Banning Circumcision and the Strength of Children’s Rights

As was reported in a recent Times of Israel article, the Icelandic parliament introduced a bill earlier this month that would ban the circumcision of male children.  The bill is in line with a 2013 statement by the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children advocating a ban on the practice.  Even if this particular bill is ultimately defeated (an outcome that is by no means assured), the debate surrounding male child circumcision is unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future.

This debate often centers on whether circumcision violates the child’s right to bodily integrity.  Those who argue that it does point to the risks and harms of the practice and to the importance of the child’s bodily autonomy.  Those who argue that it does not point to the general medical benefits of circumcision.  Others have also pointed out that many children of religious parents will grow up to be religious themselves and will thus choose to be circumcised as adults if they are prevented from being circumcised as young children.  Since circumcision is substantially less dangerous and costly when done early in life, the expected benefits of the practice for these children are particularly weighty.

However, there is a different question that has received much less attention but which is no less important for deciding whether circumcision should be banned: the question of the strength of the child’s right to bodily integrity — how much weight this right should be given relative to competing moral considerations.  Even if we believe that banning circumcision would better safeguard children’s rights, the question of strength is important because a circumcision ban would have considerable moral costs.  There is clearly some value in respecting the privacy of the family sphere and in respecting citizens’ religious traditions.  Given the centrality of circumcision to many Jews’ and Muslims’ religious practice, the value of religious tolerance is particularly weighty in this context.

Circumcision’s centrality to traditional Jewish practice also implies that a ban on this procedure could well threaten the viability of Jewish life in Iceland.  The flourishing of the Muslim community could also be negatively affected by a ban.  Some religious citizens may choose to leave Iceland.  Other potential long-term visitors and citizens may choose not to come in the first place.  Given these costs, the case for banning circumcision requires, only arguing that it violates children’s rights, but also arguing that the violated rights are particularly strong.

Yet there are at least three reasons (considered in greater detail elsewhere) for thinking that, if boys have a right against circumcision at all, this right is relatively weak.  The first is uncertainty about circumcision’s harmfulness.  Determining how harmful circumcision is requires settling a variety of highly complex moral and empirical controversies. What is the risk of death or serious complications from the procedure?  What is the increased risk of penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases if boys are left uncircumcised?  How important is bodily autonomy?  What are the effects of circumcision on sexual pleasure?  How likely are children whose circumcisions are prevented by a ban to want the procedure done later in life?  If the proponents of a ban could be certain that circumcision is harmful, then they could reasonably view the child’s right against the practice as relatively strong compared with the situation today in which there is a great deal of reasonable disagreement about the harmfulness of the practice and respected medical bodies that view the practice as beneficial.

The second reason that the child’s right against male circumcision is relatively weak is that the expected harms associated with the practice, even on the more pessimistic views of these harms, are not particularly grave.  Compare male circumcision to type IIc female genital cutting in which large portions of the clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora are removed.  No one would argue that the harms to the boy from being circumcised are anywhere near the harms of what is done to the girl in this case.  Since there are also no known medical benefits from female genital cutting, the girl’s rights against this type of bodily violation are clearly much stronger than the boy’s rights against circumcision.  There is thus no inconsistency between legally permitting male circumcision while banning female genital cutting, at least of the more extreme types.

The final reason that the child’s right against male circumcision is relatively weak has to do with the parents’ motives.  I take it to be uncontroversial that parents who circumcise their children sincerely and non-negligently believe they are acting in their child’s best interests.  This factor mitigates the moral objectionability of the practice, even if we hold that circumcision is harmful for the child.  To see why, imagine a situation in which the only group of parents who are circumcising their sons in Iceland do so in order to sell the foreskins to cosmetic companies for the parents’ personal profit, despite believing that circumcision harms their sons.  I would suggest that the grave disrespect these imaginary parents exhibit for their children’s lives would substantially magnify the moral objectionability of the circumcisions compared with the case of circumcisions in Iceland today which are authorized by benevolent parents.

For all of these reasons, even if male circumcision violates children’s rights, the magnitude of the violation is minor compared with other practices that the state rightly forbids (e.g., extreme forms of female genital cutting).  Given the high moral costs of banning circumcision, especially for the Jewish and Muslim communities, it seems very difficult to argue that male child circumcision should be banned once we carefully consider the strength of the children’s rights in this particular context.

About the Author
Joseph Mazor is a political philosopher who is currently a visiting academic at the LSE's Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. His main areas of research include distributive justice, environmental ethics, bioethics, and democratic theory.
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