Flawed Circumcision Defense: Wesley J. Smith

The Norwegian ombudsman for children’s rights recently stated about ritual circumcision:

[Pediatrician] Dr. Anne Lindboe told the newspaper Vart Land last month that circumcision in boys was a violation of a person’s right to decide over his own body. “Muslim and Jewish children are entitled to the same protection as all other children,“ she said. She added that the practice caused unnecessary pain and was medically unbeneficial.

The children’s ombudsman is an independent governmental institution entrusted with safeguarding the rights of minors.

Yes. Her statement is similar to the ruling from Cologne that non-therapeutic child circumcision violates the child’s rights to bodily integrity and self-determination.

That logical statement is meeting resistance. Over at Secondhand Smoke, which claims to be a “24/7 Seminar on Bioethics and the Importance of Being Human”, Wesley Smith revealed that he doesn’t much understand how non-therapeutic circumcision involves bioethics¹ or that having a normal anatomical body part is part of being human. In response to Dr. Lindboe, he wrote:

First, circumcision after the start of puberty is far more risky and complicated than infant circumcision. …

Perhaps. It’s also unlikely to be necessary later. The real consideration is between guaranteed pain and harm from the unnecessary surgery on an infant and it being riskier and more complicated as an adult in the unlikely event it’s needed. If a male chooses non-therapeutic circumcision, ritual or not, as an adult, he is expressing that he values the possible benefits more than the risks. Consent is the issue. (There are also advantages to waiting, such as not needing to forcibly separate the foreskin from the glans and having a larger penis to better measure how much skin to remove.)

He continues:

… But more fundamentally, religious liberty is one of the world’s most important freedoms. …

Yes, but there are other freedoms, such as the rights to bodily integrity and self-determination. They’re also important. And children possess their own individual right to religious freedom.

… For you secularists who don’t care, it seems to me that means that you only care about liberties you want for yourselves–which isn’t freedom at all.

First, that’s ad hominem. Second, he’s wrong. It’s possible to care about many freedoms at the same time, and for all people equally, including children. It’s possible for secularists to care about religious liberty possessed by parents while recognizing the ethical flaws inherent in non-therapeutic child circumcision that place the surgery outside the scope of individual religious liberty for parents.

The attack he perceives is misunderstood. (See also.) An attack on religious freedom would require an effort to prohibit religious circumcision, full stop. The current facts have been presented that way, which is incorrect (for whatever reason that misrepresentation occurs). The effort here is to prohibit non-therapeutic circumcision on a child who can’t consent. It aims to leave each child with his choice. He retains his right to have himself circumcised for religious (and/or non-religious) reasons. He may exercise his freedom of religion rather than having it exercised for him by his parents.

This necessary change will require religion to accommodate a different understanding of religion’s interaction with individual civil rights. That can and should be debated. As evidenced by Mr. Smith’s words, he hasn’t engaged that debate yet.

But if we believe that religious liberty is fundamental–it is, after all, a core part of the Universal Declaration on Human rights–then Jews and Muslims have a right to circumcise their children. [ed. note: males only?] Indeed, it is a religious imperative. …

It’s consistent to believe that religious liberty is fundamental and that no one has a right to circumcise their healthy children. It may be an imperative, but that alone grants no right.

Here is another core part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (emphasis added):

Article 1.

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Mr. Smith writes as if other rights aren’t implicated by the exercise of religious freedom. The rights expressed earlier, and clearly, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are strikingly similar to those expressed by the District Court of Cologne and Dr. Anne Lindboe. It is clear that he is wrong rather than those with whom he disagrees.

To close he cites this essay by David P. Goldman, which deserves a post of its own rather than an analysis here. After the excerpt, Smith writes:

It doesn’t matter whether the Norway ombudsman or any of us agree. Circumcision is a sacred duty for Jews, a rite that brings the infant into the community. I assume the same is true for Muslims. In the name of freedom, government must leave it alone.

In the name of freedom, a legitimate government must protect the rights of all citizens equally. Because non-therapeutic child circumcision violates various rights of the child and inflicts permanent physical harm in every instance, prohibition is the only means to promote individual freedom. That is the proper role of government.

¹ The issue is more complicated than parental intent or imperative because there are competing rights. It’s further complicated because very few advocates of circumcision acknowledge what the surgery does to the (healthy) child.

2 thoughts on “Flawed Circumcision Defense: Wesley J. Smith”

  1. One of the statements I see thrown around a lot is this, “First, circumcision after the start of puberty is far more risky and complicated than infant circumcision. “. To that I might challenge someone to present an example where an adult died as a result of circumcision. Do you think one could be dug up?

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