A 99 year old Iraqi mystic who once tried to sacrifice his own son to a desert sky deity decided to chop off the foreskin of his penis in order to seal a covenant with said deity. This may or may have not happened around 4000 plus years ago (it didn’t but I am attempting to be ecumenical here). This is one of the most common reasons given for the choice to circumcise male children all over the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 1/3 of all males on Earth are circumcised. That is over 1 billion people. There have been numerous studies done that purport to show the medical benefits of removing the prepuce and an almost equal number done showing the opposite or that there is no change at all. I believe that this is beside the point. The vast majority of circumcisions done are performed when the child is an infant or a young toddler. The child does not have the ability to consent to this procedure, and as it is performed almost exclusively as a cosmetic or culturally mandated procedure this leads to a few ethical dilemmas.
Where is the line drawn as to such decisions? If the culture of the parent dictated that a child would be best served by the ceremonial removal of the tip of his tongue or his ear lobes would this be permissible as a medical procedure administered upon an infant? Something tells me that the removal of ear lobes at birth would cause a bit of a stir in the international community. But of course the penis is part of that dirty filthy realm of sex, and sex is almost universally colored by views informed by millenarian prophets born in another century. Because of its near ubiquitous nature circumcision it is assumed that there is an assumption that there must be something inherently positive to the procedure. What that positive aspect consists of seems to be up for discussion. As I mentioned there is the medical argument that circumcision has health benefits, principally it reduces the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. But by the time a boy is old enough to see real risk from any sort of sexual activity/disease he will have gained the ability to make a decision on his own whether or not he wants his penis mutilated.
Should we then not err on the side of letting a growing human being decide what his sexual organ looks like and how it feels? Some say that women or other men will reject a man who is not circumcised and that he may be ostracized for life. Assuming this is true, and my personal experience would suggest that this is not universally the case, is possible future social shunning really a good enough reason to deprive a person of the choice to decide how their body will look for the rest of their lives? Another argument would have us believe that a child will not remember the pain that occurs doing a circumcision because of his age so the issue of discomfort should not be an issue. Personally I find this “argument” to be facile at best and downright cruel at worst. Who are we to decide what an infant can or cannot experience or what or what he may not remember? I remember tripping down my Aunt’s staircase and cutting my eye lid upon the sharp edge of the landing. I was a year and a half old. “He won’t remember” does not seem to be a great excuse to inflict unnecessary pain upon an infant, no matter what the reason.
There is not much evidence for or against the idea that circumcision leads to decreased (or increased) sensitivity during oral/vaginal/anal intercourse but the absence of any evidence should not be taken of evidence of absence. I have talked with men who have undergone the procedure who wonder what sexual relations would have felt like if they had not had this bit of their genitalia removed. Is it too much to expect that they reach puberty before they are faced with this sort of potentially life altering decision? Is anything lost, even in a religious sense, if a child has the ability to consent to his own physical alteration, even if, no, especially if it is in tribute to some sort of deity?
For better or worse men identify with their genitalia in a visceral and even emotional way. It is part of the psychological picture of them-selves and it will become an important part of how they relate sexually with the woman or man they end up being physically and/or romantically involved with. And furthermore it is an issue of trust and personal liberty: if we are not allowed to make decisions about the very appearance of our bodies then what sort of message does this send to societies based upon liberty or aspiring to liberty? Where do we draw the line? And why should religious and cultural considerations be given a veto over the inherent sanctity and dignity of how a human being decides what happens to his own body? God should not be an active partner in what happens to a child’s penis. That decision should be left to that child when he is old enough to understand the pros and cons of the decision to be circumcised.