Circumcision, Genital Alteration and Ear Piercing 

The debate regarding infant male circumcision kicked-off once again last week as the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a policy statement suggesting that circumcision had minimal, but nevertheless real, health benefits and that, therefore, they would not oppose the practice. Writing on the Oxford Practical Ethics Blog Brian Earp tackled the claims and such was the weight of interest the traffic it attracted apparently crashed the servers. Catarina Dutilh Novaes noted Earp’s post on the NewApps blog and, titling her brief post Circumcision, aka male genital mutilation, sparked a debate over whether male circumcision was comparable to female circumcision AKA female genital mutilation. Well, I say she sparked it but I think Brian Leiter can be credited with blowing that spark into life! 

In a previous post I suggested that male and female circumcision are not exactly comparable and I still think so. Following her post and the ensuing debate Novaes, however, has come to the opposite conclusion. She now frames her discussion in terms of ‘genital alteration’ and ‘genital cutting.’ Her argument runs along the following lines: Both male and female circumcision have been used to ‘control’ male and female sexuality and both men and women who have been circumcised variously think they both have and have not lost any sexual function or sensation they cannot be distinguished on these grounds.[1] Agreeing with Earp that male circumcision has no clear health benefits she concludes: “it remains difficult to maintain coherently that male genital alteration is acceptable while female genital alteration is not.”

However in using the term genital alteration it becomes possible to compare circumcision with, say, a piercing. Indeed Novaes recognises the validity of this comparison in her closing remarks and claims the ethical issue is about ‘choice.’ Children are unable to exercise choice in this area as, not being autonomous beings, they lack the capacity. Thus, the genital alteration of children ought be prevented whilst adults may still do as they wish. 

Yet we might now wonder why the issue is the genital alteration of children and not the alteration of their bodies per se. One often sees quite small, young children with their ears pierced. If the issue were indeed one of consent then it would seem that either we must ban this practice as well or argue that there is something particular about children’s genitals as compared to their earlobes such that they require special protection. If one objects to any unnecessary cultural practice that entails the alteration of children’s bodies then it is clear that circumcision is one of a number of possible procedures encompassed by the term. 

The point of using terms like ‘alteration’ rather than circumcision, cutting or mutilation is, first, not to pre-judge the question, and second, to find a term that can accurately distinguish between acts X and Y. However, it is not certain that ‘alteration’ can provide us with the bright-line between X and Y that we seek. Perhaps cutting can do so but perhaps the problem is not so much with the words but the idea of an ethically bright line. Those conducting this discussion seem to think that ethical certainty is an achievable and acultural end. In a commentary on Novaes, Schliesser raises what he calls some ‘second order’ qualms rooted in what we might call a more politically sensitive ethics. Such a perspective is concerned with how we might live together in mutual respect for our mutual differences. Given that circumcision is predominantly a religious cultural practice - and given historical and contemporary anti-Semitism and Islamophobia - we might be extremely wary of attempting to ban infant male circumcision outright.  

Of course that does not stop anyone arguing against it, but it does suggest that argument might be conducted with a little more mutual respect and understanding. 

[1] I don’t agree that this point, as put, is relevant to the debate.