Incomplete Opinions and Certainty

Debra Saunders has an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle on the ballot initiative that would finally protect all children in San Francisco from non-therapeutic genital cutting. The essay is a mess of incomplete information. She begins:

In 2010 San Francisco supervisors banned Happy Meals. They showed no regard for parental choice.

That’s correct. It’s also irrelevant to the discussion of circumcision, when considered and considered correctly. The new proposal doesn’t show “no regard for parental choice,” since parents would still be able to choose therapeutic circumcision for their sons in the rare event it becomes necessary. Presumably they would choose the least invasive effective method for treating an ailment, but they would retain the choice. That is the proper extent of proxy consent for circumcision.

So it should not come as a shock that activists have managed to put a measure on the November ballot that essentially would outlaw the circumcision of baby boys. If it passes, then parents won’t be able to choose to circumcise their infant sons. The penalty for the “genital cutting of male minors” will be a $1,000 fine and/or up to a year in jail.

It would “essentially” outlaw the circumcision of baby boys because it would prohibit the circumcision of healthy baby boys, the ones who do not need surgery. Again, contrary to the slant Saunders offers, parents would still be able to choose to circumcise their infant sons. The only difference is that it would have to be medically necessary. This proposal would “restrict” parental choice in the same manner California law restricts parental choice for genital cutting of healthy daughters.

Saunders is working to that, of course:

The ballot measure bills itself as a ban on “forced genital cutting” and “mutilation.” Clearly the authors want to confuse voters …

If Saunders is in favor of not confusing voters, then she should be precise in her language and specify that the proposal involves non-therapeutic circumcision, not all circumcision. It should also be obvious that she never addresses the question of whether or not non-therapeutic circumcision on an infant male is, in fact, “forced genital cutting” or could be considered “mutilation.” If we’re avoiding confusion, it is both initiated without the consent of the patient and it involves cutting away the foreskin, a portion of the child’s genitals.

… by equating male circumcision to female genital mutilation, the barbaric, unsanitary butchering of a young girl’s private parts in a procedure that has been known to leave girls severely infected and in pain.

Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong, regardless of whether the individual is female or male. Saunders expects us to take the position that gender matters, if only because the procedures involves some differences. But California law makes no distinction between unsanitary butchering of a healthy girl’s genitals and sanitary non-permanent injury. It’s all prohibited, restricting parental choice. California law does not – and should not – distinguish the difference and permit the latter. Thus, if equal rights mean anything, then gender shouldn’t be an acceptable distinction, either.

It’s also worth noting that male circumcision has been known to leave boys severely infected and in pain. Does that matter?

The purpose of female genital mutilation is to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure. The World Health Organization says it has “no health benefits for girls or women.” On the other hand, a 2007 WHO report recommended that male circumcision be recognized as “an efficacious intervention for HIV prevention.”

Since we’re quoting WHO, let’s also consider this: “Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” If the definition of genital mutilation is the result from “procedures that intentionally alter or injure <...> genital organs for non-medical reasons,” and it is, then male child circumcision is also genital mutilation. Again, if all individuals have equal rights, then <...> can’t just be female. Parents who circumcise their healthy sons “intentionally alter or and injure” their son’s genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is genital mutilation.

Saunders seems to lump “HIV prevention,” another imprecise term, into “medical” reasons. It isn’t a medical reason because circumcision is not essential to the health of the child or his ability to prevent the transmission of HIV. Anyway, HIV “prevention” is a misnomer. It reduces the risk, a not-subtle semantic distinction. And that reduction in risk is only in female-to-male transmission in high-risk populations, neither of which describes the male infants of San Francisco.

With further exploration of the WHO factsheet, it’s useful to note that California law prohibits all four types of FGM, including those that are equally or less damaging than male circumcision. Butchering has a broad scope.

The purpose of FGM also has a broad scope. I agree that it is used to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure. However, this is not a unanimous reason. The WHO factsheet states, “[t]he causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities.” Many of these involve variations of power, control, and sexual harm. But some less so, and others not at all. There is some note of cultural tradition and models of “proper” gender ideals. These excuses should be quite familiar to the typical American parent considering non-therapeutic circumcision for their sons. Yet, California law makes no exemptions for stated intent or desired extent of damage in prohibiting parental choice involving daughters. If protection from harm for non-medical reasons is a right, and we claim to value equal rights, why do boys deserve less protection than girls?

The WHO factsheet also states this about the reasons for FGM (emphasis added):

Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.

The next section from Saunders is this:

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents be informed that “newborn male circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages as well as disadvantages and risks.” Palo Alto pediatrician Erica Goldman follows the guideline. She informs parents of the pluses – reduced chances of urinary tract infection and sexually transmitted diseases – as well as the risks – it’s a permanent cosmetic change. “It really is a decision to be made on a personal and cultural basis,” Goldman told me.

“I personally believe the medical benefits outweigh the medical risks,” Goldman added.

We’re not discussing a decision made on a “personal” basis, are we, since males don’t get to choose for themselves? Quoting a doctor on cultural justifications for non-therapeutic surgery is nothing more than an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy using her MD as proof that she’s correct on something unrelated to her expertise. (Her expertise should also declare that healthy children do not need genital cutting.)

Finally, Saunders offers an attempted witticism to demonstrate how foolish it is to “restrict” parental choice.

How wonderful it must feel to be floored at Ess Eff’s latest exercise in self-parody. The bill fits. A busybody law? Check. Does it address a problem most folks did not know existed? Check. Pun opportunities? Oh, yeah. First they came for the Chicken McNuggets, then they came for my son’s …

The only person coming after the foreskin of her hypothetical parent’s son is… her hypothetical parent. That’s what is at issue. There is currently no individual choice. A ban on Happy Meals limits individual choice, including parental choice, without a compelling governmental interest to prevent objective harm. The current proposal expands individual choice by limiting parental choice. There is a compelling governmental interest in protecting the rights of healthy children from the objective harm of non-therapeutic surgery.

2 thoughts on “Incomplete Opinions and Certainty”

  1. Canadians Launch Online Circumcision Harm Survey
    June 7, 2011

    An international online Survey of Circumcision Harm was launched recently through a grassroots collaboration of Canadian and U.S. volunteers. will allow men around the world with access to a computer to document the adverse effects of childhood genital cutting on their health and well-being and to upload photos of their harm. Statistical results from the survey will be publicly viewable at no charge, with specialized filtered reports available to anyone for a nominal fee.

    According to the Canadian website, the project was launched “because the medical community has never investigated the long-term adverse physical, sexual, emotional or psychological consequences of infant/childhood circumcision on the health of adult men… due, in part, to many men with such harm not being comfortable enough to speak with others about these issues, or not being given a safe venue in which to document these adverse consequences.”

    The Survey Programmer expressed hope that documenting such consequences and making the results publicly accessible “will provide a starting point for dialogue about the long-term adverse consequences of male genital cutting… that will be investigated by medical communities and taken seriously by the wider societies where customs of male childhood genital cutting occur.” The survey takes about 20 minutes to complete.

  2. I haven’t actually lkeood at the survey, but if two people aren’t intelligent enough to carry out their own research, and make a decision based on that, then they really aren’t capable of becoming responsible parents.I fail to see how any caring parents could ask total strangers to make a life changing decision for their child, these people are conclusive proof that just because someone has the ability to reproduce does not mean that they should.I assume that they are in the USA, no-one else would consider circumcision for anything other than religious and medical reasons. Even so, the rates in the USA are dropping as more parents actually start to think about what they are doing, and find out the facts first, rather than doing it because it’s always been done that way.I have grave concerns about the future of that poor child.

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