesus was cut. I’ve never seen it, just a guess.Report

    • Bob in reply to Ryan says:

      This is just loony, like all religious myth.

      From the Catholic Encylopedia:

      “Circumcision, FEAST OF THE.—As Christ wished to fulfil the law and to show His descent according to the flesh from Abraham, He, though not bound by the law, was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke, ii, 21), and received the sublime name expressive of His office, Jesus, i.e. Savior. He was, as St. Paul says, ‘made under the law’, i.e. He submitted to the Mosaic Dispensation, ‘that he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons’ (Gal., iv, 4, 5). ‘The Christ, in order to fulfil all justice, was required to endure this humiliation, and bear in His body the stigma of the sins which He had taken upon Himself’ (Fouard, A Life of Jesus, tr., I, 54). The circumcision took place, not in the Temple, though painters sometimes so represent it, but in some private house, where the Holy Family had found a rather late hospitality.”

      I really like this part, “The circumcision took place, not in the Temple, though painters sometimes so represent it, but in some private house, where the Holy Family had found a rather late hospitality.” And we know this how?


      • James in reply to Bob says:

        St. Paul quite clearly states that circumcision is no longer to be performed. Indeed, he has some quite harsh words for those who wanted to ”Hewbrewise” Christianity. Circumcision is no longer necessary as Christ forged a new covenant with God through his Crucifixion, bridging the gap between humanity & the divine to the extent that simply accepting him as saviour will make you Holy.

        (& yes, all religion is bullshit. But some kinds of bullshit are more harmful than others. Think e. coli, if that helps.)Report

        • Robert in reply to James says:

          I think you have misunderstood what Paul has written. I don’t think he wanted Hebrews to become non-Hebrew. If one was born into the covenant of Abraham, then the covenant is true for them to this day. What Paul was upset about was the Jews who wanted non-Jews to be required to be circumcised. An argument between the Jews who wanted the gentiles to be circumcised and the Jew who did not is written in Acts 15. The council in Jerusalem writes a letter to address this issues yet circumcision is not mention. However, what the gentile should do is stated (end of Acts 15). In the next chapter (Acts 16) Paul has Timothy, the son of a Jew, circumcised. So the question is who should be circumcised, not should anyone be circumcised.Report

          • Hugh7 in reply to Robert says:

            Gore Vidal’s “Live from Golgotha” is written from Timothy’s point of view, and he he is not pleased about it. Paul was quite pragmatic about it: Timothy was going to try to convert Jews, so he needed to fit in. Vidal also suggests Paul was a dirty old man about Timothy.

            Intactivists’ main concern is christians who circumcise their babies today because “it’s in the Bible” or because “Jesus was circumcised”.Report

      • Bob Cheeks in reply to Bob says:

        Bob, dude, the truth is in the myth. Read your Schelling!Report

  5. Gherald L says:

    Circumcision without consent is barbaric.

    Ideally, there would be no exception. But since religious hurdles are difficult to overcome, Andrew is settling for the compromise of a religious exemption for some parents. At least then it will be clear that it’s their religion promoting the barbarism.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Gherald L says:

      So we should allow female circumcision for those people who accept it as part of their religious heritage?Report

      • Ryan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Not to mention any number of other obscene kinds of deference we allow the religious with respect to their children. Christian Scientists, for instance.Report

      • Gherald L in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Ideally, we would tolerate neither. But practically–while banning all involuntary female circumcision seems achievable–male is not seen as equally egregious.

        Until that changes, a ban with religions exemption seems the best we can hope for…and a good incremental step for phasing out the practice.

        In my post two weeks ago I advocated doing it with a waiver, which religious parents would have to apply for. This way only the most pious and orthodox would clear the hurdle, effectively marginalizing the practice.Report

        • Bob in reply to Gherald L says:

          And who will judge the heart/soul and ferret out the unrighteous?

          Sounds like a really bad idea.Report

          • Gherald L in reply to Bob says:

            Ferret out? How do we ferret out conscientious objectors to military service? We make them go on the record and assume good faith, dude.

            If a kid’s parents want to lie about their religious imperatives to get him circumcised, that kid’s got bigger problems.Report

            • Bob in reply to Gherald L says:

              Dude, the conscientious objector argument isn’t really comparable, IMO. Even if a person was judged to be a CO he still had to serve, but in a noncombat position. And as you know, we no longer have a draft.

              Second point. If the nutty parent wants the son cut, because of religious belief, and the rabbi wants the boy cut, because god demands it, what good is you panel? I fail to see any movement in what you suggest. Either your panel has the power to ferret out the imposters and nix the cutting or they are powerless.Report

              • Gherald L in reply to Bob says:

                It’s directly comparable–religious parents are still obligated to care for their children as much as anyone, but have an exemption for an archaic ritual that secular people ought to see as barbaric. (That we don’t presently have a draft is immaterial to my point.)

                There would be no panel, and it’s not a matter of power. It’s a matter of religions going on the record and taking responsibility for their barbarism. I see no other way to phase out the practice.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to Gherald L says:

                Oh but that’s the easy part. The practice will phase out all on its own. It already is on the decline. We don’t need to do anything – we don’t need bans, we don’t need restrictions and religious exemptions. We just need to wait and it will slowly stop being the normal way of doing things.Report

              • Gherald L in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Easy over a long enough period of time, sure. Would you talk that way to MLK? The long arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but that’s no excuse for inaction.

                Or do you oppose all/most provisions of the various Civil Rights Acts on the grounds that racial discrimination would have slowly stopped being the normal way of doing things?Report

              • Bob in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                “That’s the beauty part.” Do people say that?

                If the practice is on the decline maybe folk are getting wise to some of the religious crap in holy books. No, I’m sure the true be livers will continue the mutilation.Report

            • Bob in reply to Gherald L says:

              “It’s directly comparable–religious parents are still obligated to care for their children as much as anyone….” That is nonsense. Who is suggesting that parents are not “…obligated to care for their children….?”

              My point regarding your CO comparison was that there there was a middle ground. The CO was not excused from *all* service, he was just excused from combat service. Where is there middle ground in your proposal for some sort panel looking into the hearts of parents seeking to mutilate their children?Report

              • Gherald L in reply to Bob says:

                Who’s suggesting that COs were excused from all service? The nonsense is your own.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Gherald L says:

                Let’s sum up.

                Circumcision is like going to Vietnam.
                Not being circumcized is like going to Vietnam as a medic.

                Does that about sum it up?Report

              • Gherald L in reply to Jaybird says:

                Only in the narrow sense of COing being like getting a religious exemption.Report

              • Bob in reply to Jaybird says:

                “Does that about sum it up?”


              • Jaybird in reply to Bob says:

                Most analogies break down at some point. I don’t know that the comparisons to military service and/or the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960’s truly provide a whole lot of benefit.

                I’d rather run with the whole “do unto others” thing. Would you prefer to be asked before someone cuts off your junk? Then allow him to make the decision and don’t cut off his junk.

                Maybe, eventually, the default will switch to “having to ask for it”.

                But this is tactics. If one truly believes that one’s junk is one’s Vietnam/Civil Rights Struggle, I suspect that arguments to the contrary will have an eerie similarity to arguing against someone else’s supposed Covenant with YHWH.Report

              • Bob in reply to Bob says:

                “Maybe, eventually, the default will switch to ‘having to ask for it’.”

                I’m under the impression that is the “default” position in the good ‘ol US of A. Would any doc cut the boy without parental permission? Oh happy days for the shitty-fucking trial lawyers if he did. Goldmine time.Report

              • James in reply to Bob says:

                I’m under the impression that is the “default” position in the good ‘ol US of A. Would any doc cut the boy without parental permission? Oh happy days for the shitty-fucking trial lawyers if he did. Goldmine time.

                Bob, I’m sorry if this sounds impolite, but I’d really prefer it if you educated yourself before we continue this debate. In a previous discussion on this site someone who knew very little (by his own admission) posted a lot & it ended up frustrating for everyone.

                Here’s a great site:


                I will answer your question, but I don’t really wish to spend this entire discussion writing historical accounts.

                Right, so:

                After the industrialisation of healthcare in America circumcision began to be performed without parental consent. In fact, they were not even informed that it was taking place. The hospitals simply performed circumcisions on every boy born inside them.

                This continued for many years, but ended in the 1970s due to (as you suggest) lawsuits. Instead, the hospitals gave out release forms to all parents, which generally just got signed along w?th all the other formality paperwork. This is how it usually still works to this day.

                Now you might say that I’m being a pedant for pointing out that offering a service is not the same as people having to request it. But in this context it often makes all the difference: getting a piece of surgery presented to you as an option by a medical official & having to pursue it personally are too very different things. The former is basically bound to result in more circumcisions.

                Which, I’d speculate is why things are done that way. More sliced up babies, more profits. My cynical hypothesising aside, I hope that I’ve helped to clarify things for you.Report

              • Bob in reply to Bob says:

                James, you do not sound impolite at all, priggish comes a lot closer.

                From what you write I fail to see how you can not accept that no circumcision is the default position. Parental permission is required, active consent. It’s pretty simple, no consent no cutting.

                Now if you are saying that the medical profession dupes stupid parents into mutilating their male offspring for a few more dollars of income, well maybe so. I don’t know.

                But as Jaybird says, you have “to ask for it.”Report

              • James in reply to Bob says:

                No Bob, you do not. You are given a form, if you (the mother, actually) signs the form the circumcision happens. Nobody asks any questions of anyone. You don’t have to ask for the form, it is presented to you.

                You are correct that parental permission is required (I fail to see where I said otherwise in my last comment), you are correct that without consent there is no cutting (there was a successful lawsuit staged recently over much that issue, where a mother demonstrated she had been chemically impaired when the form was given her) but incorrect that parents must ask.

                Sorry if this sounds a little ”needles on a pinhead”. But the difference between seeking surgery for the newborn & accepting an offer is pretty big, once considered.

                (Of course, hospitals do vary. But this is standard stuff in many of them.)Report

              • James in reply to Bob says:

                & I’ll settle for priggish. 😉Report

              • Bob in reply to Bob says:

                Agreed then. No circumcision is the default position. Jaybird rules! Win. Win. Win.Report

              • Hugh7 in reply to Bob says:

                Here is a page of instances of people being coerced to circumcise. All those hospital staff think that circumcising is the default position.Report

              • Bob in reply to Gherald L says:

                Where is the middle ground with your panel?Report

              • Gherald L in reply to Bob says:

                The exemption being for a narrow thing–circumcision, and combat service–since a significant minority requires/objects on religious/moral grounds.Report

              • Hugh7 in reply to Gherald L says:

                It depends where you are. In this country, COs can (or could – we haven’t had Compulsory Military Training for decades) be exempted from all service. They had to make a stronger case than those who just wanted to be exempted from combat.Report

  6. Scott says:

    Some people seem to miss the public health reasons to circumcise.Report

      • Scott in reply to James says:

        Several studies have documented the benefits of male circumcision. Sorry if you can’t or won’t accept it.Report

        • James in reply to Scott says:

          Like the reduction of meatal stenosis from 0% to 10% likelihood after a child has been circumcised?Report

          • Scott in reply to James says:

            Funny, I’ve seen figures that range anywhere from a .9% increase to 11%. Why not just pick the 11% for extra shock value? Actually I was referring to AIDS and the Human Papilloma Virus.Report

            • James in reply to Scott says:

              Freddie wrote a pretty massive post addressing the HIV issue on this very website.

              & HPV has a vaccine.Report

            • Hugh7 in reply to Scott says:

              It doesn’t mean anything to say “Circumcision reduces the incidence of X disease” or even to give a figure. You can be sure that circumcision reduces the incidence of foreskin disease (posthitis) 100%. You need to look at the baseline rate, which will then give you a Number Needed to Treat. In the developed world, even given the relative risk reduction claimed in the African trials, the NNT is in the hundreds, maybe thousands. This gives a very poor cost/benefit ratio. You also need to look at the alternatives, and their cost/benefit ratios. Condoms beat circumcision every time.Report

  7. Bob says:

    GL, let’s go back to your original point: “In my post two weeks ago I advocated doing it with a waiver, which religious parents would have to apply for. This way only the most pious and orthodox would clear the hurdle, effectively marginalizing the practice.”

    Are you still advocating some group issuing “a waiver” for the mutilation of children on religious account.

    How does that improve the situation?Report

    • Gherald L in reply to Bob says:

      You misunderstand me, I don’t mean a hurdle as in some kind of panel evaluating your religious commitment or lack there of.

      I mean a hurdle as in you’d have to specifically ask for it and give your reason as religious. This would cut down on all the casual “it seemed like a good idea for health reasons” nonsense. (such as my own–my parents have since apologized for making the decision for me)

      I of course have no problem with circumcision (or any other alteration) being done for health reasons later in life when a person is sexually mature enough to consent to the procedure.Report

  8. Max says:

    ED said: “The practice will phase out all on its own. It already is on the decline.”

    I haven’t been following the debate so I guess I missed this, but do you have these numbers? I’d be curious.Report

    • James in reply to Max says:

      Varies state by state (hugely), nationally we declined from 80-90% at peak to mid-50% nationally at the last count (which was a year or two ago, due to the nature of these th?ngs).Report

  9. James says:

    As far as I am concerned the timing is incorrect for a push towards legal remedies from the anti-circumcision movement. It would be a waste of resources, time; generally force us into arguments we don’t need to have yet will never at this stage win.

    Consider: if a majority of people thought that circumcision was a bad idea then we could argue onwards from there (bad means should not be done to an infant or any party incapable of consenting save in emergencies, simple enough). But at present the rate is c. 50% in America. Quite clearly the culture of America is not yet anti-circumcision, a requisite for political advancement of outlawing the practice.

    So it would at present be a complete waste of time to push for a ban. It would also be a distraction, since when you are in a debate you are hardly going to convince someone that something should be BANNED before you’ve convinced them it is a bad idea (even a neutral idea won’t do it). So focus on convincing them it’s bad, not that it should be illegal. Until you’ve achieved the former you’ll never get the latter anyway.Report

    • Bob in reply to James says:

      Sullivan’s final word in the post you linked.

      “Let’s just ban it in public hospitals as a routine procedure.”

      Great idea Andrew! And let’s “ban” abortion from public hospitals while we are in the banning mode.

      Coat hangers are a dime-a-dozen at WalMart,Report

      • James in reply to Bob says:

        NHS hospitals refusing to offer it was immensely effective in curtailing the practice here in Britain.Report

      • RD in reply to Bob says:

        So we should not forbid routine infant circumcision, on the grounds that is lacks medical justification, because were we to do so, you forecast that some parents would take off their boys’ foreskins with a pair of sewing scissors (also readily purchased at Wal-Mart)??

        If routine infant circumcision were to be outlawed, and if the number of clandestine and illegal RICs performed in the USA were to exceed, say, 10,000/year, that would be ample evidence in support of what many Europeans have concluded, namely that circumcision is a weird American sexual obsession. Cultures that circumcise tend to think that the foreskin is disgusting. Cultures that do not circumcise tend to think that circumcision is sexually weird. Most Western nations never went for routine circ. The English speaking ones did for 2-3 generations, but have walked away from it. The USA is a large and curious exception. There has been one improvement. USA hospitals used to circumcise middle class babies without asking the mother if she approved. If she took the intitiative to object, she was browbeat until she backed down. These coercive practices are gone, for which I am grateful.Report

  10. Tim says:

    If you’re anti-circumcision (as I am), take your case to expectant parents. I’ve had the satisfaction of convincing a few couples not to circumcise their infants; in fact, most of them have actually thanked me many months later.

    As for Andrew’s religious hedge, I think it’s pure BS. You can’t call something a barbaric practice and get all up in arms about it, then turn around and coddle religionists who want to inflict it on their children without repercussions. Support it or oppose it, but don’t waffle.

    BTW can adult males sue their parents and the doctor for carrying out a circumcision? I’m sure judges have deferred to tradition, but I’m curious if there are any grounds in spite of the heavy weight of the status quo.Report

  11. Murali says:

    Is comparing male circumcision to female circumcision useful, or for that matter, is calling male circumcision “cutting your bits off” anything other distorting rhetoric?

    There is a difference on the burden imposed between the MC and FC. In fact FC involves the actually cutting of the bits. almost always, the clitoris is removed, often the clitoral hood and the labia majora and minora as well. That is equivalent to cutting off the tip of the penis, not merely removing its skin. The comparison to tattooing, or piercing is more apt. The question of whether parents should be allowed to tattoo their child, or give him/her a piercing is not so clear cut. The actual burden imposed is not sufficiently large that banning it makes sense. Cultural/religious “benefits” of male circumcision make the issue a lot more negotiable. The cultural benefits of being a jewish circumcised male may outweigh some of the possible risks of male circumcision. On the other hand, female genital cutting is mutilation. The burdens placed are actually rather large, enough that it would be terrible.

    Compare it to taxes. A 90% tax rate imposes intolerable burdens. But that doesn’t mean that all taxation is unjustified. A 10% tax rate is certainly a very minor burden.Report

    • James in reply to Murali says:

      Simple: FGM in it’s mildest incarnations, known as FGM I, is analogous. Preputial removal in both instances. FGM II & FGM III are more severe.Report

      • Hugh7 in reply to James says:

        The forms of FGC practised in Indonesia and Malaysia may be quite minor and even symbolic, nothing like what they do in Africa. Yet through much of the rest of the developed world, ALL FGC is banned, without regard to severity, with specific non-exemption for religion or culture, and in some juristictions (including mine), even the informed consent of an adult women will not make it legal. The strength of the double standard is quite hysterical.Report

        • James in reply to Hugh7 says:

          F’r’instance in Holland it was explicitly stated by the chap in charge of such things that the practice of pricking the clitoris with a needle to draw a drop of blood from it was illegal under their FGM laws. Male circumcision is legal in Holland, indeed they have a centre for it to cater for their Muslim population.

          The same is true in my own nation of Britain: a trained doctor would be locked in jail for so much as drawing blood from a healthy female prepuce. By contrast the removal of the entire male prepuce is something which you do not even need to be a doctor to perform legally. Some foul man who performs the procedures without so much a licence killed a child & walked away without so much as a suspended sentence. I hope that future generations shall look back upon ours with horror.Report

  12. RD says:

    Circumcision of an adult capable of informed consent should not be outlawed. However, the taxpayer and insurance companies should not cover the cost unless there is a compelling medical indication. Religious or medical circumcision without a prior injection of lidocaine should also be actionable. Damage or death from circumcision should be actionable like any other medical mishap. I bet American routine infant circumcision (RIC) would stop if hospitals had to pay $3M for a death, $1M for damage to the glans, and $250K for taking so much skin off that erection and sexual pleasure are problematic. They would stop RIC simply to limit the sharp rise in their malpractice insurance premiums.

    What is at stake is not the right of Jews and Muslims to be circumcised. Rather, parents should not have the option of altering the bodies of their sons without a clear medical necessity. Parents should not have the option of “locking in” their sons into a faith tradition by an irreversible body modification. More than 99% of circumcisions are cosmetic or ritualistic, and as such should be performed only on informed and consenting adults. I see no reason why Islam in the West could not adopt this practice. Doing it 1 week after birth is a Biblical mandate, but I boldly predict that a majority of self-identified Jews would deny that they are Biblical literalists. Many Jews circumcise primarily out of loyalty to the tribe, to minimise embarrassment in Sunday School and summer camp, and to make taking a Jewish bride less awkward. Hence for many Jews, to make bris an adult choice would not be a huge bridge to cross. There are a fair number of Jewish intactivists, although I should grant that the bulk of intactivists are younger mothers who talk to other women of reproductive age. This is as it should be.

    I would like to remind readers that Andrew Sullivan was born into the British working class and is gay. Rank and file Brits have always resisted routine circumcision, even when, during the first half of the 20th century, half or more of the middle and upper classes were routinely circumcised. An important emotional driver behind RIC is that it serves as a lifelong “cattle brand” signalling better origins. In the American popular mind, the foreskin is seen as evidence of poverty and hygienic unsophistication. After 1950, when the British National Health Service announced that it would not pay for routine infant circumcision, the practice quickly died out there.

    Foreskin fetishism is common among North American gay men. Intact gay men who take out personal matching ads (Advocate, Village Voice, etc) frequently mention the fact. Foreskin porn is 100% by and for gay men. Many gay relish practices that require the foreskin. I trust you can see why Sullivan has fire in the belly on this issue.Report