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Much Ado About Individual Rights

Timothy Sandefur links to essays by two secular humanists regarding the San Francisco proposal to prohibit non-therapeutic male child circumcision. The essay in favor of the proposal is by Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism. Mr. Flynn is correct. The essay against the ban is by Ronald Lindsay of the Center for Inquiry. Mr. Lindsay is wrong. I wish to address his essay.

Mr. Lindsay begins:

First, let’s cut through the misleading rhetoric. Some proponents of the ban refer to male circumcision as genital mutilation and equate it with female “circumcision,” the term sometimes used to describe a clitoridectomy, or complete removal of the clitoris. Clitoridectomies are carried out in some cultures, principally in rural Africa. (In some instances, not only is the clitoris excised, but the labia minora and parts of the labia majora are also removed.) Obviously, the removal of the clitoris results in loss of sexual pleasure.

To equate clitoridectomies with male circumcision is nonsense. The latter is a clip job, resulting in removal of the foreskin from the penis. ...

It is not nonsense. They are different in degree, not kind. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong. That principle is universal, not gender-specific or discounted if we can figure out some possible benefit. Anything becomes acceptable if we accept possible future benefit as a relevant standard for intervening on healthy children. Of course female circumcision genital cutting is mutilation. Western societies agree on that almost universally. We've demonstrated that understanding by enacting laws against any procedures involving the healthy genitals of female minors.

But Mr. Lindsay is incorrect in limiting his point to a comparison of male genital cutting (i.e. circumcision) and clitoridectomies. The latter is an example of FGM, not the definition of FGM. The scope of what qualifies as mutilation mirrors what is illegal in most locations in the United States, including California. The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation as follows (emphasis added): "Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons." In other words, any surgical intervention less damaging than male circumcision, inflicted for the exact reasons we cite for male circumcision, would still qualify as genital mutilation. Every one of those procedures (i.e. Types I - IV) is already illegal to inflict on healthy female minors. Applying the principle and rights in that accurate definition equally, non-therapeutic male child circumcision is genital mutilation.

After mentioning various possible risk reductions from male circumcision, Mr. Lindsay writes:

The foregoing medical discussion is important because it undercuts the argument made by some secularists that there’s no valid medical reason for this procedure. Granted, the possibility that a newborn boy will experience some avoidable health issues unless he is circumcised is very small. Furthermore, depending on how one evaluates the risks, the potential benefits may be outweighed by the risks of harm. But isn’t this precisely the type of decision we usually leave to parents — and which we should leave to parents unless we want to become even more of a nanny state?

To avoid confusion, any reason for circumcising a healthy male is non-medical. Again, if we are to pretend that chasing potential benefits counts as a medical reason for non-therapeutic surgery, then parents may impose any intervention they wish, unrestrained by society. Protecting children from that is not a nanny state action. It's the legitimate role of government to protect the rights of all its citizens, including male minors. We shouldn't need new laws here. But parents shouldn't mutilate their children.

Mr. Lindsay raises a legitimate question:

Speaking of the state, do we really want to give more power to the government to control what can only be described as a sensitive, highly personal matter? How exactly is this criminal ban supposed to be enforced? Are we going to have special police units to stamp out circumcision? Undercover cops posing as physicians willing to carry out back-alley quick cuts? Will there be search warrants issued based on confidential information that Johnny was seen at the urinal less than fully intact? I don’t know about you, but I don’t care if my junk is scanned or touched at the airport security line, but I do reject the notion that the government can tell us how it should look.

I agree that enforcement is a challenge. That assumes it would be enforced, which I don't believe would happen in the unlikely event it passes. Still, the question is relevant. What I think it would most likely do is provide better support for circumcised males to sue for the obvious battery inflicted. That's not everything, but it's something.

The biggest flaw in Mr. Lindsay's approach is the conclusion he draws. I care if my genitals are scanned or touched at the airport security line. Do my rights not matter because Mr. Lindsay thinks differently? Are individual tastes and preferences not unique to each individual?

While I also reject the notion that the government can tell us how our genitals should look, that isn't what this law would do. It would prevent parents from dictating how their child's son's genitals must look for the rest of his life. It would leave the individual male himself to say "yes" or "no" to non-therapeutic circumcision. I'm no more mollified that my parents mutilated me than I would be if my government had ordered it. The result is the same.

Later, he inadvertently proves that he misunderstands the issue:

I’m tired of secularists fighting the wrong battles. We shouldn’t care whether Johnny, Joel, or Jamal keeps his hood on.

I don't care whether Johnny, Joel, or Jamal "keeps his hood on." I care that he gets to choose whether or not to keep his healthy foreskin. The emphasis is on his and healthy, not foreskin. That's the debate, not this incorrect view that male circumcision is "a clip job" that may be imposed at the will or whim of parents.

Related post from 2008.

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