A proposal to ban circumcision for non-medical reasons in Iceland has generated a heated debate over whether banning the practice would amount to an attack on religious freedom. Kai Möller outlines his own opposition to male circumcision, and argues in favour of an open debate over the issue in which both sides are respected and there is an attempt to reach common ground.
This article is one of two pieces published by EUROPP on this topic. For an alternative view on the issue, see the other article here.
Iceland’s parliament building (The Alþingi), Credit: Stefán Birgir Stefáns (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Iceland’s plan to become the first European country to ban non-therapeutic male circumcision has once again brought this controversial practice to the public consciousness. One factor that complicates its discussion is that some people feel that criticising circumcision brings them uncomfortably close to the company of Antisemites and Islamophobes, and some defenders of the practice have accused critics of the corresponding attitudes. A recent episode of Moral Maze on Radio 4, as well as an opinion piece in the Guardian from a few years ago, provide vivid examples. So how can we avoid arguing about circumcision in a prejudiced way?
Here is a first and unappealing idea. We can play it safe by always adopting the position that does not offend the respective minority. We can say that we are in favour of allowing circumcision, same sex marriage, gender neutral toilets, and so on, to avoid all charges of prejudice and bigotry. The problem with this view, however, is that we thereby allow others to (indirectly) determine our moral views, rather than confidently and pro-actively making a positive case for what we believe is right. Furthermore, it does not do justice to our interlocutor either because by focusing on avoiding offence, as opposed to what is morally right, we do not engage with him or her as a moral agent, that is, someone who is interested in and capable of responding to moral reasons. There is, therefore, no alternative to our thinking issues through for ourselves, in good faith, and without any fear of accusations of bigotry. This is what I have done for the case of ritual male circumcision over the last couple of years, and here is my considered judgement:
- Circumcision involves the amputation of about 50% of the penile skin. The foreskin is richly enervated and of great importance for sexual activity because it enables the ‘gliding action’ which stimulates the penis during intercourse or masturbation. In circumcised penises, the glans is always exposed and goes through a process of keratinisation, which reduces its sensitivity. I cannot think of a reason to refer to such a significant interference with the male sexual organ – one which changes its look, functionality, and sensitivity – as anything but genital mutilation. This is further strengthened by a comparison with female genital mutilation, where the exact equivalent to male circumcision, namely the amputation of the clitoral foreskin, is uncontroversially regarded as a form of female genital mutilation.
- Ritual circumcision of babies is done without effective pain relief. This means that circumcision inevitably imposes excruciating pain on babies. I think that it is categorically impermissible to impose such pain on a baby for anything less than a truly compelling reason.
- I believe that there is something deeply wrong with sacrificing a body part of another person without their consent. It is an entirely different thing for a person to decide to sacrifice his own foreskin (or other body part) to his God or cultural community. This is a proper exercise of autonomy that an adult can make, but it cannot be made for a child by his parents – it is his body, and he has a right that it be preserved, respected, and protected until he is old enough to make an informed decision.
My work has led me to be strongly, unambiguously, and unapologetically opposed to male circumcision. Yet there is nothing antisemitic or Islamophobic about my argument: on the contrary, it takes Jews and Muslims who are in favour of circumcision seriously as moral agents by providing moral reasons that try to convince them that their position is wrong. This attitude is not only theoretically preferable, it also works in practice. I have recently published a scholarly article criticising circumcision as a human rights violation, and over the last couple of years I have presented my arguments at various academic conferences and events, with many Jewish and Muslim participants.
The discussions were controversial but almost always respectful. They revealed that there is considerable debate among Jews and Muslims about the pros and cons of circumcision. Some are opposed to circumcision or curious and open-minded about it. (Surely these people are not antisemitic or Islamophobic?) People came up to me and talked, often very movingly, about their personal struggles with the question, or the disagreements within their families. When we leave identity politics aside, refrain from lazily accusing each other of prejudice or bigotry, and begin to actually talk to each other in an honest and straightforward way, such encounters can happen. We may not be able to reach agreement, and sharp divisions may remain. But we display the courage to look each other in the eye, go through the hassle of trying to develop the best possible argument for our view, and bring up the patience to listen to the other side’s views, trying to reach some common ground. In short, we treat each other as moral agents. It’s a very democratic thing to do.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Kai Möller – LSE
Kai Möller is an Associate Professor of Law at the LSE. Before joining the Law Department in 2009, he was a Junior Research Fellow and previously a Lecturer in Jurisprudence at Lincoln College, University of Oxford.
We have examined the same arguments and come to different conclusions. I don’t think there has been quality evidence to show that circumcoaion decreases sexual pleasure, if I am wrong could you point me in the direction of a good study?
There are lots of conflicting studies on the subject, but these are some of the studies which appear to show that circumcision decreases sexual pleasure.
“Circumcision ablates the most sensitive parts of the penis.”
Kim and Pang 2006 (255 men circumcised as adults)
“About 6% answered that their sex lives improved, while 20% reported a worse sex life after circumcision.”
“Conclusions Circumcision was associated with frequent orgasm difficulties in Danish men and with a range of frequent sexual difficulties in women, notably orgasm difficulties, dyspareunia and a sense of incomplete sexual needs fulfilment.”
Bronselaer et al, 2013
“For the glans penis, circumcised men reported decreased sexual pleasure and lower orgasm intensity”
It doesn’t matter if it reduces pleasure or not. It’s cutting healthy tissue off of an infant’s GENITALS. IT IS WRONG.
If that makes me anti-any religion, too bad. This is not a subject that should be open to debate.
We wouldn’t even be arguing about it if it happened to females.
Yes, Jerry you are so right!! I would have never even considered doing this to my son, and my relatives, also my hubby’s relatives – the males are all intact… And even though the numbers are going down as more and more Dr’s are refusing to do this genital mutilation, it is still being done here in the US, and it is so upsetting to keep reading about, on mom groups for instance – that they are still choosing to do this to their newborn baby boys!!
Are you familiar with the history of circumcision?
For thousands of years, honest Jewish scholars (e.g., Maimonides, Philo of Alexandria) have been upfront regarding the erotic damage of circumcision–for both the cut man himself *and* his partner.
It is exactly this sexual damage that recommended circumcision to the sex-negative Victorian physicians who introduced circumcision into the English-speaking world, as a way to discourage boys from masturbating.
“I don’t think there has been quality evidence to show that circumcision decreases sexual pleasure”
Let’s assume that this is true. Now, on the other hand, there was neither been any quality evidence to show that excising the clitoral prepuce or labia minora decreases sexual pleasure. Are you OK then with parents choosing to have such excisions performed on their baby girls?
Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis.
Sorrells ML1, Snyder JL, Reiss MD, Eden C, Milos MF, Wilcox N, Van Howe RS.
Is a study that shows the sensitivity of the foreskin. What the stady shows i very much my
experience of my forskin. I can get an orgasm with an ejuculation just by stimulating only the inside of the foreskin. And I am not an extraordinary man. So if you take a way the foreskin you will take a way some very sensitive parts of the penis. There is no question about that. Mats Birgersson child nures Karolinska hospital Sweden.
Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis.
Sorrells ML1, Snyder JL, Reiss MD, Eden C, Milos MF, Wilcox N, Van Howe RS.
My own experience of my own foreskin is well in line with the above study.
Without being special, I can have orgasm with ejaculation by only stimulating the inside of my foreskin.
All mammals have a foreskin, both females and males.Women and men’s foreskin are embryologically homologous, as well as identical. The foreskin protects theglans mucous membrane from drying out and losing its function.
I was circumcised as an adult for medical reasons so I can sort of see both sides to this. I think that the author makes a good point about the kind of restriction on the debate that comes if we start saying opposition to circumcision is by definition opposition to the practice of different religions. I would also say though that there is a similar kind of zeal on the anti-circumcision side too though, which I experienced and didn’t find very pleasant either.
In my case I have a problem with circumcising infants without their consent. It’s surgery, it can and does occasionally cause problems, it’s painful, it denies the child a choice. But I know that when I sought advice about circumcision to cure my particular (fairly minor but annoying) case of phimosis, I encountered a lot of entrenched positions. I was told by one person that getting circumcised for this reason was an act of supreme stupidity and that all cases of phimosis can be cured by stretching (well I tried just about every method of this for almost ten years and none of them worked – in fact I’d consider myself an expert on the topic given how much research and experimentation I did on it). It was almost as if in the desire to attack over-zealous doctors who prescribe circumcision at the first sign of trouble these people were intent on demonising anyone who considered getting it done. I ended up eventually getting it done after years of it affecting my life in a negative way and it worked for me extremely well.
Now, the author isn’t suggesting circumcision for medical reasons is wrong. I consider myself to be someone who would more or less agree with the author on everything he’s written here. But I do think for context we have to say that both sides of this debate act in a slightly zealous way and restrict things quite forcefully. It’s not just the pro-circumcision side that does this and that has to be said too.
Did you ever consider undergoing a less invasive surgery, like a dorsal slit procedure?
“I was circumcised as an adult for medical reasons so I can sort of see both sides to this.”
Yes you can, but only “sort of.” Desensitisation of the glans is cumulative, progressive, lifelong. An older man circumcised as a baby will have lost most of what remained to him in terms of penile sensitivity — which isn’t much, relative to the richly innervated foreskin (and frenulum) of intact male genitalia. A man circumcised in the first few days of life will have been “cut off” from bonding with his mother; his early childhood development, and the structure of his brain, will have been irreversibly altered. Again, these psychosexual effects of circumcision are cumulative, lifelong. Not all circumcisions are created equal. Except in cases of medical necessity, where the man’s informed consent is freely given, male circumcision constitutes grievous bodily harm, if not child sexual abuse, and torture. Typically, it entails serious violations of a number of important human rights. It is unethical, and arguably unlawful. Doctors who conduct non-therapeutic non-consensual circumcisions are in breach of medical ethics, at the very least.
Consent is the central problem with both FGM and MGM, in that an elective procedure is forced by parents on their children’s genitalia for no medical reason.
Irreversible elective procedures can and must be delayed until consent can be obtained from the PATIENT.
For consent to be valid, the patient must be aware of the short term complications, the long term prognosis, alternative treatments, delayed treatment or no treatment.
To proceed without valid consent from the patient, regardless of the gender of the patient, age, religion, background or what is actually removed, the operator commits: surgical assault, actual bodily assault, sexual assault (pedophilia in a minor), violation of human rights and violation of bodily autonomy.
I have yet to see a convincing argument for not letting the individual decide about his genitals, when he becomes adult.
And actually I think it would be very antisemitic to ignore violation of boys’ rights, just because the boys are jewish or muslim.
It should not need much science to know that removing the most sensitive pleasure giving part of a male will reduce sensitivity, natural protection and penetration functionality, sorry, your auto gratification and sexual intercourse would be better, but you will never know.
This is a rationale, sane, well-reasoned article, and makes the point well that infant circumcision is a moral issue, not a religious issue. I sympathize with Mark Pieters sentiment that both sides can be strident. The difference is that the anti side is urged on by moral and civil rights convictions, while the religious side is urged on by the conviction that they need to impose their religious beliefs and practices on a child, even though it is their child. The moral issue rests on the universal civil rights every individual has, which are violated when a medically unnecessary surgery is performed without the patient’s consent.
Carlos Barrera makes the obvious reply to the question of reduction of sexual pleasure: the amputation of thousands of highly sensitive nerve endings inevitably reduces pleasure. Imagine cutting of your finger tips – do you think you would have the same sensitivity of touch?
Thank you, Kai Möller. Very well articulated. Readers might want to also take a look at my blog post in the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/morten-frisch/time-for-us-parents-to-reconsider-the-acceptability-of-infant-male-circumcision_b_7031972.html?utm_hp_ref=science. As a doctor and researcher, I originally wrote it to US parents, because there is so much about this topic that people in the US weren’t told. However, this unfortunately appears to be the case in most countries around the world. So far, more than 100,000 readers have liked and shared it – you might like it too. I wish you a good read and a peaceful day.
People are hopelessly divided on circumcision. The official Jewish and Muslim position is that juvenile circumcision is an essential part of faith, and any attack on it amounts to an attack on religion. A more secular view is that circumcision is a significant protection against HIV and a raft of other medical ills. Against that formidable support is the growing criticism of juvenile circumcision as an unacceptable removal of sensitive genital tissue without the consent of the infant being circumcised.
It is possible that the Icelandic Parliament will agree to criminalise childhood male circumcision, but similar legislation is unimaginable in more multicultural societies at this time.
What then could be done?
I believe that change can come about, but the first steps might have to be a process of harm minimisation. When William Wilberforce tried to abolish slavery he first attacked the slave trade. Then he aimed to abolish slavery in the British Empire. He did not live to see the abolition of slavery in the United States and later developments.
Because juvenile circumcision is supported by more than a billion Muslims, hundreds of millions of secular people and millions of Jews, it’s going to take some time to convince them that circumcision is wrong. In the mean time, circumcision leads to problems that even the most ardent supporter of circumcision would agree is not acceptable.
Things that almost everyone would agree are wrong are boys being maimed or even losing their life from traditional circumcision practices, the forced circumcision of men and older boys, circumcising children against the will of their mother or father
Here is my suggestion for minimising the harm of circumcision
First, society needs to accept that is surgery and there are always risks. Therefore it cannot be left unregulated.
Next, it must be accepted that infant circumcision is always questionable because the owner of the foreskin cannot give his own consent to its removal.
This ethical question cannot be resolved by my proposals but some common sense rules could regulate this practice and gain wide acceptance.
1 Unqualified people should be banned from circumcising anyone!
2 Qualified but incompetent circumcisers should be banned from circumcising anyone else!
3 Dangerous traditional practices including metzitzah b’peh (oral suction of the circumcision wound) should be discouraged by public education and other suitable measures.
4 Before anyone is circumcised, an independent doctor must certify in writing that the person is free of any bleeding disorders and any other contra-indications and is strong enough to withstand the surgery. (Discovering that a child has a bleeding disorder by circumcising him is bad medical practice!)
5 If a child is to be circumcised, both the mother and the father must give informed and written consent to the surgery. No child should be circumcised against the objection of a parent. (Disputes between parents over circumcision can turn very ugly.)
6 If a man or an older child is forcibly circumcised against his will, this should be treated as a sexual assault, and the perpetrator prosecuted accordingly. (If you think it’s not sexual assault, read my article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. http://jme.bmj.com/content/40/8/567 )
These rules wouldn’t interfere with most circumcisions, but they would give some protection to both those who are circumcised and those who are not.
Can you please elaborate further on your Number 5 “If a child is to be circumcised, both the mother and the father must give informed and written consent to the surgery.”
Please describe in some detail the “informed consent” you propose. In addition to possible benefits and the immediate medical risks of surgery and long-term consequences, will you give weight to the value of the healthy human tissue that is to be amputated? For example, before circumcision without medical indication, parents considering circumcision of their sons, should be informed of the importance of the foreskin in male sexuality, that it causes a significant interference with the male sexual organ – one which changes its look, functionality, and sensitivity, permanently altering the child’s genitals in a way that the child may later perceive as disfiguring and/or damaging.
For “informed” consent to circumcision to be valid, parents must be informed of the short term surgical risks, long-term complications, alternative treatments, delayed treatment or no treatment. The problem is that the American Academy of Pediatrics admits that the long-term complications of circumcision are unknown. Parents should be told this else they are being deceived. They cannot give informed consent based on half-truths and glaring omissions of facts and possible adverse consequences.
Of course, you cannot give informed consent to any proposed surgery without the facts. These include facts about the sensitivity of the foreskin and the ethical problem o cutting off sexually sensitive skin without the prior consent of the person with the foreskin. The trouble is, information about circumcision is as controversial and contested as the procedure itself!
I believe that though it is important, some of the other points would be vital to achieve if we want to make progress:
1 A ban on unqualified people performing circumcisions. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s essential. Look at these horror stories:
2 Qualified but incompetent circumcisers should be banned from circumcising anyone else!
Take these examples:
Bringing in such rules won’t be easy. However, they would be a step in the right direction.
I am particularly keen on making the forced circumcision of adults and older boys a case of sexual assault. Here are just two examples why:
I hope this answers the questions that have been raised.
This is an excellent point about the issue of consent. However, prior to the issue of consent is the issue of medical indication/necessity. The infant/child does not present with any pathology of the penis or foreskin. Therefore, THERE IS NO INDICATION FOR SURGERY. Surgery is a last resort medical solution, not a first resort, prophylactic option based on someone else’s religion, culture, traditions, phobias or ersatz medical prognosis for later-in-life possible issues. This child, every child, has a right to an intact body and a right to medical care based on medical indications.
Male circumcision decreases penile sensitivity by ablating highly erogenous tissue (containing Pacinian corpuscles – Meissner’s corpuscles – Merkel’s discs – Ruffini endings). Circumcision amputates the most sensitive parts of the penis.
With regard to the individual woman’s or man’s, girl’s or boy’s right to bodily integrity and sexual potential, circumcision, that is FGM (female genital mutilation), or MGM (male genital mutilation), has to be overcome, worldwide.
Whether FGM or MGM – no circumcision below the age of 18 years.
This whole debate is akin to military commanders who, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, absolutely refuse to abandon outdated, ineffective and ruinous strategies. The issue is further complicated in the case of male circumcision by the widespread and persistent adherence to hoary mystical shibboleths.