Flawed Circumcision Defense: Yair Rosenberg, Part 2

In response to the AAP’s pending release of its revised policy statement on non-therapeutic male child circumcision, Yair Rosenberg repeats the mistakes in his prior analysis. He perpetuates appeals to authority, omits relevant information, and ignores inconvenient facts. One might even say he’s being obscurantist.

This isn’t just an issue of religious freedom—it’s a basic question of public health. That’s because according to the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization, among others, circumcision is one of the global health community’s best HIV prevention techniques. As Eric Goosby, the U.S. AIDS coordinator, has said, “Male circumcision is a highly significant, lifetime intervention. It is the gift that keeps on giving. It makes sense to put extraordinary resources into it.” To that end, anti-AIDS organizations are partnering to circumcise 20 million African men by 2015. …

Until now, the scientific consensus surrounding circumcision has driven policy in Africa, but not the United States. Today, that changes.

Individual humans make up “public health”. What is – and is not – acceptable to do to individual bodies in the name of public health is the question of ethics that Rosenberg, Goosby, the AAP, and every other circumcision advocate ignores. This is especially true because circumcision is not the least invasive or the most effective method available for reducing HIV (or any other) risk. It’s also still not particularly useful in contexts outside of parts of Africa. As I wrote in my prior post, the risk reduction is in female-to-male HIV transmission in high-risk populations. That isn’t compelling within the scope of the AAP’s focus. Context matters. Obscurantist journalists ignore that.

The importance of this [updated policy] cannot be overstated. …

It can be. Rosenberg’s post is proof.

… The AAP is a driving force behind health policy in America, and the experts involved in its new statement are already going on record in major media outlets to advocate that circumcision be covered on public health plans like Medicaid. The statement solidifies the scientific consensus behind the advisability of infant male circumcision (noting that complications are more likely to arise when the procedure is performed later in life) and places the traditional practice squarely within the realm of sound medical science.

This is only true if ethical considerations are not a part of sound medical science. It’s fine if Rosenberg or others do not wish for ethics to be applied to their own bodies. But not everyone shares that odd, limited view. Some of us appreciate the basic concept of human rights, including those of physical integrity and self-determination, and wish they had been applied to us. It’s too late for too many males, but there is never a bad time to stop violating human rights.

Also, the question of possible benefits and their applicability to any particular individual is separate from the public policy question of paying for non-therapeutic surgical interventions on non-consenting individuals. Non-therapeutic infant circumcision is an irresponsible use of funds in pursuit of subjective goals via unethical means. There is nothing good about it, regardless of how “prestigious” an organization promoting the idea is irrationally perceived to be. An organization that advocates violating human rights deserves no prestige.

This is not just good news for the United States, where obscurantist anti-circumcision groups have sought to completely ban this medically beneficial practice rather than allow families to choose whether to perform it. …

Rosenberg’s prior essay was obscurantist propaganda. Unlike his writing, I’ve acknowledged the arguments offered in favor of circumcision. I’ve explained why they’re inferior in the debate as it pertains to individuals. Mr. Rosenberg has not done the same. Instead, he offers condescending evasions:

… It’s also a powerful rebuttal to the flawed reasoning of the German court in Cologne, which ruled that circumcision generally constitutes “bodily harm,” yet made allowances for circumcisions performed for “medical reasons.” Thanks to the AAP, we can now state that all circumcisions are medically beneficial. …

The German court in Cologne ruled that non-therapeutic circumcision on non-consenting children violates their rights to physical integrity and self-determination. There is no flaw in that expression of basic human rights. The are the same rights that form the basis for prohibitions on FGC/M.

The court’s finding that circumcision constitutes bodily harm, no quotes, is consistent with permitting circumcision for medical need. The existence of a problem necessitates considering interventions. Ethically proxy consent will choose the least invasive, most effective solution. That is rarely circumcision when there is a need. But where it is necessary, the goal is an objective net benefit, that the surgery will remedy the problem. The outcome is presumed to outweigh the harm imposed to achieve it. The key is the outcome can be measured immediately and directly. Is the malady resolved?

With non-therapeutic circumcision, there is no objective net benefit because there is no malady. There is only objective harm for subjective benefits. The subjective benefits may not be valued or desired by the individual. In that case it’s objective harm to the individual for the subjective preferences of another. That is unethical. Because surgery on children involves proxy consent, medical need is required. The court was correct and consistent. The AAP is incorrect and encouraging unethical rights violations.

So, can we really state that all circumcisions are medically beneficial? Including the ones where the boy suffers a complication? If he loses his glans, is he still benefited? What about his entire penis? What about the thankfully rare instances where the boy loses his life? At least the benefits accrued over his short lifetime? Since all of these scenarios happen, even if we ignore my focus on individuals who suffer only the expected harm, isn’t it a bit obscurantist to state that all circumcisions are medically beneficial?

… If German courts continue to prosecute Jews and Muslims for practicing circumcision, then we will know that this animus is rooted not in science or fact, but in ignorance and prejudice.

I won’t say I expected his screed to end with something other than a preemptive ad hominem attack. It’s still pathetic.

Update: Walter Russell Mead uncritically endorses Rosenberg’s flawed post and makes a request:

Hopefully anti-circumcision zealots will take a deep breath and rethink their fevered stance on the issue. Beyond the fact that their bans impinge on the rights of Jews and Muslims to practice their religion as they see fit, they ought to consider that there is legitimate science pointing to the practice being beneficial to infant male health.

The only legitimate science involving infants is on UTIs, and possibly penile cancer. The former are uncommon in intact males in the first year (1%) and almost always easily treatable. The latter is more reasonably associated with other causes, with U.S. rates similar to those in mostly intact Europe. Everything else involves adult volunteers. The possibility of health benefits, or even religious benefits, does not render non-therapeutic circumcision on a child ethical.

No court in the United States endorses a right to practice one’s religion as members “see fit”. There are limits that may be imposed based on constitutional tests. Non-therapeutic child circumcision should fail that test because it is physical harm.

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