This is why I don’t like the political process for ending non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors.
Congressman Brad Sherman announced today that he will be introducing the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011, a bill to prevent San Francisco and other municipalities from banning the circumcision of males under the age of 18.
Sherman’s new bill is in reaction to a measure that has qualified for the November 2011 ballot in San Francisco that would make the performance of circumcisions on males under 18 a misdemeanor—with a possible $1,000 fine and one-year prison term.
He’s framing the problem incorrectly, which allows him to protect a “right” that doesn’t exist and ignore a right that does. The proposed bill in San Francisco would prohibit non-therapeutic circumcisions on males under 18. Healthy children do not need surgery, even if the parents’ god says so. California law already restricts the rights of parents to cut the healthy genitals of their daughters for any reason, including religious claims. Is that an infringement? Of course not. Likewise, there is no First Amendment right to inflict permanent harm on one’s
children sons (only).
Sherman expressed concern over the motivation of the provision. “To infringe the religious rights of so many Americans, San Francisco should have some compelling medical reason; however, the medical literature actually shows clear benefits of male circumcision.”
The provision, shown by its generally-applicable wording, would protect the right of all healthy males to keep their normal body intact and free from the objective harm of non-therapeutic surgery to which they do not consent. It’s the same right U.S. and California law protects for their sisters. That right is being violated. It must stop. This is a way to achieve that, even if it may not be the best way.
But if we incorrectly assume this infringes a legitimate religious right, San Francisco (and every other locality) has a compelling medical reason to prohibit non-therapeutic male child circumcision: it’s non-therapeutic genital cutting imposed on a non-consenting individual. The healthy child does not need circumcision any more than he needs an appendectomy. If he has an appendectomy, he will never get appendicitis. That is a potential benefit. Should we therefore allow parents to have a surgeon cut their healthy
children sons (only) to remove his potentially harm-producing appendix? In the name of parental rights? No, because that would be stupid. The ability to chase some possible benefit can’t be an ethical justification to perform an invasive, unnecessary surgical intervention on a healthy child.
Congressman Sherman added:
“Congress has a legitimate interest in making sure that a practice that appears to reduce disease and health care costs remains available to parents,” Sherman said. “And, nothing in my bill prohibits statewide law ensuring that male circumcision occurs in a hygienic manner.”
To the extent that Congress has a legitimate interest¹ here, it’s in protecting the individual rights of every citizen, including male children. It already protected female children with the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996. That prohibits non-therapeutic genital cutting on non-consenting female minors for any reason, including religious claims by the parents. Does that infringe on parental religious rights? Are we illegitimately denying religious rights by not permitting other acts by parents sanctioned by various religious texts? Are the healthy genitals of male minors beneath the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment?
“Congress has historically legislated to protect the free exercise of religious rights from state and local intrusions,” Sherman said. “In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, designed to protect religious institutions from unduly burdensome local zoning laws.”
The logic of the law Congressman Sherman cites favorably requires the conclusion that his proposed bill is flawed. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act establishes that the government may not impose a burden
…unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution–
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
(A) Protecting children from unnecessary, objective harm is a compelling governmental interest. Circumcision, as surgery, inflicts objective harm in every instance. When there is no offsetting medical need, the harm is the only guaranteed result. Preventing that is the premise behind prohibiting all female genital cutting on healthy female minors, even genital cutting that is less severe, damaging, or permanent than a typical male circumcision. The government recognizes that girls are individuals with rights that deserve to be protected. Infringing on a non-existent parental right to cut the healthy genitals of their
daughters children is a legitimate state action.
(B) The least restrictive means would be for parents to understand that non-therapeutic genital cutting on healthy children is ethically and medically wrong and, thus, refrain from imposing it on their sons. Yet, religious and non-religious parents alike cut the healthy genitals of their sons. How else is the state supposed to stop it without exercising its legitimate police power?
Congressman Sherman should withdraw the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011 immediately. He should also introduce a bill to remove the gender bias from the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 to create the Anti-Genital Mutilation Act of 2011, if he’s serious about using the powers of Congress correctly to protect the rights of all American citizens.
Update: More from Congressman Sherman:
Sherman said he did not consult the text of the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 in composing the bill he will put forth in Congress.
“I think people who make that analogy are so wrong that their thinking does not color my thinking,” Sherman said.
Since he’s working with a closed mind, I’ll simplify: non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting person is wrong. The extent of the damage is irrelevant. The reason cited is irrelevant. The gender of the victim is irrelevant. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong.
¹ I want to be proved wrong on this, but Sherman’s statement is further evidence of my prediction that ceding power to the government on health care would lead to arguments that child circumcision provided fiscal benefits to the nation. It wouldn’t change the ethical violation involved, but Congressman Sherman doesn’t provide a cost-benefit analysis for his claim. Only in Congress can spending money always mean saving money.