My Body, My Choice: Ban Non-Consensual Circumcision
by Matthew A. Taylor
November 22, 2011
Like countless men who have been circumcised, I’m angry about what was taken from me. If I could go back in time to the moment before this was done to me, I would use any means necessary to stop it. I wish there’d been a law against it. I’ve spent many nights ruminating in grief. I know other men like me who have sunk into deep depression while wrestling with the pain of this violation.
“Circumcision is a matter of individual choice,” Lerner told the Jewish Week newspaper.
What about my choice? Shouldn’t my right to an intact body matter? Lerner doesn’t address the possibility that a man should have the right to make the choice for himself. Advocates of circumcision evidently believe the feelings of the human who is being cut are irrelevant. Anyone with an open heart who listens to the screams of a baby being circumcised cannot honestly believe that babies want to be circumcised.
While parents have to make tough decisions about many things concerning the health of their children, this is the only routinely made choice that involves an irreversible amputation that is not medically necessary. Why is this one body part of newborns of this one gender OK to forcibly amputate?
The United States has high rates of HIV and the highest rate of circumcision in the West. The “experiment” of using circumcision to stem HIV infection has been running here for decades. It has failed miserably. Why do countries such as New Zealand, where they abandoned infant circumcision 50 years ago, or European countries, where circumcision is rare, have such low rates of HIV?
Even if circumcision really did lower the rates of STD transmission, shouldn’t educated adults make their own decisions about their sex lives? Condoms and responsible sexual relationships prevent STDs, not circumcision.
Lerner refers to allegedly feminist arguments in favor of circumcision, lines of thought that strike me as misandry masquerading as feminism. For example, feminist-identified Rabbi Elyse Goldstein argues that men’s “phallic-centered power” must be decreased in order to teach men to respect and become more like women. “In ‘sacrificing’ a piece of the penis, in uncovering and revealing themselves in their most vulnerable part, in making themselves more like women, men can be made more whole,” Goldstein claims.
From where I sit, arguments like Goldstein’s sound like hate speech. If a man said he needed to cut off part of a woman’s genitals in order to make her “more like a man,” he’d rightly be ostracized. Why do we, as a progressive community, let this kind of dehumanization of men go unchallenged? Yes, male violence against women is a huge social problem and must be addressed. Inflicting irreversible harm onto our innocent sons’ genitals is not the answer.
Which part of your daughter’s body would you cut off to prevent a disease? Which part of her genitals would you cut off because you believe that God commanded you to do so? Well if you wouldn’t cut your daughter, why is it OK to cut your son?
Lerner argues that banning circumcision against nonconsenting minors undermines “the First Amendment rights of Jews” and creates “a slippery slope toward the abolition of all religious practices.” Such claims are unfounded. The First Amendment’s protections of speech and expression do not apply to harming other people. The First Amendment does not give you the right to sacrifice a virgin, punch someone in the face, or even cut off a tip of someone else’s finger because it’s part of a religion. Simply put, the First Amendment ends where someone else’s body begins.
Anti-circumcision protesters march in San Francisco Credit: Creative Commons/Mik Scheper
As for the supposed slippery slope, if circumcision is banned, will that lead to the outlawing of Passover Seders? Not in a million years. Not in this country. Let’s give the United States the credit it deserves for being a relatively free, open society.
As a corollary to his slippery slope argument, Lerner claims, “It’s not hard to imagine some who were sexually abused by Catholic priests as children attempting to ban Catholic educational institutions or even the Church itself, attacking the entire institution as sexually perverted or violently patriarchic.” This is as misguided as saying those of us who wish to abolish the U.S. imperial war machine seek to abolish the entire country, and yet another tactic to silence the voices of the abused. And what an eyebrow-raising Freudian slip! Doesn’t Lerner’s comparison point out that when we strip away the emotional tug of religious tradition, infant circumcision lands in the same ethical boat as institutionally shielded sexual molestation?
Speaking of the slippery slope, what if—God forbid—the Supreme Court one day were to rule that the First Amendment permits nonconsensual circumcision as a form of protected religious expression? Wouldn’t that create a slippery slope in which even more extreme forms of religious violence against defenseless children become legalized? Federal law prohibits all forms of genital cutting performed on nonconsenting minor girls. This includes female circumcision variants that are far less harmful than the typical male circumcision, for example, a small ceremonial nick of the clitoral hood (the female analogue of a foreskin). The U.S. Constitution provides for equal protection, and it’s hard to imagine a law that protects only girls from genital cutting withstanding a legal challenge that sought to extend such protection to boys.
To be clear, I have no objection to circumcision or any other form of body modification when it’s freely chosen by a consenting adult. Sensibly, the proposed San Francisco ban only applies to circumcision of nonconsenting minors.
rebuttal to the above clips
Taylor makes much of “the traumatizing event that takes place in early infancy” when the baby is “most vulnerable and sensitive to pain.” Granted there is pain, and granted that the baby does not like that feeling, as would no one, but how does Taylor know that infancy is the moment when humans are “the most” vulnerable and sensitive to pain? How would one measure this? Anyone who has attended such events (I have been to at least one hundred) will testify to the baby’s almost immediate pacification when some sweet wine is dipped on his lips after the brit. A good mohel (traditional circumciser) is very efficient, so the period of discomfort — judging from when the infant’s crying, which usually begins with the discomfort of his having his legs held firmly apart by the sandek (godfather) — is very short.
Rabbi Boruch Mozes, a certified mohel, writes on his website that “Jewish Mohelim take 10 seconds, with 1 second for excision, and 60 seconds on average for crying.”
For an observer, it is not easy to decide that the baby has intolerable “traumatizing” pain at the moment of the actual procedure. If one is nevertheless deeply concerned about this pain, one might even investigate the current halachic (Jewish law) discussion on the use of local anesthetics. More information on this is also available on Mozes’s website.
Taylor asks a very good question in his tirade against circumcision: “Which part of your daughter’s genitals would you cut off to prevent a disease?” If I had a daughter (I have a granddaughter) and I were told that she was at risk without a medical intervention on her genitals, I am sure that I would take this option very seriously. Fortunately, that is not the case.
I respect Taylor’s views but wish to offer these alternative perspectives, seeking to invite his reciprocal respect instead of the tone of his ad hominem response to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, whose feminist argument he characterized as “hate speech” masquerading as feminism.
Taylor expresses the deepest objection at the heart of his vehement tirade against infant brit milah when he writes that “when freely chosen” he has “no objection to circumcision,” even if it were to entail substantively the issues that he rejected. The central problem for him is the imposition upon a completely dependent infant (or for that matter a relatively dependent teenage Muslim boy) of a permanent and irreversible mark. This he rejects as “a human rights violation.”
Were I to agree to his reasoning, I would have to conclude that not only should circumcision not be imposed upon a helpless infant, but even circumcision-free, his very Jewish identity, as subscribed to by Jewish law should not be imposed upon him. In the current world, being Jewish is a very dangerous state of being. We have only to take note of Jewish institutions worldwide that have had to implement special security measures to protect the lives of Jewish men and women. Jews are a target of hatred for a variety of reasons (no reason to go into this well-trodden arena) by millions of people who would dance with glee if even a “harmless” Jewish place of worship were blown up, or if a bomb were to go off in a shopping center filled with Jews. A reasonable person following Taylor’s concern might ask: Why not let children wait until they have grown into adults to decide whether or not to take on this identity? Why impose it upon them by providing a Jewish home with Jewish practices, “forcing” them to attend an expensive Jewish day school or summer camp, or even participate in a trip to Israel. Becoming a Jew is very dangerous and has been for thousands of years.
In Vught, the city where I live in the Netherlands, there was in 1943-1944 a work-oriented concentration camp, which today serves as a documentation and education center National Monument Kamp Vught. In 1944 there was a notorious child transport of all children up to the age of sixteen to the death camps: around 1,400 children. A memoriam is held every year to commemorate this infamy. On one occasion, I met a survivor of this transport who was able very shortly before departure to convince the SS officer in charge that he was mistakenly taken into that group because he was not even Jewish. He was asked to let his pants fall to check his alleged Jewish “passport.” To the dismay of the SS, he was indeed uncircumcised, his foreskin visible, and was allowed to return to the main barrack. He survived the camp, the war, and today has grandchildren.
So central is the precept of circumcision that the other key marker of Jewish practice — the eating of the pascal lamb at Passover — is dependent on it: “No uncircumcised person may eat of it” (Exodus 12:47). Nevertheless the Hebrew Bible says the practice was suspended during the forty years of wandering in the desert due to health risks. Credit: Creative Commons/Dauster.
I must confess that upon hearing this tale of fate and fortune, I was struck with a double feeling: happy for this Jew who survived the slaughter to thrive, and angry that he had gotten away by his parents copping out. His parents, communist devotees, disowned their Jewish heritage so radically that they gave up even the most fundamental Jewish tribal observance of belonging to this people.
It is that kind of feeling that is aroused by being part of the covenant ceremony of circumcision. Of course one could bring a child up as a Jew, even if the child is uncircumcised. This would not be the only precept that many Jews do not observe. There are, after all, 613 precepts from which to choose. Jews who only observe some precepts are Jews nevertheless. Some choose to emphasize the ethical precepts, some the moral, the social, the national (Israel), the liturgical (synagogue), or the family occasions. Some emphasize the intellectual while others the mystical (kabbalah). All are Jews.
But there are some symbols that have become tokens (not unconditional prerequisites) of basic belonging. Circumcision is one of them. By this we go public, so to speak. Our child is “openly” (even though his zipper is zipped) Jewish. Just as parents pierce their young children’s ears before they are of the age of consent, so do Jewish parents proudly pierce their male children with the covenant of Abraham to be signed in as bearers of this legacy, a monotheistic heritage that taught the world that all human beings without exception are created equal, having been “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27; 9:6).
rebuttal of the rebuttal in the comments
Matthew A. Taylor November 23, 2011 at 10:43 am
Tzvi Marx’s rebuttal to my critique of non-consensual infant circumcision is problematic. Following are 12 problems with his piece:
1. Dismisses men’s feelings of violation. Marx uses the fact that I’m angry about circumcision to imply that my logic is flawed. In so doing, he sidesteps the significance of my feelings, as well as the feelings of thousands of men like me. See:
2. Ignores a man’s right to make choices over his own body. Marx writes, “In a free society, freedom of choice includes the freedom of parents to choose how to raise their children.” Nowhere does Marx respond to my claim that I should have had the right to make this choice for myself, and that thousands of men like me say they should have had the choice, too:
Apparently, my right to choose – and the right of other men to choose — is irrelevant to Marx, just like it’s irrelevant to Rabbi Lerner.
3. Ignores those who have been disfigured and killed by circumcision. In my article, I referenced the fact that over 100 babies die every year in the U.S. in both religious and non-religious circumcisions. I also referred to David Reimer, who committed suicide as a result of a botched circumcision. Marx neither acknowledges nor responds to these inconvenient truths.
4. Dismisses circumcision as a “minor surgery” and the foreskin as a “defect.” To call a normal, healthy part of the male body a defect seems rather odd. In case you want to learn what a foreskin is and what its purpose is, please watch:
5. Ignores the impact of circumcision on a grown man’s sexual pleasure. My article referenced the fact that circumcision removes the most sexually sensitive parts of the male genitalia. I added that men who were circumcised as adults report substantial decreases in their capacity for sexual pleasure. Marx does not acknowledge the significance of these facts:
6. Conflates circumcision with other parental choices that do not involve irreparable amputation of a healthy body part. Marx argues, “Language, culture, religion, ideology, philosophy, literature, customs, and traditional diet are all irreversibly imposed upon children before they are capable of choosing.” Yes parents make these choices, but Marx is wrong about them being irreversible. Grown-up adults can leave behind their childhood diets, ideologies, religious dogmas, and so on, and make new choices. However, circumcision is different from all of these, as it involves the irreversible amputation of a healthy body part in a demonstrably harmful act.
7. Implies that if circumcision is relatively less traumatic for some babies, that makes it okay for all babies. Marx talks about the Mohels who use wine to pacify the victims of circumcision. How helpful is the wine for the over 100 babies who die every year as a result of circumcision? Marx is silent about these deaths. Furthermore, anyone who watches a video of a typical circumcision can see how traumatic it can be — check out:
Even if circumcision could be performed without the risk of death or trauma to the baby, which I don’t think it can, there still remains the ethical question of amputating a healthy body part that contributes to the grown man’s sexual fulfillment.
8. Selectively cites medical sources in favor of circumcision while ignoring all the Western medical organizations that actively oppose circumcision or do not recommend it. In my article, I wrote, “Most Western medical associations recommend against circumcision. For example, the Royal Dutch Medical Association released the world’s most up-to-date national policy statement on circumcision in 2010. Their well-footnoted policy recommended that doctors aggressively counsel families against circumcising due to the ‘absence of medical benefits and danger of complications.’” Marx’s response is to dig up one Canadian doctor (whose last name is Schoen) who claims that circumcision’s advantages outweigh the surgical risks. If this were true, why is it that no Western medical association in the world recommends the procedure?
9. Ignores the question of whether educated adults should make decisions about STD prevention for themselves, as opposed to their parents amputating a healthy body part at birth without the consent of the amputee. In my article, I wrote, “Even if circumcision really did lower the rates of STD transmission, shouldn’t educated adults make their own decisions about their sex lives? Condoms and responsible sexual relationships prevent STDs, not circumcision.” Marx offers no response.
10. Claims I ignored studies showing a health benefit of circumcision, when in fact I both acknowledged and rebutted those studies. Marx wrote: “Were [Taylor] less personally angry over his having been circumcised, he would have to admit the existence of arguments by responsible health authorities in support of circumcision, as well.” But in fact I both acknowledged those studies and rebutted them in my piece: “Reputable members of the medical community have argued that the studies that show any such benefit [of circumcision] are flawed and suffer from selection bias. According to Doctors Opposing Circumcision, all claims that circumcision provides any protective benefit against sexually transmitted diseases, male and female cancers, and urinary tract infection have been disproved.”
11. Claims that circumcision both is and is not a requirement to be Jewish. On one hand, Marx says: “[Circumcision is] the most fundamental Jewish tribal observance of belonging to this people.” But then Marx contradicts himself and admits, “Of course one could bring a child up as a Jew, even if the child is uncircumcised. This would not be the only precept that many Jews do not observe. There are, after all, 613 precepts from which to choose. Jews who only observe some precepts are Jews nevertheless.” So which is it? Really what Marx is saying here is, “Circumcision is not a requirement to be Jewish, however, I strongly recommend it.” My rebuttal to Marx: Instead, parents can choose Brit Shalom, a Jewish baby-welcoming ceremony without the irreversible body part amputation and ritualized child abuse:
As I mentioned in my article, over 50% of Swedish Jewish parents leave their baby boys intact –– and they’re still Jews!
12. Uses a Nazi Holocaust story as a justification to harm baby boys. Why should Marx’s anecdote be a rationalization to continue to harm infants, put them at risk of death, and permanently diminish the sexual functioning of grown men? The lesson to be learned from the Nazi Holocaust in this context is: protect the innocent and defenseless!
The second sentence of Matthew’s original article beautifully states that one of the holes of Rabbi Michael Lerner’s pro-circumcision arguments is the hole in his heart. Here a man bravely has offered as evidence his own experience, his personal truth. To have done this is not without risks, given the social stigma against men showing emotions, the fierce cultural pressure not to question b’rit milah, and the deplorable tendency in our society to snicker at the mere mention of anything penile (which, combined with the profound discomfort surrounding the topic, sophomorically impedes constructive discourse about circumcision). And yet, Rabbi Marx says that Matthew is too emotional about this subject for his commentary to be useful or valid. To say that the intensity and pain of Matthew’s experience renders his contribution unreliable is to miss the point entirely. Matthew’s experience is the heart of the case against ritual mutilation: it is because many circumcised men feel similarly to Matthew (and, because of the stigma and ridicule described above, one may be certain that there are many more such men than those who have come forward) that the practice must be abandoned. There are other reasons as well, such as the inherent misogyny of inscribing the covenant in a body part unique to males, but the pain inflicted by circumcision, both of the cutting itself and of its lasting impact, is the primary reason.
Rabbi Marx’s statement that he would be concerned by Matthew’s pain in “a pastoral situation” sadly rings hollow, and from the perspective of one being told that his feelings are irrational and insignificant may even have a ring of condescension. By implying that Matthew’s essay belongs in a therapeutic session and not in serious and “learned” discourse, Rabbi Marx insidiously dismisses the legitimacy of the voices of all circumcised men who wish to be intact. Clearly, he is uncomfortable with the admirable candor with which Matthew articulates his feelings. His words at least suggest greater sensitivity than those of the ghoulish Edgar Schoen, the putative medical authority whom he cites, who has stated that stories like Matthew’s are balanced out by stories of positive experiences relating to circumcision in some sort of zero-sum game. This calls to mind Merrell Markoe’s recent observation that there are “so many socially acceptable ways to exhibit a pathological lack of empathy.” Alas, the only way for circumcision advocates to maintain their position in light of testimony such as Matthew’s is to minimize or dismiss as unimportant that which it is impossible to refute or deny. Compassion and respect for the individual’s subjectivity must be sacrificed: how ironic for a Jew to be adopting this line of reasoning, which is the philosophy the anti-Dreyfusards and their fellow authoritarians. In his excellent Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, Dr. Ronald Goldman eloquently writes that the sacrifice made in circumcision is not just to the baby who is being harmed, but to the humanity of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Marx demonstrates the concede-and-minimize tactic of the pro-circumcision advocates when he admits that circumcision constitutes disfigurement, but so is the removal a child’s molar. Does Rabbi Marx really believe that it is remotely acceptable to remove a healthy molar from a child’s mouth!? Such are the lengths to which one must go to justify circumcision. (A more common analogy is having babies’ ears pierced, which is fair enough: that too is an unethical encroachment upon a child’s bodily integrity.) The rabbinical justification he cites is intellectually tortured: the only way for these scholars to reconcile the circumcision covenant with Jewish laws against bodily modification was to declare that the foreskin is not part of the body, and that the male body must be perfected through subtraction. This absurd statement is echoed today by those who consider the foreskin “extra skin” or compare circumcision to cutting the umbilical cord (a dreadful analogy given that the umbilical cord is not a part of the body and the foreskin is). No one can expect that the risible and observably false claim that the foreskin is not a part of the body will allay the concerns of any man experiencing dysphoria about his circumcision. As the intactivist bumper sticker reads, “The foreskin is not a birth defect,” and this the Midrash cannot change.
How Rabbi Marx considers the Abrahamic covenant a declaration of human equality is a mystery to me given the unequivocal misogyny (as noted above, only males are inducted into the covenant) and egregious tribalism of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 15:18–21 (a mere two chapters before the circumcision covenant, which again involves promising land to the People of Israel), God promises to give Abraham the land presently inhabited by ten different tribes, which is only equality in the sense of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I highly value my Jewish heritage in many ways, especially the intellectual tradition, but even if I did not believe that the Abrahamic covenant is entirely fictive, still I would reject it. It unfairly confers privilege upon one tribe of people, and this is not an idea I want anywhere on my body. Certainly I agree with teaching children about their Jewish heritage, but to mark it upon their bodies goes too far. What about the child’s religious freedom? Ultimately, when children of Jewish heritage grow up it is their prerogative to decide what to do with their Jewish identities, and this is a matter over which their parents have no control. A culture only has validity if its members are all willing participants.
I have heard the bizarre claim that circumcision is essential to the survival of Judaism, as though one will forget one’s identity without its being branded onto one’s body. Miriam Pollack has astutely observed the cruel irony, which is attested by the story Rabbi Marx includes in his article, that circumcision has made it far easier for Jewish men to be identified by their persecutors. To say that circumcision is a unique marker of Judaism is astoundingly false, given its prevalence, in various forms, in a large number of other cultures (including among American gentiles!). To assume that circumcising a man will make him take his Jewish heritage seriously is fatuous (especially as those of us who abhor the practice may feel alienated from Jewish culture as a result). Could this irrationality be a sign that this custom is being perpetuated, even as more and more Jews eat shrimp and cheeseburgers and ignore the Sabbath, as a cycle of abuse? Whatever the reason, it is an insult to Judaism to say that it can only survive through a barbaric, misogynist Bronze Age ritual: the survival of Jewish culture through so many centuries of persecution is a testament to the strength of our people, not the mutilation of our penises. As we go forward, the only way for Judaism to maintain its relevance is to recognize the dignity, autonomy, and inherent rights of the individual. This involves actually listening to what the Matthew Taylors have to say, and acknowledging that the bodies of children belong only to themselves, not to their parents, their communities, or anyone’s holy book.