Disclaimer – this piece is not intended to offend any Jews, Muslims, or other cultures practicing any form of circumcision.
On 7th May this year, a decision by the Cologne (Koln) Regional Court ruled “the circumcision of boys for religious reasons” illegal. Read about the story here and here. After this ruling, the German Medical Association counselled its members not to perform religious circumcisions. However, given the political, religious and international outcry, Merkel came out against the ruling, so 19 July the coalition German Parliament voted in favour of legislation to protect religious circumcision (of males) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18909640.
The argument seems to revolve around two opposing sets of human rights. On the one hand is the child’s right to bodily integrity, and to freedom of conscience – circumcision of underage infants can essentially be characterised as assault and permanent mutilation without consent, and a permanent mark of religious affiliation before the child has made a religious choice.
On the other hand, a huge number of groups (including the European Jewish Association, Germany’s Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, and the Islamic Centre, Brussels) all argue that the German ban is culturally intolerant, and constricting their freedom of conscience, i.e. their religious rights. It is clearly unfortunate that Germany should be the crucible for this debate, since many commentators on both sides raise the spectres of anti-semitism and cultural xenophobia, despite these having little impact on the judges’ ruling or logic.
To me, the answer seems obvious. To set up an opposition between parent’s religious rights, and the child’s bodily rights, is a false dichotomy. The parents’ religious rights are not being affected – the parents are not being told, or forced, not to adhere to their religion. Nor are the child’s religious rights being affected – they are in fact being protected until the child can choose to snip, or not to snip, of their own informed volition .
I think this debate highlights something of a Western traditionalism – bias. Female Genital Mutilation is almost universally opposed in the west – immigrant cultures that attempt to practise it are targeted by human rights groups, feminist groups, the World Health Organisation, governments and indeed the UN (http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,1546984,00.html). The arguments concerning FGM seem to be basically the same as those over male circumcision (MGM?) yet cultural attitudes are not in line – is this a case of religious hierarchies, with Jewish practices being accepted as permissible due to long European/US tradition, whereas FMG is an ‘immigrant/Other’ practise with no heritage, arising from belief systems we tend to deride (e.g. “Witch Doctors”, “Voodoo” and Islam)? I just cannot see why the mutilation of each sex is treated in absentia. Because male
circumcision can be a medical treatment? That seems irrelevant, especially since there are in fact limited medical circumstances in which (consenting) female circumcision is a viable treatment (e.g. cancer.) [Circumcision as medical prevention discussed here.]
Of course, in line with many (including this far more in-depth article) I’d like to end both types.
But I have a problem.
Because, being the terrible terrible thinker I am, I’m OK with abortion. I’m OK with late term abortion. I’m even, theoretically, OK with infanticide*. That is, largely, because I’m all about ‘personhood’ (or ‘moral actors’), which foeti are not, so see little philosophical difference between unborn babies, born babies, and indeed young dolphins, gorillas and dogs. They’re all cute, and I’d rather they’d all live (see *) but cases can be made for letting them die, in favour of the health and preferences of Persons, i.e. the mother.
So how does one reconcile these two positions? On the one hand, I totally oppose genital mutilation to both sexes when performed on infants. On the other hand, I’m happy for those same infants to be killed. Seems utterly contradictory.
Well, no. Because the harm you are causing a little boy when you burn off the end of his penis, or a little girl when you slice off her labia and clitoris, are explicitly intended to last for their long lives. As such, they cause great potential harm to those infants when they have grown into moral actors (including, but not limited to, psychological complications, body image and self-esteem questioning, sexual dysfunction, religious compulsion, social subjugation). Whereas aborting foeti/newborns ends there. They cease to exist. They have no future-personhood to be affected.
So am I happy for foeti to be aborted? Yes. Am I happy for adults to choose to be circumcised? Yes.
Am I happy for infants to be circumcised? No. Am I happy about the German situation? No. No baby.
*Without wanting to talk too much about a side-issue, I would rather neither abortion nor infanticide was necessary. I think if the state provided a better adoption and fostering service, and our culture did not demonise unwanted pregnancies, then it would be more practicle and permissible for unwanted foeti [developed to the extent that they Could survive outside the body] to be birthed naturally and adopted, so long as the mother is not medically threatened by the birth, the foetus is not a result of rape or sexual assault, and the mother had neglected earlier opportunities for contraception and abortion.