8/12/14 Edit: I’ve edited the links in this post because the html was broken. All content remains unchanged.
Disclaimer: Based on what I documented in my last post, I’m unconvinced this disclaimer will be noted or accurately represented by paper0airplane, but I write it with the common usage of the words: The behavior in the linked screenshots is deplorable. It isn’t something I support.
I asked for evidence to support paper0airplane’s accusation that a “prominent intactivist … has decided to set up a database of circumcised boys.” I said it was deplorable and that “[m]y guess is that it’s true,” while asking for a source. That was a simple demand that brought a ridiculous response (that didn’t source direct criticism with a link to my post). That response, addressed here, included this in a comment:
… It’s not a problem to provide their sources. However, I am pretty sure that even if I were to, that fact wouldn’t make it into the blog post.
In what I presume is a passive-aggressive challenge, paper0airplane posted two screenshots to support part of the original claim. I encourage you to review them. They’re repugnant and deplorable. Learn from them what the behavior of an ass can include.
I, of course, expect it to be completely obvious that my original point stands. It is not appropriate to assign the bad behavior of a person to every person who shares a nominal goal. I expect paper0airplane’s behavior in this series of posts to reflect only on paper0airplane, and not well. But anyone else who also incorrectly believes parental choice is legitimate for non-therapeutic child circumcision is not responsible for paper0airplane. I expect the same basic courtesy, which reflects my belief that people are individuals first.
For the record, I do not know the person mentioned in the screenshots, as I wrote twice, nor am I aware of any alias Facebook accounts she might use. I do not use Facebook for my activism.
As for the database mentioned in the screenshots, I have questions.
I’m with paper0airplane’s point from the original post. Why? This database doesn’t achieve anything toward ending the practice of non-therapeutic child circumcision.
Where is she getting her data? Medical records are private. HIPAA is supposed to protect this data. Is it collected from what people post publicly on Facebook?
Is there evidence that this website exists or is under construction? Is there a URL? Is it “merely” pointless, damaging trolling?
The comments in the screenshots aren’t dated, so I don’t know when they occurred. Also, this doesn’t provide evidence that the person was arrested for harassment.
Dr. Lindsey Doe, a clinical sexologist, hosts sexplanations on YouTube. It’s an excellent show that educates viewers on human sexuality. In the latest episode, “How to Deal with Sexual Injustices”, she talks about injustice with a focus on male circumcision. She is spot-on in her analysis and how to approach this injustice on a personal level. Please watch. (It’s obviously NSFW based on strong language and topics.)
The circle she created about circumcision is an excellent starting point. (Here’s a screencap of that circle.)
The premise that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not “female circumcision” is correct. Language matters. In basic semantics, calling FGM “circumcision” is inaccurate. The etymology of the word circumcision means “to cut around”. That can be done to the female prepuce, in a sense, but that’s not how we understand it. I’m willing to grant this, and the result that the term circumcision doesn’t apply to females.
The gist of the AHA Foundation’s post is about the ethical implications from terminology:
A number of organizations and advocacy groups refer to the procedure as “female genital cutting”, or “FGM/C” to encompass both terms. The argument for “cutting” instead of “mutilation” primarily hinges on the belief that mutilation implies malicious intent on the part of parents or the community, or is otherwise demeaning or insensitive to the cultural particularities of any group that performs FGM. Some argue that referring to it as cutting is a less provocative and more balanced term. Particularly when speaking with those who have undergone the procedure themselves or in reaching out to affected communities, we do see the value in using the more neutral terminology of “cutting” rather than “mutilation”, but otherwise believe it important to state clearly that the procedure is a form of abuse.
I agree with that. What is done to the healthy genitals of females without their consent in any form of FGM/C is morally and ethically wrong. It is indefensible. We must be clear that this violence is abuse. It should never be tolerated.
The AHA Foundation’s post fails because of its next-to-last paragraph.
The argument for referring to FGM as “female circumcision” is blatantly off-base. Female circumcision was the popular term until approximately the 1980s, when FGM and FGC came into usage. As mentioned above, to perform a procedure that parallels male circumcision, one would only remove the prepuce of the clitoris, something that is hardly ever done. (The prepuce is the “hood” or fold of skin that surrounds the clitoris and has no impact on sexual arousal or pleasure.) In nearly all cases, at minimum, either part or all of the clitoris, labia minora, labia majora is removed. To use the term “circumcision” to refer to what is happening to these girls minimizes the brutality of the procedure and ignores the fact that is an act of violence.
First, the paragraph is likely factually wrong when stating the clitoral hood has no impact on sexual arousal or pleasure. It’s bizarre that this made it into the post. I suspect the connection is an implication that the male prepuce also has no impact on sexual arousal or pleasure. Whether the clitoral hood affects arousal or pleasure, its removal would alter the woman’s sexual experience. That is a reason removing it without the individual’s consent is unethical. The parenthetical makes no sense.
To my point, since the post brought it up, what parallels male circumcision is not the only consideration. There are recognized forms of FGM/C less harmful than male circumcision. Much, if not all, of Type IV is comparable to or less harmful than a typical male circumcision. The stated, correct argument against FGM/C in the post (and elsewhere) is that any genital cutting on a female without need or her consent is wrong. (Including removal of the prepuce.) Any lesser conclusion or implication for male circumcision is moral relativism.
The paragraph’s flaw is its implication that FGM/C should not be called circumcision because circumcision is not a brutal act of violence. I doubt this is what the author means. I trust that the AHA Foundation recognizes that males possess the same “basic rights and freedoms” listed on its About page, including “security and control of their own bodies”. But the argument in that paragraph is predicated on minimizing a form of genital cutting, and based solely on gender. The general thrust of the debate is that FGM/C is often done with crude instruments in unsanitary conditions. It is. However, no one suggests that FGM/C performed in a hospital setting with clean instruments is somehow acceptable. At its core, cutting healthy genitals without the person’s consent is the issue.
The accurate approach would’ve been to leave out male circumcision and focus the paragraph accordingly. It would not be difficult. For example: “The term circumcision minimizes the brutality of genital cutting without need or the individual’s consent and ignores the fact that it is an act of violence.”
I do not believe those focused on ending FGM/C are required to actively advocate against male circumcision genital cutting. I expect them not to state or imply that male genital cutting without need or consent is acceptable. I expect them not to do this, from an exchange that started with the bottom tweet¹:
We’re not advocating for anyone to be cut, only trying to point out the severity and harm done with #FGM.
I recognize that, as I indicated. But the response to Mr. Cummins was incorrect. There is no excuse for saying something false. (Or following up in agreement to his ad hominem.)
An organization that carelessly ignores the broader foundational principle to its work deserves no credibility. Every point that rejects FGM/C in the post applies to male genital cutting. In the points where the severity between the two is almost always different, and radically so, that is a critical distinction I’ve highlighted before. But something that should inform punishment rather than legality should not be used so recklessly. FGM/C isn’t made less terrible just because generally less-severe male genital cutting violates the same principle. Yes, those against forced male genital cutting need to be responsible when interjecting into a discussion on FGM/C, including by doing so less often. The same need for responsibility holds true for those who advocate against FGM/C.
¹ Contrary to Mr. Cummins’ rant, the argument is that non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong. There is almost always a difference in the degree of harm imposed from male and female genital cutting. It is often significant. But as the information in the AHA Foundation’s post also demonstrates, there is no difference in kind.
There’s a scene early in the film version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that illuminates an important lesson within the journey to full protection and respect for the genital integrity rights of all people. (Warning: Minor movie spoiler ahead.) Early on, Henry Sturges trains Lincoln to hunt vampires. It begins with chopping a tree down. Sturges asks why Lincoln wants to hunt vampires. “So, tell me, Mr. Lincoln, what do you hate?”. Lincoln answers and begins to chop at the tree. Sturges continues talking with every chop, forcing Lincoln to refine his answer. “Tell me what you hate.” “Inadequate.” “Pathetic.” When Lincoln finds his motivation, Sturges explains: “Power, Lincoln, real power, comes not from hate, but from truth.”
This resonates with me. I hate being circumcised. I hate it so much that I avoid writing or saying “my circumcision”. It is not something I want to possess or own. I express my hatred through semantic choices. But that can’t be the driving motivation for me.
Likewise, I hate that my parents thought this was their choice, or that I’d be thankful for it. I hate the doctor who circumcised me, although I have no idea who he or she is. I will never understand why someone thought it was acceptable to mutilate me. My only comfort there is that, being almost forty years on, that person is probably retired and unlikely to circumcise anyone else. To be fair, I’d like to express myself directly to that person, like this, but there’s little reason for me to focus on that now. It can’t drive me forward. It also can’t help me convince others to respect their son’s body and choice.
I want to focus on truth. I don’t even hate circumcision, considered independent of scenario. I don’t understand why someone would want it, but context matters. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. That much I know. I don’t need to assume anything. I can assign good intentions to anyone considering circumcision for their son (or anyone who has already circumcised). That doesn’t mean I concede it could be (or was) a valid choice, or that the decision is defensible based on the ignorance that supports its continuation. The moment I learned of circumcision, I knew it was wrong and why. I don’t think it’s too much to expect others to reach this obvious conclusion. But I want to convince people who, for whatever reason, haven’t reached it yet. To do that, I need truth, not hate.
Yesterday I saw a tweet that said “The most disgusting thing ever is a female doctor who enjoys her own intact prepuce, but happily cuts a baby boys off”. I can’t think of a scenario in which this sentiment – and stated in this manner – eases the path to full genital integrity rights protection. Even ignoring the hyperbole and misogyny, this focuses on something hated rather than truth. It’s a good way to convince a doctor who fits that description that she may ignore the person saying it, that she doesn’t need to reconsider her decision to participate in circumcising healthy children. It’s a good way to convince parents that our activism is based in emotion rather than truth and facts. They can think the only science involved is that which shows some potential benefit somewhere down the line for some tiny minority of males, except they can also ignore absolute risk and assume circumcising their son saves him from some inevitable harm. It might feel good to say, but do we want to feel superior or do we want to protect children?
Instead, we should show that our position is based in a broader, stronger grasp of science. Healthy children do not need surgery. There are more effective, less (or non-) invasive ways to achieve the same protection. The risks of a normal foreskin are similar to any risk inherent in simply being alive, whether male or female. A normal foreskin, whether male or female, has functions. Truth is on our side. It’s more powerful than hate.
You’re having a baby. It’s a joyous event. You’re excited and unsure if you’re up to the task. There will be a lot of on-the-job learning, as well as mistakes that will be more amusing with the passing of time. You’re not supposed to have all the answers, and with experience, it will be clear you can’t plot them all in advance. The discovery is part of the process that makes parenting so exciting and strange and human.
Strangely, we assume parents should make a choice on circumcision if their baby is a boy. Our culture declares that the decision is for the boy’s parents. I’m asking you to make a choice against circumcision because it’s not a choice parents should make for their healthy son(s). Rightly considered, the choice belongs to the individual, not his parents. He should retain his choice absent some medical need for which circumcision – the most radical intervention – is the only available solution.
There are numerous reasons to reject circumcision for your healthy newborn son. The easiest summary comes from a basic principle and an economics concept. First, the principle: non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. The problem is not that circumcision is bad, per se. Healthy men who choose to have themselves circumcised are correct for their bodies. Men circumcised as infants who are happy (or indifferent) about being circumcised are also correct for their bodies. But when circumcision is performed on a male without immediate medical need or his consent, there is no guarantee he will be happy with his parents making his choice. That’s the economic concept. All tastes and preferences are subjective and unique to the individual. The boy may like being circumcised, but he may not. It’s impossible to know which a son will prefer.
As the decision is commonly framed in America, circumcision is a referendum on the father’s penis and should be performed on his son if dad is circumcised so that their genitals match. The assumption is that, if it’s good enough for dad, it’s good enough for his sons. However, we know more now than we did when dad was born. We know that circumcision, being surgery, inflicts some guaranteed amount of harm by removing the foreskin and possibly the frenulum, as well as leaving a scar. There is also the possibility of complications inherent in every circumcision. Adhesions, skin bridges, bleeding, infection, greater-than-expected damage to the penis, and worse are all possibilities. Aesthetic symmetry between father and son is insufficient to justify surgery on a child. Rejecting circumcision for a son is sensible, not a referendum on the quality or functionality of his father’s penis.
When those inherent risks are considered, they’re often discussed as a minor trade-off for the potential benefits. The problem is that infant circumcision is almost always non-therapeutic. There is no malady to be resolved, no objective trade-off to be made. Every benefit supposedly in favor of circumcision involves something that might happen or might be desired by the individual. It’s an aggressive intervention on a healthy child whose foreskin will likely remain healthy throughout his life.
Every potential benefit from circumcision can be achieved through less invasive methods that prevent or treat the uncommon ailments cited. Many of these methods, such as condoms, are still required after circumcision. In the unlikely situation where the child eventually requires intervention, a doctor up-to-date on treating an intact penis will still likely be able to resolve a foreskin problem without circumcision. Should circumcision be necessary, he will experience some pain. Leaving him intact does not guarantee that he will eventually experience this pain. Circumcising him when he’s healthy guarantees he will experience pain. The choice is imposing pain that he will feel or exposing him to risk that he might experience pain later. The latter involves pain that he’d likely be able to ameliorate with pain management that an infant can’t have. Even if we assume there is no pain during the procedure, there will be pain during the healing process. Add to that the presence of urine and feces in repeated contact with a healing wound, and the choice to wait until it might be necessary becomes clearer.
For the claimed medical benefits, I accept all of them as possible, even where, for example, I believe there may be flaws in the methodology of the relevant studies. The analysis still leads to the same conclusion if all benefits are assumed to be possible. The details of each matter against circumcision and reveal their flaws. When considered in context, the proposed benefits are weak compared to the availability of prevention methods and treatments both more effective and less invasive than prophylactic circumcision. As Dr. Morten Frisch et al state (pdf), the “cardinal medical question should not be whether circumcision can prevent disease, but how disease can best be prevented.”
To illustrate the weakness of the proposed benefits, consider two commonly cited potential benefits: UTIs and HIV. The benefit for UTIs is a risk reduction from 1 percent of boys in the first year of life to between .1 and .3 percent of boys in the first year of life. Even for the intact boys, this risk is already significantly less than it is for girls. Most UTIs are easily treated without surgery. The same treatments that work for girls also work for boys.
The Canadian Pediatric Society states that, within every 1,000 circumcised boys, two will be admitted to the hospital for a UTI before their first birthday. Within every 1,000 boys left with their foreskins, seven will be admitted to the hospital for a UTI before their first birthday. Factor in the circumcised boys who will need some further treatment for complications, and the risks become clear. Circumcision can cause more problems than it seeks to prevent. As the CPS states, of the 1,000 boys who keep their foreskins, only ten of them “will have a circumcision later in life for medical reasons”. Prophylactic circumcision to avoid a one percent risk of needing that circumcision later is odd.
For the reduced risk of HIV, there are several significant problems related to non-therapeutic child circumcision. This potential benefit has only been found for female-to-male transmission in high-risk populations, and the studies only looked at voluntary, adult circumcision. None of those three aspects describes the situation in the United States or other first world nations. Our sexually transmitted HIV epidemic is male-to-male, and circumcision has not been shown to have any benefit there. Further, the relative risk reduction from circumcision for female-to-male transmission in the U.S. is an estimated 15.7%, far less than the often-cited 60% relevant to Africa. The absolute lifetime risk of HIV infection is already low in the United States. The lifetime absolute risk reduction is small. This summarized table provides the details. And what will science know about preventing or curing HIV by the time a child born today is sexually active?
As stated before, condoms are still necessary after circumcision. Circumcision doesn’t change the male’s required sexual behavior. Parents retain their responsibility to teach him the importance of safe sex practices (and proper hygiene techniques). Nor is there proof that infant circumcision has the same benefits found for voluntary, adult circumcision. Apart from research on UTIs, the potential benefits have been found only in studies using adult volunteers. Despite both being “male circumcision”, the two are not quite the same surgery. The significant difference in consent is most critical, but the foreskin hasn’t separated at birth and must be forced free from the rest of the penis to circumcise an infant. This introduces additional physical trauma and risks for an infant.
The proposed cultural benefits suffer under examination, as well. He has his normal genitals? Women won’t date him, or his peers will make fun of him, the thinking goes. We forget to consider whether he’d prefer his foreskin more than a partner who requires him to be circumcised or if he’ll even encounter a partner who prefers circumcision¹. Parents can build enough self-worth into their children to withstand teasing. That’s essential because children will always find something about their peers to tease. If it’s not his foreskin, it’ll be his height or hair color or clothing or whatever else is easy. Anyway, the locker room fear is rooted in the experiences of prior generations when communal showering was common in schools. It’s best examined in the present rather than holding to a scenario that no longer exists, especially as fewer parents circumcise their sons. Half or more of his peers will be intact. If he is “different”, he’ll be different like many of his peers. As children grow, parents realize their goal is not to teach their child to conform, but rather to help him become an independent person whose differences make him who he is. Making a major, irreversible decision for him before parent and child have grown to that point in their relationship may become something the parent or the child regrets.
The premise of this approach is “I don’t know”. None of us knows. We don’t know what we’ll want in the future. We don’t know what science will discover that makes circumcision even more unnecessary to achieve the possible benefits. We don’t know who we’ll be or who we’ll meet. Not circumcising sons in the absence of medical need prioritizes optimism over unfounded fear. It’s about keeping their choices open until they can express their personal preference about what they want and what will make them happy. It’s a realization that “what if” can be about a good future rather than succumbing to a fear of unlikely dangers.
Your son will be born with a foreskin. His prepuce is normal. It will belong to him, just like every other normal part of his body. It has functions. You want what is best for your children. Your son can always have his foreskin removed later, either for need or choice. He can’t put it back if he wants it after circumcision. Choosing to leave your son intact is the better choice.
¹ Many non-Americans are flabbergasted when they learn that circumcision has been so prevalent in the U.S. Their primary experience is with men who still have their foreskins. Given the declining rate of circumcision, the future American partners of a child born today will likely mirror that acceptance.
It fails from the start. The right first question is “Is there a medical problem with the foreskin?”, or something similar. That will get the circumcision decision process started.
“Do you have a penis?” is never a relevant question. It’s a sexist approach that fails to promote the critical, universal genital integrity rights involved. Fathers and mothers are equally capable of offering good and bad arguments on non-therapeutic child circumcision. We must address individuals, not generalizations. The latter leaves us making ineffective arguments to proponents who might be willing to change their mind to protect their son(s).
To put it in perspective, am I not allowed to denounce non-therapeutic female genital cutting because I don’t have labia or a clitoris? The idea is ridiculous. The human rights issue is first. We’re all capable of using our intellect and reason to understand genital integrity. Let’s use them and expect others to do the same.
If we start with awful premises, we interfere with our objective of protecting the bodies and rights of children. If we promote the idea that some people are inferior, they will tune us out when we state that all people should be treated equally. Please, stop promoting this flowchart. We can be better than this. We must be.
If you’ve read my work here (or on Twitter) for any length of time, you know that I don’t agree (e.g.) with every tactic used to argue for genital integrity. I’m not arrogant enough to assume I’m always correct, but my experience has to inform the means I endorse in pursuit of the necessary, noble goal. Where I think we’re making mistakes, particularly predictably ineffective mistakes, I speak out. I know enough people within the genital integrity movement to know that the principled, decent strategy is the most common.
That said, I’m not willing to paint broadly based on the actions of individuals. This can be either good or bad actions. One person expressing an idiotic excuse for circumcision do not mean everyone who shares a characteristic would defend that excuse. I do this because it’s fair and because I do not want this approach applied to me. It will always be possible to find genital integrity activists who engage in inexcusable behavior, such as anti-Semitism. I can make my case without that, as can most activists. Principles and tactics are associated, but the former exists apart from the latter.
This is why the website The Case Against Intactivism frustrates me so greatly. It is run by blogger “paper0airplane”, who is against routine infant circumcision while lumping any bad behavior by those opposed to circumcision into the “intactivism” category. This is wrong. For example, I spoke out when issue #2 of “Foreskin Man” appeared, long before it made news during the San Francisco ballot initiative in mid-2011. I was not alone. Should we all be blamed for this comic book, or are individual – sometimes egregious – mistakes inevitable in any decentralized movement? The answer is obviously the latter, but paper0airplane consistently writes as if it’s the former. That is what I wish to reject here.
… My opinion also hasn’t changed. I do not circumcise, I don’t think circumcision is necessary. I also do not approve of the tactics used by intactivists, and were they to change those tactics, I would support them wholeheartedly. Much like the rabid pro-life crowd, intactivists generally resort to appeals to emotion, twisting of facts, offering up studies (that they haven’t even read) claiming they say one thing, when in fact they do not (relying, instead, on the fact that many will not actually read the study, simply providing one counts as support of their argument), sometimes outright lying. That includes setting up studies in such a way as to pre-determine the outcome. These are things that I disagree with, and will continue to disagree with. Since most intactivists, instead of actually reading my site objectively, believe that I am actually pro-circumcision and that my site advocates for circumcision, I’m attacked quite often. …
People who can be classified as intactivists cannot be neatly stuffed into a box labeled “Endorses These Tactics”. I am an intactivist, although what I wrote in 2006 still holds. The term intactivist is cute and descriptive, but because it’s cute, I do not like it. It does little more than give reporters an excuse to fill in stories with details at which typical readers will roll their eyes. That’s not helpful. The term has gained wider acceptance, but it’s still treated in much the same way in many places. And paper0airplane uses it as a convenient stereotype.
So, from that July post, in order:
Generally suggests stereotyping. That should be a signal that the critique is shaky. Not necessarily flawed, but evidence is required and should be drawn from and applied to the person(s) using the criticized tactic.
Appeals to emotion as a tactic is the least effective approach. Those who use it exclusively need to expand their repertoire. But its use, even exclusively by some, says nothing about intactivism as a whole.
I do not twist facts. Grinding this axe with a blunt dismissal of all rather than against the few who deserve it impedes my efforts. If paper0airplane insists on grouping everyone together, prove that I’m the hack caricature with examples. Otherwise, I’m left to assume that paper0airplane is a lazy thinker and writer. (The body of work that assumes any intactivist is all intactivists is evidence of this.)
I do not defend studies I know to be flawed. I’ve long held that the “estimated number of deaths” study is flawed¹. Conversely, I’ve also demonstrated that the “circumcision makes no difference to sexual sensitivity/satisfaction” studies are flawed. Should this count as an argument against all proponents of child circumcision or just those who fallaciously treat this issue as settled science based on these flawed studies? There are proponents who are very much lying propagandists. There are also proponents who are sincere and honest but insufficiently informed. I prefer to deal with who is in front of me rather than the worst of everyone I’ve ever encountered.
I’ve read enough to know that paper0airplane is opposed to routine infant circumcision. I also know that paper0airplane defends ritual circumcision. I disagree with this because the arguments against non-therapeutic circumcision, both ethical and scientific, apply to males born to religious parents. I do not wish to imply that change will be easy, only that change is necessary, as various reforms throughout history have been necessary. We are not at the pinnacle of balancing religion and rights. (More on this in another post.)
There are many many very reasonable people that label themselves intactivist. They’re nice people are are just as interested in the truth as you or I. Unfortunately, the loudmouths at the front are doing all the damage. They color public perception of what intactivism is. I think we can greatly reduce the number of circumcisions without being total A-Holes or alienating all our circumcising friends and family. Without being bullies. Because that’s what intactivists are represented by. Bullys. To the reasonable people that label themselves intactivist, I beg you! Find another way to label yourself! People will be more likely to listen if you don’t have to carry the intactivist baggage around.
This paragraph demonstrates my point. There are intactivists who use problematic and/or unethical tactics. Again, this is inevitable in any decentralized movement, just as one can easily find examples of the same among circumcision proponents. It’s possible to challenge, refute, and/or discredit “the loudmouths” without dismissing everyone by stereotyping on the behavior of a subset. I wish paper0airplane would make that effort instead of indiscriminately smearing good and bad activists as the same.
¹ While this study is not something I trust or cite, the number of deaths from non-therapeutic child circumcision is objectively non-zero. That is a fact. How many deaths from non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting minor do we need before we can demonstrate the ethical case against prophylactic child circumcision? The mere risk of one is enough, but one death is certainly too many. I suspect paper0airplane agrees, although that makes the accompanying defense of religious circumcision of children indefensible. Ritual circumcision of minors is no less an affront to human rights than cultural circumcision.
[Edit (9/26/12): Link removed because I'm not comfortable with parts of it.]
More will be said today and beyond. Much of it will be uncritical regurgitations of the AAP’s revision by news organizations. There will also be analysis from those who recognize and highlight the glaring deficincies and oversights in the policy. I expect to contribute my own thoughts. For now, I’ll highlight one key aspect from my initial read-through before going into what I think is a more important consideration to this apparent-but-not-really temporary setback.
The short version of the statement ends with this (emphasis added):
Parents ultimately should decide whether circumcision is in the best interests of their male child. They will need to weigh medical information in the context of their own religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs and practices. The medical benefits alone may not outweigh these other considerations for individual families.
That’s so close to the ethical stance. Remove families and focus on the individual and it would be ethical¹.
The way the promoted portion of the new “finding” within the revised statement differs from this conclusion is the key takeaway to challenge the supposed change from the AAP, which is really more-or-less just an exercise in urging politicians to permit circumcision on Medicaid. Here, the AAP demonstrates that its evaluation of the net benefit, that possible benefits outweigh the risks, is subjective and determined only by individuals. This directly contradicts the supposed proof based on their review of research that the potential benefits outweigh the risks (and the costs – the direct harm in every case – that they ignore). We should repeatedly emphasize that as often as necessary.
My concern is that we’ll get stuck in this low-level, short-term portion of the larger debate. It’s clear from European medical associations and courts that the eventual destination is public policy against non-therapeutic circumcision. The AAP and American society, in general, are (inexcusably) behind. But both will get there. Activists for the rights of children can make that happen sooner than it otherwise might happen.
The key is that we must give people the opportunity to save face, to avoid digging in to protect their egos. The problem is their stance, not necessarily their character. It should be obvious to them that their stance is incorrect. It isn’t. To address that, do we want to express an irrelevant, limited sense of superiority or convince others that we’re correct because facts and ethics demonstrate the case we’re making? If we impugn their motives and/or character by choosing the former, we may extend the period during which this policy statement stands or encourage people who can be influenced either way to choose the inferior stance of the AAP.
Edit note: I changed “it’s” to “their stance” to avoid possible confusion.
¹ The existing societal view treats certain basic human rights – for boys only – as a buffet from which parents may pick and choose for their own reasons. This is the problem merely expressed within the AAP’s policy statement.
It’s probably clear by now that some portion of my advocacy here attempts to reach people with whom I agree. We all have much to learn from each other about how to educate and convince people who do not yet accept our position. We must be intelligent in our tactics as activists if we are to be effective at changing minds and protecting children.
I introduced a bit of economics in the past to explain our position. We can learn from other fields where they provide relevant lessons, such as the truth that circumcision has costs in addition to the claimed benefits (i.e. “no free lunch”). I think this post by economist Arnold Kling is applicable, as well.
The following thought occurred to me recently. Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can
(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author
(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author
(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author
So, think about it. Wouldn’t you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn’t that sort of pathetic? …
That seems correct to me. I strive for (a) and (b). I try to avoid engaging in (c), although I don’t know that I possess the distance necessary to evaluate my results objectively. Later in his post, Mr. Kling writes:
…Focusing on weaker arguments instead [of the strongest arguments of opponents] is a classic (c) move. …
I challenge weak arguments in favor of non-therapeutic child circumcision because they’re so prevalent. I (mostly?) avoid repetitive attacks because it’s not necessary. I try to blog about them only when the author uses a novel approach to push a wrong idea, or has significant attention that risks spreading nonsense further.
Still, I take the point. It’s too easy to pretend that all arguments arguing in favor of non-therapeutic child circumcision are equally weak. Unconvincing, yes, but that’s not the same. I’m sure I’ve fallen into this trap in some of my posts. I’ve been thinking on this lately, and especially now in response to the German court ruling. There are issues offered by proponents of ritual child circumcision that deserve to be taken seriously. Asking people to let go of something they intensely value is asking them to bear costs, even if it should be clear that avoiding objective harm to the child must be stressed more. I intend to write more on them in the near future.
We should all strive for more (a) and (b), and on the tougher arguments. The first link above does that. Most of us strike the right balance between strident activism and basic decency. We must remember that, even in the rare instances where it may not be true, those who support non-therapeutic child circumcision are not evil. They are mistaken, and we should show that. But it is both unethical and unwise to demonize anyone. And, specifically, it would be wonderful if we all nudged our fellow activists from (c) to (a) and (b) where we encounter it. (Privately, if possible.)
That includes me. If I do something wrong, whether in tactic or argument, I want people to challenge me. Help me. I want to protect children, not my ego. I believe we all do. Let us always demonstrate that approach.
July 6, 2012 Update: I’ve thought a bit more about addressing the tougher questions rather than the weaker arguments of those who support non-therapeutic child circumcision. I’m more comfortable with my approach because I don’t comment on much of what I encounter. There are many simplistic or embarrassing arguments I encounter repeatedly in different places. I ignore them because challenging them here would be to engage in the criticism I agreed with above. The flaws in those arguments are almost self-evident, and they are not necessarily representative of the views expressed by proponents.