Debate, motives and rationalization

There is no real debate about infant circumcision.  It’s just wrong.

by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon

Today I saw a request on a Facebook page: “I am looking for an unbiased scientific site with arguments against circumcision.”

I suppose the request was made in order to convince a friend who thinks that all sites against circumcision are biased.  I don’t blame that person or his unknown interlocutor.  Experience in politics and matters of taste has taught us that there are always two sides to any debate.  In addition, the human psychological tendency to side with the underdog and the desire to have free choice or just be contrary lead many people to mistrust or dismiss any strong argument.  The thing is, though, that there isn’t really any debate about infant circumcision.  It’s just wrong no matter how you look at it.

No medical association in the world recommends circumcision.  None.  Here is what they have to say about it:

The British Medical Association says:

“[P]arental preference alone is not sufficient justification for performing a surgical procedure on a child.”  (BMA 2006)

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians says:

“After reviewing the currently available evidence, the RACP believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand.”  (RACP 2010)

The Canadian Paediatric Society says:

“Circumcision of newborns should not be routinely performed.”  (CPS 1996)

The Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG – Netherlands) policy statement is wonderfully clear:

“There is no convincing evidence that circumcision is useful or necessary in terms of prevention or hygiene… circumcision entails the risk of medical and psychological complications… Non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors conflicts with the child’s right to autonomy and physical integrity.”  (KNMG 2010)

The American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Circumcision says:

“Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.”  (AAP 1999)

Why is the U.S. position slightly different?  Simple: those usual human motivators of money, ego and self-deceptive rationalization.  Here’s a joke for you:

What’s more important: sex or rationalization?

Rationalization, because you don’t need to have sex every day.

In the circumcision “debate,” on the Pro-Circumcision side, we have the following groups of people:

  • Doctors who make money from it.
  • Doctors who think it is wrong but don’t want to offend their colleagues who make money from it, or risk being ostracized from the guild.
  • People who are themselves circumcised and have a strong psychological incentive to believe that the parts of their genitals that were taken from them were unimportant.
  • People who circumcised their children and have a strong psychological incentive to believe that cutting their children’s genitals was important and beneficial, whether that be physically, morally, sexually, or religiously.
  • Religious people who are afraid their religious practice will be banned.  (See the irony: they don’t want their religious practice curtailed, but they see no need to preserve their children’s religious freedom.)
  • Perverts who get off by discussing genital cutting.

On the Anti-Circumcision side, we have these people:

  • Parents who circumcised one or more children and came to regret it.
  • People who are circumcised and have suffered negative consequences from it.
  • People who have investigated the claims of benefit and found them lacking and/or achievable without cutting an infant’s genitals.

I think this is why the pro-circumcision camp thinks intactivists are mean: the pro-circumcision claims are so easily dismissed, and so patently stupid or immoral and based on ignorance, that it is nearly impossible to “debate” them or discuss the topic without quickly refuting every statement they make.  This is too much for the average person, who takes the anti-circumcision facts as a personal attack, and they often need to blame the intactivist in order to rationalize some way to not feel bad.  Such conversations often go like this:

Pro: I circumcised my children because it’s cleaner.

Anti: Actually, the foreskin requires no special cleaning and you cannot even retract the skin anyway.  Just wipe it off like a finger.

Pro: Well, you have less chance of getting a disease.

Anti: Or, you could wear a condom, and those studies were flawed.

Pro: Boys need to match their daddies!

Anti: They won’t match either way, because daddy’s penis is larger and surrounded by hair.  Intact sons of circumcised fathers never want to be circumcised to match daddy.  It’s actually daddy who needs the baby to be circumcised to match him.

Pro: My husband insisted we circumcise our son.

Anti: Your husband cannot be rational about it because he is himself circumcised.  It is your job as mom to protect the baby.

Pro: My religion requires it.

Anti: Christianity and Islam do not require circumcision.  Only Judaism has it in its holy book, and many Jews reject circumcision and have alternative, non-cutting ceremonies.

Pro: He’ll be made fun of in the locker room.

Anti: The rate in the U.S. is now about 50/50 or even lower, 32%, depending on which data you see, so half of boys will not be mocked, and anyway, what other cosmetic surgeries will you perform on your child to avoid him being teased?

Pro: Foreskins are so gross that he’ll never get a date/blowjob/etc.

Anti: 70-80% of the men in the world are intact, and the foreskin is the most sensitive part of the penis and very important for satisfying sex.

Pro: I’m/My husband is circumcised and sex is great!

Anti: Well, logically, there is no way to know what you are missing since you’ve never experienced it, but this is how the intact penis functions in sex

Pro: Well, I’ve never heard of any man who was angry he was circumcised!

Anti: Actually, there are a lot of them.  You can hear their stories here, here, here and here.  Also, men aren’t going to run around telling their acquaintances, “I have a hard time reaching orgasm because my penis goes numb during sex.  Oh, and how ’bout those Mets?”

Pro: Why do you care so much about my son’s penis?

Anti: I care about your son’s rights to his whole body.  Why do you care so much to cut your son’s penis?

Pro: My son is perfectly healthy and happy!  He’s fine!

Anti: Most of the negative results of circumcision are not apparent until middle or late adulthood when the inherent desensitization of circumcision causes sex problems that many people erroneously blame on normal aging, female frigidity, etc.  You don’t know how it will turn out for your son.

Pro: It’s my choice!  It’s a free country!

Anti: You do not own his body or his penis or his sexuality.  You have no authority to mutilate him.

That’s it.  That’s why you rarely see a “balanced” site about circumcision – there is no balanced view of it.  People are for circumcision because they have unquestioningly accepted cultural myths, or are making money from circumcision, or don’t want to disturb their colleagues’ making money from it, or are perverts who fetishize circumcision.  Other people are against circumcision because they are fully informed on the ethical, moral, physical, psychological and sexual reasons why infant circumcision is wrong.  See which group you fit in, and then check your motives.  If your reasons fit into the Pro-Circumcision group, face reality with honesty and maturity.  Are you rationalizing and defending a decision you made in ignorance so that you don’t have to feel bad about yourself, your spouse, or what you did to your child?  Then it’s not that circumcision is good – it’s that you don’t want to feel bad.  Those who are against circumcision are not trying to offend or hurt your feelings, but the facts don’t lie.  There is no reason good enough to cut off part of an infant’s healthy penis.

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15 Responses to Debate, motives and rationalization

  1. Yeoman Roman says:

    Superb writing and analysis. Thank you for making this clear.

  2. Joseph4GI says:

    “No one wants advice – only corroboration.”
    ~John Steinbeck

    The people who demand “scientific evidence” of the merits and/or demerits of circumcision, and the people who dedicate themselves to produce said “evidence” all depend upon a dubious premise; that producing the right amount of “research” or “benefits” justifies circumcising a healthy, non-consenting child.

    But upon closer inspection, this is purely a self-serving, ad hoc paradigm that cannot apply to anything else.

    Would it ever be possible to have a “fair and balanced” debate regarding female circumcision?

    The person asking for an “unbiased” source on male infant circumcision. Would s/he be willing to look at the “studies” and “medical benefits” of female circumcision? What if the same “benefits” of male circumcision were “proven” to exist in female circumcision? Would this person then consider circumcising his/her daughter?

    What if female circumcision could be performed by a trained professional? In the pristine conditions of a hospital? Using sterile utensils? And the most effective pain killers? What if female circumcision could be performed in such a way that it affords “benefits” all meanwhile having no negative effect on sexuality?

    Would your interlocutor be willing to look at “both sides” of the debate?

    Would there ever be enough “studies” or “benefits” to legitimize genital cutting in girls?

    The answer is no.

    Because there are some things to which there can only be one side.

    There is a reason why people seek out “research” and “medical benefits” for circumcision; other arguments have fallen apart.

    The traditional justifications for male infant circumcision are that “it’s my religion,” “it’s my culture,” and “I’m the parent, and I decide.”

    But upon trying to analyze other practices with this same yardstick, it becomes evident that these rationale simply don’t stand up. Female circumcision is also a religious practice. It is a cultural practice, and parents in countries where it is performed feel entitled to this “choice.”

    These arguments fail. They fail for female circumcision, foot-binding, breast ironing, and other traditional body modifications forced on children.

    They fail, and that is why when presented with female circumcision, the alibis of “religious freedom” and “parental choice” are abandoned, and all of a sudden, it’s about the so-called “medical benefits.”

    People fall into the delusion that what they were planning to do with their children all along can be justified if only they can produce enough “studies” and “evidence” of “medical benefits.”

    If only they can “prove” that circumcision has some sort of purpose, then it is justified doing it to healthy, non-consenting individuals.

    The converse seems to be that if they cannot produce said “evidence,” that they will change their minds. They would abandon tradition and alter religious beliefs.

    But therein lies the rub; culture, tradition and religious beliefs will alter their perception and they will filter out all evidence that runs counter to cherished beliefs.

    Normally we allow facts to be the test of our principles. When we see what the facts are, we can retain or modify our principles. To start out with principles from the first (a priori) and to use them as the basis for accepting or rejecting facts is to do it the wrong way round. It is to commit the fallacy of apriorism.

    Advocates of circumcision will never find evidence that runs counter to their beliefs because they will ignore or reject it, accepting only the information that agrees with them, which becomes the ex-posto-facto “proof” that they use to justify themselves.

    At the same time, the same reasoning they use with male circumcision, that the right amount of “benefits” justifies it, is abandoned, even thought ridiculous or “unethical” if female circumcision is brought up as a litmus test.

    We get a catch twenty-two where, “studies” and “benefits” legitimizes male circumcision, but “studying” and looking for “benefits” in female circumcision is “unethical.” With male circumcision, the practice is innocent until proven guilty. With female circumcision, it is guilty, and trying to prove it innocent is criminal. Sexism and self-serving double-standards.

    Take the same exact logic and rationale that is used for male infant circumcision. Does it work with any other surgical alterations and/or traditional rituals? For other surgeries, can parents just “decide” to have them on a whim? Or must a doctor produce medical or clinical indications before even presenting parents with a “decision?” Would there ever be enough “research” or “benefits” that would justify female circumcision?

    The Bottom Line
    The foreskin is not a birth defect. Neither is it a congenital deformity or genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. Neither is it a medical condition like a ruptured appendix or diseased gall bladder. Neither is it a dead part of the body, like the umbilical cord, hair, or fingernails.

    The foreskin is not “extra skin.” The foreskin is normal, natural, healthy, functioning tissue, with which all boys are born; it is as intrinsic to male genitalia as labia are to female genitalia.

    Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of a healthy, non-consenting individual is a deliberate wound; it is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue, the permanent disfigurement of normal, healthy organs, and by very definition, infant genital mutilation, and a violation of the most basic of human rights.

    Without medical or clinical indication, doctors have no business performing non-medical surgery on healthy, non-consenting individuals, let alone be giving parents any kind of a “choice.”

    Genital mutilation, whether it be wrapped in culture, religion or “research” is still genital mutilation.

    It is mistaken, the belief that the right amount of “science” can be used to legitimize the deliberate violation of basic human rights.

    It is a shame that American doctors egg American parents on by stoking in them a sense of entitlement, that despite the fact that no medical organization in the world endorses infant circumcision, they push on them the false, non-existent dilemma of “the big decision.”

    Performing non-medical procedures on healthy, non-consenting individuals is medical fraud. It is professional abuse to be pawning off professional responsibilities on parents, not to mention abuse of healthy, non-consenting children and a violation of their most basic human rights, and sooner or later, they’re going to be held responsible.

  3. Devin says:

    Love the article.

  4. roger desmoulins says:

    Parents circumcise their newborn sons because they are not comfortable seeing a natural penis every time they change his diaper or give him a bath. They project their discomfort into the minds of his boy peers, and assume that cut boys ridicule intact boys in the locker room. They project their discomfort into the minds of the women of his generation, and assume that women will not date an intact man. They conclude that having foreskin in America is an Epic Fail.

    American sex ed, especially the informal sex ed of mother to daughter, and of women in high school and college, does not highlight the importance of foreskin for pleasure and functionality. So there is no perceived pleasure factor offsetting the disgust factor.

    Circumcision stopped in the other English speaking countries because more and more doctors refused to do it. Most American doctors act like they are under some sort of gag order.

    One day a very funny Jewish woman will tackle circumcision among the gentiles, saying “if God did not order to you to do it, why do it? It’s easy to keep clean, and fun to play with. And you still have to wear a condom in any risky situation, regardless of what his johnson looks like. When God designed the male body, he knew what he was doing. Us women on the other hand….”

    • Greg Hartley says:

      I agree that sex-ed is a major problem, but I have one minor success story. I contacted the Health Education coordinator at North Allegheny School District re: their curricculum on male genital anatomy. I was able to persuade them to make some modest improvements: use “intact” vs. “uncircumcised” and include the worldwide percentage of intact males. Unfortunately, when I e-mailed fifty (yes, 50) other school districts across Pennsylvania, I did not receive one reply. I called a few to follow up; they asked if I had a child in their school…not interested in hearing from “outsiders.”

  5. Maria says:

    Once again, great post! I was going to pick your brain via email, but we’re en route across the country, so I’ll post it here.
    1. My brother (circ’d w/ daughters) argued that ‘personal autonomy’ was an ethnocentric, western world argument used to impose ‘white man’s burden’ on the world. I argued we use that to promote circumcision elsewhere- examples in Philippines & Africa, and cultural relativism isn’t excuse to justify harmful behavior on innocent & vulnerable people.
    2. I wonder how many of the myths about female sexual deficiency is actually due to circumcision. We know women experience better sex w/ intact men & natural sex is noticeably different/more enjoyable/more natural. How many ‘myths’ about female sexual difficulties are actually related to circumcision & could we blame all the problems women experience on circumcision? I think we can.

    • Lilli Cannon says:

      Hi Maria!

      1. Cultural relativism is a moral dead-end. Certainly there exist major differences in the way that human beings “see” the world and their place in it. Cultural psychology deals with this. Having said that, there are demonstrably better and worse ways to maximize human well-being, and as human beings, we have a duty to help each other. Sam Harris elucidates this in his book “The Moral Landscape.”

      2. I would agree that much of female sexual deficiency is due to having sex with circumcised partners. Certainly not enjoying being pounded away at for hours, drying out, etc., are usually not the woman’s fault but are artifacts of circumcision.

      P.S. I am halfway through the Darby book and I got the Hyam book but have not started it yet, but I think we are going to need some serious original research on that other idea you had.

      • roger desmoulins says:

        Darby is awesome, period.
        Am surprised you know about Hyam. I like what he writes about the origins of RIC in the Victorian UK, but regret that he limits himself to about 15pp.

        • Lilli Cannon says:

          Darby was great, but supremely depressing to read. The amount of psychological and physical misery they inflicted upon themselves because of distorted ideas about sex… it gets to be too much.

    • roger desmoulins says:

      We very badly need to interview a random sample of 10,000 adult women in Canada as well as the USA, about their lifelong experience of sex and foreplay, and how it might correlate with the circ status of their partners. I find very telling the growing number of women who are willing to reveal on FaceBook that they prefer intercourse with an intact partner. I have seen that opinion ever since I first logged onto the internet in 1997.

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  7. Maxi neh says:

    Great post, but just one thing:

    I’m not sure where exactly and/or if it’s in the Quran, but pretty much all muslims practice circumcision for religious reasons. Only their techniques are generally the worst since they involve the boy being much older, between 5 an 12.

    • Mel says:

      Wrong. Trauma research has long since proven that the earlier in life, the more vulnerable we are to any kind of traumatic disturbance. The earlier in our development a traumatic impact takes place, the more far-reaching and immense the trauma will be.

      A boy circumcised against his will at 10 or 13 will most likely feel strong resentment for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life. But the guy mutilated at birth may become a serial killer partially as a result of the far more fundamental trauma.

      So, please stop perpetuating that particular myth. The truth in general terms about trauma is: The earlier in life, the worse. Anything else is just counterfactual cultural lullaby.

      No. The ones who are doing it the very worst possible way are secular Americans. Like traditionally circumcising Jews, they’re doing it to newborns. Unlike traditional Jews, Americans are not even offering their guys that half-assedly made up religious rationalization. Instead, American families create this taboo around circumcision, which serves as the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of further psychic damage since the victim’s role as a victim isn’t even acknowledged.

      How can one hope to cope with massive infant trauma when he is denied so much as simple acknowledgement of the wound he received? When even fellow intactivists are still dismissing part of reality and trying to defend a fundamentally indefensible aspect of specifically American atrocity? Namely, that Americans do it to newborns and don’t even offer any kind of cultural backdrop as acknowledgement and consolation.

      Also, Muslims do not circumcise religiously at all. It isn’t demanded in the Q’ran. Most Arabs do it culturally.

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