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The ethics of infant male circumcision

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i A formal response by the AAP has been published alongside the critique by Svoboda and Van Howe.2

  • ii The Cologne court ruling is discussed in detail by Reinhard Merkel and Holme Putzke,6 as well as by Joseph Mazor7 and Matthew Johnson.8

  • iii See related arguments by Van Howe.11

  • iv Or at least: non-ecclesiocratic.

  • v See Svoboda.14

  • vi For an in-depth discussion of the child's right to an open future, see Darby.15

  • vii See also Earp and Darby.16

  • viii These laws do not literally have asterisks. In the typical case, there is one statute banning assault, or sexual assault, or invasive rites, or child abuse, and then a second law saying that no criminal violation shall result from ritual (male) circumcision—even though it formally fits the definition of assault/abuse in the first law. For examples, see Geisheker.17

  • ix Following the 1986 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  • x See Davis.18 In contrast with the outright prohibition of female genital cutting in Western democracies, male genital cutting is not only legally permitted, but is not even regulated. In other words, in most parts of the world, including in developed nations, any person, for any reason, using any implement, in any environment, with any degree of pain control (or none), any amount of training (or none), any assurance of a sanitary environment (or none), and any level of medical knowledge (or none), can attempt to perform genital surgery on a newborn boy if it is claimed that the procedure is a circumcision. It is only when such lay attempts lead to emergency hospitalisation of the infant because his life is in danger that public concern becomes aroused. See Geisheker17 for further discussion.

  • xi Metzitzah b'peh is a form of circumcision practiced by some Orthodox Jews in which the ritual circumciser takes the baby's penis into his mouth to suck away the blood after the wound has been inflicted, sometimes transmitting the herpes virus. See the discussions by Ben Yami10 and Davis.18

  • xii Mazor concedes, however, that circumcision probably should not be performed in the ‘secular’ case when considering the child's best interests—one of which is an interest in self-determination. He simply leaves the ultimate decision up to the parents.

  • xiii Of course, religious fundamentalists within Islam and Judaism will not find these sorts of arguments compelling, but they do not have—and are not entitled to—a monopoly on matters of theology, faith or ritual practice.

  • xiv In Judaism, female babies are unapologetically excluded from participation in the sealing of the divine covenant; hence, the practice is inherently sexist. Islam is more ‘egalitarian’ in permitting circumcision of girls as well as boys.

  • xv Brit shalom means ‘covenant of peace.’ Contrast with brit milah, the name for the traditional Jewish genital cutting ceremony, which means (loosely) ‘covenant of circumcision’ (milah means ‘to cut’). More information on this alternative, peaceful brit can be found by visiting the website at ref. 25

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