Flawed Circumcision Defense: Wesley J. Smith (Again)

Posted: October 22nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, Science | No Comments »

I expect garbage opinions on male circumcision. Too many people don’t think about it, letting the inertia of ignorance fill in the gaps in their knowledge as parents (and humans pondering anatomy). But I don’t expect such trash from a magazine like National Review that prides itself on being smart, honest, and principled. (More on that in a moment.) Here, Wesley J. Smith shows an embarrassing lack of curiosity and imagination. (Again, since Smith has shown he doesn’t understand the subject before.)

“Intactivists”–the nutty name anti-circumcision activists have given themselves–who aim to outlaw infant circumcision, claim that the procedure has no benefits and constitutes child abuse.

Baloney. There are at least mild health benefits for men, to the point that the American College of Pediatricians recommends that the choice of whether to circumcise be left to parental discretion.

He should talk to more people against non-therapeutic male child circumcision, since he doesn’t appear to have met those like me. The procedure has potential benefits. Removing a body part inherently means something that can happen to it can no longer happen. Phimosis, for example, is no longer possible. Or name any potential benefit, real or made up. It doesn’t matter. Smith cites a new rehashing of studies by Brian Morris¹ showing potential benefits to the health of female sexual partners. Fine. I’ll concede it, even though much of the context is often dropped. Male circumcision offers that benefit, whether it does or not.

Here’s the problem: so what? That something is possible does not prove it’s acceptable to do it. Acceptance of science (with disagreement on the veracity of claims) is compatible with rejecting the application of that science to the healthy, normal body of another human being without that person’s consent. Non-therapeutic male child circumcision does not meet the ethical threshold for proxy decision-making. It can be delayed until the male can consent, given that it’s non-therapeutic. There are less invasive prevention methods and treatments available for every potential issue non-therapeutic circumcision seeks to address. The child owns his body, including his foreskin. This is the same human right everyone has over their body and genitals.

That’s all before we even get to preference. What does the individual want for his body? All tastes and preferences are unique. The individual has to live with the decision. If left intact with his choice, he has to live with it for 18 years, at which time he can change it. Or not. If circumcised, he has to live with it for the rest of his life, including the decades he’ll spend as an independent adult. He can’t reject what didn’t need to be forced. The ethical difference in those two scenarios is stark.

Notice, too, that Smith can’t even cite the right organization, calling the American Academy of Pediatrics the American College of Pediatricians. The latter exists, but is not the source² of his link. If he can’t cite them correctly, what is the likelihood he read the AAP’s technical report that fails to support their position?.

Smith concludes:

The utter obsession some have about outlawing circumcision–whether undertaken for religious or health reasons–has always puzzled me.

But now we know that other than emotion and a bizarre belief expressed by some intactivists that sex isn’t as good for the circumcised, there appears no substantial reason to oppose the practice, much less outlaw it.

If he addressed his puzzlement with research rather than cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, he might understand there’s more than BUT MUH BENEFITS. That Wesley J. Smith can’t think of a reason against non-therapeutic child circumcision is not proof there is no reason against it. The reasons are real and substantial.

For example, he would know the “belief” expressed that sex isn’t as good for circumcised men is an argument that sex isn’t the same, which is a fact, and that it likely isn’t as good, an educated guess based on data and anecdotal evidence. Removal of the foreskin means sex with a circumcised penis is sex without a foreskin. If you change form, you change function. The skin and nerves and functionality there at birth are no longer there. Again, that is a fact. Whether that’s good or not is a different matter. And again, all tastes and preferences are unique.

Anecdotal opinions are easy to find, but you have to be willing to search for and understand the implication of “…[n]ever felt I was too sensitive before circumcision but in retrospect I was.” Will every man think he was “too” sensitive? Does that suggest circumcision changes sex, at least?

Or do you need someone with a few more credentials, such as Dr. Laura Berman, who states “[r]emoving the foreskin also removes thousands of nerve openings that make sex more pleasurable.”

Or do you want a scientist and ethicist who studies circumcision, like Brian Earp, who reads studies rather than headlines to understand what research means. This includes when he read and analyzed³ a study by Jennifer Bossio, writing⁴, “you will be surprised to learn—I am quoting directly from the paper now—that ‘Tactile thresholds at the foreskin (intact men) were significantly lower (more sensitive) than all [other] genital testing sites’ including the sites in circumcised men (emphasis added).”

Or do you want another researcher who studies circumcision and sensitivity, like Dr. Kimberly Payne, who wrote in her study, “[i]t 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.”

Yet, Brian Morris used Payne’s study, which he rated as the highest quality, in another rehash he used to conclude, “the highest-quality studies suggest that medical male circumcision has no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation, or satisfaction.”

The people who seem to care the least about the details of circumcision generalize toward the view they already held going in. Morris is a propagandist, and presumably Smith relies on him because he wants to believe. He’s not unique in that approach, but it’s not something he should put on display as he did.

Which leads me back to National Review’s Credenda. Among their convictions:

A. It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. …

Non-therapeutic child genital cutting, including circumcision, violates the rights of the child, who is an individual and a citizen. Removing his foreskin deprives him of his property and liberty.

It is appropriate for the government to prohibit the non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors, as it already does for female minors. Whether or not that’s the fastest path to ending the cultural abomination is worth discussing. I think it isn’t, unfortunately. But it’s an appropriate legitimate action of government, since it would protect the rights of citizens, the substantial reason government exists. The government ignoring this diminishes freedom.

Whatever your opinion of National Review, Smith’s defense of circumcision should embarrass everyone at National Review.

¹ If you want to read the Morris study, follow the link to Smith’s post. If you want to know how to analyze one of the papers Morris cites in this new rehash, which is one of his previous rehashes of prior papers, read here and here. But notice the pattern of Morris rehashing papers over and over for the casual reader like Smith to think, “ahhh, a new study, and look at the volume of past studies showing the same thing!”. Stop being a dupe for his propaganda.

² The American College of Pediatricians has an official statement on Female Genital Mutilation. Its only reference to male circumcision is when it states:

The terminology itself has generated controversy. The World Health Organization emphasizes the fact that there are no medical benefits associated with even the least invasive procedure. Therefore, the WHO uses the term ‘mutilation’ to “establish a clear linguistic distinction from male circumcision, and emphasize(s) the gravity and harm of the act. Use of the word ‘mutilation’ reinforces the fact that the practice is a violation of girls’ and women’s rights, and thereby helps to promote national and international advocacy for its abandonment.“ (source)…

That linguistic distinction is propaganda, in the definitional, non-pejorative context, which the end of the quote acknowledges. There is harm in genital cutting, regardless of the victim. The practice is a violation of the victim’s rights, regardless of the specific genitals of the victim.

Yes, FGM is usually worse than male circumcision. Not always, and the law against FGM in the United States do not permit those harms equal to or less harmful than male circumcision. We treat the issue differently depending on who the victim is, which is logically and ethically flawed. The presence or absence of potential benefits is irrelevant to both. The absence of both need and consent is all that’s relevant.

³ Predictably, Brian Morris mischaracterized this finding in another of his rants.

Earp also clarifies with an analogy:

“Saying that removing the foreskin ‘doesn’t reduce penis sensitivity’ is a bit like saying that removing the pinky finger doesn’t reduce hand sensitivity. What you really mean is that removing the pinky finger (which is part of the hand) doesn’t reduce sensitivity in the remaining fingers — although, as we’ll see, it’s not even clear that this part of the analogy holds up in the actual study.”

Lazy thinking seems to be a prerequisite for those who advocate non-therapeutic male child circumcision.



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