I agree with the gist of Neil Lyndon’s call yesterday for a proper debate on circumcision. I’d express it differently than he did, without the needless attacks, but here he’s right:
Another part of the reason it doesn’t register on anybody’s list of outrages and abuses is that ritual male genital mutilation is inflicted, sanctioned, tolerated and even encouraged not just by people who might be like us – but by our very selves. It’s not some remote, alien barbarism: it’s intrinsic to our own domestic lives.
The argument is “We don’t practice female genital cutting because it’s bad. Circumcision can’t be bad because we practice it. And it isn’t male genital cutting. It’s circumcision.” Cognitive dissonance is powerful.
Such common and unquestioned practice leads people to bluster about circumcision in the same callous tones that old blunderbusses used to talk about the caning of boys at school before it was outlawed: “Never did me any harm. Can’t see what all the fuss is about. What a sensitive plant you must be if you care about such a trivial matter.”
Anyone who has argued against non-therapeutic child circumcision has heard that bluster almost word-for-word.
Today, Simon Hochhauser, Co-Chairman of Milah UK, responds with “Don’t compare male circumcision with FGM“. He is wrong.
FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of the genitalia, is a crime because it is abhorrent by any measure. It subjugates women, makes intercourse extremely difficult and painful, and can be the cause of a number of serious medical complications, including not only haemorrhage but also urinary retention, urinary infection, wound infection, and septicaemia. Sadly, in the countries where it is most widely performed, hygiene is poor, and thus both hepatitis and tetanus have also resulted.
That’s generally the case, but it isn’t the only case. The relevant comparison isn’t to start (and end) with differences in practice, but to look at similarities in practice and principle. At its most concise, they’re both non-therapeutic genital cutting on an individual who does not consent. The applicable law in the UK (and 18 U.S. Code § 116 in the United States) prohibits cutting any part of the healthy genitalia of a female minor, just as the WHO defines FGM. It isn’t just genital cutting more extreme than male circumcision. The focus is on the rights and how imposing non-therapeutic surgery on a child violates her rights. The same principles apply to male minors.
Consider this quote from the Girl Summit conference in London Mr. Hochhauser cites:
“A girl is a human being and she should be respected,” [Malala Yousafazi] tells the crowd. “A boy has the right to live his life the way he wants and a girl should too. The best solution is educate the girls. Let’s educate her and make her independent. When a girl gets independent she realises she’s a person. She’s a human being, she has equal rights like men have. She’s not only a wife and daughter – she’s a woman too.”
She’s right because the principle is human rights, not girl rights or boy rights. We have equal rights. Girls have the right to not have their genitals cut without need or their consent. Boys have the same right not to have their genitals cut without need or their consent. It’s preposterous to think of the right involved as the right to be free from female genital cutting.
Contrary to what Neil Lyndon wrote yesterday in Telegraph Men, none of this is comparable to the practice of male religious circumcision. Mr Lyndon would have us believe that the practice – known as ‘Brit Milah’ in the Jewish community – should be considered in the same light as FGM. It’s a bizarre argument to make, rather like comparing ear piercing with sawing off a person’s entire ear with a rusty hacksaw.
Comparing genital cutting to genital cutting isn’t a bizarre argument. The introductory list of questions Mr. Lyndon asked contains some of the same problems in the rest of his piece. However, it’s clear he was getting at the principle shared between the two acts of genital cutting. It’s like comparing genital cutting with harm to genital cutting with generally more severe harm.
Brit Milah is a minor procedure. When carried out by a trained practitioner in a clean environment it has no recognised negative impact on the child or on the rest of his life. Of course there are risks associated with any such procedure. …
It’s important to consider the environment where the procedure takes place, which isn’t regulated in the United States, at least. But that doesn’t resolve the human rights issue. There are recognized harms (i.e. negative impact). Circumcision is surgery, which always constitutes harm. The question of net harm is separate, and subjective to the individual circumcised. But there are always costs, including loss of the foreskin, damage to the nerve endings, scarring, and various risks of further harms. We recognize in law and principle that any non-therapeutic injury to the genitals of a female minor constitutes a negative impact. The same is true of genital cutting on males.
The facts speak for themselves. According to the World Health Organisation, circumcision of male babies results in “a very low rate of adverse events, which are usually minor (0.2-0.4%)”. These figures would no doubt be much lower still if they referred only to properly regulated and responsibly carried out circumcisions.
If we grant this as an accurate reflection of the risk of adverse events, and we ignore that every circumcision involves direct harm, that 0.2-0.4% involves humans with rights. The adverse events don’t have to be death to demonstrate that circumcision inflicts harm.
Mr Lyndon’s suggestion is that, while a third of the male population of the planet is circumcised, the practice is not challenged in the same way as FGM has been because culturally we are not ‘comfortable’ taking issue with it. I would like to offer a slightly different explanation: we’re very happy! There are no international movements calling for an end to circumcision because the billions of men around the planet who have been circumcised have not experienced any negative effects. In fact, the religious and cultural significance of the practice means that, to them, it is an overwhelmingly positive event. Put simply, circumcision has not had an adverse impact on their lives.
Maybe there are some people who do consider it to have been a negative experience and who feel that they would have liked to have had the choice. But I would contend that there would be many, many more people who would feel much more aggrieved if they had been prevented from undergoing the procedure as an infant, as mandated by their faith.
To summarize again, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
I consider it a negative experience and want my choice. Many men throughout the world, including Jewish and Muslim males, oppose circumcision and wish they hadn’t been circumcised. Human rights aren’t based on what the majority values. And I’m guessing Angelo Ofori-Mintah and Goodluck Caubergs would like their choices back. (Those two were performed badly, but the question begins with whose choice it is, not how it’s done.)
Nevertheless, both groups of people have rights which must be respected, so how should we reconcile them?
Normal practice, where there is a question about the religious and/or physical well-being of an infant, is to defer to their parents, who we tend to assume have the best interests of their child at heart. Parents don’t always get it right – hence the campaigns against FGM – but any equivalent campaign against male circumcision would have to be accompanied by an overwhelming body of objective scientific evidence that demonstrated significant harm to the child. As far as circumcision goes, there is no such evidence. Some scientists even claim that it is medically beneficial.
Mr. Hochhauser keeps stacking the deck in his favor. This time it’s “an overwhelming body of objective scientific evidence that demonstrated significant harm to the child.” We already have overwhelming objective scientific evidence. Circumcising a child removes his foreskin, a normal body part. That is harm. The alleged challenge is in demonstrating that this removal amounts to “significant” harm. But that criterion is subjective and meaningless. That correctly isn’t the standard applied to female genital cutting. The focus is rights. The burden of proof rests on the imposition of genital cutting, not the withholding of genital cutting. The child’s body belongs to herself. The child’s body belongs to himself.
Mr Lyndon dismissively characterises the view that male religious circumcision isn’t comparable to FGM as “nitwit feminism in which males are of no consequence at all”. I disagree entirely. … it is deeply irresponsible to attribute the different treatment of these topics as some sort of underhanded feminist conspiracy. To do so threatens simultaneously to generate unwarranted attacks on religious practice, and undermine the important campaign against FGM.
I agree with everything I didn’t remove in that paragraph. But the comparison is not false because the messenger botched the delivery.