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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