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Blog: Humanist Voices

crying(Photo by Matt Williams)

A recent court ruling in Germany has ignited anger and indignation from Jews, Muslims and Christians around the world. The district court of Cologne effectively banned male circumcision in the country, stating the following reasons:

..circumcision for the purpose of religious upbringing constitutes a violation of physical integrity … The child's body is permanently and irreparably changed by the circumcision. This change conflicts with the child's interest of later being able to make his own decision on his religious affiliation.

This stellar judgment securing the physical and psychological integrity of children in Germany has been met with widespread scorn, disgust and opposition from religious groups, who consider traditional rituals immune from scrutiny and interference, no matter how harmful they are judicially determined to be.

And as you can further expect, several references to the Holocaust have gushed out from this group. A Russian rabbi in Berlin described this court ruling as "perhaps the most serious attack on Jewish life in Europe since the Holocaust.” Jill Shaw Ruddock on the Huffington Post writes:

“Could it be possible that judges in Cologne didn't know what happened the last time Germany went down this road? One of Hitler's first enactments was to outlaw the Jewish method of slaughter. The other was to ban circumcision.”

As most critical thinkers must know, this is the classic ploy of poisoning the well, a special case of the logical fallacy argumentum ad hominem. Attributing an unpopular decision to something Hitler or the Nazis may have done (as in, “The Nazis happened to do this, hence it must be wrong”) is not making a coherent, rational argument against the decision itself. It is simply an attempt to make you seem ideologically equivalent to the Nazis if you support the decision.

The faith traditions of Judaism and Islam instruct believers to perform circumcision on male infants (while female genital mutilation is widely prevalent in Muslim populations across Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and Sudan). Muslim and Jewish parents are outraged that the German government, in this case, is infringing on their religious freedom. Apparently they haven't yet realized that religious freedom is not absolute, and can be curtailed when it affects the well-being of others. Here are some problems with the practice of circumcision:

Violation of physical integrity

As the court in Germany ruled, mutilation of the genetalia of an infant necessitates a valid medical reason that is in the child's best interests. The religious/ideological beliefs of parents simply do not meet this criteria. A line of regulation ought to be drawn, and often is, when religious beliefs cause harm to others. In this case, prescriptions of holy texts do not supersede the right of a child to bodily integrity. A popular counter-argument from pro-circumcision groups was articulated by Dr. Montgomery, president of the German Medical Association:

" How about piercing the ears of little children. Don't parents have the right to pierce the ears of their little daughters?".

While this is a false analogy, arguments have been made that parents should not pierce the ears of their infants till they are old enough to make the choice themselves. However, circumcision is worse than ear piercings on many levels. Circumcision is permanent, and is the amputation of a part of the infant's body, as opposed to the reversible, mostly minimal effect of ear piercings. Circumcision has psychological implications and may restrict the religious freedom of the child (see below). The above analogy to ear piercings is simply an attempt to distract the audience from the real issue at hand.

Religious freedom for children

Genital mutilation of children, motivated by the religious beliefs of parents, creates barriers around the growing child that confine them to the faith of the parents. A child may not only grow up indoctrinated in the Judaeo-Christian or Islamic environment of his parents, but would exhibit the physical “branding” of circumcision that curtails their self-confidence and independence to explore beyond these boundaries. As an article by the British Journal of Urology elucidates,

For circumcision to be permitted as a religious ritual, it would need to be demonstrated that the child is virtually certain to choose to practise that religion upon attaining the age of reason and that the child will suffer in some way from having the decision reserved for him to make as an adult. Circumcision as currently practiced on non-consenting minors fails on these criteria.

 While the above reasons ought to be sufficient (as in Germany) to ban circumcision on a global basis, research is continually showing additional detriments of circumcision, including:

Psychological trauma of infants

Complications such as blood loss, infection, ulceration of the penis etc.

Infliction of pain and phsyiological stress when performed without anesthesia, which is often the case.

When perpetrators or defenders of infant circumcision realize the impotence of religious arguments, they often respond with the following weak/unproven research:

Inconclusive - Circumcision may help prevent HIV

There is insufficient evidence to support this claim. Scientific studies have reaching varied conclusions. Certain scientific studies have shown that male circumcision may increase male-to-female HIV transmission. Other studies have shown that  promotion of circumcision to prevent HIV transmission/reception is likely to provide a false sense of security in circumcised males and to divert attention and resources from effective proven measures of disease control.

Inconclusive - Penile hygiene may be improved by circumcision

This is widely disputed as well. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated:

"Circumcision has been suggested as an effective method of maintaining penile hygiene since the time of the Egyptian dynasties, but there is little evidence to affirm the association between circumcision status and optimal penile hygiene”.

Inconclusive - Increased prevention of penile cancer

The scientific evidence is not clear on this matter either. Here is a blurb from the American Cancer Society on penile caner and circumcision:

In the past, circumcision has been suggested as a way to prevent penile cancer. This was based on studies that reported much lower penile cancer rates among circumcised men than among uncircumcised men. But in many of those studies, the protective effect of circumcision was no longer seen after factors like smegma and phimosis were taken into account.

Most public health researchers believe that the risk of penile cancer is low among uncircumcised men without known risk factors living in the United States. Men who wish to lower their risk of penile cancer can do so by avoiding HPV infection and not smoking. Those who aren't circumcised can also lower their risk of penile cancer by practicing good hygiene. Most experts agree that circumcision should not be recommended solely as a way to prevent penile cancer.

To summarize my position - Preemptively amputating part of the infant's body, motived by religious or supernatural reasons, backed by inadequate/conflicting scientific evidence, is categorically wrong. The German court has got it right. America should follow suit. Do I think this shall happen anytime soon? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human rights treaty setting out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children, has been signed by every country in the world - except the US and Somalia. So forgive me if I'm not optimistic.

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