As if.

Posted: May 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Parenting, Science | No Comments »

Of all the mentions about actress Alicia Silverstone revealing that she and her husband, Christopher Jarecki, did not circumcise their son, I’m fascinated by this one. Anthony Weiss writes:

In her new parenting book, “The Kind Mama,” Silverstone announces that she did not circumcise her son, Bear Blu, according to the anti-circumcision website Beyond the Bris. Her decision apparently raised some family hackles.

“I was raised Jewish, so the second my parents found out that they had a male grandchild, they wanted to know when we’d be having a bris (the Jewish circumcision ceremony traditionally performed 8 days after a baby is born),” she wrote, according to Beyond the Bris. “When I said we weren’t having one, my dad got a bit worked up. But my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

Obviously I’m inclined to agree with that. I probably need to finally write my long-promised post on religion, but for now, I think her statement works consistently within the framework I and many others posit. Non-therapeutic circumcision isn’t something that parents should impose on their sons. Good for her.

That’s not really the interesting part, though.

Her stance sets her in opposition to recent scientific evidence, which indicates that neonatal male circumcision can have substantial health benefits that significantly outweigh the risks.

Her stance does not put her in opposition to scientific evidence, recent or otherwise, about the potential benefits of circumcision. Her stance puts her in agreement with the ethical principle involved. The subset of scientific evidence¹ presented by Prof. Morris’ paper does not prove anything about the application of that subset of scientific evidence to a healthy (hey, science!) child who can’t consent. I don’t have to deny the science to reject its unethical application. Science and the application of science to human beings are not the same concept.

Think of this in terms of Angelina Jolie’s voluntary double mastectomy. Because she carries the BRCA1 gene, the scientific evidence suggests she has a higher risk of developing breast cancer, significantly higher than the absolute risks of a foreskin-related malady requiring circumcision. She judged this evidence and applied it to herself. There is no ethical problem there. But should she apply that scientific evidence to the bodies of her daughters? Mr. Weiss’ approach would require us to conclude that Ms. Jolie not having her daughters’ breasts removed is in opposition to scientific evidence. That’s indefensible even if we restrict it to her daughers who carry the BRCA1 gene. There’s no reason to understand the flaw in Ms. Jolie’s case but pretend the claim is reasonable for non-therapeutic infant circumcision. Proxy consent for the application of science is not the same as consent for the application of science to one’s self.

Also, if you follow the link to Mr. Weiss’ reporting on the recent Brian Morris rehash, you won’t find a coherent argument. Instead you’ll see another example of what I criticized about the journalistic treatment of circumcision. The paper’s focus is the declining circumcision rate. The unsupported “benefits outweigh the risks” is tacked on to criticize that decline. Of course, the paper does not prove that contention about benefits and risks, as Robert Darby and Hugh Young deftly demonstrate. But Mr. Weiss floats around the narrative in a way that makes me think he didn’t read Prof. Morris’ paper.

Darby and Young’s paper also hit on the truth that the “benefits outweigh the risks” narrative persists through assigning no value to the foreskin itself, and by claiming a mathematical finding (i.e. 100 to 1) where no quantification is possible.

¹ Condoms, soap, antibiotics, and other less-invasive methods of prevention and treatment involve scientific evidence, as well. Nor should anything here be taken as an endorsement of the accuracy of anything Prof. Morris has written, anywhere, except for this:

“… Delay puts the child’s health at risk and will usually mean [circumcision] will never happen.”

That statement is true, which discredits everything else he’s ever said in favor of non-therapeutic child circumcision.

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The rest of Mr. Weiss’ article discusses Ms. Silverstone’s stances on vaccinations and diet in an attempt to make her appear wrong on circumcision. I’ll only comment that I support vaccination.



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