Incomplete Opinions and Certainty

Debra Saunders has an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle on the ballot initiative that would finally protect all children in San Francisco from non-therapeutic genital cutting. The essay is a mess of incomplete information. She begins:

In 2010 San Francisco supervisors banned Happy Meals. They showed no regard for parental choice.

That’s correct. It’s also irrelevant to the discussion of circumcision, when considered and considered correctly. The new proposal doesn’t show “no regard for parental choice,” since parents would still be able to choose therapeutic circumcision for their sons in the rare event it becomes necessary. Presumably they would choose the least invasive effective method for treating an ailment, but they would retain the choice. That is the proper extent of proxy consent for circumcision.

So it should not come as a shock that activists have managed to put a measure on the November ballot that essentially would outlaw the circumcision of baby boys. If it passes, then parents won’t be able to choose to circumcise their infant sons. The penalty for the “genital cutting of male minors” will be a $1,000 fine and/or up to a year in jail.

It would “essentially” outlaw the circumcision of baby boys because it would prohibit the circumcision of healthy baby boys, the ones who do not need surgery. Again, contrary to the slant Saunders offers, parents would still be able to choose to circumcise their infant sons. The only difference is that it would have to be medically necessary. This proposal would “restrict” parental choice in the same manner California law restricts parental choice for genital cutting of healthy daughters.

Saunders is working to that, of course:

The ballot measure bills itself as a ban on “forced genital cutting” and “mutilation.” Clearly the authors want to confuse voters …

If Saunders is in favor of not confusing voters, then she should be precise in her language and specify that the proposal involves non-therapeutic circumcision, not all circumcision. It should also be obvious that she never addresses the question of whether or not non-therapeutic circumcision on an infant male is, in fact, “forced genital cutting” or could be considered “mutilation.” If we’re avoiding confusion, it is both initiated without the consent of the patient and it involves cutting away the foreskin, a portion of the child’s genitals.

… by equating male circumcision to female genital mutilation, the barbaric, unsanitary butchering of a young girl’s private parts in a procedure that has been known to leave girls severely infected and in pain.

Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong, regardless of whether the individual is female or male. Saunders expects us to take the position that gender matters, if only because the procedures involves some differences. But California law makes no distinction between unsanitary butchering of a healthy girl’s genitals and sanitary non-permanent injury. It’s all prohibited, restricting parental choice. California law does not – and should not – distinguish the difference and permit the latter. Thus, if equal rights mean anything, then gender shouldn’t be an acceptable distinction, either.

It’s also worth noting that male circumcision has been known to leave boys severely infected and in pain. Does that matter?

The purpose of female genital mutilation is to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure. The World Health Organization says it has “no health benefits for girls or women.” On the other hand, a 2007 WHO report recommended that male circumcision be recognized as “an efficacious intervention for HIV prevention.”

Since we’re quoting WHO, let’s also consider this: “Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” If the definition of genital mutilation is the result from “procedures that intentionally alter or injure <...> genital organs for non-medical reasons,” and it is, then male child circumcision is also genital mutilation. Again, if all individuals have equal rights, then <...> can’t just be female. Parents who circumcise their healthy sons “intentionally alter or and injure” their son’s genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is genital mutilation.

Saunders seems to lump “HIV prevention,” another imprecise term, into “medical” reasons. It isn’t a medical reason because circumcision is not essential to the health of the child or his ability to prevent the transmission of HIV. Anyway, HIV “prevention” is a misnomer. It reduces the risk, a not-subtle semantic distinction. And that reduction in risk is only in female-to-male transmission in high-risk populations, neither of which describes the male infants of San Francisco.

With further exploration of the WHO factsheet, it’s useful to note that California law prohibits all four types of FGM, including those that are equally or less damaging than male circumcision. Butchering has a broad scope.

The purpose of FGM also has a broad scope. I agree that it is used to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure. However, this is not a unanimous reason. The WHO factsheet states, “[t]he causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities.” Many of these involve variations of power, control, and sexual harm. But some less so, and others not at all. There is some note of cultural tradition and models of “proper” gender ideals. These excuses should be quite familiar to the typical American parent considering non-therapeutic circumcision for their sons. Yet, California law makes no exemptions for stated intent or desired extent of damage in prohibiting parental choice involving daughters. If protection from harm for non-medical reasons is a right, and we claim to value equal rights, why do boys deserve less protection than girls?

The WHO factsheet also states this about the reasons for FGM (emphasis added):

Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.

The next section from Saunders is this:

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents be informed that “newborn male circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages as well as disadvantages and risks.” Palo Alto pediatrician Erica Goldman follows the guideline. She informs parents of the pluses – reduced chances of urinary tract infection and sexually transmitted diseases – as well as the risks – it’s a permanent cosmetic change. “It really is a decision to be made on a personal and cultural basis,” Goldman told me.

“I personally believe the medical benefits outweigh the medical risks,” Goldman added.

We’re not discussing a decision made on a “personal” basis, are we, since males don’t get to choose for themselves? Quoting a doctor on cultural justifications for non-therapeutic surgery is nothing more than an appeal to authority, a logical fallacy using her MD as proof that she’s correct on something unrelated to her expertise. (Her expertise should also declare that healthy children do not need genital cutting.)

Finally, Saunders offers an attempted witticism to demonstrate how foolish it is to “restrict” parental choice.

How wonderful it must feel to be floored at Ess Eff’s latest exercise in self-parody. The bill fits. A busybody law? Check. Does it address a problem most folks did not know existed? Check. Pun opportunities? Oh, yeah. First they came for the Chicken McNuggets, then they came for my son’s …

The only person coming after the foreskin of her hypothetical parent’s son is… her hypothetical parent. That’s what is at issue. There is currently no individual choice. A ban on Happy Meals limits individual choice, including parental choice, without a compelling governmental interest to prevent objective harm. The current proposal expands individual choice by limiting parental choice. There is a compelling governmental interest in protecting the rights of healthy children from the objective harm of non-therapeutic surgery.

It’s Easier to Cut an Object

Here’s an unintentionally informative article titled “In foreskin fight, even terminology is being disputed”. Its basic premise is that the words used to describe male circumcision can influence how people think about it, and that these words may be misleading. Essentially, it amounts to the typical debate about referring to male circumcision as male genital mutilation. This is in spite of the obvious fact that circumcision fits the definition of mutilation. No amount of tradition or popular support changes that.

Late in the article, there is this quote:

“There’s a baby male, and that baby male — either for medical ritual or religious ritual — is having its foreskin removed,” Suzanne Wertheim, a visiting lecturer at UCLA, said, illustrating what a neutral description of the act in question might look like.

In her effort to reach a “neutral” description, Dr. Wertheim shows a reason why non-therapeutic male child circumcision continues. There’s a baby male, and that baby male is having his foreskin removed. He is a person, not an object. There is no valid reason to skip the correct gender-specific pronoun here. Doing so marginalizes the hypothetical child as something less than an individual with an equal right to be free from non-therapeutic genital cutting.

Think From the Beginning, Not the End

Here’s a common faulty assumption within the male circumcision debate. From Forbes, in response to the San Francisco ballot initiative, Daniel Fisher writes:

One can only hope the courts do the practical and intuitive thing, and strike this down after it passes. It will save parents from taking their sons outside city borders to be born. And hundreds of thousands of male San Franciscans are saved from the distinctly uncomfortable prospect of making the decision for themselves as adults.

How many of those “hundreds of thousands” a males does Mr. Fisher think will actively contemplate non-therapeutic circumcision? Given the statistics on males left intact through childhood ultimately choosing or needing circumcision as adults, the lament he offers is unsupported. However, even if it were supported, that doesn’t change the ethical defect in circumcising all of them as children to avoid a possibly tough decision as adults. Surely he does not believe that every one of those males will want to be circumcised. Those who decide they want to be circumcised may still choose. Those who don’t want to be circumcised can’t unchose the procedure.

To properly use the article’s headline opener, “I’m Not Making This Up Dept.”, disbelief should be placed where it belongs. I’m Not Making This Up Dept.: Parents Willingly Cut Their Healthy Sons’ Genitals.

Locker Room Rules

Warning: This post contains strong, colorful euphemisms for penis in the quoted excerpts. I have not hidden any letters within the words because the words are legitimate and within context.

Chris Jones, a writer for Esquire magazine, has an interesting post – THE LOCKER ROOM RULES – identifying a few key rules for reporters to remember when venturing into the locker room of a professional sports team. The most obvious point about being in a locker room after a sporting event is that there will likely be naked athletes. That makes it an easy comparison to the commonly used excuse that infant circumcision is reasonable to prevent boys from being teased in the locker room. The argument is silly, since an assumption about teasing and peer pressure are not good reasons for non-therapeutic circumcision. But it’s also flawed because it’s an inaccurate assumption of what actually occurs within a locker room. From Mr. Jones’ list:

4. Okay, let’s get this out of the way: Don’t cock peek. When I was a beat guy, there was one poor reporter who got labeled as a cock peeker. (He claimed that he was just staring into space when he was tabbed, which, knowing the guy, I actually believe; unfortunately, that space happened to be occupied by a middle infielder’s wiener.) Whatever happened that terrible afternoon, the guy’s lot was pretty miserable after. (To steal an old line, You peek at one cock, and you’re a cock peeker for the rest of your life.) …

That is the unwritten-yet-understood code of the locker room. Don’t look. If you accidentally see, stop looking immediately. It’s a separate discussion for analysis, but the fear of being labeled as gay is much stronger than the temptation to mock someone for having a penis that’s different in any way from what’s “normal”.

It’s simple:

“Hahaha, you have an anteater!”
“Why are you looking at my [penis]?”

The locker room code commands the teased to respond this way and to continue until the point is made that the problem rests with the teaser, not the teased. There are exceptions, of course, but this is what really happens in locker rooms. Or would happen, if boys actually commented on another boy’s penis. Or if most boys got naked in locker rooms during school.

Mr. Jones continues his rule, which counters my point here a bit. However, the comparison and perspective are worth confronting.

… Now, if we’re all being honest here for a moment, sometimes it’s really hard not to notice that a guy has an enormous schlong, because it will fill your field of view, and it’s one of the dirty little secrets of the profession that reporters will make jokes about our coverage area’s more distinctive members. (Ever wonder why […ed. note¹…] nickname was Snuffy? Ask Snuffleupagus.) But even if some guy’s dick taps you on the shoulder and asks for a peanut, you should probably look at the ceiling and sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” until it goes away.

The same would be said of an individual who still has his foreskin. That may even be primarily what Mr. Jones refers to here. But in a professional sports locker room where the team has athletes from different parts of the world, such as baseball and hockey, the odds of encountering a uniformity of circumcised men is unlikely. The same is also starting to be true in American grade school locker rooms, to the extent that any male is likely to get naked in one.

As Mr. Jones states, some amount of talking is inevitable. This, I suspect, is what parents really fear when they claim the locker room excuse. The “why were you looking at my penis” defense still works here. However, it’s also clear that kids will tease each other for any difference. Unless parents are surgically altering for all visible physical differences, and accounting for other differences like economic class, kids will be teased. Too short? Teased. Too tall? Teased. Too fat? Teased. Too thin? Teased. And so on, with any possible difference.

Kids want to fit in because they’re scared. They haven’t learned that all the other kids are scared, too. The proper response is to teach them that they have value because they’re who they are, not in spite of it. Parents must teach them to not be afraid. Kids can overcome being scared because of the locker room. They can’t overcome being scarred because of the locker room.

¹ I removed the player’s name. You can find it in Mr. Jones’ original blog entry.