Flawed Circumcision Defense: Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen has an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times about circumcision and intactivists. She doesn’t understand either. She begins:

The “intactivists” — anti-circumcision people who are trying to get the practice outlawed in the U.S. and elsewhere — …

This is off to a terrible start. The effort is to prohibit non-therapeutic circumcision on non-consenting individuals. That’s an ethically significant difference. While I suspect she thinks that her words mean what I just wrote, they don’t. Her claim is what’s being repeated, as if this effort is the same as seeking a complete prohibition on religious circumcision for everyone of any age. When arguing against something, the first requirement is to fairly and accurately state the opponent’s position. She fails at that in the first half-sentence.

Intactivism, a movement of the last 20 years or so, got a boost recently when a German judge ruled that non-therapeutic circumcision of children amounted to “bodily harm” and must henceforth be outlawed. …

First: intactivism in its current form has been going on for at least twice as long as she claims. (e.g. Van Lewis)

Re: the court’s ruling. The issue of bodily harm, which is objective, appears only here. She will not directly address this again. She mentions sensitivity, as though that’s the extent of possible harm, and draws an incorrect conclusion by selectively quoting a press release. (More on that in a moment.)

The tagline attached to Ms. Allen’s essay is this:

‘Intactivists’ are trying to get the practice outlawed in the U.S. and elsewhere. But how bad can it be?

There is bodily harm in every circumcision. But to the question, it can be very bad. This bad. Or this bad. Or the worst case scenario. Those are thankfully rare, but they occur. Those males are (or were) individuals with human rights. They are not merely statistics to ignore.

The intactivists like to paint circumcision in lurid colors. The phrase they use to describe it — “male genital mutilation” — evokes the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. But the two have almost nothing in common. …

Mutilation is an accurate description for non-therapeutic male circumcision without the child’s consent. And it has considerably more in common with female genital mutilation than Allen understands.

She continues:

… Female genital mutilation is invasive and ghastly, and results in long-term health risks for women subjected to it, not to mention the diminution or elimination of the ability to feel sexual pleasure. …

Usually, yes, but that doesn’t justify male circumcision. As I’ve said elsewhere, a punch to the face is not acceptable because a knife to the gut is worse. The difference should be in punishment, not prohibition.

Apart from the valid aspects of the comparison of non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual, male or female, male circumcision is unethical on its own.

Male circumcision involves snipping off about three-eighths of an inch of skin. It hurts, briefly, but so do the shots that babies routinely receive. And according to the World Health Organization, it “reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”

That three-eighths of an inch of skin will grow into a larger structure if left in place. It also removes the nerve endings within that three-eighths of an inch, and leaves a scar. But with that argument, the clitoral hood, or even the clitoris, is a tiny structure in infants. Does that render it ethical to remove either of these from a healthy infant? She’s offering a ridiculous defense of non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual.

For the HIV statistic, she cites this page. She failed to quote pertinent information beyond the first sentence. She should’ve included the part that says “male circumcision should be considered an efficacious intervention for HIV prevention in countries and regions with heterosexual epidemics, high HIV and low male circumcision prevalence.” Not one of those three criteria matches a Western nation. It isn’t compelling. Citing it as a justification for infant circumcision is an empty defense, which is worsened by additional arguments against this reason for circumcising infants. (Anything other than circumcision with the voluntary consent of the individual where those scenarios apply is still unethical.)

The notion that circumcision reduces a man’s sexual sensitivity has little basis in fact. Two medical studies, in 2003 and 2007 — one presented to the American Urological Society and the other published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine — found that circumcised and uncircumcised men experienced the same levels of response to touch and pain during sexual arousal. A press release issued by the 2007 study’s chief researcher, at McGill University in Montreal, stated: “This study suggests that preconceptions of penile sensory differences between circumcised and uncircumcised men may be unfounded.”

Suggests is not a synonym for proves. Allen seems to possess a tendency to consider only what is convenient rather than presenting all facts. This press release from McGill University about that study includes the following caveat:

Payne cautioned that though the study’s results are very promising, they are still preliminary and do not necessarily resolve many of the longstanding controversies surrounding circumcision. “This study only measures one sensation, so it questions the held notions, but it does not refute the idea that there may be some differences at some level. No one can deny the anatomical differences between a circumcised and uncircumcised penis.”

To be fair, it’s possible that the version she read didn’t include that caveat. I’m not sure why a press release from these scientists wouldn’t include such a caveat, but I don’t know what her source is. However, a simple bit of thinking reveals the inherent flaw in drawing such a broad conclusion from research like this. This basic fact can be confirmed by reading the study itself:

… It is possible that the uncircumcised penis is more sensitive due to the presence of additional sensory receptors on the prepuce and frenulum, but this cannot be compared with the absence of such structures in the circumcised penis. …

To state the obvious: the foreskin is removed during circumcision. Comparing that in circumcised men is impossible. The study does not demonstrate what Allen claims it demonstrates.

It’s obvious that Allen has not considered anything beyond her limited understanding of circumcision. At best, she presents lazy thinking with minimal research. Or worse, she started with her conclusion and created a fortress around her mind to protect myths and block facts. Whatever the reason, she is wrong. Her defense of non-therapeutic circumcision on children is pathetic.


Post Script: Unsurprisingly, more errors exist in Allen’s analysis. I included them in the original version of this post. I deleted them because they weren’t egregious in the way the above excerpts are. I’ll include one bit in the comments. The above is what I think should be the critical argument against her propaganda.

2 thoughts on “Flawed Circumcision Defense: Charlotte Allen”

  1. Allen engages in ad hominem against males who are upset about being circumcised as children. She refers to the MGM Bill website and anecdotal experiences she found there to allegedly prove her belief intactivists are “silly”. She summarizes this section with “C’mon, guys, man up!”. That’s not convincing.

    Then she engages in ad hominem against parents who don’t circumcise.

    “Silly as they seem, the intactivists appear to be having some success. Circumcision is now on the wane, thanks in part to immigration by Latinos and others whose cultures don’t include circumcision, and thanks in part to “crunchy” parenting. If you believe inbreast-feedingyour [sic] child until he or she starts kindergarten, and forgoing diapers in favor of intuiting when your baby is about to have an accident, you probably won’t be circumcising your sons.”

    Allen – and at least one editor at the Los Angeles Times – should be embarrassed.

  2. Great response.

    I found her interpretation that “[the studies] found that circumcised and uncircumcised men experienced the same levels of response to touch and pain during sexual arousal” appalling. The studies obviously cannot compare sensitivity in the foreskin, as one group does not have it. As a restoring man, I’ve found that there is interaction between the new skin and the glans, which a circumcised man has no way of knowing about, and which an intact man might just take for granted.

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