A few days ago, in the context of the current FLDS story, Timothy Sandefur posted a principled defense of children and their rights against the (religious) claims of their parents. It’s very similar to what I’ve written about circumcision generally, and ritual circumcision specifically. The parents’ religion is not enough to justify the objective harm under civil law, regardless of the sanctity and tradition of the action. Still, Mr. Sandefur’s wonderfully stated words are worth posting here. (Note: I have no idea whether he would apply this to the medically unnecessary circumcision of minors. I suspect he does, but I do not know.)
The starting point of the analysis must be the principle that children have rights valid against parents, including the right not to be raised in an abusive or neglectful environment. The state has the legitimate authority to enforce these rights against parents. The state obviously has the legitimate power to take a child away from parents who beat him, or from a family of homeless alcoholics who neglect him. The fact that parents act abusively or negligently because they believe that God wants them to does not change the analysis. It cannot change the analysis, because it would, of course, create an easy route around laws that validly protect the rights of children: just assert that abuse is part of your religion. Heaven knows that’s been tried many, many times.
We do not allow parents to beat their children, yet that almost always leaves no permanent physical damage, unlike circumcision. Of course the psychological damage of physical abuse is undeniable. But is parental intent really enough, which is what seemingly allows circumcision while prohibiting other abuse? (cf. this post) Since one excuse used in favor of infant circumcision is that the boy won’t remember it, I say no. If a parent punches an infant, the infant will not remember it. But the act itself, separate from other considerations, is antithetical to the child’s individual rights. The motivating intent we assume (or discover) of the parent is irrelevant. As Mr. Sandefur’s statement declares, we shouldn’t excuse abuse just because parents claim God made them do it.
Mr. Sandefur continues:
… —and the state has the legitimate authority to defend that right [not to be imprisoned in an asylum], again, within certain (often vague) boundaries set by a parent’s right to direct the upbringing of a child. The latter right, however, must yield to a child’s objective welfare. In other words, while a parent has broad discretion to direct the education and upbringing of a child, that discretion exists within boundaries which the state may police, and keeping children away from education, medicine, &c., are things which—at least at some level—exceed those boundaries. …
The surgical alteration of a healthy child’s genitals exceeds those boundaries. We already recognize this for female minors. The Female Genital Mutilation Act explicitly denies parents the option to cut their daughters for non-medical reasons. The 14th Amendment, among other Constitutional claims, implicitly requires us to prohibit genital mutilation of male minors.
Perhaps more succinctly, Mr. Sandefur clarifies his point in a follow-up to his original post. Discussing the implications of two court cases, Yoder and Pierce, and the constitutional limits imposed on parents, he writes:
… The fact that some communities claim that God wants them to abuse or neglect children is just not a good reason for allowing them to do so, and the state is and ought to be more concerned with ensuring that children’s rights are protected than with whatever excuses parents give—mystical or otherwise—for violating those rights or for neglecting those children. …
I can make no comment on the validity of his legal analysis; I am not an attorney. But his reasoning is logical and based in individual liberty. The family is not society’s building block, with parents acting as property holders of their (male) children until the children reach the age of majority. What’s in the best interest of the family is collectivist, anti-liberty nonsense. Cutting is objective harm. The absence of medical need demonstrates that there is no corresponding objective benefit to be gained that would permit a discussion of parental proxy after applying the child’s individual rights. So, while I certainly adhere to a libertarian deference to parents and a suspicion of extraneous laws, legislatively prohibiting medically unnecessary genital surgery on minors is well within a libertarian framework of appropriate and necessary state use of power.
It would be nice if we didn’t have to do this. Maybe we can even justify not having a specific law prior to the beginning of child circumcision, if we lived in an alternate world without the historical tradition preceding the United States. (Assault laws would still be applicable, I think.) But approximately 3,000 male minors have their healthy genitals surgically altered every day in America. Rights are being violated. Not only may the state intervene, the state must intervene.
Caveat: I am not claiming that religious circumcision of minors proves the religion is harmful. I am claiming that religious circumcision of minors is a blind spot against individual rights that can’t be overcome through claims of parental “rights”. This must be prohibited in civil law. Civil law applied to the individual must trump any and all concerns of religion, particularly since the to-be-circumcised individual retains his own freedom of – and from – religion. He alone must decide if he wishes to express his faith in this manner.