CS Lewis was a lousy theologian but a great fiction writer, and among the gifts a great fiction writer has to have is an understanding of the complexities of human nature and an ability to sum them up. In “The Screwtape Letters” the eponymous elder demon instructs his nephew in a key way to guide his human charge into Hell:
We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife”, “my father”, “my master” and “my country”, to “my God”. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots,” the “my” of ownership.
Lewis didn’t include them but “my children” could be slotted in there too, and the cohorts of Hell would be delighted with some of the people I’ve recently been hearing on the subject of infant male circumcision. “They’re my kids, I can do whatever I like with them!” (That’s an actual quote.)
Well, they may be your kids, but you are not allowed to do what you like to them. You can’t break their bones, or kill them, or starve them to death. They are not your boots. For the moment you are allowed a great deal more leeway in many jurisdictions if your religion tells you to do things like deny your child necessary medical care. That is gradually changing, thank goodness, and more and more courts are quashing religious exemptions to those basic parental responsibilities like taking your kid to the doctor when s/he needs it. Parents’ stupid delusions are still killing children, though.
Weirdly, though, although the practice of male infant circumcisions started as a religious practice, most nowadays are not done for religious reasons. It is a religious barbarism which through common usage has fossilized into secular custom. In many (perhaps most) American hospitals it is simply assumed that parents will want their boys to have this operation, and not to do it is seen as the odd and unusual decision.
(I’m not addressing female “circumcision” in this post, because it is so much more heinous it has rightfully been declared illegal in this country. I’m talking here only about the peculiar fact that infant male circumcision is still legal, common and not even often questioned.)
A word of disclosure: I’m cut, as was my father before me, and to my regret I allowed my son to be circumcised also. I simply hadn’t thought about it prior to his birth, his mother wanted it done that day, I went along with it. Having thought more deeply about it since I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the wrong thing to do. Unfortunately, it is an irrevocable decision. I now feel that I made a serious ethical error; I should have respected my son’s inherent bodily autonomy and let him decide when he grew up what medically unnecessary body modifications to make to his body. I’d be rightly condemned if I’d had him permanently depilated, or a permanent tattoo inflicted on his infant body.
Recently courts in Germany, Austrian and Switzerland have found circumcision to be a violation of the child’s human rights. There are strong efforts underway in California to outlaw it there. The human rights argument is simple: since this is an irreversible, permanent alteration of a child’s body, parents should not have the right to impose it on their minor children unless there is sound medical reason to do so.
Is there sound medical reason to perform circumcision on a routine basis? Not really. Recently the American Pediatric Association has slightly warmed to the procedure, on the basis that it isn’t too terribly harmful or risky (only a little over 100 baby boys die per year as a result of circumcision) and may provide some slight health benefits later in life. These include reducing the incidences of contraction of sexually transmitted diseases (if those boys indulge in risky sexual behaviors without the benefit of condoms), and some penile cancers (you can’t get cancer in a foreskin that isn’t there).
Against that there is the risk inherent in any surgical procedure, which can be minimized but can only be eliminated by eliminating the unnecessary surgery, and a loss of potential sexual pleasure later in life, which might not be missed by someone who’s never had it, but it does seem unfair to impose such a decision on another person.
The benefits are slight enough that the AAP does not actually recommend the procedure, still; their position is only that the parents can decide. As far as I can tell no one has come out in favor of routine circumcision in the US in order to reap those health benefits. (There is a push by WHO for more circumcisions in the more HIV-prevalent regions of Africa, but with the focus mainly on adults.) The argument is more that it does little harm, and it is not correct to say (as anti-circumcision groups have for many years) that there are literally no benefits at all. There are drawbacks and benefits, but few of either.
So if there are no significant health benefits, why do it? For some religious sects, Jews in particular, it is seen as a religious obligation, of course, and those never require any logical thinking. I do have to wonder, though… if some new sect sprang up, or an older one like the Mormon church had a new ‘revelation’ go off in the head of a chief prophet, to the effect that baby boys should have their nipples removed at birth.
After all, what good are they? A boy or man is never going to need them. They are typically an erogenous zone, so there would be some minor loss of potential pleasure, but then those boys or men would never know what they are missing. Males do get breast cancer, so cutting them out right away might have marginal health benefits. It would be a completely unnecessary elective (by the parents) surgery, with the typical low risks of such surgeries – risks that can’t be eliminated, but can be minimized. Being so young, the boys would be unlikely to remember or be traumatized by the pain.
Somehow, though, I suspect that the public at large would see the practice as grotesque, and few pediatric surgeons would be willing to do it, even among those who already routinely cut off the ends of those same boys’ penises.