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Infant male circumcision and the autonomy of the child: two ethical questions
  1. Akim McMath
  1. Correspondence to Akim McMath, Independent Researcher, 904 Columbus Pl, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V9C 3T7; akim.mcmath{at}


Routine neonatal circumcision—the non-therapeutic circumcision of infant males—has generated considerable ethical controversy. In this article, I suggest that much of the disagreement results from conflicting ideas about the autonomy of the child. I examine two questions about autonomy. First, I ask whether we should be realists or idealists about the future autonomous choices of the child—that is, whether we should account for the fact that the child may not make the best choices in future, or whether we should assume that his future choices will reflect his best interests. Second, I ask whether the child has a right to autonomy with respect to circumcision, an interest in autonomy or neither—that is, whether respect for autonomy overrides considerations of interests, whether it counts as one interest among many or whether it counts for nothing. In response to the first question, I argue that we should be idealists when evaluating the child's own interests, but realists when evaluating public health justifications for circumcision. In response to the second question, I argue that the child has an interest in deciding whether or not to be circumcised, insofar as the decision is more likely to reflect his actual interests and his own values. Finally, I show how these findings may help to resolve some particular disputes over the ethics of infant male circumcision.

  • Circumcision
  • Autonomy
  • Children
  • Public Health Ethics
  • Ethics

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