Search Results For male genital mutilation

A reader counters my analysis of these numbers:

On the issue of circumcision, you are biased and unbalanced. You call circumcision “male genital mutilation”. OK, that’s a bias you are entitled to. Attack circumcision as a moral abomination if you must, but eliminating circumcision will do little for healthcare costs. You cite its $1.8 billion cost and italicize it for emphasis. That is unbalanced. The data report you cite says that of the top 20 operating-room procedures, circumcision is the cheapest per procedure by far and is 20th on the list of 20. And the total cost of circumcisions is just 0.069% of total spending of $2.6 trillion on healthcare in 2010 in the US, and less than 1% of total OR procedures.

The biggest source of healthcare costs are in people over 65, of course, and the biggest source of healthcare costs in people over 65 are in the 25% or so of people with chronic diseases such as CHF, COPD or diabetes. The biggest driver of healthcare cost increases is medical technology driving new treatments to market. Circumcision has very little to do with medical costs.

Of course, mutilating infant boys’ genitals is a small factor in the context of the costs my reader cites. And yes, circumcision is itself not that expensive. But its ubiquity means a remarkable use of medical and operating room resources for an elective procedure. And by “elective”, I do not mean, of course, that the boys choose it. Their parents choose it without the patient’s consent. Another reader on the issue in general:

Okay, you win.

For years I’ve been a loyal reader despite the fact that you occasionally hammer on crusades that I can’t get behind – most notably, your war against “male genital mutilation”.  As a parent of two boys, I reflexively had them circumcised at birth; because I was, and because I’d never seen an uncircumcised one in real life, and because I didn’t want my boys to grow up wondering why they looked different than me “down there”.  In that context, I’ve always been annoyed by your relentless stance on this issue.

Until today.  You see, I’m a healthcare actuary by profession, so today you finally hit on an argument that resonates with me – that male circumcision is symptomatic of our society’s over-utilization of healthcare.  Way to keep attacking from different angles until your target finally yields …

Another really took the blogging to heart:

Just thought I’d share that your ongoing coverage reinforced the decision my wife and I made not to circumcise our son. We both come from Southern, conservative, Protestant families where circumcision has been the norm for who-knows-how-long, but our families haven’t made any complaints, and we feel we made the right choice.

Update from another:

I have always rolled my eyes at the term “male genital mutilation.” Same goes for some of the other hysterics of anti-circumcisionists. None of those arguments ever did much for me. (Less sensitivity? Things feel just fine for me down there, thank you. Psychological damage? Please. There are plenty of sources of adult neuroses other than the penis. The anesthetized trimming of a little skin is hardly the worst thing that happened to me in childhood.) And until a month ago I always would have thought that I would have my sons circumcised, like me. I am American, after all, and circumcision is just what we do, right? Why should I make my sons “different”?

But last month, with a newly-pregnant wife, my view changed for a very simple reason: I realized that I don’t have any reason to circumcise. I attended the bris of a friend’s son and saw it all happen. None of it grossed me out. Not the blood, not the scalpel. And the baby didn’t seem to be in any pain. But it struck me quite suddenly that while my Jewish friends have a very good, compelling reason to circumcise – a covenant with their God – I just don’t have one. And as a rational person, it is simply not in my nature to make a permanent and unalterable decision without a good reason.

A rebuttal from a reader:

When discussing what you call male genital mutilation, you keep saying that this is surgery that is done without the patient’s consent. Obviously, a new born can’t consent to anything but circumcision is a very different operation for a newborn than it is for an adult. Ignoring the issue of whether it is necessary surgery, it is a very minor procedure for a baby and a huge deal for an adult. A close friend of mine, born in China, was uncut. He had to be circumcised as an adult (I believe he had the same condition as Louis XVI) and it was as Joe Biden would say, “a big fucking deal.” He was in a lot of pain for a long time and the surgery came with risks of complications and scarring.

You argue that the parent makes the decision to circumcise an infant son without his consent but the parent is also essentially making the decision not to circumcise too. An adult may think/want/believe he is better off circumcised but if his parents did not make that decision for him as a baby, it may not be a realistic choice for him to make as an adult.

A new report (pdf) on operating room procedures in the US finds that the simple procedure of circumcision is still the second twentieth most costly procedure over all, largely because its prevalence makes it the second most common OR procedure in America (after cesarian section). There are, we discover, 1.1 million genital mutilations performed on infant boys in America every year, representing a total 7 percent of all operati0ns; and the total cost comes close to $2 billion a year. In the discussion of an elective procedure that permanently alters the most intimate parts of boys’ bodies without their consent, shouldn’t the sheer cost of it be a factor in weighing its merits?

Raphael Magarik defends male genital mutilation on religious grounds:

Judaism, at its core, posits that the central facts of a person’s identity, a person’s core existential commitments, are not chosen. You don’t get to choose whether you’re Jewish. This flies against an American tradition of radical autonomy, one that dates, if not to Roger Williams, at least to Walt Whitman.

… [T]he point of Judaism is to make something of your past. If a Jew doesn’t have that past, she is missing out. If you haven’t been bored by learning Talmud, you’ll probably never be enchanted. If your grandparents didn’t practice Judaism, you miss out on local, idiosyncratic customs: this way of wrapping tefillin, that of making Kiddush. If your body hasn’t been marked as Jewish, you’ll never have quite the same identification with the Jewish people. None of these things are your choice, but they are crucial to making your choices meaningful. So if my parents hadn’t circumcised me, I’d feel they’d robbed me of my birthright.

All one can say is that if this is the definition of religion – that it's unchosen, mandatory and involves permanent markings of the body – then liberal individualism is going to have a hard time digesting it.

Recent Dish on MGM here, here, here and here.

A reader draws a compelling parallel:

One of my sons was done at birth, as were 90+% of baby boys at that time. Our younger son was not done because my husband and I had changed our minds about the procedure. (There was never a religious mandate.) Younger son now wishes he had been circumcised and had his own son done at birth. I think it has to do with peer pressure my son felt in school, but I'm not sure.

So I now agree with you about the desirability of circumcising babies – don't do it. But the problem with outlawing anything that people feel very strongly about is that they will do it anyway. That's been proven enough times. And babies will die because of it. Keep talking and writing about it as mutilation – it is. But let's not outlaw it and force it to join coat-hanger abortions in seedy motels.

That's my position: no banning, no coercion, but greater cultural awareness of the fact of genital mutilation, and hope that it will decline. And it has, mercifully. The genital mutilation rate has gone down from 63 percent to 55 percent in the last 13 years. In the West of the US, it's now down to a quarter. More American boys and teenagers grow up to find they have not been surgically altered without their consent. And that, it seems to me, is a good thing for individual liberty. The rest of the latest MGM thread here, here and here.

Walter Russell Mead objects to my use of "male genital mutilation" as a synonym for circumcision:

Sullivan clearly has no idea what a nasty and hateful thing this is to say about a primary obligation of someone else’s faith and he would react strongly and justifiably against comparable slurs made either against his faith or his sexual orientation. I expect this has to do with ignorance about where circumcision stands in Jewish life as traditionally understood even by non-religious Jews rather than from any genuine contempt for Jewish faith or the Jewish people.

To ban or insult infant circumcision isn’t an attack on a minor feature of Jewish life. In a Catholic context, it is like saying children cannot be baptized or receive Holy Communion until they are adults. To call it child abuse and genital mutilation is to become like the Protestant radicals who attacked the Catholic Mass as idolatry and cannibalism — and on those grounds forbade the Mass to be celebrated and fined those who attended.

No child's body is irreparably altered by his first Holy Communion. But I would have the same views if it were my own church practising this. I haven't exactly been deferent to my own ecclesiastical authorities in matters of public policy and morals. So sorry about the insensitivity. But someone else's taboo is not mine. And I was much more insensitive when publishing drawings of the prophet Muhammed. But anyway, this is not about Judaism any more than it is about Islam. It is about human autonomy, and the freedom to have bodily integrity. I think that's a case worth making – until a boy is man enough to make the decision for himself.


Samuel Goldman defends a more subtle version of Walter Russell Mead's bloviation that Cologne "banned Judaism":

There’s no indication of specific hostility to Judaism here. Nevertheless, the ruling is the logical consequence of a concept of religion implied by Protestantism and articulated philosophically by Benedict Spinoza and John Locke. According to that view, religion is rooted in private belief. Associations and rituals are legitimate only to the extent that they are submitted to voluntarily by consenting adults, who can withdraw their consent at any time. And religious obligations can never trump the civil law.

There are good reasons that this position was appealing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Trouble is, we’ve forgotten not only that it doesn’t fit many older traditions, including Judaism and Roman Catholicism, but that it was specifically designed to exclude them. The understanding of religion’s legitimate sphere that informed the Cologne court’s ruling, in other words, is not theologico-politically neutral. It was, and remains, a polemical concept that elevates state over church, individual over community, consent over continuity in ways that traditional Catholics and Jews find hard to accept.

Oh, please. It was more appealing in the 17th and 18th centuries than now? And what's this about "traditional" Catholicism? Vatican II – the authoritative position – accepted the principle of individual conscience as the core of religious freedom. And do we really want to live in a world before Locke and Spinoza? Really? In a follow-up post, Mead makes related points:

Besides the circumcision controversy, and there are activists in the US who would also like to see the banning of child (male) circumcision, there is a movement in many countries to ban the methods of killing animals required to comply with Jewish and Islamic law.

Way to change the subject. Chuck Lane calls the law a "blatant affront to the Muslim and Jewish peoples," even though nothing of the kind was intended or stated in the ruling. In classic faux above-it-all tone, Chuck also accuses me of "ignorance" and "indecency" and a pattern of both that is so endemic that rebutting it would be "a full time job". Any substantiation for this? Of course not.  On this specific case, I did not get the law wrong; I did not infer anything incorrect from it; I did not mischaracterize its import. There are no errors of fact or logic in my post, and Lane should withdraw his unsubstantiated slur. Yes, I oppose the policies of the Netanyahu administration, and if he wants to engage my arguments on that, rather than throwing mere slurs, he's welcome. He has one decent point:

The Cologne court’s sloppy legal balancing act — kid’s physical integrity vs. parents’ religious interests — completely ignores the nature of religious tradition, which is that it is transmitted from parents to children. To posit a world in which the parents have their religion, and kids choose theirs, when they’re old enough, is to imply that even sending one’s child to a religious school — or making him prepare for a bar mitzvah — might be a form of brainwashing. Certainly it pushes progressive notions of human rights past the point at which they would undermine the spiritual basis of ancient communities

All of that is possible and fine. No one is saying that parents should not be allowed to instill their own religion into their children. What many are saying is that permanently mutilating an infant's body without his consent is a step too far. Lane, moreover, defends it as a function of his own religious freedom:

In any case, what this remarkable judge does not grasp — or does not care about — is the fact that a father cannot be a Jew in good standing unless he circumcises his son at eight days.

My italics. The infant is secondary here, an instrument of the father's religious identity. And where would this end? Lane opposes Female Genital Mutilation – but if it were a religious mandate, as many interpret it to be, on what grounds could he do so? This, apparently:

Injury to this bit of erogenous tissue would not be mutilation of the “genitals,” strictly speaking, since it plays no direct role in male reproduction. In short, there is no comparison between the benign impact of male circumcision and the damage wrought by what is quite properly called female genital mutilation.

But Lane reveals his own spectacular ignorance here. FGM does not aim to end female reproduction; it aims to remove female pleasure and arousal. It is usually far more damaging than male genital mutilation – because it removes any pleasure at all, while MGM only adds scar tissue to the wounded penis thereby blunting the pleasure of orgasm. I simply do not believe it is right to unilaterally reduce another human being's capacity for sexual pleasure without his consent. Call me crazy, but bodily integrity strikes me as a pretty basic freedom. Habeas corpus. Your body is your fortress in a free society – but not, apparently, if you're a few days old.

What's at issue here is pretty simple. It's about physical assault with permanent injury to a person without his consent. Now, as I've said many times, my own expansive view of religious freedom would allow legal circumcision for religious reasons. I do not agree with the Cologne court's ruling. But that does not make physical assaults on infant children any less barbaric and cruel and wrong. Jacob Williamson, by contrast, goes further than I do and rejects the notion of religious exceptions for laws altogether:

[W]hen I find reasons for laws and then hear religious people protest that it contradicts their conscience, I hear no alarm bells ring. The fact we have good reasons for the law make their ‘argument’ from religious liberty a non-sequitur. Why should the mere fact a religion demands something necessitate that as a society we must accommodate it? And if the Torah’s calling for it suffices to allow the otherwise unmotivated clipping of a child’s dick, what’s the limit here? Would defenders of religious freedom wish to allow the amputation of a child’s legs so long as a Holy Book demanded it?

Jason Kuznicki, on the other hand, opposes both circumcision and laws against circumcision:

I’m against circumcision on libertarian grounds, but I think it’s an issue better handled by the culture than the courts. There is a lot of hyperbole all around, and a strong (but to me inexplicable) tendency to dismiss the whole question as a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s a serious and difficult issue. Despite being anti-circumcision in principle, I don’t think that outlawing it is a good way to end it.

I'm with Jason on this. I'm happy that cases like the one in Cologne help foster debate about this barbaric practice and persuade more parents to leave their children's genitals alone as God made them.

(Photo: A depiction of Isaac's circumcision in the Regensburg Pentateuch, made in Germany around 1300. By Flickr user Rachel-Esther.)

Including for religious reasons. Walter Russell Mead’s response is beyond self-parody:

To ban infant circumcision is essentially to make the practice of Judaism illegal in Germany; it is now once again a crime to be a Jew in the Reich … Perhaps those convicted of wrongful circumcision could be required to wear a yellow star?

But the case was brought in the case of a Muslim infant being mutilated without consent. And no doctor was convicted, and the Cologne court’s jurisdiction is not national. Yair Rosenberg touts the alleged medical benefits of the procedure (oddly, the German ruling allows circumcision for “medical” reasons). The Dish, of course, begs to differ. But the court does indeed get to a central issue: can parents permanently mutilate a child’s genitals to pursue their own religious goals? I have a rather expanisve view of religious liberty, so I would veer on the side of permissiveness here. But that it is an assault on a child seems obvious to me. If it were done not for religious reasons, it would be banned. And so I do not see making this mutilation as illegal as it is for girls to be somehow bigoted or intolerant.

And the religious liberty involved is obviously not the child’s. If he wants to, he can get his genitals mutilated later as a sign of his religious commitment – when he is old enough to be able to make such a choice of his own free will. At some point, one can only hope this barbarism disappears. And it will have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or Islamophobia; it will be about defending the religious liberty of Jewish and Muslim males to choose their religion, and not have it permanently marked as scar tissue on their dicks. It will be about the right not to be physically assaulted as an infant, to be able to grow up with the body you were born with. And that’s a pretty fundamental human right – more fundamental in my view than the parents’ right to express their own faith by mutilating another person’s body without his consent.


Vehement disagreement over my views on MGM has become a perennial feature of the Dish (I addressed the latest batch just last month). Another reader writes:

I was taken aback when you wrote:

I support a religious exemption for Muslims and Jews. But routine mutilation for no reason at all? Let a man decide when he's old enough to make the decision about his own body, and what others may do to it without his consent.

Two problems with this:  (1) there are compelling individual and public health reasons to encourage male circumcision; and (2) infant circumcision is significantly safer than adult circumcision.  (Both points are well documented in this fact sheet by the CDC.)  The risk-benefit calculus here is not unlike that in deciding whether to vaccinate a child.  In both cases, the need for "consent" is overridden by the parent's legitimate right to care for and protect his or her child.

Since children have no reason to fear any consequences from not being mutilated, this notion of protecting the child is bullshit. The analogy with vaccination is deranged. But if an adult man decides it would be in the interests of his health to cut off his foreskin, he should have every right to do so. Another:

I hate to keep harping on the same subject every time you mention it (she says as if you could possibly remember one of 2 million readers) but you keep not making sense.

I'd love for you to explain why "because my holy book tells me so" is a more valid reason for permanently mutilating your newborn that "because I want my son to look like his dad" (which is the most commonly given reason). Even if we accept that religious reasons are automatically superior to plain old preference (which I don't) we would still have to explain why mutilating a boys penis is perfectly acceptable but mutilating a girls vagina is not, not even when the clitoris is left intact. What if someone's religion mandates they clip their babies ears? Should this too be protected? The familiarity of circumcision (which you accept as a mutilation) should not make it more acceptable than other forms of mutilation.

Or maybe we should accept that submitting a newborn to medically unwarranted surgical procedures cannot be protected because this expression of religious liberty of parents inescapably interferes with the much more important bodily integrity of their child.


Again, your deference to religion is perplexing.  "Let a man decide when he's old enough to make the decision about his own body" – unless his parents happen to be Jewish, or Muslim?  What about Christians – like my parents – who have their sons circumcised on account of Christ's declaration that "not one iota" of Old Testament law should be ignored?


I think your argument is related to your deep devotion to religious freedom – which, in theory, is fine. However, why can't we, as a society, demand that Jews and Muslims modernize with the rest of creation?

We've done it before. I mean, Leviticus is pretty damned unambiguous about the consequence of sleeping with someone's spouse: "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death" (Lev 20:10). There's no mention in this verse that the government shall do it. The way I read it, anyone who finds out someone's been committing adultery has the obligation to kill both the adulterer and the adulteress. So why don't we allow Jews and Christians to do so? Because it's fucking wrong! While there are murderous crackpots who read that verse and come to the same conclusion I just did, no sane, modern American would (I hope) believe it's okay to put adulterers to death strictly for their adultery.

Of course, genital mutilation is not like putting someone to death. However, the core of my argument is that you simply cannot defend bending the rules of a proposed law just because of one's religion. If San Francisco goes through with the circumcision ban, all genital mutilation of underage boys should be banned; otherwise, we're wading into awfully murky territory as to what should and should not be allowed with respect to religion.

Additionally, I think it odd that you think most adult males can make up their minds about circumcision except for Jews and Muslims. It's very simple: when a young Jew or Muslim male reaches 18, he may decide for himself if he thinks his religion is worth cutting off a piece of his penis for. Don't Jewish and Muslim boys deserve the same choice afforded to everyone else?

Either genital mutilation is defensible, or it is not – end of statement.

It is indefensible, but it is not so harmful as to preclude the religious interest in infant mutilation in a country where religious freedom is, and should be, absolute.

(Photo: from the Library of Congress. Central Asians perform the barbaric practice on an infant boy in the late 1900s.)

For some reason, I missed this data point in the summer:

Circumcision rates for newborn boys in the United States dropped steadily and markedly over the past 4 years, based on the largest review of U.S. rates ever done. Circumcision rates fell from 56% in 2006 to 33% in 2009.

That's close to a collapse, which is very heartening, and why I'm ambivalent about a ballot measure like one proposed in San Francisco that would criminalize MGM. But this makes sense:

“Tattooing a child is banned as a felony and circumcision is more harmful than a tattoo,” said Schofield, who believes religious traditions should change. “People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body,” said Schofield. “It’s a man’s body and…his body doesn’t belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents. It’s his decision.”

A new website has just been set up to increase awareness of this involuntary mutilation of human beings when they are too young to give their consent.