The debate over male ritual circumcision – the surgical removal of the foreskin from the penis of a baby boy for religious and cultural reasons – is becoming more prominent each year. A BBC documentary broadcast this week provides further evidence that the tide is beginning to turn on the historic carte blanche afforded to infant circumcision.
The non-therapeutic alteration of children’s genitals is typically discussed in two separate ethical discourses: one for girls, in which such alteration is referred to as “female genital mutilation” (or FGM), and one for boys, in which it is usually referred to as “male circumcision”. The former is illegal in the UK and typically regarded as barbaric; the latter, benign or even “beneficial”.
But the similarities between the two practices are glaring. Both procedures vary in severity. Both involve painful and usually permanent surgery on a non-consenting child. Both are medically unnecessary. And both are risky.
Just last week reports emerged of a one-month-old baby having to have his penis amputated in Egypt after it turned gangrenous following a circumcision. Earlier this year, two baby boys died in Italy after their genitals were cut for religious reasons. Circumcisions in the UK have also resulted in serious injury and deaths.
But even when carried out “successfully”, circumcisions involve the cutting away of erogenous tissue leading to a loss of penile sensitivity, inhibiting sexual pleasure. This alone should justify a shift in the way we think about this issue.
It can come with psychological problems, too. This year, a mother told her devastating story of how her 23-year-old son killed himself following the trauma he experienced following circumcision – a practice he felt should be known as "male genital mutilation". Alex Hardy's suicide prompted other men to speak out about their own experiences of circumcision.
The psychological effects are likely to be greatly under-reported. People who have experienced sexual harm are often reluctant to reveal it as societal dismissal or stigmatisation may compound the harm.
Defenders of male circumcision sometimes try to justify the practice by citing “health benefits”. Throughout history, male circumcision has been advocated as a pseudo-medical cure for a variety of ailments ranging from TB to epilepsy to warts to excessive masturbation.
But no national medical, paediatric, surgical or urological society in the world recommends routine circumcision of boys as a health intervention. In truth, circumcision is a solution in search of a problem. As the medical ethicist Brian Earp has pointed out, “A large proportion of the current medical literature purporting to show health benefits for male circumcision has been generated by doctors who were themselves circumcised at birth – often for religious reasons – and who have cultural, financial, or other interests in seeing the practice preserved.”
FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls. Non-therapeutic male circumcision is a violation of the rights of boys. The gendered double standard in the way the law deals with them needs to be addressed.
Our response to both forms of cutting should be to apply the principle of genital autonomy and bodily integrity to all children, irrespective of their sex. Circumcision before the age of consent deprives a boy of a body part that he would otherwise likely appreciate. Every child should enjoy the freedom to grow up with an intact body and to make their own choices about permanent bodily modifications. If they consent to their own non-therapeutic circumcision when they are old enough to do so, then fine. But let’s at least give them that choice.
Pro-cutting groups claim this is an issue of religious freedom. But too often, debates around religious freedom are framed solely by those who only really care about their own. Those narrowly focused on maximising their own freedoms can sometimes fail to recognise and consider how their right to manifest their beliefs tramples on the rights of others. The demand for religious freedom to be respected is often little more than a demand for the state to turn a blind eye to the violation of other's rights and freedoms when done in the name of religion.
But as a society we have a duty to balance competing freedoms and consider the rights of the child. Why should a parent’s religious freedom trump a child's right to religious freedom and bodily integrity?
Whilst you have the absolute right to your beliefs, you don't necessarily have the right to impose those beliefs on others – and you certainly shouldn't assume to have the right to impose them with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife on a non-consenting child.
Stephen Evans is the chief executive officer of the National Secular Society