In this essay Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz attempts to make the moral case for infant circumcision. Rabbi Yanklowitz fails in every all seven attempts, and in the familiar ways. This is not surprising since non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is immoral.
He starts with health. He makes the mistake of focusing on relative risk without concern for absolute risk or the implications of his approach. He concludes the paragraph with this:
… Is it fair to avoid giving a boy protection when it is available? It’s not only Jewish law to maintain one’s health but also Jews should serve as a model for this important health practice.
“To avoid giving a boy protection” is a weird way to frame this point. It shows the flaw because it suggests that the conclusion informs the defense rather than the reverse. It assumes parents are unreasonable if they don’t circumcise healthy boys. Is it fair to avoid giving any child any protection that might reduce the risk of something, regardless of how small that risk?
This approach to healthy children is only applied to the male foreskin. Every other possible intervention is rejected. We are not immoral when we “avoid giving” other potential protections. The moral case against infant circumcision demands its rejection as we already refuse to consider any other intervention that might reduce something at some point. Rejecting infant circumcision is the only consistent moral approach.
Next, explaining circumcision’s role in “sexual morality”, he quotes Maimonides and responds:
… Circumcised men may not have less sexual desire or more self control but teaching a value of sexual moderation may be one pedagogical goal of this ancient ritual. We have many sexual wrongs in society to be reminded of such as rape, adultery, impropriety, and molestation. Perhaps circumcision can serve as a sacred reminder for men, in our over-sexualized world, to cultivate self control.
What is this, if not a means to control male sexuality? I’ve written before about the mistaken belief that non-therapeutic male child circumcision does not involve control. It does, even if this is not consciously understood when expressing intent. So it is again with Rabbi Yanklowitz’s reasoning.
Worse, this is borderline insulting because he seems to imply that men are less likely to control themselves without some external intervention against their genitalia. If my foreskin hadn’t been removed shortly after birth, would I now be inclined to commit rape, adultery, impropriety, and molestation?
Next, Rabbi Yanklowitz offers a utilitarian approach:
If an uncircumcised man chooses to have the procedure done later in life, it will be much more painful (even with anesthesia) and dangerous than it would be for a newborn. It is the responsibility of parents to shield their children from unnecessary pain.
There is no guarantee a male left with his foreskin and choice will need or want circumcision later in life. Statistics show neither is likely. Yet, pain is guaranteed when a child is circumcised. The choice that shields the most children from unnecessary pain is to leave everyone intact until need arises or they can make the choice themselves. Instead of every child – male only – experiencing pain, only those who have the misfortune to have a malady or who decide that the potential benefits outweigh the costs (e.g. pain) for them will experience pain. From a utilitarian standpoint, the prudent (i.e. moral) position is to leave children intact with their normal genitals because this non-action causes the least amount of unnecessary pain.
It’s also questionable whether or not circumcision later in life is more painful and dangerous. If it’s more dangerous¹, the individual facing the danger can consent or reject the surgery if he doesn’t want the risk. (My assumption there is for elective, non-therapeutic circumcision, which is the issue involving infants.) And infant circumcision has its own dangers, since the foreskin is fused to the glans and it’s difficult to judge how much to take off since the child still has all of his growing remaining. Severe consequences like amputation and death can – and do – occur, as well.
The utilitarian approach is subjective and has a tendency to favor whatever argument someone is making because it assumes all people favor the same choices. Yet, each person must provide his own weighting to the relevant issues. (The typical flaw of utilitarianism is to completely ignore the value of the foreskin in the equation. Its loss somehow isn’t a cost of the surgery.) The utilitarian push for circumcision ignores that individuals are must live with the negative outcomes and/or the intended outcomes he may not want. All children together won’t share the lost glans, lost penis, or lost life in the instances of severe complications. It makes no sense to consider all children lumped together.
His fourth point is parental values and social acceptance. The topic itself demonstrates the necessary proof that this is about control. That control makes it immoral. The circumcision is unnecessary, yet the values of the parents override the child’s lack of need and possible preferences throughout his life. Making sure that others accept him via surgery elevates the opinion of others above his own about his body. It denies personal autonomy. The paragraph endorses that view, but these sentences warrant focus:
… Not circumcising a Jewish boy may hinder his social acceptance and his chances of finding a Jewish spouse. The overwhelming majority of Jewish women look for a mate who is circumcised. It would be cruel to prevent a man from potentially finding a suitable mate. …
This is a claim commonly made in defense of female genital cutting. If we reverse the genders in his position, it’s easily understandable that this is about controlling the child. There is no compelling reason why this defense is acceptable for male genital cutting while being (rightly) rejected for female genital cutting. It is immoral when imposed on either gender.
Next, he extols the virtues of modesty. I don’t have much to say on this. Parents surgically altering their son to remind him to live up to their idea of modesty is self-evidently about control, and thus, immoral.
Next, “unconscious memory”:
…We give our baby boys one token formative experience, and then we do all we can to protect and shelter the child. This experience helps to ensure that the boy can be a moral agent. However, this reasoning, of course, should not be extended beyond this minor example.
Whether this experience is “token” or not must be decided by the individual receiving it, not the individual giving it. It is a subjective judgment.
Beyond that, empathy is a wonderful trait. There are better ways to instill this in children involving parenting rather than surgery. Are males not empathetic enough, or capable of learning through logic and example, that they require such an experience before they can practice it in their lives? This is preposterous and impossible to prove. Using it as a defense isn’t acceptable, as evidenced by the qualifications offered at the end of the paragraph. Again, they suggest that the conclusion informed the defense rather than the reverse. (Every defense of circumcision suggests this in some way.) Inflicting pain and the removal of healthy body parts to teach lessons is immoral.
The last item is that circumcision is a symbolic reminder. It focuses on religion, which I’m going to leave alone. My response is that symbolism isn’t valid if the individual doesn’t value the symbols. There seems to be a considerable chance that a child will value many of the same things his parents value. I accept that without reservations. But the focus must be on the individual. This is not guaranteed for any individual. Permanently altering a child to remind him of something he may one day reject is problematic, at best.
Rabbi Yanklowitz proved nothing he set out to prove. The moral case for infant circumcision he attempted is little more than the most common responses given. The emphasis is on the parents, not the child. The moral case for surgery with children starts and ends with their physical need. For circumcision, there is no need. There is no moral case for non-therapeutic infant circumcision.
¹ This is where I’ll invoke the articles on the PrePex as an example. My objection to the recent pieces about it centers on the poor journalism rather than the device. I expect the device will eventually be tweaked to allow for infant circumcision at some point. That would be wrong. For now it’s a device for voluntary, adult circumcision. I have no objection to that. The claimed risks involved with the device are low. The claim that adult circumcision is more dangerous than infant circumcision doesn’t appear to hold up, generally, regardless of the method. This claim is a framing device of dubious quality rather than a fact to be negate ethics.