Self-ownership begins at birth

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine included a piece by Jeffrey Rosen considering the question of whether or not ritual circumcision constitutes religious expression. He begins:

Americans pride themselves on their commitment to freedom of religion, but how much religious freedom is too much religious freedom?

Fortunately, I can answer this without reading any further into the article. Religious freedom ends where another’s body begins. In the topic Mr. Rosen is addressing, that means at the tip of an infant male’s penis. This concept should be obvious by now, since it’s clear that ritual (and non-ritual) circumcisions are not done for health reasons. Why bother going further than that in the debate, since removing healthy tissue from a child without his consent would be classified as assault in any other circumstance?

Mr. Rosen continues beyond what is necessary to answer his question, so I will do the same.

Within the right to freedom of religion is also the right to freedom from religion. It’s reasonable to accept that parents may teach their child specific religious views, and raise him or her accordingly. We can’t police thought, and the Constitution indirectly prohibits such a course. But, just as reasonable is the assumption that the child may reject his or her parents’ religious philosophy. While a childhood spent studying a religious text he or she may eventually abandon could be considered wasted, the time spent surely contributes to the child’s understanding of the world. Not in any specific religious context, for that has been and will continue to be debated as long as humans exist. Instead, the child learns by dissecting information, forming an opinion, and thinking independently. This may not be optimal for the child, but he or she can accept or reject everything. Ultimately, despite his or her parents’ best intentions, the child controls his or her mind and thoughts. No amount of forced religion can overcome that if the child so chooses.

Altering a child’s anatomy without clear medical indication can never meet such a standard of freedom. A male child circumcised for religious purposes can’t consent to the decision. His physical body is forever altered, and potentially diminished, by circumcision. If he accepts the imposed faith when he becomes capable of deciding for himself, the presumption may be that the circumcision caused no conflict. If the adult male feels as such, that’s wonderful for him. The point of separating ritual infant circumcision from any notion of parental religious freedom is not to challenge the happiness of those who’ve been circumcised for that purpose. Its goal must be to protect the self-ownership rights of the child to decide for himself if he wishes to alter his physical body. The child who later determines that his preferred religion requires no such action, or indeed commands that he remain intact, will face the ramifications of an inappropriate decision made by another.

Ritual (and non-ritual) infant circumcision necessarily violates a boy’s right to an intact body. The parents’ right to religious freedom may not trump the boy’s right. By extension, that he also retains his right to be free from religion implies that no procedure with invasive, permanent results can be condoned by a free society, absent any legitimate physical indication. He has a right to freedom from harm, regardless of how noble his parents’ intention may be. Any religious practice contrary to that is unacceptable. Ritual circumcision does not indict any religion that continues to practice it, but as every robust, honest religion has done with other facets of its teachings incompatible with modern liberty, the practice must stop.