The World Health Organization has estimated that approximately 30% of males over 15 in the world are circumcised. Male circumcision is morally controversial (see, e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s arguments). Have the parents of 30% of the world’s men done them wrong? Opponents of male circumcision usually use one of three arguments: that circumcision (unless I specify otherwise, I mean male circumcision) has more harms than benefits, that it violates an infant’s autonomy (as Sullivan argues), and that it violates a right to bodily integrity.
I can’t speak to the harms and benefits; I’m no doctor. I’ve read studies pro and con. I will say that if it is decisively shown that circumcision is on the whole a harm, then I think it should be universally banned. Everything I write that follows will not apply. Some people cite that there are fewer nerve endings after a circumcision as a reason to believe there is definitive harm. That doesn’t necessarily translate into sheer units of pleasure. The fact is, no one knows exactly how much pleasure is decreased due to circumcision as an infant, if any at all. People either were or were not circumcised, and have no access to the subjective experience of anyone else. People who are circumcised seem to enjoy sex and have fully functional sex lives.
So what about autonomy? The infant can’t consent to circumcision. As I’ve said before, we respect autonomy because we respect a person’s rationality – his ability to set ends and meet them. Infants don’t have rationality. So there is no way to respect their autonomy. Every day I violate my children’s autonomy. I decide whether they get haircuts, what they eat, what time they go to bed, whether they get vaccinated, what school they go to, what books they read. Doing any of these for a grown-up would constitute a violation of autonomy. But it’s actually part of my obligation for my children. It really is an awesome responsibility. If I am to do right by them, I must violate their autonomy.
Most obviously, I cannot wait for my child’s consent to give him a bad-tasting antibiotic that he needs. But medical necessity is one thing. How do we decide to do the other violations of autonomy that we practice on children? Because of course we can’t do whatever we want to children. I think we have respect for the autonomous person that he will become. We try to hypothesize what he would consent to. If a decision is ever deferrable, it should be deferred so the child can make it when he’s able. But sometimes a decision isn’t deferrable. That’s why we should educate her using our best guess about what will make a good education. We give him music lessons that he might appreciate. We help her try to grow into a person most capable of exercising informed autonomy. If a person is born into a culture that values circumcision (say, a Jewish or Muslim culture), then I think it’s reasonable to guess that he will want to have been circumcised. One can, of course, never be sure, and there are plenty of exceptions who resent that they were circumcised. But we can never be sure what our children will or will not have wanted, and yet we have to decide anyway. Adult circumcision is so dramatically different from infant circumcision that I don’t think it is a deferrable decision.
On the other hand, however, a child born into a culture that does not value circumcision, though, should not have one. The parents simply don’t have a good enough reason to suspect he would consent if he could.
What about bodily integrity? Well, it’s pretty clear a parent shouldn’t cut her kid’s leg off just because she think it looks snazzier. Anything that impairs the body’s healthy functioning shouldn’t be permissible. This is the distinction between male and female circumcision. Female circumcision causes much more harm and impairs sexual functioning. Same with foot-binding.
It’s not the case simply anything that doesn’t impair the body’s functioning is fine. I can’t permissibly give my son a giant dragon tattoo on his back (or a mom with a heart tattoo!). But if both conditions are met, i.e., the non-deferrable decision is made based on his hypothesized consent, and it doesn’t impair body functioning, that’s when I think the decision is less problematic (I say less problematic rather than not problematic, because decisions made for someone else are always potentially problematic).
It’s interesting that people don’t have nearly the same problem with orthodontia and pierced ears on small children. Because they would seem to be similar, morally speaking: they are non-therapeutic procedures, they permanently alter the child’s body, they are done before the child can give consent. Birthmark removal might be sightly more controversial, but I don’t hear nearly the same amount of hue and cry about it. Male circumcision doesn’t differ all that much from these, yet it inspires a passionate opposition these other examples never do.