There has been a kerfuffle over a German court ruling that a boy’s right to choose whether he spends his adult life with an intact penis supersedes the religious freedom of the parent, and thus that circumcision amounts to illegal “bodily harm”.
“The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision” said the court. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs”. Further, the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents” and “The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised”.
Predictably, religious groups — Muslim, Jewish and Christian — have been in uproar, claiming that that this ruling violates their “religious freedom”, a supposed right to impose their religion on their children. Notably, they make no mention of the religious rights of the child. Likely they consider that the child has no such rights — or at least, has only the “right” to have his parents’ choice of religion imposed on him. After all, in the United Kingdom, children at state schools are legally compelled to worship the Christian god, and have no right to opt out. When opposing the repeal of this compulsory religious worship in a House of Lords debate Baroness Trumpington said that it “did not matter if pupils were bored, did not like going to chapel or were not interested in religious matters”. So much for religious freedom.
In Islamic countries things are worse: a boy brought up by Muslim parents has no freedom to choose his religion, but must follow Islam, else he is an “apostate” for which “crime” the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence prescribe the death sentence; and this is not merely theoretical.
Religious parents have traditionally held it to be their duty to ensure that the child is “brought up” in their choice of religion, with the child being given little say in the matter. So ingrained is this attitude that society often labels the child with the religion of its parents, long before the child is of an age to think for his or her self and either consent or dissent.
This is strange, since the “free will” right of adults to decide for themselves is usually held to be of such vital importance that God chooses to allow all manner of evil rather than impinge on that freedom. The parent will point to the child’s lack of knowledge and understanding as justifying giving the child no choice, yet presumably that gap in understanding is miniscule compared to that between the parent and the parent’s god. God is held to value free will so highly that he refuses to impose, even across that chasm, and yet parents consider themselves justified in imposing across a gap that is comparatively only a hair’s breadth.
To some extent we should and do accept the parents’ right to impose their religious beliefs and practices on their child. In the same way we accept a parent’s right to take their child to Manchester United football games, or to Greenpeace demonstrations, and we would accept a parents’ right to involve their child in Labour Party politics. Thus we accept parents taking their child to church or to a Bible study.
Yet we increasingly recognize limits to parental rights. Despite the Biblical admonition that “He that spareth his rod hateth his son” and the instruction “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell”, beating children is now prohibited or highly restricted in many Western countries. And Richard Dawkins has argued that to scare children with traditional notions of hell, in such a way that they actually believe it, amounts to child abuse. This is sometimes misreported as Dawkins saying that any and all religious education is “child abuse” (misrepresentations of Dawkins being a common means of avoiding dealing with what he actually says).
Dawkins has a good point. Surely threats of punishment to children should be child-sized and proportionate to their misdeeds? Our society regards children as not capable of acts bad enough for them to deserve being put into jail, and yet some religions regard children as quite capable of enough sinfulness that they should justly suffer the agony of having their skin burned, continually and all over their body, for ever and ever and ever. Is that a fair thing to threaten any child with, even if they are guilty of taking a cookie when they shouldn’t, answering back, or not keeping their room tidy?
If one made a movie filled with tortures envisaged for hell it would be age-18 rated and considered totally unsuitable for children. But when done for religious purposes things are different. Even parents of moderate Christian religions will readily give their children books of Bible stories — stories of Moses and Joshua, full of mass killing, slaughter and rape.
As reported in Numbers (and children’s books):
Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe … They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man.
Then Moses commanded:
“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
The book of Joshua is a tale of extermination and ethnic cleansing on an epic scale:
They devoted the city [of Jericho] to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
Then the Lord said to Joshua “Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. … You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day, all the people of Ai.
[Later] Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors.
Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The Lord also gave that city and its king into Israel’s hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there.
Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Libnah to Lachish; he took up positions against it and attacked it The city and everyone in it he put to the sword, just as he had done to Libnah.
Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Lachish to Eglon; they took up positions against it and attacked it. They captured it that same day and put it to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it
Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron and attacked it. They took the city and put it to the sword, together with its king, its villages and everyone in it. They left no survivors. Just as at Eglon, they totally destroyed it and everyone in it.
Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked Debir. They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors.
So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.
Children’s fairy tales have always contained a lot of darkness, but in the fairy tales the baddies usually get their comeuppance. In the children’s Bible story books the likes of the mass-murdering Moses and Joshua are held up as the good guys — simply because they believed that they had their god’s blessing to exterminate, the same god whose instructions the parents want the child to follow.
If parents were to give their children story books lauding people who, on God’s command, flew airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands, and if the suicide bombers were presented as the good guys, on “our side”, faithfully following god’s will against the infidels and non-believers, then such parents would be considered extremists and a danger to society. Yet this sort of story from the Old Testament can be found in any number of books given to children by parents who consider themselves benign and moderate; the stories might be from long ago, but the central message is the same: those who believe in our god are the good guys, and those who don’t are the bad guys, rightly deserving of condemnation and death.
We need to accept parents’ rights to inculcate their religion in their children. But the children have rights also, a right to a broad education, a right to explore the world beyond their parents’ opinions and to be educated (“led out”) to think for themselves. Thus schooling should not be about reinforcing the prejudices of the parents, but about exposing the children to different ways of thinking.
It is precisely those children who are from a religious home who would benefit most from hearing other points of view, hearing from people who disagree with their parents. And surely they have that right, as fully human individuals and as future citizens. Those who see a school’s job as narrowly reinforcing the parents’ prejudices, and as keeping the children in ignorance of any alternative, do not merit the noble label “teacher”, but are instead trying to indoctrinate.
So why do some religious parents want to cut off parts of their newborn child? For Jews this relates back to the instruction in Genesis:
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”
The Old Testament also says (Deuteronomy 21):
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. …” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.
No-one nowadays would argue for the “religious freedom” to carry out this instruction. We all accept that it is superseded by the greater morality of today’s world, compared to when the Bible was written, and even the religious accept laws prohibiting such acts. Thus we cannot accept a mere Biblical instruction as superseding morality, or as superseding the rights of the child.
Is circumcision just an identity badge, an indelible mark branding the child as the property of his parents’ religion, as a farmer might indicate ownership by branding his cattle? The great Jewish Rabbi and teacher Moses Maimonides told us that the main point of the Jewish commandment was to reduce sexual pleasure:
Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question … The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable.
Similarly, the spread of routine circumcision in then-Christian English-speaking nations resulted from Victorian prudery about sex and a desire to stop teenage boys from masturbating. The foreskin is among the most sensitive parts of the penis, and removing it changes the sexual experience. One can doubt whether circumcision actually does reduce masturbation, but the historical record shows that that was the intent, leading to campaigns promoting circumcision for reasons of “hygiene”. That euphemism has left a legacy even today, with some people thinking that there is something “unhygienic” about an uncircumcised penis; there isn’t.
Given the usual religious hangups about sex one can suspect that circumcision among Muslims had similar origins. Certainly FGM is prevalent in some Muslim societies, being promoted by many Imams, and FGM certainly is an attempt to reduce sexual pleasure, again under the euphemism that the intact woman is “unclean”.
In today’s West other reasons are usually given for circumcising boys: “tradition” and “hygiene” are just hangovers from Victorian prudery. It is also suggested that the reduction in sensation resulting from removing the highly sensitive foreskin lengthens the sexual act, to the benefit of the female. This might well be true, but shouldn’t that option be something one decides for oneself, rather than being imposed on an infant? Googling shows that many adult men resent having been circumcised, even disregarding those who are suffering long-lasting medical complications from the procedure.
Another claim is that circumcision reduces the risk of transmission of HIV, and the WHO currently recommends circumcision in HIV-prevalent areas. There may indeed be some benefit, but it is slight (far less effective than condom use), and while it might reduce female-to-male transmission it might increase male-to-female transmission. The benefits of circumcision for reasons of HIV are disputed and the WHO’s advice is controversial.
In any case, unless the medical benefits of circumcision were overwhelming and compelling (which they aren’t, medical authorities in the Western world do not recommend routine circumcision of infants, and most recommend against it), it seems to me that the overriding consideration is one of choice.
The child should surely be allowed to make up his own mind, at an appropriate age, about whether to spend his adult life circumcised (whether that is to identify with a religion or for other reasons), and the parents have no legitimate reason to usurp that choice.
Does being a parent confer a right to stamp on the child a religious identity badge, regardless of any future opinions that child might hold? Those who regard the child as the property of the parents or of the parents’ religion will answer “yes”. Those who, instead, regard the parents as custodians of the child, and as charged with nurturing that child towards an adulthood in which he (as far as practical) has all his options open, will answer “no”. And a simple appeal to “religious freedom” will not support a “yes” unless one maintains that one set of humans (parents) have human rights and religious freedom while another set (children) do not.
We accept the right of parents to involve their children in a church or in Greenpeace activism or in being a fan of Manchester United, noting that the child could, approaching adulthood, become an atheist or a fan of Manchester City. Those who support the right of parents to go further and impose circumcision as an indelible religious identity badge should, if they were consistent, also support the right of the parent to tattoo his infant’s shoulder with “I love Man Utd” (which would be illegal in the UK).
Circumcision supporters usually squirm at that comparison, preferring to regard religious parents as having far greater rights to impose than non-religious parents. Well, they don’t. Because the child, the future adult, also has rights. And the “I love Man Utd” tattoo imposed on an infant is wrong precisely because it removes the right of the future adult to choose. And religious-identity-badge circumcision is wrong for the same reason. Just ask yourself whose body is being considered. And prohibiting non-medical circumcision is not a violation of religious freedom, it is a defense of religious freedom, a defense on behalf of those who can’t speak up for themselves and so most need legal protection.
Update: “Following the death of a baby in Manchester after a home circumcision … nurse Grace Adeleye … was found guilty of the manslaughter of Goodluck by gross negligence … up to three children a month are admitted to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital because of bleeding after home-based circumcisions …”.