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Defending the indefensible May 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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When asked why they think they have the right to circumcise their infant sons, religious moderates will invariably mention various health benefits of circumcision, like increased protection against HIV. I find this defense to be both unsatisfactory and disingenuous. First of all, the fact that a procedure provides some health benefit, e.g. reduces the chances of HIV transmission by 50%, is not sufficient to justify forcing that procedure on a child. There are many other factors which must be taken into account: how painful is the procedure and how dangerous, is it reversible, does it have negative side effects, to what extent is the child at risk without the procedure, are there less invasive alternative means of protection, can the procedure be safely deferred until the child is old enough to provide informed consent, etc. Circumcision is both painful and not without risks, has negative side effects, and is practically irreversible. For most of us, the chances of contracting HIV sexually can be virtually nullified by practicing safe sex (and I would think that STDs are hardly a pressing concern for newborns). Therefore, the ethical course of action is to wait until the child is old enough to make an informed decision for himself. If the health benefits of infant circumcision generally outweighed its disadvantages, we would expect medical organizations like the AMA and the AAP to recommend routine circumcision for all male infants. They don’t.

To see why I accuse religious moderates who use this defense of being disingenuous, you must ask them this: If it turned out that circumcision provides no health benefits at all, would you stop performing it? If they admit they would not, then they must concede that they are not promoting circumcision for health reasons, and it is dishonest of them to suggest otherwise. The plain truth is that this painful and invasive procedure is forced upon infants because of their parents’ religious beliefs (for example, see what Maimonides had to say about circumcision). I think this is indefensible.

Maimonides

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