Male Circumcision: It Should Not Be a Major Concern for Humanists

December 13, 2016

A not insignificant percentage of humanists and secularists are strongly opposed to male circumcision, to the point of wanting to ban it. The vehemence of their opposition is not warranted by the evidence regarding the effects of circumcision: it is not medically necessary, but it is not harmful (assuming appropriate analgesics are used) and it provides small benefits
Before discussing circumcision in more detail, let me support my claim that this is an emotional issue for some humanists/secularists.
The late, great Christopher Hitchens devoted a few pages to this topic in God Is Not Great, characterizing the practice as “mutilation” and “primitive amputation.” However, the sole authority Hitchens cited regarding the effects of circumcision was Maimonides— not someone who, to my knowledge, is up on the latest medical studies regarding circumcision. Relying on Maimonides, Hitchens argued the goal of circumcision is to reduce sexual pleasure. The myth that removal of the foreskin materially affects sexual pleasure is just that: a myth.  (Some studies indicate the reverse: some adults who have been circumcised claim greater pleasure.)  It’s disappointing that Hitchens cited a religious authority as sole support for a secular myth— perhaps the only occasion he did so— but this indicates the depth of animosity toward circumcision felt by many.
When I was president and CEO of CFI, one of the responsibilities I had was to check up from time-to-time on our international affiliates, some of which we support through grants. In one conversation I had a few years ago, I asked what activities the affiliate planned for the next year. The head of the affiliate said they were going to concentrate on making an all-out effort to ban circumcision. I remember thinking to myself: of all the ills of a society on which a humanist organization could concentrate, this organization is going to focus on saving the foreskin?
Finally, during my tenure at CFI I’ve had conversations and exchanges with a number of humanists, including some fellow employees, in which amazement was expressed that I showed any hesitation about banning circumcision. Some indication of this amazement can be found in the comments to my last blog post on this issue, several years ago.
The strong opposition to circumcision among some humanists troubles me not because I’m a big proponent of circumcision—do it, don’t do it, it doesn’t matter that much—but because humanists are supposed to proportion their beliefs to the evidence, and, as the previously cited CDC guidelines indicate, the medical evidence simply doesn’t justify a ban on circumcision. 
One reason that I think many humanists are so opposed to circumcision is that the reason many circumcise their infant boys is a religious one. If in fact circumcision harmed boys and the only rationale for circumcision was based on religious doctrine, then I would be in favor of a ban also, but that’s not the case. We should not let the fact that a practice has religious associations obscure the secular justifications for the practice, if there are any. Sunday became a day of rest for religious reasons, but even for atheists it makes sense to have a break from work.
The other reason I think many humanists are so opposed to circumcision is their adherence to a philosophical principle which, superficially, has strong appeal, namely that no permanent changes should be made to someone’s body without that person’s consent. Seems eminently reasonable—the problem is that it is impossible to comply with this principle with respect to the most important part of our body, namely our brain, and the possible harm that may be done to us via the shaping of our brain when we are young makes the loss of a foreskin trivial (for more detail see my Huffington Post blog, reproduced below).
For humanists who are concerned about how the bodies of children are permanently shaped by their parents, I suggest they concentrate on how children are educated. We need tougher regulation of homeschooling and we need to prevent public funding of religious schools— something which seems quite possible under the new administration. The appropriate response to male circumcision is a shrug of the shoulders; it’s just not that significant an issue. We have other work to do.
And with that, I reproduce below the blog post I put up earlier today on Huffington Post:
Every so often the practice of neonatal male circumcision becomes a news item, typically when some medical association issues a statement on the practice. Last week it was the turn of the Danish Medical Association, which recommended the practice be stopped. Prominent among the reasons cited for this conclusion was that the procedure permanently alters a child’s body, something which should not be done, the Danish doctors argue, without the informed consent of the person whose body is affected.
The Danish doctors’ recommendations are in line with most Europeans’ thoughts on this issue. By contrast in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasized that there were definite health benefits to male circumcision, a conclusion which the Centers for Disease Control seconded in draft guidelines in 2014. In particular, male circumcision reduces the risk of infant urinary tract infection and the risk of contracting STDs later in life. There is also a reduced risk of other health problems, such as penile cancer.
However, even those who maintain that circumcision has health benefits recognize that the most that can be said in favor of circumcision is that “the health benefits … outweigh the risks [but] existing scientific evidence is not sufficient to recommend routine circumcision.” Although circumcision reduces the risk of developing various medical problems, the overall risk of these medical problems is small, whether one is circumcised or not, especially if one is prudent in one’s sexual practices (e.g., by wearing a condom).
For the most part, the empirical information relied upon by the dueling medical associations is the same — but their interpretation of the data is different. The difference in views among the various medical associations, and other health groups, appears to be due, in part, to cultural factors. Most Europeans are not circumcised, whereas circumcision is not uncommon in the United States.
Given this background, one might conclude that circumcision should be largely a non-issue: it’s a procedure that’s medically justified, but not necessary. Whether the procedure should be performed on one’s newborn is something that can be left to parental discretion.
That conclusion, however, would be fiercely resisted by many opponents of circumcision, some of whom are adamant in their rejection of the practice. For them, male circumcision is “genital mutilation.” One critical principle animates this opposition and it is the one alluded to by the Danish Medical Association, namely that no permanent changes should be made to a person’s body without their consent, which, of course cannot be obtained until that person is legally an adult.
This principle has strong intuitive appeal, at least in our contemporary world. Who could argue with self-determination? But upon reflection, the principle that no permanent changes should be made to somebody’s body without their consent is impossible to comply with.
To put it mildly, the brain is an important part of a person’s body. It’s certainly more important than the foreskin of the penis. One’s brain is inevitably shaped by the parents or guardians one has as a child. This is not some metaphorical allusion to the information that’s put into one’s brain nor am I referring to one’s genetic inheritance — no, the physical structures of one’s brain are changed based upon one’s training and education. For example, the brains of literate people differ from the brains of illiterates. Similarly, musical training affects the architecture of the brain.
Most developed countries do exercise some control over the training and education children receive, imposing various legal standards and restrictions, but even so, wide scope is given to parents in terms of how they raise their children. Homeschooling is permitted in the United States, for example, with minimal oversight in most states. (Interestingly, homeschooling is forbidden in some European countries, such as Germany—again a significant cultural difference.) With respect to training in music or sports, parents can subject their children to extensive training, just short of physical abuse. Hour after hour of piano practice or swimming lessons. When grown, these children might be grateful for their training, or they may resent the physical or psychic pain they had to endure while forced to pursue an activity which they never liked. On the other hand, some children will receive no training in music or sports, something which they may regard as a handicap in later life. Either way the bodies of these children will have been permanently altered by their parents.
We rightly value self-determination, but our ability to choose our own path and make our own decisions about our bodies begins after our bodies have already been shaped by our parents in ways we are powerless to change. In this light, agonizing over the loss of a foreskin is an unwarranted, excessive reaction.
Nothing in the foregoing analysis should be interpreted as saying we should allow parents to change their children’s bodies in any way they regard as suitable just because their role in shaping these bodies is inevitable. Clearly, limits should be— and are —imposed on what parents can do. Parents cannot inflict disabling injuries on their children. But, as indicated, the evidence regarding male circumcision is that it provides some small benefits. It cannot plausibly be characterized as medically necessary, but, with appropriate use of analgesia, it’s not harmful. The energies that some devote to opposing male circumcision might be better spent lobbying for tighter regulation of homeschooling. The cerebral portion of young male bodies should receive as much attention as the genital portion.