Strong and Non-Conflicting Evidence

A few days ago in the Huffington Post Canada, Sheryl Saperia defended non-therapeutic male child circumcision against the German court ruling. The title of her essay is “Male Circumcision is Not Mutilation, Period.” She is wrong.

After a bit of setup, she states:

For instance, neither the right to security of the person nor to gender equality should operate in such a way as to proscribe male circumcision on the grounds that it is comparable to the justifiably prohibited custom of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The two are ethically comparable. They are both non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual. That’s the comparison. It applies to every scenario.

But ignore the comparison. She’s jumping to the “FGM is worse, so male circumcision is okay” defense. Truncate her statement to the minimum necessary facts to understand male circumcision and the content of the ruling. Do male infants have the right to security of person? Assuming she answers correctly, that males possess this right, then non-therapeutic circumcision violates that. It is surgery, and without the recipient’s consent. It inflicts harm. Sometimes that harm is greater than what is expected, and in thankfully-rare instances, it can be fatally so. But it always involves harm. The right to be secure in one’s person should include protection from unnecessary, unwanted harm for all children.

She continues:

FGM is sometimes termed female circumcision, but this is a misnomer as it implies a minor operation equivalent to male circumcision. According to Doriane Coleman, a Duke University law professor whose expertise is children and the law, “This analogy can and has been rejected as specious and disingenuous, as the traditional forms of FGM are as different from male circumcision in terms of procedure, physical ramifications, and motivation as ear piercing is to a penilectomy.”

The term female circumcision is a misnomer for semantic reasons, but also because, as she indicates, it fails to fully explain what FGM does. However, semantic accuracy of male circumcision does not prove that male circumcision cannot also be mutilation. Saying it’s not FGM isn’t enough.

Contrary to Professor Coleman, the analogy is neither specious nor disingenuous. It is not based on merely the traditional forms. The traditional form of FGM differs across cultures. The question of which version we should use exposes the flaw in the tradition approach. The varying extent of damage can be reflected in the codified punishment for violations.

It makes more sense to start with the principle involved. Again, non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong. The principle does not require equivalent damage for both to violate the principle. Anyway, the anatomical analogy to mnale circumcision is a hoodectomy. The latter is illegal, which brings in the topic of equal rights. The law does not protect the rights of male minors that it protects for female minors.

The motivations aren’t as different as suggested, either.


The World Health Organization is also clear that:

“FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.”

I prefer my fact sheet because it deals with principles and equality rather than outcomes. Still, even on the appeal to authority she begins here, she’s wrong. Within its fact sheet, WHO states:

FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.

To repeat myself, would WHO rebrand female genital mutilation to “female genital cutting” and declare it an acceptable parental choice if some health benefits were found? I find the possibility doubtful, at best. So why shouldn’t we also apply the basic logic of harm as “removing and damaging healthy and normal genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of bodies” to males? It’s okay to do this without their consent because we’ve pursued a “health benefits” justification for enough years, even though almost every claimed benefit can be achieved with less invasive preventions and/or treatments?

Ms. Saperia quotes a 1997 joint statement from several groups declaring “FGM to be universally unacceptable, as it is an infringement on the physical and psychosexual integrity of women and girls and is a form of violence against them.” Even if we pretend that there is no psychosexual violation to males, there is the clear infringement on their physical integrity. (She returns to this point later, although she furthers her error.) Circumcision is a form of violence against males. It inflicts some level of harm in every instance.

Instead of acknowledging this connection, she quotes the WHO to push the irrelevant facts about circumcision being a long-standing practice and that many reasons exist for its imposition on healthy children. And then the predictable argument about HIV, which is easily refuted, and also countered with the truth that condoms are still necessary after circumcision.

She proceeds into the illogical “no real harm”:

In the absence of strong and non-conflicting medical evidence that male circumcision regularly causes substantial harm to young boys, the arguments against the procedure are severely weakened. …

Substantial is a subjective word. What one person finds substantial, I might not. And vice versa. The core question is whether or not there is non-conflicting medical evidence that non-therapeutic male circumcision causes harm. There is. It causes harm, in every case. Normal, healthy tissue is removed. Nerve endings are severed. The resulting scar provides further proof, and the mechanical functioning is altered. I accept that many people think this trade-off is acceptable for the possible benefits. But only the individual male is qualified to make that evaluation for himself.

… Since male circumcision and FGM are simply incomparable, gender equality should not demand the banning of the former just because the latter is illegal. [ed. note: Again, they’re comparable in principle (and to an extent within FGM Type IV). The law should reflect that.] And while the right to security of the person is certainly implicated by circumcision, the low risk of harm (and the fact that most complications are extremely minor) means that this right should be balanced against other compelling rights, such as religious freedom.

There is not a “low risk of harm”. There is a 100% risk of harm. There is a low risk of complications, of unexpected outcomes. Those harms are not the same. There is no implication. The guaranteed harm of non-therapeutic circumcision violates the child’s right to security. That should be balanced against competing rights, but as the court found, a child’s right to physical security outweighs his parents’ supposed right to practice their religion. From an individual rights perspective, the parents’ religious freedom ends where the child’s body begins. The child also possess a right to religious freedom.

After a paragraph praising the unity the three major religions are showing in their criticism, she writes:

According to the German court, the right to religious freedom “would not be unduly impaired” because the child could later decide for himself whether to have the circumcision. Aside from the court’s interference with a religious precept that the ritual must take place long before adulthood, the judgment could ironically cause greater harm to one’s bodily integrity because circumcision for adolescents and adults, as compared to infants, is more complicated and has a higher rate of adverse effects.

First, civil law already interferes with many religious precepts because they involve harm to others. Interference is not necessarily improper.

To her point, the issue is consent to the harm inflicted. The right to bodily integrity involves the ability to consent to harm. Or not. If a male wishes to get himself circumcised, he can decide for himself that whatever benefits he values from non-therapeutic circumcision outweigh the harm and risks of further harm. Or not. The perceived increase in difficulty in adults is not an ethical argument in favor of infant circumcision.

Within the religious context, we need to evaluate the number of teens and adults who would volunteer for ritual circumcision if left intact from birth. I assume that number would be very high. I do not believe it would be 100%, at which point the implications to individual rights should become obvious. More on this in a moment.

Outside the religious context, the number of teens and adults who would volunteer for cultural circumcision if left intact at birth would be very low, as it is now. I also assume the number of medically necessary circumcisions would increase, but only on a volume basis. The percentage would likely stay low, apart from the consequences of unnecessary fiddling with the non-retractable foreskins of children by doctors and parents.

While there appears to be the difference between infant and adult circumcision Ms. Saperia cites, there are other differences. Consent is the largest, but there is also the ability to say how much skin the individual wants removed, if he consents. Does he want to keep his frenulum? As an adult, he can have greater amounts of pain management medicine, as needed. The case isn’t as convenient to their argument as proponents seem to believe.

Ms. Saperia’s conclusion calls for a recognition of community rights, within limits, to support multicultural acceptance and integration. This is lacking on medical grounds because it is objective harm for non-therapeutic reasons. It is lacking on legal grounds because analogous surgical interventions are treated unequally in law. It is lacking on moral grounds because it lacks the consent of the recipient. Every proof she attempted failed to demonstrate that non-therapeutic circumcision on non-consenting children should be permitted.

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