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State Should Stay Out of the Circumcision Debate

3 July 2011 10 Comments

When Win was born in October of 2010, Tara and I had long before decided not to circumcise.  Indeed the decision was made prior to the birth of our daughter, Theory.

The decision was a journey on my part.  While one of my cousins had chosen not to circumcise their kids, everyone else in my family was circumcised.  I had not given it a lot of thought.   But when Tara became pregnant, and not knowing the sex of Theory, the issue suddenly was in front of us.

In general I have found that advocates on either side of the debate engage in a lot of inflammatory, manipulative, illogical reasoning to rationalize their point-of-view.  For example, I was recently listening to Lloyd Schofield the author of the proposed circumcision ban.  He was asked by Gena Kirby on her show about the medical reason to circumcise.  He argues that evolutionary forces resulted in the foreskin, and therefore it was healthy.  This is similar to the line of reasoning that birth is safe because it evolved.  One could argue that you should never remove a tooth because it evolved…

Where to begin – we don’t live in the EEA, the environment of evolutionary adaptation.  So while you could argue that the foreskin, and birth, were successful, you could only do so in the context of the EEA, which included really fit people have children at a very young age and having at least, on average, a bit over 2 offspring per generation.

It is a lame argument and it is a red herring.

So are stupid arguments that infants are tolerant to the pain.  Proponents of circumcision likewise put forth ridiculous arguments about cleanliness and health.

Likewise the argument about a boy looking like his father also always seemed odd to me, more of a reverse engineered justification then a cause.  My child does not look like me in all kinds of ways so the penis image seemed like a non-issue.  Where is the evidence of psychological trauma?  If your aim is to convince people not to circumcise, using bogus claims is not the best approach.

Another concern is the feeling of being an outcast.  This would be more of an issue if the plan was to raise our children in a strictly Jewish community.  In fact, we are not, so the chances are small that our boy would only see circumcised penises.  Circumcision rates in the US are now around 33 percent in the general population.  Even if this was not the case, I would not want to have simple conformity be a driver for our behavior.  We do a lot of things that are non-conformist and this is a value that we would like to teach our children.  Besides, this is a function of the community’s intolerance to begin with.

At the end of the day, there seems to be marginal costs and benefits of circumcision most of the time, assuming you don’t live in Southern Africa. Now if you believe in a non-interventionist approach to the body, in the absence of any other reason, you would leave the foreskin intact.

Other than being Jewish (Muslim, etc), in my mind there was no compelling reason to circumcise.

So the only reason to circumcise would be because I am Jewish.  But this was an emotionally powerful issue.  Not so much because circumcision is significant to me as an ethnic marker, but because I understood its symbolic significance to my family.  That is, the emotion comes from empathy with my parents – a second-order reason.

Circumcision and Tribal Identity: Being Jewish

Now I have long been an atheist, and I am also an anthropologist.  So the idea of body modification as a form of tribe identity is not so foreign to me- nor of course, circumcision as a Jew.

Indeed, I am proud of my heritage and having an ethnic marker on some level is appealing to me.  There are a lot of assets, cultural-capital, to be mined from my historical heritage as a Jew.  This is quite different from the notion of a Jewish lifestyle.    It is a pivotal difference.

A few years ago I attended a cousins orthodox wedding and spent most of the time observing the community that had come together.  I had strong mixed feelings.

On the one hand, the sense of community was visceral.  Within the safe space of the synagogue I could see the impact of extended family and networks at work – kids running around, confident, at home.  I remember how this felt – attending Camp Ramah from age 7 to 13, going on ulpan.

It is the one thing that I miss for my own kids and family.

But I feel like it also comes at a cost.  The orthodox communities that I have been exposed to are also closed, intolerant, judgmental.  It is essential to the creation of the boundary between us and them.  And I have made a hard choice to forgo the benefits of community to avoid the requisite definition of in-group versus out-group.  Indeed, some have discussed the decision to not be religious to be the “unnatural choice” in the sense that the brain is inclined to religious thought.  But then again, you could make the same argument about being monogamous.

I don’t keep kosher. I don’t daven.  More importantly, I don’t have congregation.  So by extension I don’t circumcise.

But should I be allowed to?

That is the question that has been raised by the proposed circumcision ban in San Francisco.

Circumcision and Parents Rights / Religious Freedom

Circumcision pits two core rights against each other – parental rights vs rights of minors

Tied up in the circumcision debate are a number of other issues that need to be unpacked as well.

On the one hand it is the right to not have the government reach into your personal life.  In this arena, I tend to fall a bit on the libertarian side.  Like all good Americans I fear a government that over-reaches its boundaries and begins to dictate about how I live my life.

This plays out in a number of ways.  Take the vaccine debate.  Unless the government can demonstrate a clear and present danger, I do not want them to be dictating to me what I need to be injecting into my child.  Hep B? No thank you.  The reason being that I do not trust government and believe that policy is subject to corruption by money and power.  Plus as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, there are often conflicts of interest between the individual and the group.  Unless public health is a critical factor, one should expect a tragedy of the commons to take place.

When it comes to education, vaccine, etc., I want individual rights to trump government rights.

This bleeds into religious freedoms.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am a non-theist and have a real issue with religious thought.  But I am not comfortable with government trying to regulate thinking, no matter how ridiculous, unless it impacts others.

In the case, religion is impacting others — newborns.  In my mind, this is the core issue.

I am  a strong proponent of the rights of minors.  Children should be endowed with inalienable human-rights.  But the rights of parents should be very broad before the State can step in.  There is a biological imperative built into our legal system that gives parents power, as they are generally concerned about the welfare of their children and in a better position to make decisions about this welfare than the state.

This is not always the case.  Hence there is great latitude in the Family Court system.  Indeed, in some ways the family courts are the most powerful institutions in our country, as they do not recognize any private sphere.  Sufficient to say, the State probably already have too much power when it comes to intervening between me and my child.  It is much more likely that I will disagree with the State about what constitutes the best for my child than the chance that I will no longer be driven by protecting my child’s welfare in the first place.

Perhaps if mainstream culture was more inline with my own I would be more inclined to give the State more latitude – as the chance of finding myself on the outside of the norm would be small.  But that is not the case – and the thought of a civil servant making decisions about the welfare of my family sends chills down my spine.

For me, the issue of circumcision was more of a personal nature than a social policy issue.  I do not feel comfortable making permanent body modifications without a medical reason.  I also do not feel comfortable tattooing my child, in that it is irreversible.  That is my personal emotional response.

Despite my personal feelings about circumcision, from a social policy issues, given the marginal nature of circumcision, I cannot advocate that the State should be able to intrude.

Politics and Language

What bothers me is how the debate is playing out.

The choice of language is calculated.  Mutilation vs body modification.  Partly this is an issue of the emic (insider) vs etic (outsider) perspective.  Jews see circumcision as non-medical body modification, part of the covenant.  Intactivists see it as mutilation.  But those activists must then also classify ear piercing as body mutilation, as an anthropologist would.  Should we outlaw under-age ear piercing?  If not then we should be consistent with the language we use to describe these practices.  Otherwise it is more about a culturally-bound judgment of circumcision, not a judgment against body modification.

The analogy between male circumcision and female circumcision seems disingenuous and fallacious, an exercise in political framing.  But, if we are going to start to have a continuum of body modification, we need to have very clear criteria.  Why is ear piercing okay?  Why circumcision? Why (or why not) female circumcision.

Unpacking why one is okay and the other is not IS the essence of the debate, not the semantic assignment to the same category.


Complicating the discussion of circumcision is the subtext of anti-Semitism that invades the issue.

Take the case of Foreskin Man.  The stench of the anti-Semitism that pervades the comic undermines the position of the intactivist stance that the issue is not veiled form of an attack on Judaism.  The portrayals of Jews as evil monsters does not progress the debate.  Rather it further entrenches the us vs them thinking.

Why Matthew Hess, President of MGM Bill, would choose to use a graphic novel genre is beyond me – taking an inflammatory issues and throwing fire on it by conveying the debate in medium that inherently dehumanizes.  Suddenly the topic is no longer about circumcision but about anti-Semitism.  It demonstrates in some ways, perhaps, the very nature of racism itself – a topic for another post.

(For references, here are movie posters from Der Ewige Jude

But perhaps Foreskin Man elucidates what is the core of the issue in terms of the ban.  The ban is rooted in conflicting world-views.  The Hess world-view in which Jews are outsiders who are engaging in unethical behavior.  The behavior is so intolerable that the State needs to step in. Jews on the other hand see this as the single most important act of their identity.

I am not sure it passes the litmus test for me of requiring State intervention.  But I also believe the State should extradite itself in many other ways from parenting too.

Rather than turning anti-circumcision into an attack on Jews, a very unproductive tactic, those people who want to eliminate the practice should engage in culture-change.  What is the fundamental cultural issue that drives circumcision? Ethnic identity and the cultural cognitive biases, such as conformist transmission and frequency-dependent transmission along with the other biases that make religious thought infectious in the first place (see folks like Pascal Boyer and Boyd and Richerson).

Circumcising is a strong visual de-marker, a high-cost high-fidelity ethnic marker in the words of my friend Francisco Gil-White.  If you want to eliminate it you need to make the marker unimportant or the demarcation unimportant.  I would rather concentrate on driving for a society that is secular then waste too much energy on each and every practice that derives from the religiosity of the society.

To me , it is a symptom of the a much larger problem.

Addition 07/26/11

I just saw the following video which I think is a good encapsulation of the two positions on the subject:


  • Josh said:

    Men have equal rights to women, You can either decriminalize female genital cutting or outlaw male genital cutting, or else you are at odds with the 14th amendment of the constitution which guarantees equal protection for all.

    Genital cutting, regardless of severity, without medical necessity is sexual assault. It deprives the child of his chance to experience his body as the he was naturally intended to.

    Victims do not need to acknowledge that a crime has been inflicted for it to be wrong, a child born into slavery with caring slavemasters would likely minimize that his or her human right to freedom was violated in the same way a victim sexually assaulted at birth, deprived of his foreskin, would speak in favor of those who have inflicted said sexual assault and make every psychological effort to in behalf of his assaulters.

  • Faith Intactivist said:

    If you’re going to mention someone specifically, the least you could do is spell their name right. It’s Gena Kirby.

    With that said, it’s always going to be a human/child rights issue.

    Parents don’t have the right to cut off any other healthy, functioning body part. Why should this be any different? Female circumcision was banned in 1996 here in the U.S. Shouldn’t boys have that equal protection? FGM is also performed as a religious or cultural right but the U.S. no longer allows that. – – And before anyone goes on a tyrant about “FGM is so much worse”…. You need to look at the types of FGM. There are at least 4. The most severe form of FGM is VERY rare. The least severe (a prick to the clitoris) is more common and is STILL BANNED! That is not worse than the complete amputation of foreskin from males.

    I agree that certain aspects of our government are asinine regarding our children and how we can parent but this is totally beyond that. There should be equal protection for both male and female children. They can then decide for themselves as adults.

  • Faith Intactivist said:

    Gena also never interviewed Matt Hess. She did however interview Lloyd Schofield. So I’m not sure how that got mixed up. Two totally different people.

  • admin (author) said:

    Yes you are correct about both Gena’s spelling and Lloyd Schofield. I have corrected them. The confusion stems from the fact that Hess actually wrote the bill that Schofield sponsored. He sponsored the Bill after being approached by Hess.

  • Rae said:

    If those are your feelings then you really need to advocate for the decriminalization of female genital cutting. I, as a parent, should have the right to surgically remove my daughter’s clitoral hood (or have a ceremonial prick that draws blood)if I’m able to remove my son’s prepuce.

    It is very hypocritical. Either I should have the same right, as a parent, for both of my children (boy and girl), or they should both enjoy protection of their human right to genital integrity.

  • admin (author) said:

    I am not sure I agree. I think that there is a point at which the state should interceded. Ear piercing, no… Male circumcision, probably no but very close to the line. Elective amputation of a limb, yes. Female circumcision, yes. Part of the equation is the role of the medical establishment, for better or for worse. Like with many things, I feel that the edges are fuzzy. As with free speech, when at the boundary, I would default to no state intervention. But that is just my personal POV>

  • Cyn said:

    There’s still a lot of ignorance out there among Americans – people who literally have no clue about the negative consequences (as well as the human rights violation) associated with inflicting this unnecessary genital surgery on infants.

    I have no doubt that if parents were FORCED to watch a video of the procedure and then be PRESENT to hold their child down while his genitals are being cut on, then the rates of circumcision in this country would plummet even further. A ban would work just as well.

    Some videos of circumcision (aka male genital mutilation) in America:

    Jewish circ:

    Circumcision trauma:
    The above video explains why many parents erroneously believe their child ‘slept through’ the procedure … no, they didn’t. They were actually in a state of shock from the brutal trauma.

    Bear in mind that there is NO medical reason to circumcise. Any so-called health ‘benefits’ are largely exaggerated. The risks/complications/damage/death associated with infant circumcision are greater than any possible issue which MIGHT arise from remaining intact. NO medical organization in the WORLD recommends routine infant circumcision. The foreskin is not a birth defect – and no other normal, healthy body part is treated with such disrespect as the male foreskin.

    Religion really shouldn’t be allowed any more as an excuse for inflicting physical alterations on the body of a non-consenting human being. Muslims are legally prohibited from having the genitalia of their baby girls cut for cultural/religious reasons. Males are being denied equal protection under the law, and this is unconstitutional. Besides, babies don’t have a religion. They don’t even understand the concept. And circumcising a child in the name of religion actually infringes upon the child’s individual freedom of religion.

    Therefore, a ban on infant cutting would actually preserve our inherent rights acknowledged by the Constitution. It’s just that many people are unwilling to look at it that way … that’s how strong of a grip this culture of cutting has on the mindset of many Americans.

    Jews and Muslims opposed to genital cutting of babies:

    Please, people. Let go of what you *think* you know about infant circumcision and do your homework on this blatant human rights violation.

  • PunkinheadDelux said:

    Please note that your second graphic depicts Dr. Mutilator from Issue #1. Dr. Mutilator is a secular doctor in a hospital. It’s not part of the controversial Issue #2 that depicts Monster Mohel. Dr. Mutilator is much more grotesque in appearance. Oddly enough, we haven’t seen any complaints of being “anti-doctor.” By the way, the majority of circumcisions in this country are not performed for religious reasons.

  • admin (author) said:

    This is a good point. I think that it demonstrates how the author was using the graphic novel/comic genre not specifically to be anti-Semitic. I posted random screen pulls to give a depiction of the literature in general. It also demonstrates, in my view, the authors lack of understanding of how the material would be consumed by different communities, otherwise he would have steered clear of the parallels to the Nazi film Der Ewige Jude.

  • roger desmoulins said:

    Please understand that there are many many intactivists who deplore Foreskin Man, believe that the San Francisco ballot initiative is an exercise in futility, and have not one atom of anti-semitism in one’s soul.

    Jews who deny any of God, the Chosen People, or the Covenant, should not circumcise. Bris makes no religious sense unless one firmly adheres to all three concepts. Also, the point of the ballot initiative is not to ban the bald penis, but to delay the transition until one is a young adult. I have grave reservations about the right of parents to “impose” a religious faith and tradition on their children. Religion should require a personal existential choice.

    The animus of intactivism is not ritual circumcision, but the millions of gentile boys born in Australia, Canada, and (most of all) the USA, who are circumcised simply because the parents wish it. And the parents wish it because changing the diaper on, or giving a bath to, an intact son takes them out of their parenting comfort zone. They also fear that cut boys will taunt him in middle and high school. They fear that conformist girls will refuse to date him upon discovering that he is intact.

    Intactivism is NOT primarily about banning infant circumcision. It is about completing the sexual education of parents so that they refuse to circumcise their sons, knowing that the arguments in favour of it are bogus, and understanding how it can damage adult sexual pleasure and functionality.

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