Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rights, Bodies and Parents

Razib had a post last week about the issue of circumcision, which (quite accidentally on his part, it appeared) touched off a veritable firestorm of comments. I don't have any interest in bringing the question of whether or not male infants should be circumcised to this blog. However, one thing that did strike me as very interesting was that many of those very much in the "nay" were deeply concerned that parents having their sons circumcised as infants violated the "body rights" of the circumcisee.

The idea seemed to be basically that although there might be some decreased likelihood of infection or contracting certain sexually transmitted diseases, that these same effects could be achieved by other means, and so parents were ethically required to leave their sons a fully intact body until such point as the son was old enough to make the decision for himself. Anything short of this hand-off approach was judged to be controlling, cruel, and yet another case of allowing "a bunch of primitive desert tribes" beliefs to interfere in the world's business, especially in the area of enjoying sexuality.

Those who didn't have a problem with circumcision seemed much more relaxed in their views.

What struck me as interesting is the idea of "body rights" -- and that parents should not meddle in making decision for their offspring, but rather leave as many decisions as possible to be made by the offspring themselves, even if waiting till that point would (in this case) constitute a strong incentive to make a particular decision.

While being as incensed over actual child abuse as the next bear, I find the attempt to extend the term out to cover "religious indoctrination", circumcision, infant ear piercing, education style, or what have you, to be unhelpful in the extreme. (Not to mention trivializing real child abuse.)

I wonder if it stems from some sort of tabula rasa idea of child-rearing. And yet it seems to me rather obvious, as a parent, that your ability to leave a great many decision "up to the child" is rather limited. Children are not equipped to make sensible decisions till rather late in life, and become so gradually. A great many very pivotal decisions are made when one is too young to make them wisely, and the guiding factors in these decisions are generally the values (whatever they are) that one has learned from one's parents and community while growing up -- or developed in reaction to the same.

Not to minimize the importance of the individual, but the process by which one begins to make decisions "on one's own" is a gradual one. The idea that one can somehow hold off a bunch of decisions to be "decided by the child when he's old enough" seems rather unrealistic.

Which is part of why I find it hard to get horrified over the idea of parents making decisions such as this for their children.


Rick Lugari said...

I think it was Shakespeare who said something like, "Foreskin or not foreskin, that is the question."

Anyway, good points. Another thing about the "body rights" angle is that as much as it may seem that you're empowering a child and "respecting his rights", you're opening the door for neglect. It's his body, if he wants to eat let him find his own food or wait til he gets older. Let him decide whether he wants to have that ruptured appendix out when he's an adult. No bother cutting his hair or trimming his fingernails either, etc. Yes, I'm being absurd, but that is the logical conclusion of the mindset.

If we're going to be so loose with our definitions of child abuse and base it on our emotions or personal preferences, then I'll cry child abuse when someone chooses not to circumcise their child. Not just for the obvious reasons either. The notion that you'll let the kid decide when they're an adult is bogus. The kid may decide that he wishes he were circumcised, but knowing the type of pain involved would choose not to have it done. Plus it doesn't cost squat to have a baby circumcised, but for a grown man to go in it has to be a fairly pricey thing. Then there's the being out of commission for a period of time...even though one may wish they were skinless, they're just not going to op for the pain and hassle.

One last thought. As Catholics we would natural consider the morality of "mutilation", but seeing as God has made it pretty clear that He favors it and even allowed His beloved Mother to have it done to Him, I don't think we should have any qualms about providing our boys with a healthy and handsome peepee...

Christine the Soccer Mom said...

Rick has put it very well. I only have one question.

How many grown men actually would volunteer for this if they are not required to do so for religious reasons (i.e. converting to Judaism or Islam)?

That said, I have friends who have and friends who have not. I had no sons, so I'm not really that concerned with it.

Again, Rick's comment puts it in perspective very well, as does the post itself.

Anonymous said...

The real misconduct here is on the part of doctors, not parents. Parents can only choose a surgery that a doctor is willing to provide. Why in the world are doctors putting "cut parts from healthy penis" on the menu for parents to choose from?

Doctors won't cut off a child's pink finger even if the parents want it, or any other body part.... except the most sensitive areas of a boy's penis. It's a medical ethics nightmare, and stain on the medical profession.

Consider this: Are the same doctors who have no business offering unnecessary, ablative surgery in the first place really fully informing parents? Any parent who wasn't shown a copy of Sorrells (since it was published), and now regrets signing that consent form to mutilate their boy, should have a strong legal case.

There are many ethical health-care professionals who would never participate in the unethical practice of non-therapeutic circumcision, and many who get swept into it because that's just how the system works.

Hopefully, now that this is getting more attention, the ethical people can stand up and remove this stain from their profession.

knit_tgz said...

Dear Rick,

I agree it's not a matter of "let the child decide".

But I completely disagree when you imply circumcizing is favored by God. When preaching to the Gentiles, Paul said explicitly they did not need to be circumcized. As a Catholic and not of Jewish ascent, I don't feel compelled to circumcize any son I may have in the future.

Besides, on the "handsome and healthy" issue: "handsome" is a matter of preference. Healthy: here in Europe almost all men are uncircumcized, unless religious or serious medical issues arise. We do not have more penis health problems over here.

So, you and your wife may prefer to circumcize a son, but I don't think you can seriously say God favors it. Nor is He against it.

Rick Lugari said...


Sigh. First let me explain something. While my comments were generally serious, I do have a tendency to make light of many things by taking certain liberties or making tongue-in-cheek remarks. Personally, I don't care what a person chooses for their child in this regard and only felt compelled to comment on this thread for my own entertainment and to beat the drum-beaters to the punch. You know...there's certain hot-button issues that are really only hot-buttons to people on one side of the issue. i.e. The whole Attachment Parenting thing (nobody really gives a darn if you sleep with your kids until they're 27 and have a steady job, just don't tell us we're bad parents because we don't).

Anyway, yes I know "handsome" is subjective - and I'm sure every guy thinks he has the best thingie out there - even though mine is undoubtedly the best. And since my wife will probably be reading this later, I figured I'd throw that in there for my benefit...err...her benefit. You know, positive affirmation and all that. ;)

I came up with the "God favors circumcision" thing on the fly and through it out there more for fun than a serious argument for circumcision. I am well aware that gentiles don't have to conform to the Jewish law in this and other matters. However, I could still argue that God favors circumcision. He commanded it and chose it for Himself - a positive assertion. That He allows us to not do it is a passive thing. ;)

Rick Lugari said...


I would suggest you google "benefits of circumcision" and read some other materials as well. And it's not unethical for a doctor to circumcise a baby - think of it as preventative medicine (and there's the religious thing for some too). If you want to tackle the ethics of the medical profession don't worry about them slicing off a little piece of extra tissue. You make the point about how they won't electively cut off a pinky. Ask them why they will take money from someone to cut a perfectly good vasa deferens or fallopian tube. Why will some of them slice up or burn a baby in his mother's womb? And those who don't, why will they refer a patient to a doctor who will? What about the elective prescribing of a substance that prohibits a woman's body from functioning as it should? I agree that there's an ethical problem in the medical field, I just think your angle misses the mark.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking maybe it has to do with that Seinfeld episode that this concept got popularized.


CMinor said...

For some reason, the inflammatory ones always seem to want to remain anonymous.

Actually, our younger son was done by a mohel--a Jewish rabbi specializing in the procedure. Is that misconduct, too?

Anonymous said...

Want to talk about a parent's perogative which passed ethical muster?

Literacy-chic said...

I definitely find this issue of "body rights" interesting, and kind of wrinkled my nose over a fellow grad student's recent post about battles she won't fight over her daughter's right to dye, pierce, etc., though something I've written recently probably touches on something related...

My question: How do vaccines--polio, flu, HPV, whatever--fare in this debate over "body rights"? Whose rights are we talking about in that case, and who--child, parent, State--has the right to provide for the interest of the child?

TLC Tugger said...

Circumcision is not at all like other vaccines parents choose for kids based on risks and protections. For one thing, most of the US men who have died of AIDS were circumcised at birth. It didn't protect them. As vaccines go, circumcsion is aweful.

Also, other vaccines prevent dreaded diseases which immediately threaten children and which can't be fought other ways, and the vaccines have minimal side-effects and low overall risk. Infants don't have sex, so cutting away half the sensual nerve endings from every healthy boy in a risky procedure, to forestall something which is a possible threat only much later, and only if the child chooses unsafe sex, is taking away too much of a person's right to self-determination.

It really isn't about parents giving kids too much say-so, it's about the basic human right to bodily integrity for all people.

In the recent Africa trials, potential subjects were tested so HIV+ males could be excluded, and they found that boys who had never had sex were more likely to already HAVE AIDS if they had been circumcised; African circumcsion CAUSES AIDS.

Darwin said...

I don't exactly want to prolong this line of discussion (can I say anything on this topic without finding innuendo in it?) but a word since we seem to have google watchers parachuting in:

It is certainly true that circumcision is not a vaccination againts any disease, and that it does not outright prevent AIDS. (Since your visiting a Catholic blog, allow me to point out that condoms don't either: abstinance prevents AIDS -- you just have to actually do it.)

However, historically circumcision has been quite valuable in preventing infection, especially in societies which are not up to modern standards of personal hygiene. There is also very solid medical evidence that since it leaves no likelihood of male tearing in normal intercourse, it reduces the likelihood of spreading blood-born diseases through that method.

I certainly don't think that it's something people must do either medically or religiously. However, there have historically been major benefits to it (if done very young and with sufficient hygiene), and I find it hard to get worked up over the claim that it's mutilation or that it ruins male sexual sensation. Most adult men in the US are circumcised at this point in history -- and most of us don't sit around feeling like we're lacking anything in the satisfaction department.

bearing said...

Well, of course -- you don't know what you're missing.

ISTM that removing a non-diseased body part, even to avoid getting diseased in the future, is by definition mutilation.

The question is whether it's okay to mutilate to prevent future disease that might or might not happen.

Literacy-chic said...

TLC Tugger,

Do realize that vaccines, while not absolutely analogous to circumcision (not a comparison I made, does happen to be another matter of body rights, as piercing, etc.

I am very well acquainted with the circumcision debate, which is why I didn't feel the need to address it.

On the other hand, people are largely unaware of the risks of vaccination, since it is largely considered good i all situations and for whatever illness (however mild) and Oh! By the way! is mandated by the government, as circumcision is not. It is merely another topic that falls into the same category.

As far as circumcision, my husband opted for it for my son to prevent some of the horrible things that his father--who was not circumcised as an infant--underwent as an adult, including circumcision.

Perhaps in Africa more attention should be paid to sterile surgical equipment.

Literacy-chic said...

Okay--let me clarify--the circumcision itself was not a "horrible thing" in his opinion, but the infections, etc., that led to it were. I do have problems with the doctors who say that infants who are circumcised aren't capable of feeling the pain (!!), though I understand the risks of anesthesia. My mother swears that my brother's personality was somewhat altered immediately after circumcision. It would be preferable if trained surgeons performed the procedure rather than pediatricians. In those cases when the s/he performs it, the OB would seem to have more the needed skill (since they perform episiotomies and c-sections).

I am curious, though... Why is the number of men who are bitter about it and sue their parents as adults so slim? Of course, parents take so much of the blame anyway, why not?

Literacy-chic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Literacy-chic said...

The "bitterness" question seems to have been addressed.

Darwin said...

Well, of course -- you don't know what you're missing.

It is certainly the case that one could not know both sides of the situation and thus tell for sure. (Especially as -- from what I've heard -- if someone undergoes the procedure late enough in life to understand the "before" experience, the after effects are likely to be nasty and permanent.)

However, I believe the prevailing attitude is like that of the man who, while driving his new sportscar, found a supermodel hitchhiking: "It's possible I could be having more fun right now, but I really don't think I could stand it."

Rick Lugari said...

You know, Bearing. I was willing to concede that in the strict sense it was mutilation - though obviously not an immoral thing to do, regardless of the benefits or drawbacksdrawbacks (no pun intended - well truthfully, it was intended, but I can't help it). But looking up the definition of the word it seems to indicate that there is a threshold of destruction involved, either by functionality or appearance, and I'm not so sure circumcision would meet that level. If so, then shaving, cutting hair and trimming nails would technically be mutilation as well. We do those things for a variety of reasons: hygiene, comfort, appearance (either conforming to social standards or outright vanity) - and nobody truly considers it mutilation or a bad thing.

The point about vaccinations is apt, especially when you consider that you are intentionally giving a person a disease. I suppose one way to look at it would be like plants: trimming and pruning (destroying) makes for a more healthy and productive plant in the long run.

Darwin already touched upon the sensitivity issue (yeah, pun intended here too). Though I would dispute his little analogy. It were better if the guy had a supermodel in his sportscar and they picked up another supermodel hitchhiking who was looking for another supermodel to have a pillow fight with.

Literacy experience in Michigan is that usually the OB performs the circumcision.

BTW, I don't know this for fact, but I have heard that on the eighth day after birth a baby's vitamin K level surges and that is important for the blood to coagulate - the relevance being is that God said the baby should be circumcised on the eighth day.

Anonymous said...

I was 19 when I had the procedure done with a local anesthetic--not fun. If I had any resentment toward my parents, it was that it wasn't done as an infant.

I was an athlete in a public school, which meant many showers in the locker room from junior high through high school. The stares and whispers weren't fun to endure either, not to mention the hygienic issues involved, which was again compounded from wearing a hot, damp jockstrap for long stretches of time.

Moreover, I cannot imagine having had sex uncircumcized. From both a hygienic and self-esteem/security perspective, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, only I truly wish it was never my decision to begin with. My son, God willing I have one, will be circumcized. No questions asked.

bearing said...

But looking up the definition of the word [mutilation] it seems to indicate that there is a threshold of destruction involved, either by functionality or appearance, and I'm not so sure circumcision would meet that level.

I think the relevant question is whether a healthy functionality is destroyed or severely impaired. This distinguishes earlobe-piercing from vasectomies pretty well.

What's the function? I've always assumed it was a protective/lubricative one. Surely there is function there. Did God know what he was doing when He made foreskins, or did he add it expressly for the purpose of telling some people to cut 'em off?

Rick Lugari said...

Surely there is function there.

Perhaps, but there is also a problem there as well.

Did God know what he was doing when He made foreskins, or did he add it expressly for the purpose of telling some people to cut 'em off?

Of course, and He knew what He was doing when He said to cut them off. That as Catholics we are not bound to follow the Mosaic Law, doesn't mean we are forbidden to circumcise. God did give us reason and the ability to do such things, so when someone weighs the pros and cons of circumcision and arrives at the conclusion that for them (or theirs) circumcision is the way to go, why fault them? Again, from my experience it's not those who prefer circumcision who want to dictate that all males be circumcised, but there is a very vocal group of people out there who feel it's their mission in life to deny the rest of us the use of it. I'm not going to post this link in an attempt to dismiss the pro-skin argument because I believe there are valid arguments/considerations to be made, but check out this website. Really, this guy appears to have far too much interest in the issue to be healthy. In fact, I know he does based on some of the stuff I read - so be careful browsing the site because you will come across some material that you might find disturbing.

Anonymous said...

What's the function? I've always assumed it was a protective/lubricative one. Surely there is function there.

During intercourse, a man's penis is supposed to slide within his own skin, not run against his wife's vaginal walls causing little abrasions (no matter how lubricated she might be).

Do you want to talk about how blood-borne STDs are transmitted?

Literacy-chic said...

my experience in Michigan is that usually the OB performs the circumcision.

You know, I was confused. When I was last pregnant, we were told that if the OB didn't do them, the pediatrician we had chosen was against them, so he wouldn't either. But with the first, the OB did perform it, and I do think that's the norm. #2 and #3 are girls, so no issue.

Hmmm... I guess we can think of the hygeinic purposes of early Hebrew circumcision as analogous not to vaccination, but to dietary restrictions? We understand the health issues of both now, and know how to avoid them, and also have the freedom to choose (after the debates on the role of Mosaic Law in the New Testament) whether to follow them as Christians as not. Yes, I know, this doesn't touch on the mutilation issue or cultural concerns--or the rights of the parents vs. children, either. But it is an interesting point about God's role in both formation of anatomy and Mosaic Law.

I wonder, if the appendix and tonsils were more external, would they be removed at birth, and since they are not related to sexual pleasure, wound anyone care? (Not actually meaning to be insensitive, by any means.)