Parental powers are not parental rights.

Sherry Colb summarizes the larger point (barely) hiding in the recent Oregon circumcision case:

Though it is, in some respects, very unusual, this case nonetheless highlights a somewhat hidden and more widespread assumption embedded in our laws – that if a couple’s mainstream religion requires them to inflict harm upon their child, then the law will not interfere with that prerogative.

Within the article, Ms. Colb offers a few key rebuttals to the idea that legally permitted practices are valid by virtue of being permitted. We think we’re rational. That does not mean we are.

There are still those who claim that the procedure is painless for newborns, though such claims seem inconsistent with the infant’s capacity to feel pain and discomfort in other respects. Nonetheless, because no one can “ask” a newborn about the sensation, and because he might not remember the experience for very long, it strikes some who observe the ritual as relatively innocuous. Perhaps because the newborn baby is still so different from the rest of us, we can imagine – as many do in the case of other sentient animals – that their experience of pain is somehow not as terrible as our own. (And yes, I realize that one could say this of unborn babies as well, but that discussion is for another day.)

This is an old stand-by. Would you rather be circumcised as a newborn when you won’t remember it or as an adult when you will? But this is argument is silly because it ignores two key points. First, the child feels pain when he is being circumcised and while he heals. This matters. Second, there is a third choice, the extreme likelihood that a male not circumcised as an infant will neither need nor want circumcision for himself in his lifetime. Advocating infant circumcision relies on ignoring this truth.

Speaking of the Boldt case, specifically, Ms. Colb states:

The child also – and significantly – has a second parent, a mother, who does not want her child circumcised. The mother therefore can and does make arguments on the child’s behalf that would ordinarily be unavailable to him – such as the suggestion that amputating a healthy part of a child’s anatomy containing a concentration of nervous tissue is child abuse. If that argument sounds persuasive to the reader, it is at least in part because the case does not involve either an infant or a unified couple asserting its unambivalent authority over its offspring.

I don’t have much to add to that. I quote it here because I’ve witnessed the excuses she mentions. Generally the belief is that this jumps into the second choice from above, that the child will now remember it. It’s too easy to lose the point that his foreskin is healthy, requiring no surgical intervention.

Also, I don’t know if I’ve stated my stance this strongly, but allow me to be clear. Routine/ritual circumcision – the surgical alteration of a healthy child – is child abuse. It is mutilation. There is no intent to abuse or mutilate, but the action does not require intent to create that outcome.

One reason for our collective decision generally not to intervene in one another’s religious practices, despite what I have said, is that such intervention could easily lead to the persecution of a minority religion by a majority religion.

There was a time I worried about being labeled anti-semitic. I do not worry about it now. I know I am not, so such accusations are irrelevant. I accept that people should be free to exercise their religion, to whatever extent they believe it commands. They may raise their children in their religion. If that religion teaches genital surgery, so be it. I can think it’s stupid or admirable as an expression of faith. Neither matters.

But I will only stand aside when the infliction of physical harm (i.e. surgical removal of a healthy body part) involves a personal choice imposed only on the individual deciding. A child does not consent to this intrusion on his body. He can reasonably assumed to desire his healthy body and to be free from unnecessary intervention. He may ultimately choose circumcision, but he must have the opportunity to reject it.

Remember, too, that federal law guarantees that parents may only surgically alter the genitals of their daughters if the surgery is medically indicated. Any other reason is prohibited from consideration. We understand that the individual right involved does not involve an alleged, non-existent individual right to impose surgery on the healthy body of another. Parents do not own their daughters.

They do not own their sons, either, even if God commands it. Man may need to answer to God, but until he meets Him, he must answer only to himself. He need have no reason for wanting the body he was born with or demanding that, absent disease, he not have it taken against his will. Society’s only legitimate purpose here is to protect that right. Denying it out of fear, inertia, or good intentions is a cowardly abandonment of individual liberty.

4 thoughts on “Parental powers are not parental rights.”

  1. Remember, too, that federal law guarantees that parents may only surgically alter the genitals of their daughters if the surgery is medically indicated.
    I wonder what would happen if a recent immigrant to this country tried to claim that labial excision of underage girls was legally permissable as a preventive medical procedure (or for hygienic reasons) and produced some obscure study or whatever to back up their claim.
    Would the folks who drafted the federal anti-FGM law sit by and allow such a claim to be made in a US court, or would they (no matter how hypocritical they looked), immediately amend the law to prohibit such claims from being made as they did with religious and cultural claims?

  2. That’s what I’m counting on, but it can’t realistically happen until those boys reach adulthood 7.5 years from now.
    The case in Chicago last year indicated that we’re making more progress with the equal human rights argument. The case in Oregon should tell us if we’ve held that momentum.

Comments are closed.