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Nancy McDermott Is Wrong On Circumcision

In replying to an essay against infant circumcision by Ethan Epstein at Spiked, Nancy McDermott attempts to defend parental proxy consent for routine infant male circumcision. She is mistaken.

The main problem with The Circumcision Discussion in general, and with Ethan Epstein’s article in particular, is the appeal to Science with a capital S to validate what is essentially a personal decision for parents. There isn’t really overwhelming evidence for or against infant circumcision, which makes this issue quite unambiguously a matter of preference, and more so than some other issues such as breastfeeding or vaccination where the scienctific research is abundant.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence against infant circumcision: the boy is healthy. Surgery on that healthy person is only unambiguously a matter of preference if the healthy person makes the decision for himself. It is not a valid personal decision for parents to make for their healthy children, male or female.

A good blogger would stop here because McDermott's case is already refuted. But there's more to say. Effectively, McDermott advocates using science without the capital E of Ethics. Would we entertain a discussion of whether or not removing the breast bud's of female minors is a valid parental decision because it might reduce her risk of breast cancer? Of course not. Yet, we abandon such critical thinking because circumcision has a long history. We ignore that science without ethics encourages us to choose the science we prefer while ignoring objective reality. Again, the child is healthy. He needs no intervention. Therefore, the child's human rights are involved, even when medical intervention is indicated. As discussed here it is the primary sole issue because the child is healthy. McDermott's argument is the usual sophistry unleashed to defend genital cutting on male children as a parental right, despite the lack of need and demand that we only extend this right to their children of one gender.

She continues:

But that hasn’t stopped Epstein from trying to use Science to support what is essentially his own particular set of prejudices. In the end, his attack on infant circumcision is not based so much on evidence but rather on a degraded notion of personal autonomy that is contemptuous of parents and reduces the whole parent/child relationship to the matter of a few inches of skin.

Defining the foreskin down as "a few inches of skin" indicates a particular set of prejudices. Defining surgery as a relationship tactic indicates a particular set of prejudices, as well.

As for being contemptuous of parents, I am. When parents engage in contemptible behavior, I will call their behavior contemptible. Since it's always worth repeating in this discussion, the child is healthy. Performing surgery on him (or her) for the parents' subjective reasons is unethical because it violates a basic human rights principle: Performing medically unnecessary surgery on a non-consenting person is wrong. Where facts differ from any of the conditions involved in that principle, the discussion changes to proxy consent. But circumcision as understood in this essay involves all of the facts involved in the principle. Proxy consent is not valid.

Referring to Epstein's essay, McDermott continues (footnote removed):

Take for instance his attempt to establish – or rather to assert – that male infant circumcision is on a par with ‘female circumcision’. It’s a comparison that defies even a basic familiarity with human anatomy. ‘Female circumcision’, or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as it is usually called, involves the removal of some or all of a woman’s external genitalia and is associated with side effects like intense pain, infection, haemorrhaging, infertility and urinary incontinence. Comparable surgery in a man would involve the removal of most of the penis and the scrotum. But male circumcision as it is currently practiced consists of the removal of the foreskin and nothing else. Statistically it is a very safe procedure with few complications (in some cases, there may be minor bleeding or a local infection).

The moral equivalency exists because medically unnecessary surgery on a non-consenting person is wrong. Gender is irrelevant. Extent of damage is irrelevant. The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation as "procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons." The intent is generally different between male circumcision in America and female genital cutting in other cultures, but a well-intentioned act can still be objectively harmful. Outcome matters. And male circumcision meets the definition applied to female genital cutting, since the male child's genitals are intentionally altered for non-medical reasons." There is usually a difference in degree, but there is no difference in kind.

Given that male genital cutting matches the definition applied to female genital cutting, it's crucial to explore how McDermott is under-informed about FGM. As it's typically practiced, it involves removal of some or all of a female's external genitalia. But FGM is defined to include "all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area." These (less commonly practiced) forms are similar in enough ways to male circumcision to make the point. Parents who force it on their daughters often give similar subjective reasons for both procedures. Yet, our anti-FGM laws make no distinction for extent of cutting or personal preference involved in the parents' decision. The focus is on the autonomy (and health) of the minor, which is where the focus should be.

Yet, it's easier to explain why McDermott is wrong. How does she arrive at the implied conclusion that removing a male child's foreskin is not "the removal of some or all" of his external genitalia? Implicitly (and incorrectly) positing that the foreskin and its removal are trivial isn't enough. She ignores the truth that, as surgery, circumcision is harm. Instead, she relies on self-reporting studies that she believes support her stance (footnote omitted):

Epstein doesn’t do much better when he tries to show evidence for psychological trauma and sexual dysfunction as a result of circumcision. He relies on a 2002 paper written by self-proclaimed ‘intactivists’ which indicates that some men enjoy sex less after circumcision. Had he more objectively investigated what he says is ‘quite evidentially true’, he might have come across any number of studies that show the opposite. My favourite is a large-scale study from 2008 (with over 4,500 participants) in which an overwhelming majority of Kenyan men reported no difference in sexual satisfaction or function after their circumcisions.

What is incompatible in comparing a study that indicates some men enjoy sex less after circumcision and a study that shows an overwhelming majority of men reported no difference? "Some men" and "overwhelming majority" are both synonymous with "less than 100%" for the purposes of the ethical discussion of medically-unnecessary child circumcision. Some males will not be happy being circumcised. I am not. Some men will suffer more than the standard, "acceptable" damage. The issue is about an individual right, not a right based on parental desires.

Continuing:

It is striking that midway through Epstein’s article the CDC’s proposal to ‘promote’ infant circumcision mysteriously transforms into a plan to ‘mandate’ infant circumcision. This is not a slip and it’s not just that Epstein has got his facts wrong (although he has). ...

I'll pause here to make the point that I am not defending Epstein's article. Were I to write about it, I'd call out the same flaw McDermott notes about the CDC's intentions, as I wrote when the CDC news stories broke in August.

... Rather he makes this change in terminology because he isn’t really talking about the CDC at all any more. He’s talking about parents. For anti-circumcision activists, all infant circumcision is mandated in the sense that infants do not consent to it.

Exactly.

In what seems an attempt to defend her indifference to what the boy doesn't need and may not want, her next paragraph demonstrates how she's failed to grasp this fundamental aspect of the ethical case against infant circumcision.

On one level Epstein is right. It is of course impossible for an infant to consent to anything, and parents make decisions large and small on behalf of their children all the time. Some of these decisions affect their future and many are far more difficult than the question of whether or not to have your infant circumcised.

That some decisions parents make are "far more difficult" does not validate parental proxy for infant male circumcision.

In the second excerpt above, McDermott mentions the parent/child relationship. This inevitably leads to a mistake that advocates of infant circumcision, or at least of parental choice, make. McDermott is no different:

Many of the choices we make as parents profoundly affect our children. But when we look back at our own lives it is often things that didn’t concern us directly at all that had the greatest impact - things like parents’ decision to divorce, to change jobs, or to emigrate. As children we rarely have any say and yet we manage to adapt and often to flourish. One of the major reasons we are able to develop this resilience is because we can depend on our parents. It is the parent/child relationship - each one unique and dynamic, a complex mix of love and trust, and mutually crazy-making - that creates the sense of inner confidence that helps us learn shape our own destinies.

By counterpoising the ‘personal autonomy’ of an infant to the judgment of his parents, Epstein and others who campaign against circumcision reduce the relationship between parents and their sons to one moment; a moment that forever defines the child as victim and the parent as victimiser regardless even of what the boy himself thinks about it later in his life. Once a victim, always a victim.

McDermott's shift from discussing the parent-child relationship to the parent-son relationship reveals the flaw in her thinking. There's a key distinction because she talks in generalities to establish parental authority before shifting to a specific case in which she omits a gender from consideration to reach her preferred outcome. If parents have a right to choose that is superior to the personal autonomy and health of their sons, that same right exists superior to the personal autonomy and health of their daughters. She rejects objective health and risks in favor of subjective decisions by parents for their sons, yet accepts objective health and risks as a defense against subjective decisions by parents for their daughters. That right doesn't exist, but if it did, she's being contemptuous of the parents of daughters because she refuses to let them exercise their right. She'd deny that, but regardless, it's clear she started with her preferred outcome and worked her way backwards to find only the relevant facts she needed.

She concludes:

There are all sorts of reasons why parents do or don’t circumcise their sons. For some it is the embodiment of their faith, for others it is simply custom. For some the thought of subjecting their child to any unnecessary pain or alteration is unacceptable. The important point is that the choice takes place within the context of the parent-child relationship. ....

Again, the choice she's defending takes place between the parent-son relationship. She's established this separate category, incorrectly as I've shown, without offering an explanation for why this is legitimately a separate category beyond an incorrect assumption that the removal of some or all of a female minor's external genitalia is offensive in a way that removal of some or all of a male minor's external genitalia is supposedly not.

...The CDC is not, as Epstein implies, planning to circumcise every male infant in the United States, but the change in its recommendation, just like every other official pronouncement about the right way to raise children, should be greeted with scepticism. Not because, as Epstein argues, it might lead parents to make a wrong choice, but because it questions their right to make choices in the first place.

Somehow I suspect she doesn't believe we should be skeptical about the official pronouncement (i.e. a law) from the United States Congress criminalizing the parental "right" to choose female genital mutilation. But we are not to question the parental right to make that choice for sons, with circumstances and reasoning explicitly rejected for female minors. Her essay is a self-absorbed excuse for parents and their made-up right to impose their whims based on irrational traditions and willful ignorance.

Comments

This in an excellent analysis and rebuttal of McDermott's article. The one thing that she gets right is that the topic, issue, and cause isn't circumcision, but the circumcision decision. A surgery isn't to blame for millions of American men having adulterated penises, it is the poor decisions their parents made.

Thanks for taking the time and thought that makes this writing so true.

I have thanked the Royal Dutch Medical Association for taking the worldly lead in efforts to stop male circumcision. And also thanked them for making it easy to show with authority others who are mistaken concerning male circumcision.

Thank you for taking the time and thought to really point out the myriad flaws of her thinking. You've made it real and interesting to read.

The short of how I deal with these people, yes I put them in a box, is to say 46,000 doctors and med. students say you're wrong and to read the Royal Dutch Medical Association on Male Circumcision.

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