Sunday, July 03, 2011

Maiming Infants

by Luis Granados

Trend-setting San Francisco will vote this fall on an important child-protection referendum that ought to be a no-brainer. Sadly, thanks to the pervasive power of God experts, it will probably lose.

Circumcision is a procedure for cutting, and sometimes permanently removing, part of a person’s genital organs. Sound appealing? Something you’d rush to sign up for? Well, you can – and no one, in San Francisco or elsewhere, proposes to stop you. If you want to inflict this insanity on another person, though, that’s different – especially when the other person is a child entrusted to your protection. The San Francisco referendum would ban the circumcision only of minors, allowing adults to choose for themselves.

In fact, circumcision of children is already flatly banned by federal law in the United States, for half the population – the female half. Nonetheless, thousands of American girls have suffered through the procedure, as have 140 million women around the world. For boys, though, anything goes. Is this because boys are tougher? Is it because male circumcision is less severe than female circumcision? Not really. Just last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics approved, then quickly rescinded, a proposal by “moderate” Muslims to achieve the religious benefits of female circumcision by means of a small nick to a girl’s clitoris, that would quickly heal – a far less intrusive procedure than whacking off an entire part that will never grow back. In a burst of common sense, AAP said no, that’s still outrageous, and no doctor should ever do it. The whole idea that a particular variety of mutilation is ok because it is “less severe” than some other variety is ludicrous: punching a stranger is less severe than shooting him, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.

But what about the rights of parents? Those rights are broad, but not infinite – and they terminate abruptly when the physical well-being of children is involved. It is now well-settled in most jurisdictions, even Oregon, that religious parents may not rely on prayer rather than medicine when their children are sick. What, then, gives parents the right to slice off their children’s body parts? Nothing at all – other than a chorus of experts telling us all about God’s will. Circumcision, they say, is an ancient religious practice, mandated by the Book of Genesis itself.

Well, so is slavery. So is genocide. Humanist common sense prevailed against those barbarisms – now it’s circumcision’s turn.

Female circumcision is an ancient religious practice as well, mandated today by Al-Azhar University, the closest Muslim equivalent of the Vatican. If the law can protect girls from religious circumcision, why can’t it protect baby boys? I even dimly recall something or other in our Constitution using the phrase “equal protection of the laws.”

Cutting fans are now claiming that circumcision is justified by health benefits, even that it prevents the spread of AIDS. How thoughtful of God to command the maiming of infants for thousands of years, just so there would be a handy tool available once he decided to inflict AIDS on the world in the 20th century. In fact, the health benefits of genital cutting are minuscule, and offset by the risk of infection – as medical organizations around the world agree.

Opposition to the referendum comes not just from Jews and Muslims. Catholics like the Archbishop of San Francisco and Protestants like the National Association of Evangelicals are in full howl – despite the fact that Saint Paul unambiguously warned that “if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” One more case of “pick and choose” theology, where God experts plump for the Bible commandments they agree with and ignore the ones they don’t.

For their efforts, San Francisco’s child protection advocates are being likened – naturally – to the Nazis of the 1930s. This is par for the course whenever someone challenges the prerogatives of Jewish God experts. Somehow, the desire to protect Jewish boys from irreversible harm strikes me as being the 180-degree opposite of anti-Semitic. The Nazis never attempted to protect Jewish boys by banning circumcision – they’d just as soon have the whole thing cut off.

Where did the whole monstrosity of circumcision come from, anyway? If you guessed it came from Genesis, you’d be wrong. It was practiced by the Egyptians long before the Torah was dreamt of, and was one of many ideas (along with not eating pork) borrowed by the fertile minds who pasted together the Jewish religion. Some historians speculate that the original symbolic point of circumcision was a ritual castration to make boys more like girls, which seems a little farfetched. Others speculate that circumcision was intended to be a “less severe” substitute for human sacrifice. But Jews kept right on sacrificing humans long after circumcision was introduced, so that seems farfetched as well.

Maimonides, the 12th century sage who imagined rationalizations for all 613 laws of Judaism, perhaps came closer to the truth:

With regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible. … The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its coverings taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened.

Maimonides went on to address today’s issue in San Francisco, of why circumcision must be performed on infants rather than limiting it to persons old enough to make up their own minds:

If the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. … if it were left uncircumcised for two or three years, this would necessitate the abandonment of circumcision because of the father’s love and affection for it. At the time of its birth, on the other hand, this imaginative form is very weak, especially as far as concerns the father upon whom this commandment is imposed.

Jews have not always practiced circumcision. Around the turn of the 3rd century BC, Israel was ruled by the secular Tobiad faction, that sought to bring society more in line with the humanist practices of the surrounding Mediterranean world. Circumcision, among other things, became verboten. One of the popular pastimes back then was to hang around naked in the public baths, where everyone could check out whether you were circumcised or not. Circumcision became so unfashionable that clever Jewish doctors developed a procedure to reverse it, to make it appear to your buddies that you were one of the cool modern guys rather than one of the circumcised hicks. Amazingly, this was even before the invention of duct tape. The Tobiads didn’t last, though; they were soon overthrown by the God expert Maccabees, who busied themselves whacking off every foreskin they could find.

My take is that circumcision isn’t really about demasculinization, human sacrifice, or libido repression. It’s about power. It’s about God experts permanently branding new members of the community, in the most intimate manner, with the message that “You count for nothing as an individual. You’re here to serve an invisible spirit, who communicates to you through me. So stay in line.”

This is why God’s commandment in Genesis was to circumcise not only your sons, but your slaves. This is why the Maccabees forced the circumcision of the neighboring Gentile peoples they conquered. It’s why Christian God experts, anxious to protect their own power against humanist common sense, are so quick to jump to the defense of a Jewish and Muslim practice. It’s why even in modern times, Israeli burial associations, who have a monopoly over the burial of all Jews except kibbutz members, circumcise the corpses of non-circumcised Jews before burying them (and without asking the family’s permission). And it explains the great romantic story of the book of Samuel, about how young David won the hand of the girl he loved:

And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David, The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies … Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.

Back in college, many decades ago, I developed a crush on a beautiful Jewish girl, whose name I cannot for the life of me now remember. What I do remember is that she only grudgingly acknowledged my existence. If only I had thought to read my Bible! If I had just brought her father a gift of two hundred enemy foreskins, she might not have loved me, but she surely would have noticed me.


lucette said...

That reminds me of Dawkins demand that ridiculous expressions like "Catholic child", "Jewish child", "Muslim child", "Socialist child", "Capitalist child" must be challenged and become obsolete. Circumcision, male and female, make these ridiculous expressions very real and for many, branding for life. I would treat it as a crime against humanity.
San Francisco is on the right track.

Don Wharton said...

As usual Luis gives us excellent depth on an important issue. I was astonished to hear that around the turn of the 3rd century BC, Israel was ruled by the secular Tobiad faction and they did away with Jewish circumcision. I think that Luis is abvously right when he says that circumcision is "about God experts permanently branding new members of the community, in the most intimate manner."

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Making circumcision routine isn't a good idea in my opinion. It's like taking ancient dietary laws as definitive guidance, but in this case from ancient Egyptian "doctors". We've moved on from there and have better knowledge to use. I also am uncomfortable with the various social pressure that is applied to make mothers feel it is necessary and good for their boys. Jewish families make this into a social event. I was invited to one in my neighborhood by a nice family and had to beg off, but many attended to celebrate the event.
We might not have to as far as making all male circumcision illegal though. You could just allow it as a male choice at a later age, say 16 or so when a male can better understand the nature of the irreversible procedure is being performed. They could have a chance to be informed of the pros and cons. You'd get a lot fewer procedures I'm sure.

lucette said...

Yes Gary!

Explicit Atheist said...

Characterizing male circumcision a "monstrosity" isn't supported by the medical community, as reflected in the link which quotes various health expert communities as merely saying that circumcision is not medically indicated. The fact is that childhood circumcision is a free exercise issue for Jews and Muslims and in the U.S. free exercise is protected by the first amendment just like establishment of religion is protected against. So until the health expert communities say that male circumcision is harmful and positively shouldn't be performed (they don't have to say it is a
"monstrosity", all they need to do is conclude that is, on balance, it is harmful, which they currently don't assert), it is very unlikely that any law that bans male circumcision without any exceptions for religious practice will be deemed constitutional by judges.

lucette said...

I guess what needs to be discussed is the question of the rights of children. Do children have any rights? Or are they their parents property i.e. slaves?

Explicit Atheist said...

The final decisions regarding various day to day choices for dependent children are often ultimately made by the child's legal guardian, with legal intervention possible only when the health and welfare of the dependent child are placed in jeopardy. We already know that male childhood circumcision is a religious practice and that free exercise is one of the clauses of the first amendment. Accordingly, we don't need to discuss if children are "slaves" and "property of the parents" in this context until AFTER we determine, with real evidence, not by piling up mounds of cheap adjectives that is not supported by the evidence, that male circumcision is harmful to the health of children such that banning all childhood circumcision, with no religious practice exemption, is needed to prevent that harm. I only see evidence that most male circumcision may not be medically justified (and thus probably should not be legally required to be covered by medical insurance policies). Without evidence of harm the most that can be reasonably imposed by the law are hygiene and pain remediation regulations (for male children and adults) and/or a childhood ban with a religious practice exemption.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Professionals still argue about the medical aspects. This is a summary from New World Encyclopedia:

The British Medical Association, states “there is significant disagreement about whether circumcision is overall a beneficial, neutral or harmful procedure. At present, the medical literature on the health, including sexual health, implications of circumcision is contradictory, and often subject to claims of bias in research.” Cost-benefit analyses have varied.

The control of smegma is often cited as a justification of circumcision
The risk in a competently performed medical circumcision is very low. According to the American Medical Association AMA, blood loss and infection are the most common complications. Bleeding is mostly minor; applying pressure will stop it. However, in poorly carried out circumcisions, complications from bleeding and infection can be catastrophic.

Observational studies in the 1980's identified a strong association of circumcision status and a reduced risk of HIV infection, as well as of sexually transmitted genital ulcer disease, although behavioral factors may have been a part of that association. A 2007 study made by the U.S. National Institutes of Health revealed "an approximate halving of risk of HIV infection in men who were circumcised" in Kenya and Uganda. These results support the findings of a French study of South African men published in late 2005, which demonstrated "at least a 60 percent reduction in HIV infection among circumcised men."

Smegma—a combination of exfoliated epithelial cells, transudated skin oils, and moisture that can accumulate under the foreskin of males and within the female vulva area—is common to all mammals, male and female. In some cases, accumulating smegma may help cause inflammation of the glans. It also has a strong odor. Circumcision helps control the accumulation of smegma, but proper hygiene can also do this.

The American Academy of Pediatrics observes “There is little evidence to affirm the association between circumcision status and optimal penile hygiene.” However, it also states that the "relationship among hygiene, phimosis (difficulty in retracting the foreskin), and penile cancer is uncertain." The Royal Australasian College of Physicians emphasizes that the penis of an uncircumcised infant requires no special care and should be left alone.

Explicit Atheist said...

Don Wharton said...

As usual Luis gives us excellent depth on an important issue. I was astonished to hear that around the turn of the 3rd century BC, Israel was ruled by the secular Tobiad faction and they did away with Jewish circumcision..."

This is false, it doesn't comport with any known history that I am aware of. It was not the Tobiads who outlawed circumcision, it was the Greek King Antiochus. He sent armed troops to Jerusalem to slay and plunder. A Greek royal decree proclaimed the abolition of the Jewish mode of worship; Sabbaths and festivals were not to be observed; circumcision was not to be performed; the sacred books were to be surrendered and the Jews were compelled to offer sacrifices to the idols that had been erected.

Luis Granados said...

Information about the Tobiads is from Robert L. Cate, A History of the Bible Lands in the Interbiblical Period. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1989, especially pages 26-70

Explicit Atheist said...

Take a look at The history of the Jews in the Greco-Roman world By Peter Schäfer which discusses the Tobiads, an incomplete copy is free on google, and an excerpt from which is quoted below. Also look at the Wikipedia entry for Maccabees which also discusses the Tobiads.

I have not read Robert L. Cate, but the assertion that a Tobiad High Priest was responsible for banning circumcision doesn't appear to be evidenced, it appears to be merely speculation.

At the time that Jewish religious worship and practices, not just circumcision, were banned in Jerusalem, a member of the Tobiad clan, who were ethnically Jewish, but whose allegiance was mostly, and arguably entirely, with Greece, was the High Priest of Jerusalem. The High Priest of Jerusalem was appointed by Greece and obtained that appointment by bribing the Greek King. Greece then physically conquered Jerusalem and the Tobiad "Menalaus was still nominally High Peiest, but real power in the Jerusalem polis lay in the hands of non-Jews...". So its not like any of this history somehow evidences that neonatal circumcision of boys is considered to be unimportant within Judaism. What this history evidences is that Jerusalem at that time was controlled by Greece, that Greece appointed ethnically Jewish people who bribed the King and who preferred Greek traditions over Judaism to be High Priest of Jerusalem, and that this same Greek King apparently attempted to forceably suppress Judaism throughout Judea.

Explicit Atheist said...

Let me put it this way: Both Tobiad High Priests were appointed by the polytheistic Greek King based on bribery, not based on their commitment to, or knowledge of, Judaism. Menalaus, the second of the two, appeared to not only have no commitment to Judaism, he appeared to be disdainful towards Judaism. He stole from the Jewish temple to finance his bribes. So even if Menalaus banned male circumcision, which again appears to be more speculation than evidenced history, that doesn't show that neonatal circumcision of boys is unimportant within Judaism.

Explicit Atheist said...

One more thing, because this is important: These adjectives, "monstrosity", "maiming", "mutilating", "slavery". There is no consensus among the experts whether male circumcision is overall beneficial or harmful, to the extent that there is a majority view it appears to be that any overall harm or benefit is not major. So those adjectives aren't coming from the evidence. Maybe the idea is to target minorities and then bully and intimidate them into silence to avoid being targets of misdirected hatred? If so then that is a disgusting, ugly, nasty tactic. That hyperbolic rhetoric of incitement, divorced from the evidence as it is, has no place in civil discussion, let alone rational discussion.

lucette said...

"I guess what needs to be discussed is the question of the rights of children. Do children have any rights? Or are they their parents property i.e. slaves?"

Please notice that I am not talking about male circumcision at all. I am talking about the more general question of the relationship between parents and children. Are children the property of their parents? I mentioned "slaves" because when you are somebody else property, you are a slave. But lets forget about the "slave" mention and just concentrate on the problem of children being the property of their parents. What is your opinion about this?