Circumscripture

I love my foreskin

Bumper stickers being sold in support of the circumcision ban in Germany. Translation: “I love my foreskin”

Following some particularly gruesome complications from a circumcision performed on a four year-old Muslim boy in Germany, his doctor was pressed with charges of bodily harm. After some time in court, the doctor was acquitted having not broken any law, which posed a new question: Is circumcision an ethical procedure? In Germany most babies are not circumcised. But many Jewish and Muslim parents choose to circumcise their boys for religious reasons, and the Muslim family who was having their four year-old circumcised was just trying to do the right thing. But are these good enough reasons to modify (some would say mutilate) your infant’s genitals?

For Muslims, it’s an issue of cleanliness. It is essential that Muslims purify and are as clean as possible before prayer. Most Muslims wash their hands (whenever possible), and wear clean clothes that cover the body before prayer. It is thought that circumcision can contribute to the cleanliness, as removing the foreskin would prevent dirt and urine from getting trapped in it. Although the Qur’an does not mention this, the Hadith (the collected word of the Prophet Muhammad) does say that circumcision is necessary for males and recommended for females. But with today’s modern conveniences and high standards of personal hygiene (daily bathing, indoor plumbing, etc), does this cleanliness argument really hold up? The rest of the uncircumcised world seems to be getting along without any major problems.

Jewish boys are traditionally circumcised 8 days after their birth at a Brit Milah ceremony
photo by Cheskel Dovid

For Jews, circumcision is also performed out of tradition. In Genesis 17:9-14, God tells Abraham that all men in his family should be circumcised as a token of the covenant of their relationship with God. Those members who are not trimmed have broken the covenant and should be cut off from the community of God. This usually happens in a ceremony called Brit milah, 8 days after a Jewish baby boy is born. This is traditionally when the boy’s name is also announced, having been a secret until then. If a family chooses not to have their boy circumcised, they will probably not be excommunicated from the congregation. And since most guys don’t advertise their foreskin status to the world, they will not likely encounter any discrimination amongst their peers within or outside of their religious community.

Germany is not the first to consider circumcision legislation. A year ago in San Francisco, a potential ban on circumcision in the city was “snipped” from the ballot, after officials determined that it would be unlawful to locally regulate medical procedures. Although it sparked some good debates, it would have been a waste of resources to put it to public vote.

The countries with higher concentrations of Jews and Muslims tend to have higher rates of circumcision

For most of the world, circumcision isn’t even a question. The majority of men in the US are circumcised, though not so much for religious reasons. Religion aside, there are strong arguments for and against circumcision for health reasons (that’s another lengthy debate; I’ll let you do your own research). With American parents, many of the reasons I’ve heard go something along the lines of, “Well your dad was circumcised, so we thought you should be too.” Could this also be applied to having your infant daughter’s ears pierced? Essentially you’re paying money to permanently alter your child’s body, and it’s certainly painful for your child. But there’s no telling if 20 years down the road they will be thankful for having this traumatic procedure done before they could remember it, or if they’ll really just wish they had some foreskin.

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4 thoughts on “Circumscripture

  1. The thing about circumcision, at least in the US, is that it cuts all ties to religion. It is the norm to have cut form. If someone tried to sneak this legislation by in the US, firstly we’d have a fit about First Amendment, blah blah blah, but secondly, we would just behead the little head and say that it was for hygienic purposes rather than religious ones. So, nice try Germany, but this bill will be nipped in the head before it can be put to practice.

  2. I think this is a really fascinating debate. It was really brought to my attention in an extremely uncomfortable conversation with my mom regarding my cousin’s hesitance to circumcise her son and my mom’s hesitance to circumcise my brother. Despite the fact I’d rather not discuss anything having to do with my brother’s genital hygiene, my mom did make me think whether this norm in America is really necessary. I do think it is very unfortunate that this decision pretty much needs to be made at birth and without the opinion of the person being circumcised. I don’t think I would appreciate realizing one day that I look different than someone else due to a decision made by my parents. I really do think it is a form of mutilation, but I also think it may be a necessary process. I’m also really glad you brought up female circumcision, because it is less common and not really talked about as often. I think that if this practice were more common with females, there would be more of a push against it because women’s bodies are so often controlled by other people (birth control, abortion, etc…). I also would be personally horrified at the idea of having my daughter circumcised versus my son, so that says something about the sexism of the whole situation.

  3. This is actually an incredibly complex debate in the US, because (just to clarify) it really *isn’t* the norm elsewhere to have boys circumcised, unless they are Jewish or Muslim. The US has one of the highest rates of circumcision in the world, and it’s the only non-religious country to rate even close to high – the other countries in the top 5 are Israel and predominantly Muslim countries.
    And while Alex is right, it’s not for religious purposes in the US, it wasn’t for medical purposes, either: It was originally to curb boys and men from masturbating. Only after they discovered that being circumcised didn’t prevent people from masturbating did doctors start to make arguments for it based on health purposes – they were applying medical reasons to justify a largely cultural preference.
    So one of the reasons this is so controversial – and why it may not be as simple as applying “first amendment rights” as Alex suggests – has to do with what one believes it is analogous to: is it similar to piercing the ears of an infant, as Tyler suggests, or is it more similar to Type I female circumcision – which is generally frowned upon in the US, despite some communities arguing for religious and cultural requirements to perform it. So from a legal perspective, it becomes a question of whether this is a form of religious practice that must be permitted under the first amendment (in the US at least) vs is this a form of child abuse (obviously babies aren’t consenting to this) in which the law *should* intervene (as the law does with other religious practices deemed harmful to children, such as the refusal of necessary medical treatment, etc.)?
    Great blog entry on a very complex topic!

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