German Circumcision Ruling
A German court has ruled that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm even if parents consent to the procedure…
The case involved a doctor accused of carrying out a circumcision on a 4-year-old that led to medical complications. The doctor was acquitted, however, and prosecutors said they won’t appeal…
Unlike female circumcision, there is no law prohibiting it and the ruling isn’t binding for other courts.
Now some commentary. Short version: I’m against circumcision on libertarian grounds, but I think it’s an issue better handled by the culture than the courts. There is a lot of hyperbole all around, and a strong (but to me inexplicable) tendency to dismiss the whole question as a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s a serious and difficult issue. Despite being anti-circumcision in principle, I don’t think that outlawing it is a good way to end it.
The following thought experiment helps to set aside the weight of tradition, just briefly. We’ll come back to it, I promise.
Imagine that there were a brand-new but very sincere religion that has started cutting off the left little toes of all its baby girls. Why? God told them to, right along with not eating turkey, praying on Tuesday nights, and reading from a holy book that was revealed to the founder.
Whatever we thought of the other practices, we would all find the toe-cutting an abomination. We might even pass laws to prevent the practice. I think we’d be on very solid grounds to do so, and I think such laws would be uncontroversial.
It’s a very common belief, among libertarians and others, that each person is by rights a self-owner. You should own your body, and your mind, and your soul, and your toes, and all other parts thereof. People do wrong to you when they act otherwise. Parents and guardians are at best the trustees, not the owners, of a child. Insofar as they wish to care for that child, they should respect the child’s property in himself. Trustees shouldn’t be allowed to cut off non-replaceable bits without some compelling reason.
In fact, for male circumcision, I think toe cutting is a pretty good parallel, neither exaggerating nor belittling the damage done. A medically supervised toe amputation is almost never fatal. Complications will be few. It may interfere sometimes with some activities, but not gravely, and not very much for most people. It’s a real loss, but it’s not an overwhelming one. Remove it at birth, and most people will probably declare that they never missed it.
Many, though, will say differently — to them it’s a terrible loss, and it would be wrong to deny their personal experience. Many others will shrug. Some will jeer. Still, it is a loss. Saying that it’s a very small loss isn’t a denial — it’s a backhanded affirmation that a loss has indeed occurred.
Now suppose that it wasn’t some funky new-age religion that did the toe cutting. It’s one of the great and ancient religions of the world, the origin of vast amounts of subsequent theology, philosophy, law, art, and literature. Without this religion, neither you, nor I, nor anyone we know would be at all the same. This religion has enriched and enlightened the entire world. And they cut a toe from every defenseless newborn girl among them.
That’s a harder call. A simple, powerful libertarian argument is met with a simple, powerful conservative one. It’s perhaps fair to say that the issue shows both at their strongest and best.
In a case like that, I would ask people of the faith to consider stopping, which is certainly within their rights. I would ask people not of the faith to decline to imitate them, at least on this one point. And I would never do it to a child of mine, not unless some medical necessity happened to compel it.
But I don’t know if I could do much more without becoming counterproductive. You can’t just go up to Judaism and start ripping pages out of it. Circumcision is another one of those issues where theory remakes the world, but practice lags behind. And that should be okay. Shouldn’t it?