Want To Ban Circumcision? Include A Religious Exemption

From a Time Magazine article about the proposed circumcision ban in San Francisco:

The San Francisco debate over circumcision initially centered on the value of the procedure itself — opponents call it barbaric, supporters point to its long tradition and say it prevents disease. But increasingly the debate is becoming one about religion, in which critics accuse backers of the referendum of bigotry and insist a ban would violate the First Amendment’s religious freedoms. [...]

Still, the drafters of the San Francisco referendum could have avoided the religious issue — and kept the focus on the harms and benefits of circumcision — if they had included an exception for circumcisions done for religious reasons. Jews, whose religious traditions require male children to be circumcised eight days after birth, and Muslims, who also practice circumcision, are a small part of the city’s population.

Instead, the referendum expressly states that the ban would apply equally to religious circumcisions.

By not including a religious exemption, the writers of San Francisco’s proposed ban guaranteed that what should have been a debate about boy’s rights to an intact body, and about health issues, has become a debate about if they themselves are bigots. That’s neither smart nor effective.1

Circumcision ban advocates might respond that Jewish and Muslim boys deserve to remain intact as much as anyone else. But talking about the proposed ban as if it would actually prevent circumcisions among Jews and Muslims is unrealistic. Determined parents — and after this campaign, Jewish and Muslim parents in San Francisco are, I’d wager, more determined than ever — can drive out of town to have the circumcision done, or have the circumcision done at home (as many Jews already do).

The only thing a circumcision ban could do, other than help start some conversations, is change how parents who don’t feel strongly about circumcision choose. Some parents currently having their sons circumcised, not because they’re determined to do so, but because circumcision is more-or-less the default choice in many US hospitals. Those are the parents who might change what they do because of a ban. But the ban will never pass if it doesn’t include a religious exemption.

  1. Actually, there’s good reason to think that the folks behind the San Francisco ban are in fact antisemites. But perhaps some future proposed bans will come from people who aren’t dragging around huge “we are bigoted jerks” baggage. []
This entry posted in Anti-Semitism, crossposted on TADA, Sexism hurts men. Bookmark the permalink. 

128 Responses to Want To Ban Circumcision? Include A Religious Exemption

  1. 101
    mythago says:

    Phil @98: No, I think the nipple comparison is inappropriate because it’s anatomically wrong. Also because, as you yourself admitted, it’s meant to inflame rather than inform; there’s no reason to make such a comparison except to try and shock people; and using wrong statements to shock people into believing you is an unsound strategy. It tends to discredit everything else you say.

    I’m really not sure how much more clearly I can explain how religious exemptions work. I’ve provided links to cases that set out how the law weighs the rights of religious people under the Establishment Clause to be free of the government saying “you can’t engage in X religious practice” (something a church/state purist should fervently support, no?) against the state’s interest in requiring everybody to follow certain rules.

    “Prima facie issue” does not mean what you think it means.

  2. 102
    chingona says:

    Even setting aside the religious exemption issue, laws regularly ban certain types of activities while explicitly permitting the same activity to continue in a different context.

    Here’s an example from my state’s animal cruelty statute:

    (1) Nothing in this part 2 shall affect accepted animal husbandry practices utilized by any person in the care of companion or livestock animals or in the extermination of undesirable pests as defined in articles 7, 10, and 43 of title 35, C.R.S.

    You also haven’t addressed how you think this blanket, no-exemptions ban should work. How would you enforce a circumcision ban on Jewish families? What measures would you like the state to take?

  3. 103
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    chingona says:
    July 9, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Okay, so that was a monster comment, but let me put it another way: Saying “I was circumcised and I’m fine” isn’t an argument *in favor* of circumcision anymore than saying “I was in a car accident and I’m fine” is an argument in favor of getting into car accidents.

    Yes and no.

    “I was circed and I’m fine” isn’t an argument in favor of being circumcised, but–when used by the millions of people in that category–it acts as a strong counter to the claims (not necessarily made by you) of horrific, permanent, and/or widespread damage. It’s especially relevant when the “I’m fine” people vastly outnumber the “…but I’m not!” people.

    So it’s not in favor of actually circumcision, but it’s in favor of viewing it as the (minor) procedure that it really is.

    I’m not really sure how to use your analogy to illustrate this. Perhaps: “I was in a car accident and I’m fine” is not an argument in favor of getting into car accidents, but is relevant (in the average) when you’re in a conversation with someone who asserts that car accidents usually result in fatality or serious injury, and that if you’ve been in an accident you’re probably hurt somewhere.

    ballgame says:
    To throw up our hands and assert — as g&w does, and as [RJN]apparently endorses — the odious notion that, “Gosh, who knows whether the sex lives of circumcised men are better or worse?” is to obscure the scientifically incontrovertible fact that circumcision is damaging. We may not know for a fact that this or that individual is leading a less satisfying life because of it, but to assert that you can profoundly damage the sex organs of millions of men in this manner and yet somehow not have an impact on their aggregate sexual satisfaction is to defy common sense.

    I don’t claim to know. I merely believe that, given the millions (or hundreds of millions) of men who have been circumcised since the world began, it’s unlikely that there would be a functionally significant difference of which we were entirely unaware.

    I also disagree that “profoundly damage” is an accurate description. Which is, in essence, the root of our disagreement.

    Is there an effect? I don’t believe there is, as discussed above, but I certainly don’t know. Do a large-scale study and you’ll find out. Hell, you can probably just mine the data across one of the other surveys which already exist–circumcision probably is a datapoint in various surveys that address sexuality–and do a retrospective analysis. Look at sexual satisfaction, erectile dysfunction, or whatever you like.

    Absent such a study, you’ll have to rely on mass anecdotal data. And the anecdotes don’t support a conclusion that men who have foreskins have a healthier o happier sex life than men who don’t have them.

  4. 104
    Schala says:

    And the anecdotes don’t support a conclusion that men who have foreskins have a healthier o happier sex life than men who don’t have them.

    It certainly nullifies the claimed hygiene benefits – given that billions of men have been left intact worldwide, and they didn’t all die or get urinary infections due to hygiene.

    Also, if we can only rely on anecdotes, it would be easy to find anecdotes of women who have had FGM done to them, and who report full sexual satisfaction. But hey, it’s only anecdotes in studies.

    I don’t think this should be the standard, either. Given it’s done against the consent (or absent it) of the one concerned (or in highly coercive climate where NOT doing it would be social suicide), THIS should be the main point.

    It’s not necessary, it’s permanent, and it’s done absent the consent of the one who has the most interest in this. Therefore, ban it on non-consenting individuals. No exemption. You can have it done at 18 if you want it.

  5. At the core of this book is a survey that was done of women measuring their responses to having sex with circumcised vs uncircumcised men. The study was published in a medical journal–sorry, I don’t have that bibliographical information handy. The book is worth looking at.

  6. 106
    Phil says:

    Mythago:

    No, I think the nipple comparison is inappropriate because it’s anatomically wrong.

    And in no way was I attempting to make an anatomical comparison, nor was the question I was answering attempting to solicit anatomical analogies. The question was about where one would rank circumcision in terms of the other things that parents can do to a child (basically.)

    The question asked where circumcision would rank on a spectrum that included vaccine choice, food choice, work/family balance, how much TV they permit and what type, etc. Obviously, none of those things are anatomical analogies.

    [...]using wrong statements to shock people into believing you is an unsound strategy.

    Mythago, you are entitled to have an opinion that is different from mine. That doesn’t make me wrong. You said “no” at the beginning of your comment as if to suggest that whether amputating nipples or foreskin was equally horrific is an issue that’s beside the point. But, obviously, if you felt that the two things were equally horrific–and something can be equally horrific without being anatomically equal–then you wouldn’t find the statement to be inappropriately inflammatory or shocking.

    Your critique of my statement is based on your difference of opinion but you’re trying to make it sound like I’m objectively wrong. You are wrong to do so.

    I’m really not sure how much more clearly I can explain how religious exemptions work.

    I thought your explanation of the Establishment Clause and related example cases was great.

    I’m trying to find examples of laws where the religious exemption was written into the text of the legislation. My understanding is that in the Supreme Court examples you gave, this was not the case.

    Would the legislation proposed in the Time Magazine article that Amp talks about in the OP be the first of its kind, or are there other examples?

    chingona,

    You also haven’t addressed how you think this blanket, no-exemptions ban should work. How would you enforce a circumcision ban on Jewish families?

    That’s a good question. I take issue with your phrasing “How would you enforce a circumcision ban on Jewish families?”–I don’t support or endorse a circumcision ban “on Jewish families.” I’d support either an educational campaign, or a universal ban, over a ban with religious exemptions. But Jewish parents (in the U.S., at least–I don’t have data for San Francisco) are a small fraction of the parents who choose to amputate their children’s foreskins. And I don’t think that “families” circumcise children–parents, doctors, and hired practitioners do.

    Clearly, it would be a cop out for me to say “I support treating Jewish and Muslim parents exactly the same as anyone else, if they violate the law.” While true, that statement doesn’t actually say what the consequences should be. The proposed SF ban includes a fine and potential jail time. Given that this practice is different from other kinds of child abuse, I think perhaps jail time is more appropriate for repeat offenders. (Other kinds of child abuse, be they violent or sexual, are likely to be repeated by the offender. This type of child abuse is more likely to occur once per child.)

    Finally, I think a ban on male circumcision might be less valuable than legislation which includes an age restriction and requires informed consent from the patient prior to performing any permanent amputation of a healthy body part. Is it possible that honing in on circumcision contributes to making religious groups feel that they are being singled out?

  7. 107
    chingona says:

    Phil,

    I phrase it that way because it is Jewish families who will be motivated to circumcise even if it is illegal, so they will bear the brunt of the enforcement. And for all intents and purposes, families do circumcise children. It’s a doctor or mohel (many but not all of whom are also doctors) who makes the cut, but it’s the families that ask them to do it. To say punish the doctor but not the parents is like saying doctors who do abortions should go to jail and nothing should happen to the woman.

  8. 108
    Simple Truth says:

    @Chingona 105:

    I phrase it that way because it is Jewish families who will be motivated to circumcise even if it is illegal, so they will bear the brunt of the enforcement.

    As I pointed out previously, despite the fact that it’s not a prescribed ritual, Protestant families feel very strongly about circumcision. They may very well do it despite a regulation or law against it. It’s at least quasi-religious in nature to some Protestants.
    I don’t have a study to back that up, only my experience growing up Southern Baptist.

  9. 109
    Robert says:

    Catholics too.

  10. 110
    chingona says:

    Do you have any kind of cite on that? Because it seems to be an entirely American phenomenon.

    FWIW, I’m against a ban, period. But if there is a ban and Catholics and Baptists want to fight for the value of religious circumcision to them and develop rituals outside the hospital to recognize it, that’s their right.

    ETA: And I’m not trying to be an asshole about this. My husband’s family is all Baptist and quite religious, but their reasons for circumcising seem to be the standard American reasons – everyone does it, it’s cleaner, look like Dad, etc. I never heard any religious reason given. In very Catholic Latin America, the vast majority of men aren’t cut. In Europe, most men aren’t cut. Obviously, just because something is an American religious phenomenon doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply felt. I’m just skeptical that it’s something other than American culture expressing itself among American Christians.

  11. 111
    Schala says:

    I was raised Catholic, in French-speaking Canada, and it’s not in the mores to circumcise here. We have the highest rate of intact male infants of Canada. We also have the highest rate of Catholics, and of French-speakers (75% native, 90% total).

    Ironic that the Protestant vs Catholic thing is also much of a France vs England, which ultimately translated into French-speaking native and English-speaking native conflict. Our cultures are different.

    Doesn’t help that England tried to assimilate us, and then used us as cheap labor for decades.

  12. 112
    ballgame says:

    Is there an effect? I don’t believe there is, as discussed above, but I certainly don’t know. Do a large-scale study and you’ll find out. Hell, you can probably just mine the data across one of the other surveys which already exist–circumcision probably is a datapoint in various surveys that address sexuality–and do a retrospective analysis. Look at sexual satisfaction, erectile dysfunction, or whatever you like.

    Well, that would depend on what kind of survey you’re talking about, g&w. As Schala correctly notes, if you’re talking about a survey of self-assessments (as you imply), you’re not likely to find out much. Imagine doing such a survey on a large population of people who are color blind to orange, and who have been told all their lives that their sight is completely normal. I don’t see why anyone would expect that their answer to the question, “Are you satisfied with your eyesight?” would differ significantly from those who are not color blind in this way.

    In short, this is a very poor way to try to assess how strongly men are affected by circumcision.

    Absent such a study, you’ll have to rely on mass anecdotal data.

    Actually, there are a number of alternatives. One, you can simply look at the underlying science. You have an organ explicitly designed for sensation. We know that an organ’s intensity of feeling and sensitivity to touch are strongly correlated to the number of nerve receptors it has, and that circumcision removes tens of thousands of those receptors. It’s simply a logical conclusion that this damage would have an adverse impact for most.

    For those who doubt that diminution of sensation affects sexual satisfaction, here’s a thought experiment: if there was no chance of catching or transmitting an STD or impregnating someone, how many men would be indifferent to the choice of wearing a condom or not? I would wager that the vast majority of men would prefer not to wear a condom for expressly the reason that it diminishes sensation. (Indeed, I’ve long suspected that one reason the US has one of the highest rates of AIDs among the major industrialized nations despite being the only one to have routinely circumcised its male population — which is supposed to have some protective benefit* — is precisely because American men are more resistant to wearing condoms on their already-desensitized penises.)

    In addition, there’s a lot of ignorance in America about the procedure, even among medical professionals. If you put together a couple of paragraphs describing what circumcision actually does (i.e. it removes 10,000 to 20,000 nerves, it causes the skin on the penile head to dry, thicken and become less sensitive, it makes the penis somewhat easier to clean, and some studies in Africa suggest it may have some protective effect against AIDs*), and then present that info as part of a survey to large groups of otherwise equivalent circumcised men and uncircumcised men. Ask them if they had the power to somehow change things if they could, would they prefer to have been circumcised as infants or left intact? Compare the percent of each group who would change their status. I strongly suspect that the percentage of ‘circumcised men who wished they hadn’t been’ would dwarf the percentage of ‘uncircumcised men who wished they had been.’

    * There is reason to doubt the validity of the African studies, as I explain in this post at FC.

  13. 113
    Robert says:

    Sorry, my nationcentrism is showing. I meant American Catholics, among whom I was raised. Never saw an uncircumcised dick until I was a grownup.

  14. 114
    Schala says:

    Sorry, my nationcentrism is showing. I meant American Catholics, among whom I was raised. Never saw an uncircumcised dick until I was a grownup.

    Maybe it’s me, but I never saw another penis than mine (and it’s really underdeveloped – something I couldn’t really tell back then, without any comparison) until I was 25 and first gave head.

    So I didn’t see the difference between circumcision or not, because I didn’t see penises period. I also have never seen a vulva live (or even in porn).

  15. 115
    chingona says:

    Never saw an uncircumcised dick until I was a grownup.

    Probably one of the few things we have in common. ;-)

    So, I’m curious if you understood the practice as something religious and if so how, why, in what sense, etc. Or if it was just what was done, and since you were Catholic, you assumed it had something to do with Catholicism. This isn’t for purposes of Establishment Clause claims. I’m just curious.

  16. 116
    Robert says:

    It seemed marginally religious, basically in imitation of the Jews. But it was cultural, not canonical – the priests didn’t go around advocating it (that I ever heard, anyway).

    A lot of Catholic (and general Christian, for that matter) religious tradition is more or less a folk interpretation of old-school Judaism. Bits of the litany, some of the structure of the services, etc. And a fair boatload of the social tradition; there’s a reason that the stereotypes of the Catholic and Jewish guilt-wielding mother are so similar.

    (How many Catholic/Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? “Oh, don’t trouble yourself for me, I can just sit here in the dark.”)

  17. 117
    Phil says:

    Chingona,
    “I phrase it that way because it is Jewish families who will be motivated to circumcise even if it is illegal, so they will bear the brunt of the enforcement.”

    That may be true. It wasn’t my intention to make a distinction between Jews and others in the comment you’re referring to. I was making a distinction between “families” and individuals. I take issue with the idea that a family is responsible for abuse; individuals are responsible for abuse.

  18. 118
    Ruchama says:

    But in many cases, circumcising or not is a family decision. Both parents are involved, and Jewish grandparents will usually have and express an opinion, and I know that, within my family, my aunt and uncle would certainly at least try to convince me otherwise if I had a baby boy and said that I wasn’t going to circumcise him. Someone who grew up Jewish not circumcising a baby boy would be read by many people as not just a rejection of Judaism, but as a rejection of the family.

  19. 119
    chingona says:

    It wasn’t my intention to make a distinction between Jews and others in the comment you’re referring to.

    I think right here is the whole crux (ha!) of the matter, and at this point, I doubt we will resolve it. You keep insisting that you aren’t making a distinction between Jews and non-Jews, and I believe you that in your mind, you aren’t. But the reality is that the impact on Jewish and non-Jewish people would be quite disparate. At this point, I don’t think there is anything else that can be explained to you.

    And even if individuals commit abuse, you still have the fact that parents would have hired the doctor or mohel to do the circumcision. I don’t think there’s any other kind of supposed abuse in which you would absolve the parents of responsibility for hiring someone to abuse their kid.

    And what Ruchama said.

  20. 120
    Phil says:

    But the reality is that the impact on Jewish and non-Jewish people would be quite disparate. At this point, I don’t think there is anything else that can be explained to you.

    Yes, I think those points have been made, and I didn’t mean to seem insensitive or obstinate, although I understand how that could be interpreted. I’ve read a lot in this thread that I need to think about. To me, the first issue is “How unacceptable is the practice of nonmedical circumcision” and the second issue is “Who will be affected by attempting to legally remedy the first issue?” Your answer to the first question will affect when and how you arrive at the second question. I suppose it is possible to say, “Circumcision is horrific child abuse” and then be equally concerned with who will be affected by by attempts to prevent it. But I’m not sure that is actually how the process works in practice. I cannot imagine, for example, Amp writing a blog post entitled, “Want to ban child abuse? Include a religious exemption.”* And I can’t imagine most of the intelligent, well-spoken and well-meaning people on this thread would be as comfortable with religious exemptions for child abuse as they are for circumcision.

    And unless you’re as comfortable with the idea of religious exemptions for child abuse as you are with the idea of religious exemptions for circumcision, then any argument that religious minorities need or deserve religious exemptions is a de facto argument that circumcision isn’t actually child abuse.

    *(I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that, Amp. I don’t mean to presume what you would or wouldn’t write.)

  21. 121
    Ampersand says:

    “Want to ban child abuse? Include a religious exemption.”*

    I think that child abuse is so important that reducing its prevalence should be more important than maintaining moral purity in the law.

    So the question should be, what method will best reduce child abuse? If going through criminal law is most effective, then that’s what I favor. But if a “harm reduction” approach is most effective, then that’s what I favor. Criminalizing child abuse is not as important as reducing child abuse.

  22. I want to start this comment by reminding everyone that I am entirely against the routine medical circumcision of infants born with penises and that, while I respect the position which holds that brit milah is a kind of categorical imperative of Judaism and Jewish identity, I also think that penile circumcision should be replaced with some of other form of sealing the covenant it represents. So I would appreciate it if no one responds to what I am about to say by suggesting that I just “don’t get” how damaging foreskin removal is to the penis, what the possible consequences are of botched circumcisions, or anything like that.

    I say that because I’d like to interrogate a little bit the easy way (at least to me) in which Phil–and I think some others in this conversation have equated infant penile circumcision, absent come compelling medical rationale, with child abuse. In my understanding, child abuse–sexual and otherwise–is predatory; in one way or another, abusers turn the kids they abuse into prey. It’s not just that the kids are powerless–as infants who are circumcised clearly also are; it’s that the children who are abused are, in some way, hunted–which is not true of infants who are circumcised. Indeed, infant penile circumcision, whether it is compelled religiously or justified medically, is about precisely the opposite of hunting; it is about bringing someone into the fold, including them in a community–either of religion or of ostensible genital health. (Most people in this thread might agree that circumcision is not a requirement of genital health, but there are still doctors out there who say that it is, and someone who follows, in good faith, the advice of such a doctor is only doing what he or she thinks is best for their child.)

    This, of course, does not change the fact that infant penile circumcision is a permanent, painful, body alteration that is imposed–and when medically imposed unnecessarily so–on a group of people who are too young to have any meaningful say in the matter, and that seems to me enough of a justification for calling for an end to the practice; but the more I have thought about some of the comments here, the more serious my reservations have become, especially because I am someone who was sexually abused as a child, about viewing infant penile circumcision through the lens of child abuse. I have a very hard time equating either my mother and father, or my grandparents, who were the people who brought me to my circumcision and handed me over to the mohel, or the mohel himself, who performed my circumcision, or the man who held me in his lap while the circumcision was performed, or any of the people who celebrated with my family when my circumcision was performed with either of the men who molested me.

  23. 123
    Jake Squid says:

    … it’s that the children who are abused are, in some way, hunted …

    Can you expand on this, Richard? I ask because I don’t understand what you mean. Throughout my experience as an abused child and in my reflections on it as an adult, the word “hunted” has never come to mind.

  24. Jake,

    This is going to be quick, since I have to leave to teach soon and I don’t know if I will be online again today with a chance to comment: Perhaps hunted overextends the metaphor a little bit too much from my own experience of child sexual abuse, but what I mean is that, in my experience (and I am thinking here about my childhood experience of non-sexual violence as well), an abuser maliciously preys on the kid(s) he or she abuses and I don’t think circumcision, either medical or religious, fits that model.

  25. 125
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I think Phil’s point is at heart correct, though I think the comparison to child abuse opens the door to a side track:

    The belief that there shouldn’t be a religious exemption (held by some folks) and/or the belief that there should be no restrictions at all on circumcision (held by other folks, including me) are dependent on circumcision’s status as a comparatively minor procedure. That is why many of the religious-exemption folks would presumably argue against a parent’s right to refuse life-saving treatment, even if they were jehovah’s witnesses. That is also why many of the “parents should be able to make choice without undue interference” people don’t apply the same rule to things that they consider more major.

    I think that child abuse is a poor analogy, because it involves both physical and mental issues, as well as parental intent and all of the other things that accompany legality. Spanking your kid when they ignore your instructions not to draw on the walls of the Met with crayon is generally not considered abuse*, while spanking your kid just because it’s Monday is abuse, even though the act is the same. “Doing things your kids hates,” “doing things which are not ideal for your kid,” and “doing thing that cause your kid harm” are not per se abusive, depending on the circumstances. But RJN has gone into much more detail.

    * Legally, that is. opinions vary on the moral grounds.

  26. 126
    Jewish Intactivist says:

    … Glad to contribute a Jewish intactivist perspective to the conversation!

    Throughout Europe, the former Soviet Union, and South America, many Jews either never circumcised, or quietly stopped circumcising, believing it to be a violent pre-modern custom with obvious ethical problems. In America, some Jews don’t circumcise. But there is a movement of Jews who are replacing circumcision with a peaceful religious ritual that welcomes the child without violating their body. It is gaining recognition because of wonderful bloggers like you! Judaism is an evolving religion, one that is focused on human ethics.

    Here is even more information about Jews who are rejecting circumcision!

    A Jewish Intactivist Parenting Blog
    http://www.beyondthebris.com/

    Jews Against Circumcision
    http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.
    http://www.beyondthebris.com/2011/07/defying-convention-interview-with_27.html

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors
    http://intactnews.org/node/103/1311885181/jews-speak-out-favor-banning-circumcision-minors … . . . .

  27. 127
    Stefan says:

    But there is a movement of Jews who are replacing circumcision with a peaceful religious ritual that welcomes the child without violating their body

    Wonderful.

  28. 128
    Susan says:

    I heard a very interesting NPR program on this. They had on the panel a guy high in the CDC. He claimed that there are large, scientifically documented studies showing substantial health benefits (both for men and for their partners) to circumcision.

    I know nothing about this issue, especially the data cited by the CDC guy. Anyone want to address it? Be sure to include links to scientific information, as opposed to unsupported opinions and ideology.