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Evaluations of circumcision should be circumscribed by the evidence
  1. David Benatar
  1. Correspondence to Professor David Benatar, Dept of Philosophy, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa; Philosophy{at}

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One common mistake in discussions about the ethics of infant male circumcisioni is to attempt to answer the question of the practice's permissibility by appealing to general principles and bypassing the empirical evidence about purported benefits and harms of the practice.

Joseph Mazor1 avoids the mistake of appealing only to general principles. He correctly argues that it is not sufficient to invoke a child's right to bodily integrity or to self-determinationii. Moreover, he does not appeal to parents’ rights to religious or cultural freedom in order to make his case for the permissibility of parents having their sons circumcised for religious or cultural reasons.

However, in invoking empirical considerations, he is insufficiently careful. For example, he includes, on the negative side of the circumcision ledger, a reduction in sexual pleasure, yet it is not clear that even his own reasoning warrants this. The problem is that he seems to want both, to acknowledge the absence of clear evidence for this claim, and to accept it as one of the costs of circumcision.

He says that Michael Benatar and I2 ‘carefully reviewed the medical evidence’1 about circumcision. In the paper that he cites, we noted that competing claims were made about the effect of circumcision on sexual pleasureiii and we established that no conclusion could be drawn from the limited and conflicting evidence available on this question. Dr Mazor notes that critics could point (selectively) to those studies that lend support to the conclusion that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure, but he concedes that this would be controversial,1 …

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