In early September, a demonstration took place in Berlin to protest the decision of a German court in June that prohibited circumcision on the grounds that the practice amounts to ‘bodily harm’. The ruling, which argued that the ‘fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents,’ has been met with animosity by Jews and Muslims, with additional anger aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There has since been much debate over the medical benefits and dangers of circumcision, with a report in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggesting that ‘the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks.’ However, the medical debate around circumcision is only one aspect of a much deeper issue regarding the implications for a child’s development once the procedure is complete. Indeed, when medical issues are left to one side, circumcision still deserves our critical attention because it presents a number of important ethical and intellectual problems.
Perhaps most importantly, performing religious circumcision violates the intellectual privacy of the child. By surgically altering or damaging the genitals for religious reasons, the child is forced to enter into a relationship with a particular god before he is even made aware of spiritual concepts or ideas. As it is morally reprehensible to force an adult to worship a particular way or pray to particular god, and it should be no different for those who cannot yet speak for themselves. The decision to enter into a special bond with a deity is not one to be taken lightly by the most intellectual developed and mature of us, so it is unlikely that a baby could make such a decision convincingly.
Equally unconvincing is the claim that circumcision represents some kind of sacrifice or proof of community with the deity. Even if the virtue of faith and religious servitude is granted, neither of these attributes can be sincerely awarded to a circumcised infant, precisely because the child did not decide for himself. A sacrifice made without consent is hardly a resounding endorsement of faith by the child, rendering false the religious claim of humility or the idea of giving oneself to God by the act of circumcision. The act of entering into the religion in question becomes a meaningless gesture over which the child has no control. It would mean more to allow the child room to grow intellectually, and then to present to him the theological and philosophical choices on offer at a more mature age. The decision to enter into Judaism or Islam would arguably be far more impressive and sincere in that case, and would presumably point more convincingly to the credibility of the chosen religious doctrine.
As Church of England priest and Guardian contributor Dr Giles Fraser concedes, religious circumcision is primarily about ignoring the notion of choice in favour of compulsory religious identity. Fraser argues that choice is simply an expression of liberalism, which, as he puts it, represents ‘a diminished form of the moral imagination’, but what he fails to notice is that the power of choice still plays a role in circumcision. Fraser simply transfers the power of choice from the child to the parents. It is not the decision of the affected individual to be circumcised but the decision of the parents and religious officials to enter the child into a religious doctrine. The fact that adults control choice in the matter undermines the argument that religion is a statement of what a person is rather than what a person believes, because it means that the child did not arrive at his faith naturally; rather, was entered into it by his elders.
Many may find it strange or even disturbing to read of Fraser’s disappointment that his own son is not circumcised, and he best demonstrates the negative emotional impact that practices like circumcision can have when he says, ‘I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with. On some level, I feel like a betrayer.’ This is unfortunate, because allowing children to think for themselves should be considered a source of pride, rather than guilt. While undoubtedly more of a challenge, affording young people the opportunity to learn for themselves is far more rewarding than force-feeding them their beliefs in infancy.
Photo Credit: paul nine-o