Liberty: the example of circumcision

The Seattle Times, Slate, and other outlets have run interesting stories in the last couple of days discussing a new initiative that will appear on this November’s ballot in San Francisco–and hold onto your privates, gentlemen: It would ban circumcision for all minors (under age 18), rendering it a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. It would contain no religious exemptions. While this is just a ballot initiative–not yet an approved ordinance–the mere threat of its enactment (and the fact that its supporters managed to get over 7,000 signatures) bothers my libertarian soul.

Media reports obsess about the First Amendment implications of such an ordinance, though honestly, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), any state or local law of “general applicability” that burdens the free exercise of religion will be subject only to low-level rationality review (federal actions are subject to more rigorous review under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Since the supporters of the proposed circumcision ban claim that circumcision is a form of “genital mutilation” that is painful and unnecessary, it would seem to sail easily over the “rational basis” hurdle.

So frankly, I’m not all that interested in the First Amendment implications, though Smith is an intriguing case worthy of reconsideration. Instead, I’m struck by the lack of attention given to the individual liberty (substantive due process) implications of San Francisco’s proposed circumcision ban. I had thought it long settled that parents have a broad (though admittedly not limitless), presumptive liberty to raise their children as they see fit. Circumcision may indeed be painful to an infant, but is it any more so than piercing a little girl’s ears? Or tattooing your child? In either case, there is temporary pain and an extremely low risk of serious harm. In both cases, the procedure is undertaken to satisfy the parents’ own cultural or aesthetic preferences.

Supporters of the ban try to analogize circumcision to female genital mutilation, but I’m just not buying it. Female genital mutilation involves cutting out the clitoris, rendering the girl disfigured and permanently unable to have a normal, healthy sexual life. Circumcision obviously has no such long-term effects, as the 80 percent of U.S. men who’ve undergone the procedure can attest. Moreover, circumcision may actually have health benefits for some– it has been considered a way to lower the risk of AIDS in African communities ravaged by that disease.

On a broader level, I’m bothered by the fact that–particularly in an ultra-progressive city like San Francisco–there’s a decent degree of support for nanny-state restrictions on individual liberty, particularly when it relates (at least tangentially) to an individual’s choice of something so fundamental–“deeply rooted” in our history and tradition–as to what medical or aesthetic procedures to undergo. I know we are talking about minors here, but again–parents are presumptively allowed to make medical and aesthetic decisions for their children all the time. But then again, progressives are just as aggressive about nanny-state intrusions into individual liberty as conservatives, when it suits their agenda–witness progressive-supported bans on foie gras in California beginning in 2012 and the FDA’s recent decision to revoke approval of Avastin as a treatment for breast cancer.

Would love to hear others’ thoughts.

53 thoughts on “Liberty: the example of circumcision

  1. My main response is that personal preferences should not be legislated. The ‘legislators’ need to write some real bills, like term limits, especially for the idiots that are in public offcie right now.
    Apparently they can’t think of anything to do that would better their city? How about opening the water for the farmers? How important is that little fish that they can’t relocate it along with the spotted frogs and horney owls??
    Codswallop!!
    These people are in la-la land and I can only hope Calif falls off in the ‘big one’, and I am a native!! What is scarier, they vote!!!…. moan…

  2. … I had thought it long settled that parents have a broad (though admittedly not limitless), presumptive liberty to raise their children as they see fit. Circumcision may indeed be painful to an infant, but is it any more so than piercing a little girl’s ears? Or tattooing your child? …

    I think it’s long-settled, but incorrectly. Parents have a broad, presumptive liberty to raise their children as they see fit. As a libertarian myself, I think that’s as it should be. But non-therapeutic (i.e. ritual or cultural) circumcision must be considered beyond that scope. It’s more damaging than piercing a child’s ears since that hole will mostly close if left unused. (It’s worth remembering that there are risks involved with ear piercing, which parents too readily ignore.) “Reversing” the damage from circumcision can’t get anywhere near that because it involves so much more physical harm.

    Tattooing children is already illegal, and I’m not sure I could find a libertarian who thinks parents should be able to tattoo non-consenting children. It’s permanent and alters the body, just like circumcision.

    The female genital cutting sub-issue is instructive. Most forms are more extreme than a typical male circumcision, but it’s not a guarantee. Some are less so, and ceremonial. Those are still illegal in the United States. California has its own anti-FGC law that prohibits any non-therapeutic cutting on the genitals of female minors. The relevant question is whether or not that violates the rights of parents. Most people feel that question is already settled as a”no”. I agree, but if it is, why is it acceptable to limit parents from cutting that’s less harmful, but only for their daughters? A parental “right” should be universal, but the Western view creates two classes. Female minors have a fuller set of individual liberty than male minors.

    That inconsistency in our society’s view is the problem. We think this is an issue of parental rights. But we’ve already demonstrated that non-therapeutic genital cutting can and should be prohibited. That ban protects the individual liberty of girls. Shouldn’t boys have their individual liberty protected, too? As libertarians, specifically, isn’t individual liberty what we advocate?

    Most males will be indifferent, at worst, to being circumcised. But not all will. (Me, for instance.) The individual’s liberty interest is what matters, even if he’s in the minority opinion. Since circumcision, as surgery, is objective harm, it’s a proper state interest to prohibit proxy consent for its infliction where it is not medically necessary and possibly not wanted.

    To Susan’s point, proper government protection of my rights would’ve kept my personal preference as an option. Instead, it let my parents impose their preference on me. This issue is about personal preference, but of the individual being circumcised, not the ones circumcising him. This law protects that rather than restricts it.

    1. How did you determine that circumcision is “objective harm”? In your expert medical opinion, would the medical benefits of circumcision (including, but not limited to lowering the risk of certain types of infections for ones partners) be outweighed by the costs (i.e. not having a foreskin)? In your expert medical opinion, how does this differ from a parent opting to surgically remove a child’s mole? Also, in your opinion, since parents are obviously not qualified to make medical decisions for their children (since parents, after all, never know what’s right for their kids), who SHOULD be qualified? The municipality of San Francisco? The very same that determined that infants make purchasing decisions and therefore putting toys in fast food meals should be banned? Here’s a wake-up call: your parents impose their preferences on you from the day you’re born until you leave their house. They ARE going to make medical decisions for you- unless you want your parents to have given you the option of skipping your medicine when you had strep- and you really don’t have the judgment to override them. Unless you want to make the argument that the State should substitute as parents for every person who disagrees with you (which it seems you ARE making), I’m not really sure what you stand to prove here. Also, to distinguish between FGM and circumcision, one is done as painlessly as possible and has medical benefits. The other is done with the intent to inflict pain and has no medical benefits. It’s more than just a cultural difference.

      1. Abraham:

        I don’t pretend to be a medical expert. However, I do not need to be a doctor to understand and make my statement. Before the surgery the child has a healthy, normal foreskin. After the surgery he has a wound and no foreskin. Circumcision is objective harm. That is not open for debate.

        As for the benefits, there aren’t medical benefits for healthy children. Being healthy excludes the possibility of therapeutic benefits. There are only potential benefits of subjective value. It lowers the risk of UTI, for example, but only in the first year of life. However, the risk of UTI is already very low for males in the first year, at approximately 1%. (It’s 3% for girls.) Circumcising 1000 infants to protect 9 from an infection that can usually be treated with methods less invasive than surgery is absurd. (From 1.0% à 0.1%) For other potential benefits, there are almost always better, more effective methods for achieving the same benefit.

        As for what I believe, please be careful what you assume. I did not say that parents are not qualified to or should not make medical decisions for their children. I’ve stated only that parents should not be permitted to make this non-therapeutic surgical decision for their healthy sons. The person who would be circumcised is the only individual qualified to make – which includes the option to reject – this non-therapeutic surgical decision.

        The individual who will live with the objective harm, the potential harms (e.g. complications) and the potential benefits should make – or reject – this decision for himself. The net evaluation is subjective to the individual affected. What his parents think may be interesting, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. He has to live with this non-therapeutic bodily alteration. For me, I don’t value any of the claimed benefits. I don’t engage in unsafe sex, I shower regularly, I don’t smoke, and so on. I would prefer to have my foreskin than those irrelevant-to-me potential benefits. You want an objective, applicable-to-all net evaluation. No such conclusion is possible. And I do not care that some women prefer circumcised men. I wouldn’t involve myself in a relationship with such a woman. (Question: Can parents alter the bodies of their daughters to satisfy the perceived preferences of their future sexual partners?)

        You’re right, though, my parents imposed decisions on me, as all parents must. Some of them I agree with and carry through my life now. Some of them I’ve rejected and have chosen differently in adulthood. But circumcision is the one decision they forced on me that I can’t reject for myself. Also, that decision was different than your “gotcha” examples like strep. Those decisions involve medical need. I haven’t said parents shouldn’t make those decisions, including the rare cases of medically-necessary circumcision. My standard for parents is simple: parents should choose the most effective, least-invasive intervention possible. That’s the ethical necessity of proxy consent. It’s not an obvious line with medically-necessary circumcisions, but it is with non-therapeutic circumcisions. In the absence of medical need, an intervention by proxy consent is unethical.

        This is not nanny-statism, a term that is quickly taking on the same level of seriousness that “judicial activism” acquired in the recent past. I am not asking the state to substitute for parents or to impose my will. Imposing non-therapeutic surgery on a child is wrong. It is a violation of the child’s safety and rights. Protecting against such violations is the proper role of any state. In my scenario, each individual gets to choose what he wants for himself. Some would choose to have themselves circumcised. I wish them well in that. In your scenario, each individual gets to choose only if his parents leave him his choice. Many of those males will be pleased or indifferent that their parents imposed circumcision. But not all of them will. This proposal promotes individual liberty.

      2. Your argument rests on the premise that lacking a foreskin constitutes objective harm. Are you going to contend that a parent can’t cut their child’s hair? There is no MEDICAL harm, and there’s certainly no reason to draw a line distinguishing potential benefits from “therapeutic benefits,” whatever you intended by that. All benefits are potential. There are no black and white medical facts. What we know changes every day, and what we perceive is always subject to speculation and debate. Your policy suggestion would substitute a simple one-size-fits-all government solution for personal and medical judgment on a complex issue. That’s manifestly unfree and amoral, and that is without consideration of the fact that such a law specifically targets individuals who act out of religious belief, which should be of concern only in the case where it is a motivating factor (which it may or may not be).

      3. Abraham:

        I’m going to contend that hair has no nerve endings and grows back, while the foreskin has nerve endings and does not grow back. Thank you, though, for asking rather than assuming.

        All caps for “medical” doesn’t change the fact that surgery constitutes objective harm. Before, there was normal, healthy anatomy. After, there is less anatomy and a surgical wound. This isn’t up for debate. You need to separate your personal opinion that the potential benefits are wonderful to you from the facts of how you get those potential benefits. Of course all benefits from surgery are potential. But proxy consent must require medical need before we chase them. To your earlier example, are there symptom-free, non-therapeutic appendectomies? Are they performed on children?

        The issue is not complex in most cases. The child is healthy. No surgery is indicated. Therefore, no surgery should be imposed. What’s manifestly unfree and immoral is altering the body of a person who can’t consent.

        The proposed law includes individuals who act on a child out of religious belief, but it does not specifically target them any more than it specifically targets parents who circumcise because the child’s father is circumcised or because the parents feel that the child needs a reduced risk of female-to-male HIV transmission in a high-risk population such as those in some parts of Africa or because the mother knew a guy who knew a guy who needed to be circumcised as an adult or because the weird kid with a foreskin in middle school got teased in the locker room. The proposal is worded for general applicability because non-therapeutic circumcision in the United States, in general, and San Francisco, here, is imposed by parents for many different reasons. It applies the general assumption that male children have the same rights that female children possess to be free from unnecessary genital cutting (i.e. harm) without regard for the preferences of their parents. It recognizes that, in this scenario where the rights of healthy children are being violated, we should protect those rights by stopping the violation until they can choose for themselves.

      4. Again, you fall into the trap of substituting your judgment for the judgment of others based on what you perceive to be fact. Your perception of scientific fact is what drives you to think that you should ban a practice. My perception is different. Does it follow that I should be able to pass a law about what I think people should and should not be doing?

      5. It’s irrelevant what I think. My point is that objective scientific fact is subject to change and manipulation. You are not entitled to legislate your medical opinions onto others. The wonderful state that I live in forces most of its citizens to stab their children with a needle containing a cocktail that medical minds have determined is good for them. Some people contend that this vaccine has given their children autism. But the state forces its medical opinions on them. This is wrong. Government that determines “objective medical fact” invariably forces the opinions of some on others. This is wrong.

      6. Abraham:

        Some “objective scientific facts” are objective scientific facts, no quotes. No one has asserted more than the very simple fact that circumcision causes objective harm. Individuals may decide that the potential benefits offset that for themselves, a possibility no one has rejected. No one is saying that circumcision is objectively a net harm for every male, just that it causes objective harm in every instance. That is not going to change to a new scientific consensus. The circumciser’s surgical instrument causes a wound to the penis. It has always been this way. It will always be this way.

      7. The “objective scientific fact” is your assertion that it is unnecessary and that the degree of benefit is outweighed by the degree of harm. I don’t think anybody would disagree that vaccines constitute objective harm. But most people think they also confer a good deal of benefit, and choose to subject their young children to them.

      8. The lack of medical necessity for most boys is an objective scientific fact. Most people seem to think of the science of circumcision only as the potential benefits that come from it. But the perfect health of the child is also science. The harm that results from the surgery is science. There is science in being, not just doing.

        Most boys are healthy and symptom-free. If you’re asserting that circumcision is necessary rather than unnecessary, you need to prove that every healthy boy left with his foreskin will eventually suffer because of it, will eventually need circumcision later in life, and that circumcision now is the only way to prevent some greater harm from being intact. You can’t. At the time it’s done, it’s unnecessary.

        I have not stated that the harm outweighs the potential benefits. I’ve stated that the harm is objective and unavoidable to every male who is circumcised. It’s a sufficient, but limited, claim within the focus on a child’s rights here. Whether or not the potential benefits outweigh the objective (and potential) harm for a net benefit is a decision that can only be made accurately by the healthy male himself. Everything else is speculation.

        For me for my body, the harm outweighs the potential benefit. I don’t value the potential benefits. For you, I assume you prefer circumcision. I am correct for myself. You are correct for yourself. We both value what we value. The issue here is that parents can’t know which opinion their (healthy) son(s) will hold. Only my stance permits us both to get as close as possible to what we want. It maximizes liberty for all individuals, properly understood. I recognize that you reject that because you seem to favor some notion of parental liberty trumping all rights of children. However, your position on the rights of children is inconsistent, bordering on incoherent.

        If you want to discuss vaccines, we can. But it’s a red herring.

      9. Abraham said: “Also, to distinguish between FGM and circumcision, one is done as painlessly as possible and has medical benefits. The other is done with the intent to inflict pain and has no medical benefits. It’s more than just a cultural difference.”

        FGM is not done with the intent to inflict *harm* on the child. It’s done for the same reason that MGM is done in the US, because the parents *believe* that it’s in their child’s interest either for cultural or religious reasons.

        AR said: “I don’t think anybody would disagree that vaccines constitute objective harm. But most people think they also confer a good deal of benefit, and choose to subject their young children to them.”

        You shouldn’t confuse an overwhelmingly effective and important intervention such as vaccination to an outdated, weak, and morally questionable one such as circumcision.

      10. Joe:

        Regarding FGM, if in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not performed to cause the child pain for its own sake as you say it is not, then my recommendation would be to resist the temptation of cultural imperialism and let it be, for the same reasons I gave for circumcision.

        Regarding vaccinations, your doctor says overwhelming and important, but mine says dangerous and unnecessary. Why should your doctor be able to use legal means to stop me from following my doctor’s advice in caring for my children?

      11. Tony:
        Again, you resort to the same defense that is still somewhat lacking as a justification for state coercion. Science is not objective. It is subject to debate and manipulation for political purposes. Science also changes, and what we now take to be solid fact will likely all be disproved by some genius a few years down the line. It is therefore unwise to establish policy that takes a scientific consensus (real or alleged) as immovable fact.

        You also state that whether the harm outweighs the benefits is a decision that can be made only by the healthy male himself. This is a false argument, as I explained before, because the individual in question is not fit to exercise judgment, as he is an infant. You don’t avoid the issue by offering the alternative of circumcision as an adult, because, as I have explained, for various reasons (including those of a religious nature) the child will not be satisfied, as an adult, with being told that he can now opt for a procedure which, for his own reasons, he desired as a child. Therefore you are not offering him the possibility of doing what he wants, but rather, the possibility of doing something somewhat similar. There is no avoiding the fact that a government law on circumcision permanently imposes in a yes-no decision that cannot be transferred or made later. You do not offer this person the ability to exercise his judgement on this decision, but rather on a different one. That it makes available to him a decision he can make himself at a later date that he otherwise might not have had the opportunity to make does not change the nature of the state action. You might argue that it JUSTIFIES state action (and I would disagree), but the nature of such state action has not changed.

        Further, and on this issue, you cannot possibly state, unqualified, that the determination of whether harm is outweighed by good can only be made by the individual in question (as opposed to by his parents), without overriding every parenting decision, especially the ones I mentioned earlier, such as food, television, and vaccines. That some confer immediate benefits as opposed to potential benefits or pose long term harm or unobservable harm as opposed to short term harm is only a difference in degree, not kind (and is, in any event, subject to scientific inquiry, debate, and manipulation, making it an area ill-suited to government intervention), and would not preclude them from being, by your statement, the domain of the child and hence the domain of government. Therefore your argument, to be accepted as a principle of law, must be qualified somehow (which I think is impossible to do without leaving ample room for interpretation, misunderstanding and abuse).

        Next, my point about vaccines is certainly not a red herring. They offer only potential benefit in exchange for definite harm (being stabbed with a needle and feeling run down for a little while) and potential harm (long term side effects such as autism). In this they are essentially similar to circumcision, and what you say for one should apply to the other (ironically, many governments MANDATE vaccines. This should serve to demonstrate how much power public opinion- and the pharmaceutical industry- can wield when law seeks to enforce science). If you are going to argue that they are distinct cases, I’ll disagree with you, but go ahead and do that. Just don’t call it a red herring when it’s not.

        Lastly, you state that your position gets everybody as close as possible to what they want. I’ll repeat that I disagree with you practically, for reasons that I mentioned earlier, including the Local Knowledge theory that Jim Otteson elegantly described in Actual Ethics, which posits that those closest to a situation (in this case, the parents) are best qualified to exercise judgment (in a case where, as I have shown, judgment MUST be exercised, and exercised in place of an individual who is not yet ready to do so himself), and children are therefore more likely to get what they want if their parents decide rather than government (both because their parents know what they want better than a government official, and because they are more likely to want what their parents want than what an anonymous legislator wants). I would add that, if I had to choose to grant arbitrary power over people to either their parents or a government official, I would grant power to their parents, because their limited means make it less likely that they might continue to enforce their will indefinitely (i would also add, somewhat jokingly, that 100 million people weren’t killed in the twentieth century because their parents exercised too much power over them, but because their governments did). But that is a side point. My main point is that even if this were true, and, under your law, more people would get what they want than under my anarchy, it would still fail to justify state coercion. One does not establish policy on utilitarian grounds, lest we risk opening the door to socialists and fascists who profess to be the epitome of utilitarianism.

        As an aside, I disagree with the notion that one policy can maximize a particular liberty. Either one has the liberty to do something, or one does not. Specific liberties do not exist in degrees, and where there is state action, there is no liberty.

        I think I deserve a paycheck for typing this tripe on my smartphone. 🙂 Wouldn’t it be lovely if we got paid to prattle on about politics all day? I’d tell law school to go screw, and spend my days pacing around giving myself carpal tunnel…

      12. Abraham:

        First, kudos for typing that on a phone. I do not have that level of patience.

        Some aspects of science are objective. I agree that the fact that the child is healthy at the time of circumcision is “subject to debate and manipulation for political purposes,” but only in the way that hurts your argument. The evidence that most boys are healthy will not change, unless words stop applying to the same concepts.

        My argument that the individual himself is the only person qualified to conclude the net harm or benefit of circumcision is accurate. That he is not capable of making a decision as a young child is not evidence that it may, therefore, be forced upon him. He is healthy. Contrary to what you write, it is not true that “judgment MUST be exercised.” Again, he is healthy. No decision is warranted. The only judgment necessary is “yes, he is healthy, so we’ll just leave that alone.” Any decision made is speculation, which circles back to subjective conclusions of net harm or benefit.

        You’re also trying to establish conflicting rights where only one right is legitimate. There is a right to remain free from unnecessary harm, to state it crudely. Call it self-ownership or merely a benefit of being alive, we can’t just harm children because they’re not old enough to say “no”. This includes a right to be free from unnecessary, possibly unwanted genital cutting. We recognize it for girls, and despite your quite mild advocacy for some level of multi-culturalism on that front, that is widely acknowledged as valid. Not argumentum ad populum… I think people sufficiently grok the notion that genital cutting of any sort is harm when it pertains to girls. The misfire is in connecting the fact that girls and boys are equally human.

        You’re contrasting that to a claimed right to grow up circumcised. No such right is possible, lest we pretend parents are psychic and that bad outcomes don’t happen. Basically, it’s crossofcrimson’s time machine. Thus, being somehow owed one’s preferred life is an inferior idea to the pursuit of liberty, even when that preferred life is statistically likely. For individual liberty, there is no conflict here. The right to be free from harm, even from one’s well-meaning parents, is superior (because it’s the only right involved).

        I’ve already qualified my goal for specificity: non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual. I have not opened the case for government intrusion into any and every parental decision, substituting my opinion for all parents. “Non-therapeutic” is a matter of fact. “Non-consenting” is a matter of age. (Note: I’m persuaded that males under 18 can consent.) The two together, with the former being the key, are critical to limiting the scope here. This is why I do not express a universal opinion that circumcision is “bad” or that no circumcision can ever be for legitimate medical need.

        Vaccines are a red herring because the analysis rarely gets beyond “it’s something parents do to their children”. They’re viewed on the same level as circumcision and cutting a child’s hair. That’s superficial. Vaccines work with the body’s immune system rather than just trimming part of the body away to potentially avoid issues. Vaccines are used for diseases that are easily and passively communicable. (e.g. measles) The potential benefits from circumcision can be achieved and/or treated with less invasive methods. The risk profile is different for those not vaccinated and those not circumcised. While there is potential harm from vaccines, as well, the analysis separates it.

        As for practical outcomes, I’m not convinced for the reasons I’ve stated. But looking beyond my own violated preference regarding circumcision, I can demonstrate my point using food. I was raised an omnivore. Everyone in my family is an omnivore. I have relatives who raise chickens for a living. Yet, as an adult, I chose to become a vegetarian and have since transitioned to veganism. Being raised as an omnivore, I wasn’t therefore more likely to get what I want, which seems to be a different way of saying children long to be a clone of their parents. I don’t, obviously. I don’t think my mother was wrong for feeding me meat as a child. I don’t now advocate for parents to raise their children as vegans, to say nothing of how offensive I think it would be to attempt to force parents to do so. I recognize the difference, ethically. I may even go back to vegetarianism or meat-eating, depending on my evolving preferences and understanding of nutrition. The key is that I retain a choice here. I “undid” my childhood, and I can undo my present choice.

        The parenting decisions I overcame weren’t directly harmful without a corresponding need, and they weren’t permanent. Again, the former is the most important part, but the latter factors in, as well. It’s clear that parents can and should make most decisions for their children. But without some limits, children are property. You haven’t yet stated a coherent theory of when children should be protected, or whether they should be protected. Sure there are gray areas, although circumcision isn’t one of them. But you haven’t established any criteria since your statements have been contradictory.

        To your aside, I agree that either one has the liberty to do something, or one does not. I do not have the liberty to choose not to have myself circumcised. That is a specific liberty that does not exist in degrees. Where there is no state action in the face of parental intervention, there is no liberty.

  3. This is a tough one that falls into the moral gray area between things that are obviously purely parental responsibility and those that are potentially regulable as permanent harms to the child. While some men regret having been circumcised and view it as a harm, others do not. So I agree that in this case we ought to side against government regulation and in favor of parents’ right to make choices among potentially legitimate alternatives for their children’s future. That parents may make mistakes is not a good enough reason for government to act, unless the mistake is a nontrivial, irreversible harm or a harm that pretty much every adult would regret having suffered as a child.

  4. Welcome aboard the good ship Pileus.

    I agree with Jason that this is a tough one. There are a lot of things parents might do to exercise their religious beliefs. Some are reversible; some are not.

    I remember when we had our first son more than two decades ago. It was the people’s republic of Madison. Our midwife entered the room with a physician. The physician boldly proclaimed: “I don’t do genital mutilation. In fact, you might have a hard time finding any of the doctors here willing to do it. And I doubt that it would be covered by your insurance.” I never checked on the insurance. But it seemed to me at the time that my child, when reaching adulthood, could make the decision to remove his foreskin or anything else for that matter. In contrast, if I exercised that option–with little health-related justification–I would be making decisions that were above my pay grade. I have never bothered to check with my sons about whether they wish I would have decided differently.

    I am not certain if the law should play a role here. I do think that insurers should deny coverage (the medical justification is pretty thin) and physicians should be perfectly free to refuse to engage in genital mutilation (and yes, it is mutilation even if it is not comparable to a clitorectomy), regardless of the parents’ religious creed or aesthetic proclivities.

  5. I’m extremely surprised at the position this post takes. I mean, remove the Judeo-Christian cultural context of the operation normalizing the tradition and you have something utterly terrifying for the unbiased observer to behold. One of the first experiences of a new person is to have the foreskin of their penis cut off? For what purpose? What of ear tips or pinkie toes? Those to the guillotine as well? This practice is a ridiculous superstition. Medical benefits of the act are always dubiously claimed, and the potential for infection far outweighs any of the old-wives tales often promoted. I’d be very curious to know how many men not circumcised at birth would like to have the procedure done at 18 — that should be a telling indicator of the degree of liberty exercised in this nonsensical rite. Besides, most of the so-called ‘arguments’ in favour of it make their claims on sexuality-related grounds; hardly something an unfortunate newborn can see any relevancy in as his oh so rationally guided parents command the holy chop. Utter ridiculousness.

    Jason…no one can possibly remember the operation because their memory capacity cannot have developed at that point in time, so talking about men regretting the operation later in life doesn’t really make sense. Just watch the procedure being done and it’s pretty clear how they feel about it. And anything other than ‘non-trivial, irreversible harm’ leaves a lot of space for all kinds of exciting abuses to occur. That’s a sloppy, lazy statement. Causing undue harm to anything is clinically considered borderline psychopathic, but nope, apparently not as soon as some figment of our parents’ imagination calls it ‘right’. I mean, there was
    not too long ago a post on ‘inter-generational abuse’ — now we’re talking about something not half as abstract and taking the opposite position? Money and entitlements are one thing (well, two things); forcing someone to have their junk sliced and diced is a step in the wrong direction.

    1. So your position is the newborn should make the decision? Because it is pointless to compare circumcision as a child, which is close to painless (i don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but the child cries for about twenty seconds before calming down, which is a bit less than it does when it has to burp), to circumcision as am adult, that is painful enough to require anesthesia and days of bedrest. So let us not pretend this is an issue of child versus parent: this is State versus parent. So, on what other issues do you think the infant should render his expert judgment through his protectors in the State? On choice of school? Nationality? Religion? Language? Better question- who should be entrusted to make the decision for every single person? You, from your horse, distributing objective realities to everyone who doesn’t think exactly the way you do?

  6. Great comments everyone. I definitely see the “mutilation” angle– circumcision is undoubtedly a permanent alteration of the natural state. But then again, so is piercing, whether ears or otherwise. Yes, the hole closes up, but your ears (or other body parts) are never the same afterwards. There’s a permanent mark. How much does a circumcision hurt a baby boy? Obviously I don’t know, and the infants who undergo the procedure are too young to tell us. Certainly if I had a son (I have a daughter, so no experience here, gentlemen), I would want a local anesthetic. As a parent, however, I have to admit that I would probably have the procedure for my own son (if I had one), for simple aesthetic and sexual norming reasons. While the percentage of uncircumcised men in the US is probably growing, the vast majority are still circumcised, and many women find uncircumcised men to be, well, a bit odd or disturbing (and no, this is NOT my own personal opinion; just sharing some impressions friends have shared with me over the years). Is it as brutal as a clitorectomy? Not in my opinion, but I will confess to a possible bias here as a female and the fact that clitorectomies have historically been performed: (1) without anesthesia; (2) for purposes of maintaining power/control over women; and (3) prevent recipients from living normal sex lives afterwards. None of these 3 are present with circumcision, though admittedly some moyel’s don’t use any anesthesia.

  7. foleye,

    I disagree that none of the 3 are present with male circumcision.

    1) Local anesthetic is generally used, but we can’t be sure that’s effective. We can assume it is, and I’m fine with that. But it doesn’t work for the healing period. There is obvious pain there.

    Regardless, I don’t view this as a relevant point for permitting parents to circumcise their sons. Providing pain relief is the humane thing to do; anything else is barbarism. But providing it does not alter the analysis of whether circumcision itself is humane.

    2) Aesthetic and sexual norming of males as a reason to circumcise: That is maintaining power/control over males. To satisfy the possible personal sexual preferences of a child’s future partner, valuing them over his possible preferences about his own body: That is also maintaining power/control over males.

    We don’t attribute the same intent there, but not all cases of FGC exist for the intent we assume. Not all cases are clitorectomies or more severe than male circumcision, yet those are still illegal in the United States. WHO offers a reference on FGM that shows the four types and some of the cultural reasons stated for it. The latter can be similar to justifications for male circumcision.

    3) Before stating anything else, I’ll make it clear that I understand your point. FGC is almost always more severe and has lifelong effects that can be devastating. There is a difference in degree from male circumcision, often significant.

    But there is no difference in kind. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual should be illegal as battery. “Normal” is the key word for comparison. Males can lead a fulfilling sex life afterward, but it is “common”, not “normal”. The normal anatomy includes use of the foreskin for intercourse and/or masturbation. Whether sex is better or worse after circumcision is a judgment call, so I don’t like declarative statements there. But it is different for the individual. The question is whether or not he gets to decide what form of different is acceptable for him.

    1. Whether or not who gets to decide? The infant? You are not talking about the infant making a judgment call. You’re talking about the STATE making a judgment call, and overruling the parents. The decision is not NOW or LATER, but rather YES or NO. Circumcision after childbirth is a completely different procedure from adult circumcision. So the decision you seek to impose on everyone is not to slow their children to decide, but to decide for them.

      Another point- there IS a difference in kind between male circumcision and FGM. FGM causes intentional long term harm. Circumcision does not. Not having a foreskin does not qualify as harm, as it has no functional use. Unless you want to start prosecuting people for removing their childrens’ appendixes as a precaution, what you’re doing here is determining that you don’t like a specific practice, and justifying banning it by selectively applying this logic to it.

      1. I’m talking about the adult male (or minor who consents) making the decision for himself. That decision is not “now” or “later”, of course, because the proposal requires “later”. That’s so that the individual can decide “yes” or “no”. Pretending that the state would be saying “no” forever suggests you haven’t read the proposal.

        You’re right that circumcision is a different procedure for infants and adults. For adults, they get adequate anesthetic, since they can tolerate far more than infants and can state when they’re not getting enough pain relief. They get to state how much of their foreskin they want removed, and whether or not they wish to keep their frenulum. Their foreskin has already separated naturally from their glans, so the doctor will not need to break the adhesion of the synechiae (the same thing keeping your nails to your fingers and toes). They do not have the same risk of readhesion.

        Of course, the ethics of choice are different, too, since the adult consents to this alteration of his body, while the child does not. This includes the fact that the adult can weigh the benefits he needs or perceives and decide that they outweigh the cost of the pain involved and the loss of his foreskin.

        You’re wrong about the comparison of male and female genital cutting. Intent is a tricky thing. Please read the WHO reference linked earlier. There are plenty of women who support what was done to them. And the level of harm is not always as lasting as you suggest. It usually is, as I acknowledged earlier, since the more/most damaging forms are the most common. But all forms of non-therapeutic female genital cutting on minors is already illegal, including those less damaging than male circumcision.

        That you don’t value the foreskin doesn’t mean it has no function. It is healthy, normal tissue. It protects the rest of the penis. It provides sensation during sexual activity. Please read Brian Morris a little more critically. Merely regurgitating his propaganda is not a good idea.

        I’m not aware of parents who send their children into surgery for symptom-free, non-therapeutic appendectomies. Can you provide links?

      2. I was raising a hypothetical regarding the appendectomy. I don’t know if that occurs or not. Again, though, what you’re stating is your opinion based on what you perceive to be medical facts. You may well be correct. But if I were an anti-circumcision government official, I would hire a doctor who concurred with my predisposition. Therefore, it is not surprising that you found a medical opinion to back your position, just as it is not surprising that I find one to back mine. My point is not that you’re wrong. You may be right. It is irrelevant. My point is that giving government the power to make parenting and medical decisions for people is not only amoral: it is the first step down a well-worn slippery slope toward totalitarianism, down which tumbled many a great society. Regardless of how strongly you feel you are right, neither you nor anyone else had the right to tell a third party how to raise his kids.

        Regarding FGM, there are instances in which it is done to inflict pain and instances when it is done with a positive goal in mind. I am generally of the opinion that it is arrogant and foolish to march around the world to culture the “savages” who don’t act exactly as we do, but even on an issue like this, there is a clear line of demarcation between what constitutes malicious child abuse on the one hand, and a (possibly) poor parenting decision on the other. I would recommend to those who oppose the practice, therefore, and in the interest of respecting the sovereignty and liberty of those who have created people to fashion them as they see fit, to reserve the use of legal condemnation and coercion for fighting the former, and use social debate and argument for protesting the latter, lest someone less favorable to your medical consensus gain power and “determine” based on “scientific fact” that NOT circumcising one’s child constitutes criminal abuse. This would hold true for all decisions regarding the health of a child, with the exception of those preformed with malicious intent.

      3. I need not remind you, regarding my point about government and the “scientific consensus,” that it was broadly agreed upon as recently as 150 years ago, that people with dark skin represented a primitive form of human evolution, and were best served if they were subjugated and disciplined. Or that, as recently as 60 years ago, a European country reached the same consensus about people of a particular religion. Or that, today, most municipal tap water supplies are actively poisoned by our governments who have decided that poison is good for our teeth. My point, of course, is not that banning circumcision will result in another holocaust, but rather that government is very fond of making decisions FOR people, and has, historically, not hesitated to use the “scientific consensus” to push social planning goals with dangerous, often nefarious, and occasionally downright genocidal consequences. We ought not to let them continue doing so, lest we one day find ourselves drawing the short straw.

      4. Abraham:

        Regardless of how strongly you feel you are right, neither you nor anyone else had the right to tell a third party how to raise his kids.

        Then all laws against child abuse are flawed and should be repealed?

        …and in the interest of respecting the sovereignty and liberty of those who have created people to fashion them as they see fit…

        Your position here is that parents own their children. I will never accept that appalling viewpoint.

      5. You keep bringing up the nanny-statism of this proposal. Why? This was initiated by citizens and put on the ballot because the petition received the legally-required number of signatures. If left to the elected officials of San Francisco, I have no doubt it would’ve been deposited in the garbage asap, just like every other legislative push in recent years. It’s a democratic quirk of California law, not some new respect for rights in San Francisco within the government.

        But how is it different for government to make this decision for a child than for his parents to make it for him? Why should a child who doesn’t want to be circumcised care whether it was the government or his parents? He ends up circumcised with his rights violated without his consent. The subset here is those males who would reject it, of course, but that’s what’s relevant since the issue involves individual rights, not collective “rights”. The proposal doesn’t force the decision. It prevents it from being forced and leaves it to the individual. You seem to confuse parental intent, which I don’t question, with outcome. Parents can make well-intentioned wrong decisions.

        This is not an encroachment on liberty. Circumcision of healthy children is the encroachment on liberty. Preventing that protects liberty. It’s a proper function of the state, not a slippery slope. You need to step back from your perspective that some imaginary parental right (that only applies to sons, somehow) is being violated. It’s not. Parents have rights to raise their children. Imposing surgery for a non-medical/cultural reason isn’t one of them.

    2. “But how is it different for government to make this decision for a child than for his parents to make it for him? ”

      It’s very different. In one case, the government is imposing a one-size-fits-all law upon everyone. In the other case, individuals are allowed to use their judgment as they see fit, and make a decision they think suits them best. There’s a significant difference there. There is no law mandating circumcision. If you don’t want to “violate your child’s rights”, don’t circumcise him.

      Also, you keep getting hung up on this issue of “consent.” An infant doesn’t give “consent.” His parents do. In terms of medical decisions, of which this is one, the parents of a minor are the absolute and final authority. (Of course, this ignores the troubling trend of governmental agencies taking people’s children away when they disagree with their childcare decisions. This is amoral and should not happen.)

      “You keep bringing up the nanny-statism of this proposal. Why? This was initiated by citizens and put on the ballot because the petition received the legally-required number of signatures. ”

      Do you seek to justify tyranny of the majority? If the majority of voters in San Francisco would get together and decide that, hypothetically speaking, gay people should be banned from making certain types of contracts, would that be moral? Would you then support it because it was “initiated by citizens?” That a law passed under existing legal framework does not make it moral. It seems superfluous to do this, but let me remind you that every single action taken by Nazi Germany with respect to its Jewish population was done within the framework of existing law. Nazi Germany remained a democracy in the fullest respect. As was America during slavery and Jim Crow. That a law was passed does not make it moral or right.

      “The proposal doesn’t force the decision. It prevents it from being forced and leaves it to the individual. ”

      That’s just not true. You’re taking an area where there is no law – read: nobody is forced to do anything- and legislating it – effectively, forcing EVERYBODY to act in a certain way. Law is just a form of publicly accepted use of force. Where there is no law, there can be no force.

      “You need to step back from your perspective that some imaginary parental right (that only applies to sons, somehow) is being violated”

      I never said this should only apply to sons. I said that cases of FGM where the goal is purely malicious in nature are amoral, but I didn’t say we should ban it. Even if I did, those cases would be in the distinct minority, especially in the United States. And I do not concern myself with FGM in the rest of the world. That is neither my business nor priority. The world would be better served by protecting private property in Africa than by running around trying to stop people from doing what they think God told them to do.

      It seems to me that you hold there to be some unmovable standard against which all parenting decisions are to be judged, lest they deviate from it and be punished. What, then is the function of a parent?

      “Parents can make well-intentioned wrong decisions.”

      So is your position that the State should step in and “correct” every wrong decision? Let me jump in here with something that I think the “scientific consensus” will agree does a lot more long term harm to children than circumcision: Television. A child can develop a learning disability because of excessive exposure to television that will render him incapable of functioning properly in society. This is fact. According to your logic, should the state not prohibit parents from allowing their kids to watch television? This is a case of severe, measurable, mental harm. What about fatty and sugary foods? Fatty and sugary foods can give a kid diabetes, which can KILL him. This isn’t “mental anguish” that you “suffer” from because your parents cut a piece of your penis off. This is serious illness and death: severe, measurable, physical harm. Are you of the opinion that the State should prohibit parents from taking their kids out for fast food? If not, how often SHOULD parents be allowed to feed their kids at McDonald’s? What about antibiotics? Scientific studies show that overusing antibiotics can have very harmful effects on a child in the long term. A parent who gives his child antibiotics instead of bed rest is effectively imposing his views on a child as to how to get the child to stop crying, which endangers the child’s long term health. Should we not strictly limit the number of doses of antibiotics parents may give their children? What about smoking? Smoking can give kids all sorts of lung problems. Should we absolutely ban smoking for anybody who has kids or might have kids? Or might be near kids? Should we just ban smoking entirely? If you’re going to take issue with circumcision, which causes a relatively minor degree of harm, how can you not take issue with these sorts of things?

      Again, my point is not to say that circumcision is good or bad, but that it falls in the gray area along with the overwhelming majority of human action. Trying to impose a black and white rule in a gray circumstance is not only a terrible practical decision- it violates people’s rights, and sets a terrible precedent for what the State might soon consider to be within its domain.

    3. Abraham:

      You don’t state the decision correctly. An individual male isn’t allowed to use his judgment as he sees fit until his parents have had 18 years to make the decision for him. After that 18 years, he can use his judgment, but only if his parents didn’t permanently substitute theirs for his somewhere in that 18 years. We do not properly protect the right of self-ownership for individual male children.

      My point is that parents imposing circumcision on a child is little different from the government imposing it, to the child. He ends up circumcised either way, whether he wants it or not. The “if you don’t like circumcision, don’t circumcise your son(s)” approach is silly because it puts parents in permanent control over this human right of their son’s, if they want to make the decision.

      As I wrote, I would not choose circumcision for myself based on my personal judgment. To the extent that my foreskin was just a piece of skin, it was my piece of skin. I do not have my choice now. So, yes, I’m going to focus on the ethical issue involved, the distinction between consent and proxy consent for non-therapeutic surgery. This is not a “medical” decision because there is no need. It is a surgical intervention in pursuit of some intangible(s) preferred by the parents. Where there is no need, parents do not have absolute and final authority to make any decision they want.

      The current S.F. proposal defends individual rights. To your example, denying contract rights to gay people would violate their rights. It would be immoral. So, I didn’t say I supported citizen ballot initiatives, only that this proposal is correct. I brought up the initiative aspect because you kept implying that this is nanny-statism. State force can be justified to stop private force.

      My rebuttal to your parenting examples is simple. Circumcision causes objective harm to 100% of the males receiving it. Television, fat, sugar, and so on cause objective harm in something considerably less than 100% of the children watching or consuming. The harm is potential. That is why I avoid taking issue or suggesting state intervention in other scenarios until harm becomes imminent or objective. If parents takes their child to McDonald’s for every meal, I’m probably going to look down upon them, but the case for state intervention is still very weak. Barring evidence of malnutrition (i.e. harm), intervening would be wrong.

      My unmovable standard here is that parents should not be permitted to inflict objective surgical harm on their children without some balancing medical need for an intervention. The function of parents here is to make severe decisions, but only when severe decisions need to be made. A law such as this shouldn’t be necessary, but in a rational world, parents wouldn’t authorize cutting on the healthy genitals of their children. I’ve never said the state should impose my parenting beliefs, just that it must protect such obvious, egregious violations. There is no gray area when the child is healthy. He does not need surgical intervention. Preventing it does not violate anyone’s rights.

      1. Again, you resort to deciding that this is not a medical issue because there is “no need.” This is your opinion. Secondly, many people do this for religious reasons, regardless of the medical reasons (which are until religion is banned in the U.S. as it has been in other countries that considered and passed similar measures). This is an added dimension that not even your “objective medical fact” and your apparently objective judgment of the merits of the procedure can possibly take into consideration.

        I would venture the guess that most religious Jewish adults would be outraged if their parents had not circumcised them (and would probably choose to leave the country if you ban the practice, or else completely ignore all laws pertaining to it). By banning circumcision, you PERMANENTLY force them to violate what they perceive to be a commandment of their religion. They cannot then go back in time and have a circumcision performed on themselves as infants. That opportunity is lost. You have then, by preventing them from taking this action, violated THEIR personhood and THEIR judgment, not just that of their parents.

        If you are to argue here that it is impossible to tell which children will grow up to want to have been circumcised as children and which will not, you will be correct. There is no perfect formula. Either some people will receive circumcisions who turn out not to want them (as you have volunteered to serve as an example), or some people will have the opportunity to do what they perceive to be a religious commandment, or a necessary medical procedure, stolen from them irreversibly. You don’t win either way, and you certainly don’t win by passing laws. The most effective method to ensure the highest number of people get what they want, is, not surprisingly, the method devoid of state action, in which children who are more likely to be raised to want circumcisions (by virtue of their upbringing) are more likely to get them, and children who are most likely to be raised to want not to have one are significantly less likely to get them.

        On the law itself, my implication that this is nanny-statism (which it is, even by the justification you give it) has nothing to do with the fact that it was a petition that created the law. A ballot initiative can still produce a nanny-state law. The two are completely unrelated. One pertains to the creation of a law, the other to its nature.

        “Television, fat, sugar, and so on cause objective harm in something considerably less than 100% of the children watching or consuming.”

        You are confusing harm with symptoms of harm. Every gram of saturated fat you consume constitutes objective harm. There is NO circumstance under which the human body is not worse off for having consumed that garbage. Every drop of it builds arterial plaque which constitutes a state of diminished health. What you are referring to here are the OBSERVABLE SYMPTOMS of that harm. You are correct that something less than 100% of children exposed to fat food will experience OBSERVABLE SYMPTOMS of the harm. But they will all experience harm. Imminent and objective are just descriptive terms you used that pertain to degree. Again, this is to demonstrate that what one person considers objective scientific fact is subject to debate. I’m not in favor of banning fast food.

        “My unmovable standard here is that parents should not be permitted to inflict objective surgical harm on their children without some balancing medical need for an intervention. ”

        That’s your standard. Not everyone else’s. Just because YOU didn’t want a circumcision, doesn’t mean others don’t. Just because you deem it unnecessary, doesn’t mean others can’t disagree. And you can’t circumvent this issue by responding that the individual can decide upon reaching majority, because I have already explained to you how, for a good portion of the population, the age of majority is far too late for them to achieve what they wished to achieve by circumcision. You have therefore permanently stripped them of their power to make a decision that affects only them, and thus violated their personhood and rights.

      2. If this is a medical issue, then any intervention is a medical issue and thus falls under the purview of parental rights you assert. Any intervention can be justified as long as a) some benefit, medical or cultural could be derived and b) the parents declare good intentions. Under that standard, the harm inflicted by an intervention is irrelevant. It ignores principles that deal with people as individual human beings with subjective tastes and preferences. Those principles have to include children. It’s unacceptable to use a framework with so many exceptions and inconsistencies that it was obviously built out from the conclusion that what we do is perfect. (This is our society’s model, not just unique to you.)

        I would venture the guess that most religious Jewish adults would be outraged if their parents had not circumcised them …

        I suspect you’re right, although I think that would decline slowly over time. Some Jews already reject circumcision for their sons. Some of those sons grow up to have themselves circumcised. Some do not.

        The same applies to those from families that circumcise for non-religious cultural reasons. If left intact, some of those males would be upset. The number is less, since statistics demonstrate that most males left intact do not choose or need circumcision in their lifetimes. But, yes, some would lament having their “right” to grow up circumcised “violated.”

        It would be nice if reality could be different. Right now, it can’t. I’m not interested in being, or forcing anyone else to be, a martyr for society who must sacrifice part of his body so that someone else will not be angry that he wasn’t circumcised. If he wants to circumcised…

        If you are to argue here that it is impossible to tell which children will grow up to want to have been circumcised as children and which will not, you will be correct. There is no perfect formula. …

        As I did above. This is essential if we are to consider people to be individuals who may choose independently. I do, which I determine to be the only proper way to consider liberty. I “win” if individuals are free to choose for themselves, whatever they choose. The most effective way to protect that is for parents to let their sons choose. Since that isn’t happening without laws, laws are necessary.

        … The most effective method to ensure the highest number of people get what they want, is, not surprisingly, the method devoid of state action, in which children who are more likely to be raised to want circumcisions (by virtue of their upbringing) are more likely to get them, and children who are most likely to be raised to want not to have one are significantly less likely to get them.

        Your phrasing of how to let that happen without laws is wrong. I was raised in a household where I was supposed to want to be circumcised. When my nephew was born, my mother asked when he was being circumcised. “Less likely” (by how much) to have one’s rights violated is not a libertarian approach to me. It still treats the individual as property. It’s a different way of invoking “if you don’t like circumcision, don’t circumcise your sons.” It ignores the individual rights violation.

        … Just because you deem it unnecessary, doesn’t mean others can’t disagree. …

        Anyone can disagree, but as I proved, disagreeing on this point is incorrect on the facts. Circumcision is unnecessary.

  8. There are also religious reasons people have for circumcision. One might not like those reasons or agree with them, but they have them. Moreover, the fact that generations of men who themselves were circumcised then went on to circumcise their own sons suggests that they see some value or attach some importance to it.

    Another consideration: As long as it remains the case that the vast majority of boys in one’s community are circumcised, the one or two who are not are mercilessly mocked and teased by the other boys. That psychological trauma can be far more lasting than the pain of the procedure itself. (I still remember the one kid in my middle-school who wasn’t circumcised and the relentless hell he took for it from other boys.)

    One more consideration: I have heard people claim that American women tend to prefer circumcised to uncircumcised penises for aesthetic reasons.

    Perhaps none of those reasons, or even all of them together, is decisive. But I think it makes the case more difficult than some posters seem to believe.

    1. Jim –

      I think you correctly point to the religious aspect of circumcision that makes this more difficult in terms of public policy than many other issues regarding parental rights. I’m not sure that should be dispositive but it certainly complicates things and it is good to bring it into this debate.

      However, I’d like to take exception to one of your points. You note: “Moreover, the fact that generations of men who themselves were circumcised then went on to circumcise their own sons suggests that they see some value or attach some importance to it.”

      This argument would seem to give grounds for support for FGM as well since older women and older female siblings participate in that barbaric practice. Moreover, it would justity all sorts of nasty practices from extreme hazing to the cultural acceptance of child molestation in places like Afghanistan. Moreover, even if adults see some value or importance in a practice, that doesn’t mean those “benefits” should override the rights and welfare of children.

      I think the aesthetic issue – if true to begin with – will decline over time as more and more people choose to keep their children intact.

      GC

      1. You state “even if adults see some value or importance in a practice, that doesn’t mean those “benefits” should override the rights and welfare of children.” Maybe I’m missing something here, but I think you just provided the definition of this modern phenomenon known as “parenting,” in which one person (an adult) makes a decision for another person (his child) based on his perception of the risks and benefits of said decision. This is perhaps the only situation in which it is moral for one person to substitute his judgment in place of another’s. When one creates a person, one has a right (many would say duty) to raise that person as he sees fit. That includes making decisions for the person where the person is not yet ready to make his own. The parent is therefore required and entitled to make decisions for his child where the risks and benefits of that decision are subject to debate. Only in the case where the parent is grossly unfit to exercise judgment, or where the decision in question intends to inflict EGREGIOUS and irreparable harm upon the child (so as not to jail every parent who owns a television set) with no possibility of benefit to offset said harm (thereby rendering the decision an act of malice instead of an act of judgment) or if the decision can only be expected to inflict such harm, again without an offsetting possibility of benefit, can a moral case be made to supplant the parent’s judgment with the judgment of someone else. Unless one is arrogant enough to think that their opinion is objective fact (which many, especially within the edifice of the State do think), the judgment of the parent ought morally to be what determines his child’s upbringing in the overwhelming majority of decisions.

  9. Since a few people here have posited that, in their expert medical opinions, circumcision has no benefits.. http://www.circinfo.net/conclusion.html

    My point is not to force you into circumcision, but rather to show you that you are not qualified, or morally entitled, to tell parents how to raise and care for their children.

  10. Obviously, as a woman, I really have no place in some of this conversation. But since I waded in early and because my MAIN interest is that I detest legislators tying to control every facet of our personal lives, I will share my story.

    My grandson, who has Cerebral Palsey and is ambulatory, reached the age of 22, and after discussing it for a couple of years, decided he wanted to be circumcised. His decision was due to the difficulty he had with maintaining cleanliness and in using the restroom. His disablity affects the right side of his body and his balance. He went to a highly reputable urologist, went through an outpatient surgery, suffered very little discomfort and is very happy with the results. The point here is that there are times when people do need something personal done and I am against my personal life being ‘legislated’.

    1. Susan,

      I don’t think you should discount or permit anyone else to discount your opinion just because you’re a woman. Obviously I haven’t declined to offer an opinion on female genital cutting just because I’m a male. Genital cutting on minors is a human rights issue, not a gender issue. From my experience in talking to parents, many boys end up circumcised because their mothers are against it but feel that it should be the father’s decision since he has a penis.

  11. I know I’m late to the party here, but as the token Rothbardian (ha!) I have to say I’m pretty much in line with Tony here. I do think that libertarianism finds its deepest ethical issues in how children are to be perceived and handled. In fact I think it’s difficult, even if correct, to assume that the rights of children are in tact and absolute from the moment of conception. If parents could not exert some kind of force or prevailing choice over children, I think we’d have some serious issues.

    On the other hand, I really do think (if we’re going to take this liberty thing seriously) that we have to filter our actions with the presumption that children have these rights. That is to say, to the extent that parents (and adults in general) should and can have over-riding control of a child, it should at least have to seriously outweigh the violation of that child’s presumed rights – or at least that should be how we go about the justification.

    Too often we want to make the presumption that we OWN our children – and this obviously isn’t the case. If we OWNED our children, we could harvest them for organs. I don’t think anyone here would agree with that. On the other hand, if there were never a time where parental oversight wouldn’t override a child’s self-ownership then parents couldn’t stop their children from sticking forks into wall outlets either. Tangentially, I think even libertarians agree that if your 40-year-old son wants to stick a fork in an outlet he should be free to do it……careless as it may be. So I think there’s a consideration of a few basic ingredients here. We have the presumption of freedom, some gauging of a child’s maturity in making certain decisions for themselves at different points, and then the limited over-arching power that can be exerted by parents limited by those constraints.

    So where does circumcision come into play? Well, at it’s base it is a surgical procedure (one that’s seemingly painful even if one doesn’t remember it), which has limited risk but for which is done for almost purely aesthetic or cultural reasons without the child’s consent. I think our presumption (since it is a non-necessary surgery) should be that the parents have to have some concern here that overrides the rights of the child. There may be arguably appropriate concerns that can push the procedure into the sphere of being OK, but I haven’t seen any of those arguments fleshed out here…nor anywhere else.

    To put it bluntly, if you think circumcising your child presents no ethical question(s) then I think you have to be committed to thinking the same of tattoos or even facial piercings (whether for cultural or aesthetic reasons). Until I hear a really good argument for why those things are alright to push on a child (let alone an infant) without their consent, under libertarian ethical presumptions, I think we have to at least find it highly questionable if not unacceptable.

    1. “at it’s base it is a surgical procedure (one that’s seemingly painful even if one doesn’t remember it), which has limited risk but for which is done for almost purely aesthetic or cultural reasons without the child’s consent”

      You started by correctly describing child-raising as a gray area. But you somehow jumped form this to the conclusion that, as objective fact, circumcision is bad. This is YOUR opinion, based on YOUR evaluation of fact. MY opinion (or the opinion of a third party) may be different. I may see facts differently. I may judge the risks to be less than what you say they are, and the benefits to be greater. You therefore violate my right to judgment by imposing your views on me. To bring an example, if I were to determine that fried food causes health problems in children, would I then be justified in entering your house with a gun and demanding that you stop feeding your child Popeyes? Of course not! I would be violating your right to make a judgment on the most appropriate course of action, given the health risks of eating Popeyes and the financial and entertainment benefits of doing so. I would not dream of telling you that what I think is right for me and my children is therefore right for you and your children.

      This is a judgment call. Saying that you have medical fact to justify your opinion gives you license to use social means to convince people they are wrong. It does not give you the right to use legal means.

      1. “You started by correctly describing child-raising as a gray area. But you somehow jumped form this to the conclusion that, as objective fact, circumcision is bad.”

        No, I didn’t. I started out by pointing out that the child issue is a difficult one – but that, as libertarians, we should extend the general presumption of liberty and self-ownership to our children. Therefore, if we wish to utilize coercion upon our children, we need to have a justification which seriously outweighs that moral presumption – particularly when speaking of things like unneeded body-modification. Circumcision DEFAULTS to “bad” (I’d just say “unethical”) if you don’t have reasoning that overcomes the moral presumption of self-ownership.

        In other words, I’m leaving the door open for someone to give me a justification that does so. Until then, I’m siding with self-ownership.

        “MY opinion (or the opinion of a third party) may be different. I may see facts differently. I may judge the risks to be less than what you say they are, and the benefits to be greater. ”

        I would assume we do indeed differ in opinion (we are, after all, engaged in conversion, no?). However this completely misses the point. If we’re going to cast aside any logical coherence in morality then what is to stop me from saying that murder is fine – you just have a different opinion? I suspect chalking it up to a mere difference of opinion won’t assuage your hostility towards that presumption. So then entertain the arguments at hand:

        What if I feel that it’s fine to tattoo my child’s torso, put fifty piercings on his face, or how about even adding a prosthetic limb to his back? If you think these things are wrong, then switch places with me. Assume I had the response that you just gave me (regarding difference of opinion) a la circumcision. Why are those things wrong? Once you’ve delineated that, then tell me why circumcision is fine in light of why the others are wrong.

        “You therefore violate my right to judgment by imposing your views on me.”

        No I don’t – not any more than I violate a bully’s right to judge by stopping him from swinging at a defenseless child in a schoolyard. You have the “right” to make any judgments you’d like; you don’t have the right to enact all of them upon innocent people.

        “To bring an example, if I were to determine that fried food causes health problems in children, would I then be justified in entering your house with a gun and demanding that you stop feeding your child Popeyes?”

        Several responses here. I think the most obvious is that cutting body parts off of your child is not the same as feeding him unhealthy food. I hope this much is fairly obvious. As would be discerning the different between feeding a child fried chicken or bleach….or discerning between putting a child in a crib or locking them in a closet for a month. On top of that there’s the question of choice – is the child undertaking the choice for himself to some extent? If a parent is forcefully forcing handfuls of fried chicken down a child’s throat, yeah – I have a problem with that.

        That being said, there are obviously fuzzy lines between neglect and physical harm. I don’t think anyone here would say that’s untrue. On the other hand, there isn’t much fuzziness in the scenario we provided. We’re talking about physically (surgically) altering the body of a human being without their consent……hopefully we can discuss that without knowing for sure whether fifteen years of voluntarily eating unhealthy food with your parents contributed to health problems X, Y, and Z.

        “I would not dream of telling you that what I think is right for me and my children is therefore right for you and your children.”

        Really? So would you be OK with me, in lieu of less “effective” punishment, putting cigarettes out in my child’s face when they did something wrong? Surely you wouldn’t dream of telling me what’s right for me and my child.

        “Saying that you have medical fact to justify your opinion gives you license to use social means to convince people they are wrong. It does not give you the right to use legal means.”

        I didn’t say anything regarding medicine other than qualifying my statements with the fact that circumcision isn’t necessary.

        And frankly – although this is a separate argument – being able to distinguish justice from actual positive law doesn’t, and shouldn’t, cripple my ability to act on the former. If it became legal for you to come murder my innocent family for no reason you wouldn’t be able to talk the shotgun out of my hand by bringing to attention the letter of the law. Laws can be and sometimes are simply wrong. Using it as some kind of vague appeal to authority might be the furthest thing away from my mind as a libertarian.

      2. In my haste, I have tried to respond what you said point for point. Forgive me if I have missed anything….

        “We should extend the general presumption of liberty and self-ownership to our children. ”

        You recognize, of course, that this concept is limited where we believe we know is good for our children when they do not. For example, I would not extend the principle of “self-ownership” to my child who wished to run out into the street. Secondly, your argument is weakened by the fact that the principles you seek to apply to parenting are not binding legal principles as they would if they were applied to government, but rather are merely moral guidelines that one should adhere to in order to raise one’s children as consistently as possible with one’s worldview (assuming one is, in fact, a libertarian, which many are not). If I, as a parent, wish to prohibit my child from talking to people of the opposite sex while he or she lives in my house, I am entitled to do that. Yes, it is dictatorial, but, as my mother used to say, “this is a dictatorship.” You cannot appeal to libertarianism to tell me that I have no legal right to prevent my child from going to mixed-gender parties, in the same way that I cannot appeal to libertarianism to stop you from giving your child an allowance he hasn’t earned. Parenting is not governing. A child does not have a constitution that his parent must follow, to which he or she can appeal. At least not yet, anyway.

        “Circumcision DEFAULTS to “bad” (I’d just say “unethical”) if you don’t have reasoning that overcomes the moral presumption of self-ownership.”

        You’d say “unethical.” I would say “a judgment call,” or perhaps “an outdated but still marginally effective medical procedure.” Others would say “a religious obligation.” Nobody is forcing you to act in accordance with THEIR beliefs. What gives you the right to do so?

        “In other words, I’m leaving the door open for someone to give me a justification that does so. Until then, I’m siding with self-ownership.”

        No, you’re siding with coercion in favor of “self-ownership” for a being that is incapable of making a decision (and therefore incapable, of self-ownership). Let me give you an example. Jews believe circumcision must be done when a baby is 8 days old. Beyond that, the decision is significantly less relevant. By preventing circumcision, you are not ruling in favor of self-ownership for a person who can exercise judgment, but rather overruling the wishes of the parents of a child that is incapable of making its own decision, because you feel you know what is best. If the child were to grow up and, as many children do, come to hold the same beliefs as his parents (as a function of having been raised on those beliefs), he will want to have been circumcised not as an adult, but as an infant. He will not be satisfied with your assuring him that he can choose to have a circumcision as an adult. By implementing state coercion, government has overruled HIS judgment and violated HIS self-ownership. And dismissing his concerns as illegitimate because they are religious in nature (as many do, although I cannot speak for you) in no way absolves one of the charge.

        “If we’re going to cast aside any logical coherence in morality then what is to stop me from saying that murder is fine – you just have a different opinion?”

        No. Murder is not a judgment call. It’s a black and white crime. You can’t arbitrarily take someone’s life. However, where taking the life of another IS a judgment call, for example in the case of self-defense or defense of property, then yes, I would certainly have a differing opinion, as would you.

        “What if I feel that it’s fine to tattoo my child’s torso, put fifty piercings on his face, or how about even adding a prosthetic limb to his back? If you think these things are wrong, then switch places with me. Assume I had the response that you just gave me (regarding difference of opinion) a la circumcision. Why are those things wrong? Once you’ve delineated that, then tell me why circumcision is fine in light of why the others are wrong.”

        I think you’re missing the point here. (As a side point, most American children whose parents tattoo their torsos have much greater problems than the tattoo- think abuse). What if the child lived in a culture or geographic location in which most children’s torsos were tattooed, and, growing up, would resent his parents if they refused to tattoo him? What if, by denying the child what he might very well have grown up to want, you violate his judgment and personhood as an adult? What if the child felt that his life would have been immeasurably better if the judgment and wishes of his parents (with which he is far more likely to concur than with the judgment and wishes of a government bureaucrat, I might add) were obeyed? Suddenly it is not so black and white. As fact sets change, our use of judgment must change.

        “‘You therefore violate my right to judgment by imposing your views on me.’

        No I don’t – not any more than I violate a bully’s right to judge by stopping him from swinging at a defenseless child in a schoolyard. You have the “right” to make any judgments you’d like; you don’t have the right to enact all of them upon innocent people.”

        This example is not applicable because it does not deal with the relationship between a parent and a child, in which the parent, by necessity, exercises considerable arbitrary power. A bully at a schoolyard doesn’t have the right to take away a child’s ice cream. A parent sure as hell does.

        “I think the most obvious is that cutting body parts off of your child is not the same as feeding him unhealthy food. I hope this much is fairly obvious. As would be discerning the different between feeding a child fried chicken or bleach….or discerning between putting a child in a crib or locking them in a closet for a month.”

        You’re talking about differences in degree, not differences in kind. Unless you can point to a clear line of demarcation, I can’t find myself convinced. It’s certainly not obvious to me that one type of harm should be considered a legitimate area for state action whereas another one should not. On top of that, I would posture, without having done any research on the topic at all, that the risk of death is significantly higher with consumption of fatty foods than it is with circumcision, which would make fatty foods far worse. But that’s just my opinion, which I am not entitled to legislate you into agreement with.

        “On top of that there’s the question of choice – is the child undertaking the choice for himself to some extent? If a parent is forcefully forcing handfuls of fried chicken down a child’s throat, yeah – I have a problem with that.”

        Really? The child chooses every thing it eats? Have you ever tried to feed a child broccoli? There are obviously justifiable circumstances in which the parent can feed his child what he wants. But this is just a side point. More importantly, a child’s eating habits are a function of his environment. A newborn doesn’t have free will. It doesn’t have taste preferences. It is, for all intents and purposes, a blank palette. A child who grows up eating KFC gravy will want to eat the chicken. He was never given a “choice” whether to become fond of the flavor: this was a function of what his parents fed him. So, although it doesn’t fit the technical definition of physical “force,” the parents are essentially manufacturing a situation in which the child, which has not yet developed judgment of its own, learns to want to do eat what they feed him. Your argument must then fall upon the action of the parents which causes the child to eat unhealthy food. This must be the case, because a child doesn’t HAVE judgment or free will. At some point, child cannot evaluate the health benefits and risks of eating a certain food. Ultimately, he eats it because of something the parents did. It doesn’t matter whether the parents force feed an infant or just get him addicted to food (circumstances of obvious abuse involving asphyxiation aside). Either way, they’re determining what he eats. So you’re really stuck here with the fact that the child’s “choice” is no choice at all. Unless you want to ban any contact between parent and child over the child’s formative years, the child will choose what he is conditioned to choose.

        “Really? So would you be OK with me, in lieu of less “effective” punishment, putting cigarettes out in my child’s face when they did something wrong? Surely you wouldn’t dream of telling me what’s right for me and my child.”

        If putting cigarettes out on your child’s face was the only way of stopping him from running into the street without looking, I would consider you neglectful if you didn’t do it. But of course, that’s a false choice based on false reality. I think most parents would agree that putting out cigarettes in a child’s face would be counterproductive. If you’re putting cigarettes out in your child’s face, you’re not doing it to discipline him. You’re doing it to torture him. This differs from circumcision because, of two reasons. One, from a religious point of view (which is a valid decision-making tool until government bans religion entirely), circumcision must be done the way it is. Second, the point of circumcision is not torture. In cases where the point of genital mutilation IS torture, I agree that it should be prevented (perhaps, though, without the cultural imperialism that so often accompanies such efforts). But in the overwhelming majority of cases of male circumcision in the Western world, the motivating factor is not to derive sick pleasure from the mutilation of an infant. Comparing it to a situation of malicious torture is therefore intellectually dishonest.

        “‘Saying that you have medical fact to justify your opinion gives you license to use social means to convince people they are wrong. It does not give you the right to use legal means.’

        I didn’t say anything regarding medicine other than qualifying my statements with the fact that circumcision isn’t necessary.”

        You just repeated what I accused you of doing. I said that you used fact to justify your opinion. You said that you didn’t say anything besides for the “fact” that circumcision isn’t necessary. Taking the word “medical” out doesn’t get rid of the “fact” part, and “facts,” as I mention in my argument above, are subject to manipulation, and therefore generally not suitable to serve as the basis for law.

        “And frankly – although this is a separate argument – being able to distinguish justice from actual positive law doesn’t, and shouldn’t, cripple my ability to act on the former. If it became legal for you to come murder my innocent family for no reason you wouldn’t be able to talk the shotgun out of my hand by bringing to attention the letter of the law. Laws can be and sometimes are simply wrong. Using it as some kind of vague appeal to authority might be the furthest thing away from my mind as a libertarian.”

        I never appealed to legal positivism. In responding to an earlier poster, I decried legal positivism, which he used as a basis for justifying the morality of this proposed law, given that it was a result of a “citizens’ petition.” I think you misunderstand what I meant to say here. I shall clarify: What I meant was, there is a marked distinction between obligations and rights you have that should carry the force of law, and obligations and rights you have that carry only the force of morality. Take charity as an example. You are should not be legally required to pay charity (that you are in practice is sad but irrelevant). Neither should I be permitted legally to force you to give charity. But, I may argue, that you have a moral DUTY to give charity, and that I have a moral DUTY to convince you to. You may only use legally binding measures in a VERY limited set of circumstances. This is because force, in general, is a bad thing, and is more often used for evil than good. Almost the only time the use of force is justified is against other force. So, I may use force (or legal means, such as legislation, which are essentially equivalent to force) to prevent you from stealing my property or taking my life, or stealing the property of others or taking the lives of others, but I may only use persuasive social means to convince you to become (what I believe is) a good parent. You can disagree with what falls in which category (as you clearly do), but I think you would agree that there is a distinction between a binding legal obligation or right on the one hand, and a persuasive moral duty on the other.

      3. “In my haste, I have tried to respond what you said point for point. Forgive me if I have missed anything….”

        No problem here – I will try to offer the same consideration.

        “You recognize, of course, that this concept is limited where we believe we know is good for our children when they do not.”

        Of course. I recognized this explicitly in my first comment regarding a child sticking a fork into a wall outlet. There are obviously several factors at play. I merely stated that libertarians should assume self-ownership as the default state of things and therefore coercive action must then be then justified. Clear cases can be made for stopping a child from running into the road. The case for surgically altering genitalia seems a little more demanding.

        “Secondly, your argument is weakened by the fact that the principles you seek to apply to parenting are not binding legal principles as they would if they were applied to government, but rather are merely moral guidelines that one should adhere to”

        Yes and no. They are certainly “moral” guidelines if you wish to label them as such. Positive law is largely informed (at least in the Western World) by normative ethics/justice and precedent. Our “laws” come from our collective conception of the “law” (our abstraction of what justice is or should be). I brought this point up in my previous response but it bears restating; a legal system allowing for something does not make it “right” nor does it make it merely a vice. At one point our legal apperatus allowed for slavery – this doesn’t mean it should have or that individuals would not have had the quite literal “right” to stop such an injustice. Our normative sense of justice informs positive law. Thinking the flow is in the other direction seems a dangerous task.

        “If I, as a parent, wish to prohibit my child from talking to people of the opposite sex while he or she lives in my house, I am entitled to do that.”

        Yes, but I would argue it’s not in the literal sense that you own the child – it’s the fact that you own the house. For instance, if I invite my neighbors over and insist that they MUST wear a funny hate in my house I’m not literally claiming a right to tell them that they must wear a hat. Instead I’m actually veiling a threat to with-hold my consent for them to stand on my property. You don’t literally (temporarily or otherwise) own your neighbors or have absolute say in what they do. That’s quite a distinction. And while I feel the lines are more fuzzy with parents and children, I think the same general dynamic applies, and that self-ownership should still be at least the presumption. Note that I’m not making the argument that such a presumption cannot be incidentally overturned.

        “A child does not have a constitution that his parent must follow, to which he or she can appeal. At least not yet, anyway.”

        If rights were bestowed upon us by pieces of paper I would say you had a point here. But surely this isn’t what you’re implying, is it?

        “You’d say “unethical.” I would say “a judgment call,””

        So to the parent who wishes to punish their children by burning cigarettes out in their faces you’d say…..?

        “Nobody is forcing you to act in accordance with THEIR beliefs. What gives you the right to do so?”

        We’re not talking about the rights of the parents. We’re talking about the rights of the children. Again, what gives you the right to surgically modify another human being without their consent – particularly when it’s not even remotely necessary? Asking what gives me the right to intervene or ask questions is like asking the bystander why he has the right to yell when another person is being mugged. You have to completely ignore the rights (if any) of the child to start landing that argument – and that’s what this discussion is primarily about.

        “No, you’re siding with coercion in favor of “self-ownership” for a being that is incapable of making a decision ”

        Firstly, I’m siding against coercion (again, unless you’re completely ignoring the child). Secondly, I didn’t say that the child can make all the decisions for himself. That’s literally why I’m leaving the door open. What you seem to have a problem with is me leaving the door open for anything. Is it OK to put fifty piercings in the child’s face? Could I justify doing so by merely pointing out that the child is incapable of making such a decision for himself?

        “you are not ruling in favor of self-ownership for a person who can exercise judgment, but rather overruling the wishes of the parents of a child that is incapable of making its own decision”

        Actually, I’m doing both. My point is that unless you believe a child has absolutely no rights whatsoever then there are limits to what parents can do to a child. Again, if your conjecture is that the child has no ownership of self (that parents have complete ownership) then you have little argument (from within that framework) to argue against the piercings, the tattoos, organ harvesting, etc., etc., etc.

        “he will want to have been circumcised not as an adult, but as an infant”

        This may indeed be true – but it does not override individual rights either. Let’s take it ten steps further (giving your argument a lot of leg-room) and assume we are talking about a sentient adult whom has an infection on his finger. You somehow have a time-machine, have been to the future, and tell him that if he does not have his finger removed he will lose it and will, in the future, regret his decision to do nothing. Assume any relationship between yourself and the individual you like – do you have the right to do something physically to someone on their behalf even if you have complete knowledge of what they will feel or believe in the future? Now let’s take the example back down to scale. We’re talking about performing a non-vital surgical modification on an infant who is not capable of making such a decision himself – and we have no actual time machine or crystal ball to consult in order to know what he will or will have no wanted at some undetermined date. By almost any libertarian standard at least, you better have some bang-sure reasoning beyond what’s being laid out here.

        “By implementing state coercion, government has overruled HIS judgment and violated HIS self-ownership.”

        And if I (or even the state) stop you from assaulting someone on the street we have also violated your “self-ownership”, correct? Again, the key here is to establish the state of the child’s rights and to then point out exceptions should they exist. I think the moral presumption of no rights can lead you in the direction you’re talking about – where you can do anything you want to the child and if we try to stop you then we’re violating your rights. If you’re going that way, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. If you’re going to contend that children have any rights at all, then you need to come to the table and delineate them in some coherent fashion.

        “What if the child lived in a culture or geographic location in which most children’s torsos were tattooed, and, growing up, would resent his parents if they refused to tattoo him?”

        So, again, you’re saying the presumption should be physical harm is alright in anticipation that the child will retroactively give consent some years later? That’s pretty shaky ground to walk on ethically, I think. I can’t murder someone in anticipation that they would have later consented to assisted suicide. No, that doesn’t overcome the presumption of self-ownership. I think non-vital body modification, without consent, is wrong regardless of culture, time, etc.

        “This example is not applicable because it does not deal with the relationship between a parent and a child, in which the parent, by necessity, exercises considerable arbitrary power.”

        But don’t you see that this is the crux of the conversation? I’m trying to elicit those lines from people who feel that circumcision does not fall out of the bounds of that power. I also agree that parents do and should have power. The question is, how much? I think we have to assume children do, in fact, own themselves in some capacity (otherwise you’d clearly have the right to kill them arbitrarily). So, what I’m saying is that there must be some coherent set of rules for appropriate exertion of parental “authority”….I’m asking you exactly what set of rules make it OK to circumcise an infant but not do tangentially questionable body modifications to them. So far I’ve been getting a lot of answers that seemingly justify about anything done to a child by either pointing out that they can’t make many decisions themselves or claiming that they make give you retroactive consent in the future – neither of those propositions seem for comforting to me as a libertarian; in fact it’s somewhat discouraging.

        “You’re talking about differences in degree, not differences in kind. Unless you can point to a clear line of demarcation, I can’t find myself convinced.”

        Degree can certainly be a subset of kind. There’s a difference between throwing a cup of water on someone and opening a fire-hose on them or flooding their house. Likewise there’s a difference between causing some smoke from a small brushfire and causing massive smoke from uncontrolled burning. Hell, in some sense merely breathing is putting viral contaminants into the air, giving cause for disease and sickness to others – possibly even death.. That doesn’t mean we quarantine everyone or stop them from breathing. There are certainly fuzzy lines out there. There are externalities (both positive and negative) to damn near everything. Discerning the truly harmless act from the nuisance from the inconvenience from the tort from the crime isn’t always an easy thing. And, again, with children it’s going to be even more fuzzy. So I think there’s room for discussing whether feeding a child an unhealthy diet represents some kind of tort perhaps. I believe, for a number of reasons, that this will be harder to sell than proving the crime of poisoning a child for instance. But I don’t think that particular discussion gives us much insight into this matter. I’m not trying to make an argument regarding how dangerous circumcision is or isn’t. If I knew there were absolutely 0% chance of complications, my points would still hold and with the same reasoning. It’s certainly a discussion worth having though.

        “Really? The child chooses every thing it eats?”

        I never made that contention – there’s a difference between choosing WHAT you eat and choosing TO eat.

        “More importantly, a child’s eating habits are a function of his environment.”

        I don’t think behavioral studies bear this out at all – so if you want to have a separate discussion about the subsequent points you made, I’m willing to take it to another discussion.

        “I think most parents would agree that putting out cigarettes in a child’s face would be counterproductive.”

        And if it could be proven to be “productive” would that make it OK – or are we acknowledging that children have rights that preclude other human beings from doing that to them?

        “One, from a religious point of view (which is a valid decision-making tool until government bans religion entirely), circumcision must be done the way it is.”

        This isn’t even remotely a valid point. If there were a religion that called for a ceremony within which an infant were to receive burns, cuts, or piercings to his face would you think that the fact that it was religious in nature would somehow make it ethically acceptable? If you’re going to say that one is OK, and not the other, then obviously the religious consideration is nonsensical.

        “Second, the point of circumcision is not torture.”

        It doesn’t really matter what the subjective end is. You may believe, for mystical or other reasons, that tattooing and infant’s body has not torture as its goal – it has little to nothing to do with the violation of personal sovereignty and self-ownership.

        “the motivating factor is not to derive sick pleasure from the mutilation of an infant.”

        And if it were a matter of mystical rite…?

        “You said that you didn’t say anything besides for the “fact” that circumcision isn’t necessary.”

        Actually, what I’m doing is giving room for people (like you) to lay a framework for your view(s). The point of mentioning that circumcision isn’t necessary is to point out my former concession – that there are instances where I believe parental obligation overrides a child’s self-ownership. Sticking a fork into an outlet, stopping a child from walking into the street, or, in the somewhat stealth hypothetical here, having a child go through vital surgical procedures. In other words, it circumcision was bing performed to prevent some kind of serious physical harm to the child, I think it would be at least a good starting point for argumentation. If you’d like to take up the mantle of saying, unlike me, that it does not authorize such a use of “force” by the parents, then be my guest. Otherwise, I’m not sure what your contention with my statement could really be – unless you’re really holding the contention that circumcision is physically necessary (a deterrent to harm), in which case I and the rest of the medical community will summarily laugh you off the face of the planet.

        “there is a marked distinction between obligations and rights you have that should carry the force of law, and obligations and rights you have that carry only the force of morality.”

        Yes, I understand the difference between negative and positive conceptions of rights. My point was that you were begging the question by suggesting that my contention that the child be defended from coercion doesn’t or shouldn’t give me recourse through legal means – well this clearly depends upon our conception of self-ownership as it applies to children. Until we’ve established that our normative conceptions of NEGATIVE rights are going to differ quite a bit; thus appeals to legal force are subsidiary.

        “This is because force, in general, is a bad thing, and is more often used for evil than good.”

        I think “force” is actually (like any independent action or tangible object) neutral. What is “bad” (in the sense of justice) is violation of ownership.

        “but I may only use persuasive social means to convince you to become (what I believe is) a good parent”

        Unless what you’re doing is violating the (yet to be determined, as of this conversation apparently) rights of the child – in which case we have a very real reciprocal right, if not a moral obligation, to use FORCE to stop you as a matter of justice.

        “but I think you would agree that there is a distinction between a binding legal obligation or right on the one hand, and a persuasive moral duty on the other.”

        I think, more clearly, that there is a distinction between positive and negative conceptions of rights – whether either become “legal” as a matter of the letter of the law is a different question altogether. Obviously I feel that only negative obligations are the purview of law, as as they do not define the current scope of positive law, I think using “legal obligation” and “negative obligation” interchangeably is somewhat misleading.

      4. Abraham:

        The bulk of your comment wasn’t directed to me, so it’s only appropriate that I let crossofcrimson’s (excellent) response stand. But I want to clarify one point that referenced me.

        … In responding to an earlier poster, I decried legal positivism, which he used as a basis for justifying the morality of this proposed law, given that it was a result of a “citizens’ petition.” …

        I think you still misunderstand my point on this proposal as a citizen’s initiative. I do not believe its origin grants it any morality. Its origin is merely a fact. (Tangentially: as opposed to being a “fact”.) Its content grants its morality.

        I sought to point out the distinction on this issue between direct democracy and the state. The state, reflected through elected and unelected officials, does not support this bill anywhere it’s been promoted. In pure democratic majoritarianism, this proposal doesn’t have sufficient support, either. As I think I’ve stated, this proposal will fail in November. While getting 7,500+ signatures is impressive and shows the trend to the inevitable cultural change, 50% plus 1 will not happen this year. If left to The State or The People, this proposal would be discarded already.

        But I’m a libertarian, not a majoritarian. Children have natural rights, including the right of self-ownership. I think it’s a preposterous assertion that being incapable of making a decision renders a person incapable of possessing self-ownership.

      5. I’d just like to apologize for the atrocious number of grammatical errors in my last response – responding on the fly apparently isn’t in my best interest.

  12. In my humble opinion the parents alone have the right to determine whether or not to circumcise their male child. Children, until the legal age of majority, only have one right: Life. Apart from that children are essentially the property of their parents until they become adults. The only rights a child has apart from Life is whatever rights the parent decides to bestow upon them. This whole concept of children having natural rights (plural) is absurd. I was circumcised and if there was any harm done then I certainly haven’t noticed after 40 years of life nor do I even remember the event so obviously no trauma was done. Leave it up to the parents not the State.

    1. “In my humble opinion the parents alone have the right to determine whether or not to circumcise their male child”

      But why just their *male* children?

      You assert that children don’t have natural rights, but the US federal law banning female genital cutting suggests otherwise.

  13. 6/27/2011

    Circumcision of the male penis alters immutably the dynamics of natural human copulation as well as manual masturbatory methods.

    And as circumcision shears away most of the ejaculatory triggering nerve endings lodged in the fully equipped (intact) penis, ejaculatory dysfunction (delayed or no ejaculation) becomes a problem as a man ages, particularly at middle age and beyond. Why? When a man is circumcised as a neonate, there will be 45+ years during which the few remaining ejaculatory nerve endings around the circumcision scar gradually become numbed by keratinization. And this process starts at his circumcision and continues as he and his penis age. It does not stop.

    Adult males, who opt for one reason or another (usually cosmetic) to undergo the procedure, usually won’t suffer this ED as severely as those men who were sent to the circumciser as newborns. Why? Their severed ejaculation triggering nerve endings will have enjoy approximately 20 years more time within its protective foreskin sheath before circumcision. These adults will be the ones usually contacted by the “sex experts” who extol circumcision, and report how now being skinless has improved their immediate sex lives. But not one of these experts can point to any long range studies (forty-five years and out) or any research being done on the long term copulatory effects of neonatal circumcision. There is none.

    This problem is exacerbated as the woman grows older as well. Her vaginal walls have become more relaxed and looser and, unless she has done a hell of lot of Kegels, will have lost much of the “gripping” ability found in the younger woman.

    Recently a college researcher performed a series of tests on the effects of circumcision on the human penis. It was reported that there was no appreciable difference being circumcised or being intact on the tactile “sensitivity” of the human penis. Seemingly they don’t realize the penis IS primarily a copulatory organ and NOT a sensory organ. It is NOT a finger. Yet even the tests Masters & Johnson performed were more suitable for testing finger sensations than they were for penile functionality. Still most pro-circumcision folks point to this research as an, “aha! I told you so”.

    But not only is the prepuce important to a man during coitus, it’s just as important to the woman. In its basic intact configuration, the human penis is superbly designed to enter the female, to snuggle in deep, affording her a maximum of his pubis and her clitoris contact. And with short intimate pelvic moves (no vigorous in-and-out thrusting) she is brought to climax and he to ejaculation by the stimulation of the triggering nerve endings (lodged on the inside of his foreskin) gliding easily over his glans. With just a bit of practice, his ejaculation and her orgasms can and often will, occur simultaneously…a sign of great sex between loving and appreciative partners. This is a rare occurrence with the circumcised man and his partner.

    But the sad part is, neither of you know why this is happening…when your circumcision is done at your birth, you can’t know anything else. And your mate, without a penis certainly won’t know. (Yet ironically, when it comes cutting time at the hospital it is usually she who signs the consent form to have her new-born son remanded to the circumcising chamber presided over by a pediatrician who as a man, is usually himself circumcised or it will be a woman. Neither of them understands nor has studied in Medical School or anywhere, the mechanics of copulation. There are no such courses. And if the circumciser is Jewish, to him/her the foreskin is just an odious piece of anatomy, serving no function and to be excised promptly. Not one person involved in this irreversible decision regarding the little guy’s penis has either a foreskin or even a penis…how can they possibly know?)

    In medical practice, ignorance and venality is extant! Common sense is not.

    Anyway, let me welcome the baby-boomers to the Buick, bifocals, and Viagra age. You and she could be the ones in the Cialis ads…smiling, hand in hand, exchanging knowing glances and walking off into the sunset, confident that your Erectile Dysfunction problem is now no more.

    But don’t be surprised when the two of you run smack into a second ED, Ejaculatory Dysfunction. Now, during your middle-aged amatory forays, when you finally do pull out, sans ejaculation, she sore, dry and unfulfilled and you, still Viagra-erect with seminal vesicles brimming and, the two of you, totally frustrated.

    Before she rolls over to drift off, she’ll patronizingly tell you, “oh, that’s OK…you’re probably just tired” or “maybe you had too many drinks” or “maybe next time” or “maybe…maybe…” (Then too, perhaps these “maybes” are her just reward for having her newborn her son “done”… to his and his future mate’s ultimate dismay.)

    When she’s softly snoring, you will get up, retire to the bathroom and take things in hand to massage the few remaining nerve endings triggering relief. Increasingly, you will come to rely more and more on a sure hand-shake rather than an uncertain coitus. It’ll involve just too much time and effort to achieve so little if any, return…not to mention the embarrassment and the buffeting to your male-hood.

    Sadly, you and she become sexually estranged and there’s nothing you can get from your friendly pharmacy, or any advice from Pepper Schwartz (AARP’s Sex Expert), which will help. You will be advised, “it is all in your head (ie. not your phallus) and besides, your mate craves just cuddling and hand-holding and intromission just isn’t that important.”

    Yeh, right…but what about you?

    But look to the bright side. Perhaps the foreskin stripped from you at the birthing hospital, could be part of Oprah Winfry’s facial skin cream. At least, you may have satisfied one older woman.

    Gordius Knot

    ps. Yes, Neonatal circumcision should be outlawed…it’s a cruel and an unusual treatment to say the least and the new little guy has done nothing to deserve it. A Jewish mother is all a guy needs to be a Jew. He does not need a truncated penis. In all fairness, be he Jew or Gentile, he should not be relegated to a sexual cripple, because of his parents’ ignorance or of their religious fervor.

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