Religion By Scalpel Is Not A Parental Right

Andrew Sullivan weighs in on the CDC circumcision mess:

… I guess I was an early obsessive on this. As readers know, my position is simply that no parent has a right to permanently mutilate a child for no good reason. Scar tissue should be a personal choice. Would we approve of parents’ tattooing infants? The entire thing is an outrage and should be banned outright with a religious exception for Muslims and Jews.

Damnit, no.  The entire thing is an outrage and should be banned outright.  If it’s wrong for parents to mutilate a child for no good reason, and it unequivocally is, permitting an exception for parents to mutilate their children because their god says they must mutilate their children only legalizes no good reason.  Scar tissue should be a personal choice, unless your parents believe their god tells them to sacrifice your foreskin?  That’s incoherent.  Favoring one subjective, non-medical reason over another subjective, non-medical reason for surgically altering (i.e. mutilating) a child is indefensible.

It is also objectively flawed on its practical point.  Let’s assume the government finally acknowledges that boys deserve closer-to-equal protection that girls already receive, with closer-to-equal being the only way to admit that federal law currently prohibits genital cutting on healthy female minors for all subjective, non-medical reason, including religious reasons cited by parents.  Either the Congress or the courts must embrace this closer-to-equal protection.  What will stop parents from claiming religious requirements if they want to circumcise their sons?  How will the government verify the real Jews from the temporary Jews or the real Muslims from the temporary Muslims? Will the government intervene on matters of theology when Christian parents continue incorrectly claiming that Christianity endorses (or requires) infant circumcision? The only result will be that this hypothetical prohibition on the non-ritual circumcision of male minors would be struck down.

This all-too-common charade only tricks people into thinking they’re being tolerant of religion. Yet, whatever your overall opinion on religion, here religion deserves explicit condemnation.  I’d rather engage reason where it involves what one person may do to another. Circumcision for non-medical reasons, including religious adherence, is purely subjective.  Scar tissue should be a personal choice.  It must therefore be left only to the individual exercising his religious freedom to circumcise himself. Or not.

Update: Mr. Sullivan responds to a reader’s e-mail (emphasis added):

The reason I don’t follow this to its logical conclusion is that I just cannot imagine trying to enforce a total legal ban on it given the religious outrage among Muslims and Jews it might provoke. And I do make exceptions for religious liberty that I don’t for other issues, because I believe very deeply in the right of people to figure out their ultimate purpose in life without the intervention of the state. So I restrict myself to mere venting about what seems to me to be an irrational and barbaric relic.

On the first sentence, he’s right. Enforcement would be difficult. But enforcement is a separate issue. Its difficulty may make the law largely impotent in the years immediately following its introduction, but that is not a valid reason to avoid enacting the legislation necessary to protect the rights of male minors. When those rights are acknowledged, as we’ve acknowledged for female minors for all unnecessary genital cutting, other methods of enforcement (e.g. lawsuits) become more likely, which will eventually act as a deterrent and shape the culture.

However, the fundamental problem with Sullivan’s approach rests in his notion of religious liberty. Religious liberty involves letting a person “figure out their ultimate purpose” through mutilating their own genitals without state intervention. There is no liberty in letting people mutilate another’s genitals. Circumcising another person is not a right, and protecting individuals from unwanted physical harm is exactly the purpose of the state. This is true even when – perhaps especially when – the harm is carried out by well-intentioned parents searching for their ultimate purpose. What about the child’s ultimate purpose? That may include a preference for normal genitals. It probably will include a preference for normal genitals, if he’s left his choice. Instead, Mr. Sullivan’s defense of parents imposing ritual circumcision respects magical thinking more than reason and objective facts.

2 thoughts on “Religion By Scalpel Is Not A Parental Right”

  1. Well said, Tony. If we believe in religious freedom, we believe in a person’s freedom to change their religion. No religion actually bans circumcised men, but Sikhism deprecates circumcision, Catholicism demands that priests not be castrated (celibacy wasn’t meant to be easy) and who knows what some 21st century Scientology will demand of its members? If you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think it’s crazy for a religion to demand that its members ARE circumcised?

  2. Well, some religions allow polygamy; however, most Western juristictions have no problem banning the practice.
    Some ancient religions in meso-America practiced human sacrifice. However, if such a religion were to survive today in its original form, no one in their right mind could defend their religious freedom to sacrifice.
    Slavery was seen as acceptable by many cultures in the past. However, no one in their right mind could defend slavery on cultural grounds today.
    I think all religions do change over time — it really has to do with the way their members interpret their scriptures.
    As you might expect, people who actually think for themselves do exist. They are not prisoners to every single religious dogma and practice. Yes, and there are even some Jews who don’t circumcise.
    There is a good Dutch documentary that I saw, “Mother, why was I circumcised?” (you can search on Google videos) In the documentary the journalist (if I’m correct, the journalist himself is a secular Jew) isn’t afraid to question the practice of religious circumcision as practiced by Muslims and Jews.

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