While looking for something else, I ran into Why can’t the United States stop circumcising boys?, an interesting essay by Robert Darby. Widespread male circumcision is a phenomenon that, in wealthy countries, has happened almost exclusively1 in English-speaking countries, and that has faded in every English-speaking country but the USA, where the majority of boys are still circumcised.
So why the American exceptionalism? Despite the title of Darby’s essay, he doesn’t provide a convincing answer, and some of the possibilities brought up seem unlikely to explain the distinction. (For example, I’m sure that the profit motive is important to circumcision — did you know that hospitals make huge profits selling cut-off foreskins?2 — but I don’t see any reason to expect that to be more the case in the US than in other countries).
Darby does suggest a legislative approach to reducing male circumcision, short of an outright ban, which is to stop having the government pay for it. In California, the circumcision rate plummeted once Medicaid coverage ended.
Two things annoyed me about Darby’s essay. First off, the seemingly obligatory passage3 , in any essay objecting to male circumcision, comparing the practice to female circumcision:
The claims of culture are taken very seriously in this age of globalization, but the problem with this particular claim is that it is applied inconsistently. First, there is discrimination based on gender. No matter how important circumcision of girls may be to the cultural/ethnic/religious groups that practise it, American opinion has determined that girls’ bodies are more important than tradition, and that any cutting of the female genitals is Female Genital Mutilation, now banned by law. Secondly, the cultural argument seems to be a one-way street. When faced by parents from circumcising cultures, doctors say they must respect their traditions and accede to their wishes, at least in relation to boys. But when it comes to non-circumcising cultures (the great majority) the argument is suddenly reversed: instead of enjoying automatic respect for their traditions, parents from non-circumcising cultures are pressured to conform to the American norm and to consent to have their sons circumcised, so that they will be “like other boys”.
A more likely explanation than gender-based discrimination is discrimination based on culture (otherwise known as xenophobia); of course we venerate our own cultural acts of child abuse even while correctly disliking the child abuse practiced by other cultures. It’s also the case that, bad as male circumcision is, FGM is in many ways worse; the implicit assumption that the two circumcisions are equivalent (and therefore there is no reason other than sexism that anyone might find FGM more objectionable) doesn’t hold water.
That said, regardless of what US circumcision practice is based on, the effect is a form of child abuse practiced nearly exclusively on boys, and that’s objectionable from a feminist point of view.
Darby also writes:
No matter how many statistics-laden articles get published in medical journals, circumcision cannot shake off the traces of its Victorian origins. It remains the last surviving example of a once respectable proposition that disease could be prevented by the pre-emptive removal of normal body parts which, though healthy, were thought to be a weak link in the body’s defences. In its heyday this medical breakthrough, described by Ann Dally as “fantasy surgery”, enjoyed wide esteem and included excisions of other supposed foci or portals of infection, such as the adenoids, tonsils, teeth, appendix and large intestine.
But circumcision is not “the last surviving” example of such a widespread practice in the US; weight loss surgery is skyrocketing in popularity, justified by unproven long-term preventative effects.
P.S. Also interesting: Darby’s review of the book Madhouse – about Henry Cotton, administrator of a New Jersey asylum, who for decades forcibly removed teeth and other body parts from unwilling patients “for their own good,” and was much admired for this practice.
Cotton was not just a fanatic applying the physicalist procedures of mainstream medicine to the new field of psychiatry, but the embodiment of a deep-seated trend in the medical profession itself: the assumption that if these wise experts think some sort of treatment or procedure is good for you, it is your duty to submit to it, and even that they are entitled–by virtue of their scientific understanding and promise of benefit–to force it on you, with or without informed consent. Throughout his career, Cotton insisted that he was at the forefront of scientific rationality and that his therapies must be enforced because they flowed inexorably, as a matter of mere logic, from the facts of disease as established by the science of which he was the anointed interpreter. He claimed that his approach was based on “scientific medicine,” the germ theory of disease, and “scientific evidence and proof.” His published articles are peppered with terms like “progressive medical men,” “indisputable facts,” “modern medical knowledge”; it hardly needs to be said that they were totally innocent of any ethical awareness.
- I say “almost exclusively” because I suspect circumcision of boys is widespread in Israel. [↩]
- From Darby’s essay: “In the age of biotechnology and tissue engineering, human body parts have a high market value, and baby foreskins are especially prized as the raw material for many biomedical products, from skin grafts to anti-wrinkle cream. The strongest pressure for the continuation of circumcision may not be from doctors at all, but from the hospitals which harvest the foreskins and sell them to commercial partners. This would explain why so many mothers are still pressured to sign consent forms when they arrive for their delivery.” [↩]
- Although Amanda points out an exception to this rule. [↩]