Friday, July 13, 2012

The right to mutilate

Germany is having an interesting debate at the moment surrounding religious freedom.  One of its courts ruled that circumcision was 'bodily harm' and as such would not be legal.  Of course an adult could have the procedure if they wanted to but if this ruling holds up doctors will no longer be permitted to perform the operation on children.  I hope it sticks but politicians will be wary of supporting a law that will get religious groups up in arms and they will worry about being accused of religious persecution.  This is particularly tricky in Germany since the Jewish community mostly wants the right to circumcise their male children and Germany doesn't exactly have the best history with Jews.

I wonder how far this should go.  I certainly have no patience for people wailing about religious persecution when they intend to take a knife to their boys but there are other practices that are similar.  Should we prevent people from getting children's ears pierced until the children are a particular age?  How about female circumcision?  Personally I think that female circumcision is devastating and barbaric and that ear piercings are no big deal since they can grow back but we need to draw a legal line somewhere on the subject of surgical alterations to minors.  That line needs to take into account a wide variety of cultural norms and practices and seems like it is bound to anger a lot of people no matter where you draw it.

If I were making the law I would probably err on the side of caution and ban any elective / cosmetic surgery on children.  18 year olds aren't the best judges of things but they are old enough to be given a gun and told to kill people and old enough to vote lunatics into office so I guess they are old enough to decide who gets to use a knife on their bodies.  I think you would find a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the 18 year old male crowd when it comes to getting part of their penis lopped off but it should be their choice and not one made for them.

I don't have any tolerance for the idea of a 'Christian child' or 'Muslim child' or even an 'Atheist child'.  Placing children into religions without their consent isn't okay any more than it would be for an adult to be forced by the state to obey a particular religion.  When children grow up they can choose their religion and whether or not they want to opt in to that religion's rules on genital mutilation.  Until then they should be just straight up children and let alone to figure it out for themselves.


  1. Wouldn't that just push it underground - non-sterile instruments and quacks and all that? Not that I disagree with you about the principle of it all.

  2. Yes, but right now it already goes underground. As it stands people can perform circumcision without being a doctor and without being in a hospital and religious authorities sometimes do this. Remember too that this isn't a crime where you can 'hide the evidence'. For the rest of your child's life it will be obvious what you did and there will be no way to wiggle out of it.

    We have absolutely solid evidence that physicians reluctance or enthusiasm for circumcision has a massive effect on circumcision rates. For example, two different hospitals in the US have rates of 87% and 4% circumcision because they have different policies on encouraging it.

    There are also countries that have a circumcision rate of effectively zero. It isn't the same as drugs where people will just do it regardless of what the government does - government can very effectively and rapidly change how people approach this issue.

  3. I think this is something that people will do regardless of the law, it's just that only a small subset of people will do it. But also I think that the logic of anti-prohibition only works when it is things that willing people do to themselves. There is no sense making laws against drugs, sexual positions, gambling, or prostitution. There is a sense in making a law against theft, murder or (quite relevantly) beating your children.