The subject of circumcision is often relegated to the realm of jokes and cheeky double-entendres, but a San Francisco ballot initiative now gaining momentum would ban the practice, and it raises some very serious issues. At the heart of the current controversy are three fundamental questions. First, is circumcising an infant wrong? Second, should infant circumcision be against the law? And third, would banning circumcision infringe on the rights of those who practice it as part of their religions?
The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. Though practiced by Jews for thousands of years and more recently adopted in the United States for its purported health benefits, infant circumcision is an ethically problematic act. By surgically removing the most sensitive part of the penis, we permanently alter a person’s sexual experience and we do so without their consent. The argument that we ought to circumcise babies for health reasons is very weak. Consider an analogous situation: If all women had one breast surgically removed, we could probably reduce the incidence of breast cancer in this country. This is clearly not a sufficient reason to implement such a drastic measure and neither are the claimed health benefits of circumcision.
The answer to the second question is not as clear. Not all ethically problematic behaviors need to be criminalized. For example, sleeping with your wife’s sister may be unethical, but it hardly warrants a law prohibiting the behavior. Proponents of the ballot measure often point out that female circumcision is illegal in the U.S., while male circumcision is practiced routinely. The comparison between female and male circumcision may seem outrageous at first, but upon closer inspection, it is actually reasonable. Female circumcision is an umbrella term that refers to a variety of practices, some of which are less severe than male circumcision. Contrary to common belief, most forms of female circumcision do not completely eliminate a woman’s ability to feel sexual pleasure, yet any form of female genital cutting, even something as minor as a ritual nick to the hood of the clitoris, is illegal in the United States. The comparison to female circumcision is useful in so far as it helps to uncover a cultural bias that has yielded a legal double standard in the U.S. But understanding this inconsistency doesn’t get us any closer to answering the second question. The law prohibiting female circumcision might be as unnecessary as the proposed ban on male circumcision.
Nevertheless, one of the state’s primary responsibilities is to protect its citizens. And by allowing parents to permanently alter the bodies of their children, the state is failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens from bodily harm. It seems reasonable to draw a legal line when it comes to body modifications that have life-long consequences.
To answer the third question, I will focus on the Jewish community, as my knowledge of Islam is insufficient to do that community justice. I would argue that a clear majority of American Jews do not circumcise their sons out of a sense of religious obligation, but rather as a means of ethnic identification. These people mostly have it done in the hospital by medical staff rather than a mohel, which, ironically, means that their sons do not and cannot have an actual religious brit milah. Criminalizing circumcision would not infringe on this group’s religious rights, as they are not doing it for religious reasons. But there are religious American Jews who circumcise their boys out of a sense of religious obligation. These Jews can be divided into two groups: the fundamentalists and the non-fundamentalists. The former are a sub-group of Orthodox Jews who believe that our human understanding of ethics should not play a role in shaping Jewish law and practice. A ban on circumcision would indeed infringe on their right to practice their faith as they see fit. The human right to body integrity would, in this instance, override their religious right.
On the other hand, non-fundamentalist Jews, who constitute a very large number of Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox Jews, believe that human ethics are an essential element in the Jewish tradition. If my answer to the first question is correct, then there is a Jewish tradition practiced by virtually all Jewish parents today that is morally wrong. This should give pause to any non-fundamentalist religious Jew, and it is a black eye for the liberal movements that they have not taken this issue more seriously. Perhaps a law prohibiting circumcision is just what these Jews need to start a serious discussion about the problem of brit milah.
Eli Ungar-Sargon is an independent filmmaker who grew up in an Orthodox home. His first film, “Cut,” was about circumcision and Jewish identity.