Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon on the impermissibility of circumcision of minors


Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 01:59PM
This essay was originally published in the Journal of Medical Ethics

Prompted by last year’s court ruling in Germany that sought to make the circumcision of minors illegal[1], Joseph Mazor, a political philosopher at the London School of Economics, published an article in this journal entitled “The Child’s Interests and the Case for the Permissibility of Male Infant Circumcision.” Mazor’s argument is rather subtle and worth reviewing point-by-point. The position he arrives at is an evolution of the Benatars’ 2003 position[2]. While he argues that an orphan ward of the state should probably not be circumcised, he agrees with the Benatars that parents should be able to decide one way or the other, and he suggests that Orthodox Jewish parents in particular have good reason to circumcise their children. In this essay, I will directly address Dr. Mazor’s central arguments and explain why they are ultimately unconvincing.



But even if we were to grant Mazor that self-determination is a mere interest when it comes to the entire category of education, there are morally relevant differences between education and permanent body modifications that would prevent the same logic from applying to the latter. Permanent body modifications like circumcision are irreversible in a way that education is not. The son of the chess master can grow up and decide never to play another game of chess again in his life. He might very well forget (that is, un-learn) much of the chess strategy that was once drilled into his head. But a circumcised person cannot decide to not be circumcised anymore. He cannot un-do the surgery. For this reason, permanent body modifications like infant circumcision are a clear and uncomplicated violation of the child’s future right to self-determination[iii].

Furthermore, the argument that circumcision is costlier at a later age is not quite as clear as Mazor asserts. Here are the reasons why Mazor believes adult circumcision to be more severe than infant circumcision:

a. The dangers of medical complications.

b. The anticipatory dread.

d. The unease relating to a change in what one is used to.

The first contention is dubious. The infant penis is such a small structure that it is more difficult to operate upon with precision than the adult penis. This is why partial glans amputation, buried penis, and total penectomies are complications that are limited to infant circumcision. In addition, due to the fact that infants are so small, the amount of blood loss that would result in exsanguination is so minimal that it is often difficult to catch before it is too late[5]. Finally, the risk that an infection may become life threatening is higher in infants due to their small size–the infection has less distance to travel–and inability to communicate with language.

Cut the film:

Cut is a documentary film by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon which examines the subject of male circumcision from a religious, scientific and ethical perspective. Using cutting-edge research, in addition to interview footage of rabbis, philosophers, and scientists, Cut challenges the viewer to confront their biases by asking difficult questions about this long-standing practice.


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