Over at Feministe, Jill published an absolutely dreadful piece on infant circumcision. Right off the bat, she mischaracterizes opponents of circumcision (she calls them ‘intactivists’, I prefer to call them ‘normal people’) as ‘trolls.’ Now,while she is correct in saying that “every time female genital cutting is mentioned… someone from the “intactivist” community shows up to derail the conversation and make it all about the alleged horrors of male circumcision,” an odious practice that I completely condemn, that doesn’t make all “intactivists” (to use her word) trolls, nor does it mean they don’t have a legitimate point. (As an aside, why “female genital cutting”? Call it what it is: mutilation.)
And then she gets into the meat of her argument, in this bizarre paragraph:
It’s not that intactivists are wrong about everything. There should be a debate about circumcision, and there is something to be said for the position that it’s ethically wrong to remove a piece of an infant’s body where not necessary to preserve that infant’s life or health. It’s an interesting and important bodily autonomy question. On the one hand, from the strictest perspective, it seems wrong to circumcise a child without his understanding and consent. Yes, circumcision may have some disease-prevention benefits, but it comes with risks as well. On the other hand, parents do things all the time that violate their children’s bodily autonomy; they regularly don’t get their children’s consent on issues that impact that child’s person, and they even directly override their children’s desires. That’s part of being a good parent. Your kid may not want to get a vaccine, but you should probably vaccinate your kid. Your kid doesn’t want disinfectant on that cut, but the cut should get disinfected. Your kid wants to only eat hot dogs every day for the rest of his life, but your kid should probably eat some vegetables.
Where do I even start? Perhaps with the phrase, “there is something to be said for the position that it’s ethically wrong to remove a piece of an infant’s body where not necessary to preserve that infant’s life or health.” Really? “There is something to be said” for mutilating a child’s body without their consent for no reason? What a bold statement. Yes, there is “something to be said”, like how it’s indefensible, or unethical, or monstrous. Those are some of the things I would say.
I also like how she says, “from the strictest perspective, it seems wrong to circumcise a child without his understanding and consent.” As if, when you apply a looser standard, violating a child’s body without their consent magically becomes a good thing. Also, I’d like to point out that not everyone with a penis is male, so please stop saying things like “his understanding”.
But the worst thing about this paragraph is that she compares infant circumcision to getting vaccinations, disinfecting wounds, and eating vegetables. Well, let’s compare them, shall we? What happens when children don’t get vaccinated? They get diseases and die. What happens if they don’t sterilize their wounds? They get infections and die. What happens if people don’t eat their vegetables? They suffer from malnutrition and die. So what happens if infants don’t get circumcised?
Intactivists like to call circumcision “medically unnecessary.” In reality, however, circumcision is an extremely effective preventive measure against global disease. Circumcision lowers the risk of HIV acquisition in heterosexual men by about 60 to 70 percent. And circumcision reduces HIV risk over a man’s lifetime, unlike condoms, which must be used during each sexual encounter. It’s no wonder that the World Health Organization has pushed circumcision as a key tool in the fight against HIV.
But that’s not circumcision’s only benefit. The procedure also protects men against a variety of other STDs, significantly reducing their odds of contracting herpes and syphilis. Moreover, circumcision is highly effective in preventing transmission of HPV in men, which in turn reduces their risk of penile cancer. And circumcised men are far less likely to contract genital warts or develop urinary tract infections. Fewer circumcisions mean more STDs and infections—and billions more in health care spending.
So circumcision reduces the rates of contracting an STD. Well I’m sure all the infants that are having sex can breathe a sigh of relief now that they won’t get herpes.
Sarcasm aside, I’m always amazed at how supporters of infant circumcision bring up STD rates as if they’re even remotely relevant. I don’t know if you noticed, but not many infants are having sex. Now, if a sexually active adult were to request a circumcision to reduce their risk of contracting an STD, I would have no problem with that. An adult can consent to a surgical procedure, whereas an infant cannot. That’s the difference.
And this is the main point: it’s not that circumcision is objectively bad. I (and most other opponents of infant circumcision) agree that there are certainly instances where circumcision is beneficial. In fact, in her post, Jill says, “If I lived in a place with a high prevalence of HIV, I’d probably circumcise my kid, as recommended by the World Health Organization.” That’s certainly an instance where circumcision (of adults, not children) could very well be beneficial.
The problem with circumcision is that it’s commonly done on infants who can’t consent. This is the issue that upsets people. Despite the claims of various proponents of infant circumcision, many, if not most, infant circumcisions are medically unnecessary. Circumcision can be beneficial for sexually active adults, but to pretend, like Jill does, that infant circumcision has a myriad of health benefits is disingenuous at best.