How old do you have to be to have human rights?

by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon

Every human being has the right to bodily autonomy and self-determination.  These rights do not come from the government; they are natural.  This right is so basic that we often aren’t even aware of it, but think for a minute: does anyone have the right to permanently alter your body without your permission?  Could a stranger force you to get a tattoo?  If someone did drug you and tattoo you, they would have committed a crime against you.  Recently a parent was arrested for allowing her 10 year old son to get a tattoo of his choice, and yet she likely legally forced the permanent body modification that is routine infant circumcision on him at birth.  It is illegal to cut an infant girl’s genitals and has been since 1997.  Every year, though, 1 million baby boys are circumcised in America.  Their rights have been violated, and no one cares, and no law protects them.  Routine infant circumcision is a human rights violation.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights states:

“The autonomy of persons to make decisions, while taking responsibility for those decisions and respecting the autonomy of others, is to be respected. For persons who are not capable of exercising autonomy, special measures are to be taken to protect their rights and interests.”

“Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.”

“In applying and advancing scientific knowledge, medical practice and associated technologies, human vulnerability should be taken into account. Individuals and groups of special vulnerability should be protected and the personal integrity of such individuals respected.”

“The fundamental equality of all human beings in dignity and rights is to be respected so that they are treated justly and equitably.”

Routine infant circumcision violates all these principles.  The patient cannot consent to the treatment, and no one is representing his rights in the decision to circumcise.  It is commonly assumed that the parents’ wishes are congruent with the child’s wishes, but since the child cannot speak for himself, we have no way of knowing if this is true.  Saying that “He’ll be happy with the decision when he’s an adult” is NOT prior consent.

Babies most definitely qualify as specially vulnerable – they can neither speak nor act.  Their inherent powerlessness makes them the most vulnerable members of society, which we recognize in every other aspect except for routine infant circumcision, and protect with child abuse laws.

And that brings me to the last point: are babies human beings, or not?  Does their age make them have less rights?  Is it just to abrogate their rights simply because they cannot speak nor act?  Do males have fewer rights?  Is it equitable to deny male babies the right to bodily integrity which females have enjoyed in this country since 1997?  It is absolutely not.  Commonly held perceptions of the comparative degree of harm of female and male circumcision are irrelevant: the only issue is basic rights and consent.  Female circumcision is seen as beneficial in the cultures that practice it, yet is illegal under all conceptualizations of human rights law and U.S. law.

Could a parent take his adult child to the doctor, tie him to a table, and have him circumcised?  Of course not.  The very idea is abhorrent because we understand that the man himself is the owner of his body.  What if the child was 14?  Would that be okay?  How about 6?  This is the age that circumcisions are commonly performed in Turkey.  They have a big party and take lots of photos full of the anguished faces of the young boys.  Take a moment to follow that link.  Does it disgust you?  Would you do that to your school-age son?  If not, why not?  Is it because he is aware of what is happening?  Is it because he will remember?  Does a lack of awareness or memory make an assault okay?  Of course not.  Rape is punished even when the attacker drugs his victim.

At what age does it become okay to tie down a baby and cut off part of his genitals?  How many or few years or days old does a person have to be to not have the most basic human right?  Apparently in the U.S., the commonly accepted answer is infancy, in its original meaning of “not talking.”  Not being able to talk means (usually) not having conscious memory, and that is why we circumcise babies.  We know it is terrible – even the most pro-circumcision parents know that their son is going to suffer – but somehow, we pretend that causing them pain and violating their most basic right is okay when they are very young and most vulnerable, perhaps because this is the only time where we could get away with it.

Babies are human beings, and all human beings have the same rights.  Age and sex do not determine one’s rights, and parental ignorance, delusions or wishes do not abrogate those rights.  Routine infant circumcision violates the rights of men and should be illegal based on all human rights law.  Many other developed countries like Sweden and Holland understand this and are moving to make all circumcision illegal.  We in the U.S. like to think that we’re the guardians of human rights, yet we cannot keep our own house in order.

Note: A common argument against my position is that “parents make decisions for their children all the time.”  The two examples usually given are haircuts and vaccinations.  I dismiss the haircut argument out of hand because hair grows back.  The vaccination argument appears at first blush to be more persuasive, but falls apart under scrutiny.  Most vaccinations given during infancy are to protect the child from diseases that are only dangerous during infancy.  If you don’t vaccinate your child against these childhood diseases during infancy, many of the vaccines won’t be required or given in childhood or adulthood.  The few vaccines that are given during infancy for diseases that don’t occur until adulthood are very controversial; these include Hepatitis B (transmitted through blood and sex) and HPV (transmitted through sex and hotly debated now.)  Circumcision is not time-sensitive – you don’t have to do it in infancy or not at all.  All of the purported “benefits” of circumcision either:

  • Are spurious, like the idea that a circumcised penis is easier to keep clean.  The infant foreskin should not be retracted for cleaning and is much easier to care for than a circumcised penis.
  • Would redound to the patient in adulthood and thus could be delayed until the adult can make the decision for himself, such as the claim for lowered STIs.
  • Or could be achieved through much more conservative and less invasive measures, such as the claim of lowered UTI rates, which is based on one contested study and could be treated more conservatively with antibiotics; or achieved by simply wearing condoms, which men should do anyway in non-monogamous encounters.


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3 Responses to How old do you have to be to have human rights?

  1. Pingback: how-old-do-you-have-to-be-to-have-human-rights/ | coffee and kids

  2. James Loewen says:

    Thanks very much for this excellent article. Obviously our collective understanding must evolve toward protecting the rights of children with regards to their own bodies.

  3. Maria says:

    this is a great post, and it’s been ALL over the social media today. Hooray! :) Thanks for all your thoughtful and cogent articles, it matters so much.

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