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It was almost two years ago that my nephew was born. There were a lot of things about that experience that I disapproved of--thought, my newphew really is a sweet kid, and far more friendly than I ever was at that age--things that my brother allowed his Catholic wife to decide on despite his own personal objections to them. For instance, my nephew was baptized Catholic, despite his father being a non-believer. There is something to be said for those Protestant faiths that reject infant baptism. He also allowed his wife to have their son circumcised, again, despite his own rejection of the practice.

I suppose it's possible to argue that baptism, in a world with no god, is just an empty gesture. And if it makes the wife happy, so be it. I suppose one could think that, though I think the symbolism is far more meaningful than a mere gesture. But, it's hard to make that same claim with circumcision, a practice that is only religiously meaningul to the Jews. Catholics and Protestants in Europe generally don't have their sons circumcised, so it's only culturally meaningful, and really, it's less conscious than "meaningful" suggests, to Americans. Really, it's more like a habit, like buying boys blue blankets and girls pink ones. It's unconscious, and no one really acknowledges the religious roots of it until someone challenges the status quo, as though changing the colour of a baby blanket rejects the presumption that boys are somehow "better" than girls.

The subject has come up again recently as places in California have measures on the ballot to try to ban the practice of circumcising boys under 18. Female circumcision, since it is usually much more invasive and cruel, is already banned in the US. But because of the relationship with the dominant religion and widespread practice in the US, male circumcision bans have a much steeper climb. Some critics of the bills have cited questions of religion freedom, and analogies with minors getting their ears pierced as arguments for defeating the measures. I want to look at both of these in turn.

First, what is male circumcision? Let's be clear, male circumcision is removing the foreskin from the head of the penis for non-medical reasons. It does not grow back. How minor this procedure is isn't really the point, as even forms of female genital mutilation that involve merely "knicking" the clitoris are banned right alongside more extreme forms. What are the consequences of circumcision? Well, that is hard to study, since there are few people who experience sex before and after the procedure and are capable of comparing for researchers, however, there is some evidence of reduced sensation, though because it is difficult to study, this is not widely accepted as conclusive. It's also true that some people argue for the value of circumcision for hygenic reasons such as reduced infections (from poorly cleaning the area), and alleged, though inconclusive relationship to reduced HIV infections (recent research is leaning against this latter conclusion). One can see why people afraid of sexual gratification would want to find ways to avoid infection without touching the penis... but is that a really good reason for amputating a part of an infant's body? Other than the loss of a body part, one might say there doesn't seem to be an conclusive proof of harm, but neither is there any conclusive proof of benefit. And people for whom this is part of their culture, they may be coming down on the side of the status quo. Why rock the boat after all if there is no good reason to change?

I, for one, am not so bound my tradition.

Especially since, babies die from this practice. Babies who were otherwise perfectly healthy, die from blood loss or infection. And that is not even accounting for the ones who suffer permanent damage but don't die. We haven't come far enough if I can say that my brother did not even receive anesthesia for his amputation; that painkillers are more common today does not change the number of unncessary deaths. Nor does it change the fact that it's medically unnecessary.

What about freedom of religion, you may be thinking. I'm all for freedom of religion, to a point. They have a right to bring them up in their religion, to teach their kid to believe in their god, even if I think that god is a fairy tale. But parents don't have unlimited rights over their kids. They don't have a right to keep their kids at home and pray over them if their children are suffering life-threatening illnesses. They don't have a right to beat their children, even if it is in the name of their god. Nor do they have a right to perform exorcisms or other practices upon them if it results in bodily harm or death. And they can be charged with negligence even if the child could die, but ends of not dying. Parents do not have an unfettered right to impose their religon on their children in a way that harms them. And the children that die every year or suffer serious complication from this procedure, they, too, deserve to be protected from the excesses of their parents' religion. Once the child is an adult, if they choose to undergo the procedure themselves for the sake of their religion, that is their choice, and they can accept the consequences for themselves. I may think they are crazy, but it will be their choice.

And what about kids getting their ears pierced?

This is a terrible analogy, because the cultural pressures aren't nearly the same, and the religious pressures are either non-existent or actually work in the other direction. I got my ears pierced for the first time when I was four. It was my choice, and my parents let me make it. Even at that age, that's quite different from what happens to male infants with circumcision. What happened when I got them pierced? Did I lose any blood? No. The place used a little gun, and voila, it was done. If I had taken the earrings out before the hole healed, all that would have happened was a little scar. Did I lose any functionality in my ears? Nope. I got a few more holes at 13. Again, my choice, and though they did take much longer to heal, the story was otherwise similar. How many people do you think die every year from getting their ears pierced? No one. People die when unsterile instruments are used, or kids are being stupid, but they don't when it is done correctly, according to existing regulations. There is no risk of bleeding out, only infections from the stupid. Circumcision, yeah, runs the risk of infections, too, but kids still die even when it is done correctly by qualified professionals in hospitals. There is no comparison here.

Could I quibble a bit about the proposed law... sure. Maybe 13 (with parental consent) is old enough, or 15 or 16, instead of 18. But I wholeheartedly concur that we need to protect infants from this practice, to allow them to grow up and choose for themselves. It's not about inflicting a secular religion on everyone, but merely ensuring that every citizen can make decisions for themselves, and not have the will of another, however well-meaning, imposed on them when they are helpless to defend themselves.

Follow-up: It seem South Africa agrees with me. Don't see that everyday.


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