Matt Steinglass Is Mistaken On Circumcision

In the interest of context for this post, Chris Bodenner did what Hanna Rosin didn’t, which is to apply critical thinking to the circumcision question. He wrote:

Studies are a red herring, however, when it comes to the ethical part of the debate. Even if there are no discernible differences between cut and uncut on average, there are still many individuals who are better or worse off from a procedure their parents imposed. As one reader puts it:

It’s my dick. It’s my dick. It’s my dick. It is no one else’s dick but my dick. And I should have the choice to circumcise it when I am old enough to make that decision.

Matt Steinglass reacts:

Let me reassure this guy: no one is planning to do anything to his dick. Assuming, that is, that he is more than 8 days old. But with respect to the practice of circumcision, the important point is this: he’s my son. Not yours. Parents have the right to decide on medical treatment for their children, presuming such medical treatment is not actively harmful. And parents have the right to include their children in cultural rites and practices, again presuming no harm is done.

Proxy consent is valid where medical treatment is indicated (i.e. necessary). Parents do not have a right to impose medical treatment – in this case, surgery – because they like that medical treatment, for whatever reason they value it. This is precisely because it fails the test Steinglass establishes: it causes harm. Circumcision is surgery. It removes healthy, functioning tissue. There is scarring. There is an inherent risk of further complications, starting with “excessive” bleeding and infection and extending all the way to death. The more extreme complications are, of course, rare, but the risk itself is a form of harm. Parents cannot know if their son will be the statistic. Good intentions are not a substitute for objective criteria.

He continues:

What, then, of female circumcision? Well, I understand, perhaps wrongly, that there are some forms which are not particularly medically invasive, and which do not entail significant medical consequences. I think that such forms of female circumcision are a matter of cultural practice that should be left up to parents to decide. The more invasive forms of female circumcision entail serious negative medical consequences. Obviously that’s not cool. And female circumcision is carried out on girls aged 7 to 12 or even older; at that age, the child gets a vote, too. In any case, this doesn’t have much to do with anything, because we’re talking about a medical recommendation.

I’ll address his strange tangent on female genital cutting in a post script. For now, I’ll point out that his criteria fail because the cultural genital cutting is not a medical recommendation backed by need, regardless of the child’s gender. Medically unnecessary genital surgery on an unconsenting individual is unethical. Again, it causes harm in 100% of cases for no objective benefit or attempt to correct a genital malady. The intervention is indefensible.

He concludes:

… Men who are circumcised don’t complain about it. There may be some vanishingly small number of guys who are upset about the fact that their parents circumcised them. It’s a weird thing to be upset about. The whole issue of treating this as some kind of mutilation of a rights-endowed human being who should be allowed to decide for himself seems to me like an insane metastasis of the American fixation with individual rights-based ideology. Children are born into families. Those families have cultures and beliefs, and are entitled to make decisions about how their children will be treated, shaped, and raised.

He perceives no harm and thus dismisses the individual making the rights-based claim against something he, Matt Steinglass, thinks is a “weird thing to be upset about”. That tells us nothing because it’s about Matt Steinglass, not circumcision. He writes only of culture and family without considering that the male may not value that culture or that circumcision is objective harm.

Yet, he’s not in favor of families deciding how their children will be treated, shaped, and raised without limits. He stated that he believes parents have the right to make decisions as long as it’s not actively harmful to the child. He is making a rights-based argument that centers on the child possessing certain individual rights. There are limits to how much culture may play a role. This makes the role and influence of the family and culture irrelevant here; his claim hinges first on the merits of circumcision as surgery on a healthy child. It fails for the reasons I’ve stated, which prevents moving to cultural considerations. It’s important to remember that he implicitly agreed to that test because of his caveat. He probably disagrees that circumcision is objective harm. He is wrong, if he does, but he hasn’t bothered to attempt the defense. Instead, he is essentially proposing that subjective preferences are valid for parental decisions as long as the parents believe them to be culturally valid. That’s madness.


Post Script: To his credit, I suppose, his paragraph on female genital cutting shows that he is consistent in his error. But I’m not sure why he thinks that girls aged 7 to 12 or even older get a vote. Is he saying they do or that they should? If it’s the former, he is mistaken. If it’s the latter, we limit the rights of children to the extent that we deem them capable of consenting. In this “ideal” world where children are asked before their parents surgically alter their healthy genitals, is a 7-year-old competent to make that permanent decision without undue influence? More importantly, do we believe parents will refrain if the child rejects it? Is the child to be considered potentially opposed to genital cutting only if she’s old enough to voice opposition, whether or not she could reasonably be expected to comprehend the full implications? Is there a similar age for male minors?

The shorter version here is that I don’t think he thought that paragraph through before he posted the entry. It’s incoherent.

4 thoughts on “Matt Steinglass Is Mistaken On Circumcision”

  1. There is a huge problem with the quote Matt Steinglass’ statement:
    “Parents have the right to decide on medical treatment for their children, presuming such medical treatment is not actively harmful. And parents have the right to include their children in cultural rites and practices, again presuming no harm is done.”
    I think many parents are coerced by the medical establishment in “chosing” circumcision for the sons. I wouldn’t call being manipulated into doing something such as that a free choice.
    Cultural practice is not sacrosact as Matt Steinglass seems to believe. From around 10th to early 20th century, foot binding was practiced in China on many girls and women. This painful practice resulted in women having tiny deformed feet, which were perceived by Chinese society at the time as desirable and beautiful. So if this were practiced today , would it be wrong? What if the Chinese would try to come up with a “medical” rationale for it (I want to make clear that I’m making a what-if scenario to make a point). I think that the practice of foot binding is wrong and cannot be defended on grounds of culture.
    Like the Chinese in the past who perceived foot binding as desirable, I tend to think this “follow the crowd” mentality mirrors what some Americans seem to think about circumcision. After all, Americans are conditioned that a cut penis is desirable and that “everybody does it.”
    I would hardly call the “follow the crowd” mentality as free choice. If you think that, you live in a illusion.

  2. I too was disturbed by Steinglass’s reasoning and am gratefully to you for taking it apart.
    Tony, you are the most brilliant intactivist blogger I have ever read! And you are an objectivist and libertarian to boot! I am utterly astounded at the time, energy, and intellect you have devoted to this hot button topic over some years now.
    Most of the American middle class residing east of the continental divide has a phobia about Mother Nature’s design for the most intimate part of the male body. I grew up in the midwest, have a PhD in social science from one of the world’s great universities, and have been an intactivist since 1983, yet this fact about American sexuality still baffles me. Many Americans who are hostile to the foreskin have never seen an intact penis in the flesh. They do not understand its retractability. I am sure that Amy Tuteur and Hannah Rosine have never experienced an intact man, LOL.
    I predict that this controversy will be decided by evidence, logic, or appeals to ethics. It will be decided by the American mothers of tomorrow. They will decide that routine circumcision is sexual violence, has a horrible history, and impairs the pleasure of the dude it’s done to, and probably that of his eventual partners.
    Every time an alpha coed tells her dorm buddies in a late evening all-girl bull session “my new date is awesome because he’s not circumcised and it feels so much better,” future intactivist Moms are born. I bet that such conversations are sprouting up all over the USA college campuses.
    Feel free to Email me if you wish.

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