CBS News offered the first mainstream article I remember seeing that considers the possibility that male circumcision may be genital mutilation without at least cushioning the psychological hit by putting mutilation in quotes. That’s worth applauding, even if some of the article should be better. For example:
As for circumcision’s effects on sexual function, several studies conducted among men after adult circumcision suggest that few men report their sexual functioning is worse after circumcision. Most report either improvement or no change, according to the CDC.
This is not an acceptable summary of these studies since they show more variation than the reporter suggests here. For example, if a study reports that 18% of men aren’t happy with the results of circumcision, that qualifies as more than “few men”. This approach also fails to explore the assumptions in reaching those results that may be questionable. Self-reporting and why the respondent chose circumcision likely factor into the individual’s conclusion in some manner. But even if “few” is correct, ignoring individual conclusions about sexuality misses the ethical principle involved. Generalizing in place of considering what the individual male might want does not, therefore, justify applying the preferences of a majority onto any individual. (And I can uncritically provide studies (pdf) that reveal the opposite of the article’s statement.) Does the individual male child want to be circumcised? No one can know, which is why his lack of need is what matters.
The article concludes with this, a common misguided analysis.
“People care way too much about this little piece of skin,” Dr. Mark Alanis, assistant professor obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, who has written a history of circumcision, told the Washington Post. “At the end of the day, it’s unlikely to significantly change your child’s life for better or worse.”
Unlikely is not certainty, which demonstrates that this discussion must include ethics. All males will suffer some level of objective negatives, since no surgery is free of harm. A few will suffer worse objective negatives than the typical circumcision. These facts are indisputable, and suffice to rule out the imposition of non-therapeutic circumcision on a child. Dr. Alanis ignores that.
In his quote, he dismisses the subjective aspect of individual preference. Many males have – and will continue to – conclude that there are subjective negatives in addition to the objective harms of circumcision. He has no more standing to state that I care too much than I say he cares too little. The correct analysis is that I care about myself and he cares about himself. Each viewpoint is valid, but only as it applies to ourselves. Where he thinks circumcision is minor, I think it is major. Where he states it is a “little piece of skin,” I state that my foreskin was my little piece of skin. Rights matter. That’s where the emphasis must be.
Beyond ethics, his argument misses a larger issue. The burden of proof rests with people who want to circumcise children. But the correct test is need, not possible benefits. So, when advocates of non-therapeutic circumcision suggest that it doesn’t matter, the follow-up against this argument is why the advocate insists on permitting (or encouraging) circumcision. If it’s not important either way, then the superior option is that which doesn’t harm and maintains future choice. The response to that approach is generally a recitation of the claimed potential benefits, whether medical or cultural. Although only one justifiable conclusion exists, considering those is a better approach because it requires thought. In that willing participants can recognize that there are reasons to prefer being intact and that intact males aren’t destined to death-via-foreskin or even the rare medically necessary circumcision.
The “it doesn’t matter either way” approach is nothing more than declaring that one’s own personal, subjective preferences are universal and “right”. It’s a form of arrogance masked as an indifferent, considered statement of scientific fact. It is not. It is an opinion based on a subjective evaluation of competing thoughts. The only appropriate person to make that decision is the person who would be circumcised.