There are few topics which stoke the fires for internet trolls more than male circumcision. Everyone outside remote villages in Somalia seems opposed to the circumcision of girls, but there is a deeply emotional divide over the procedure performed on boys. “Sadistic paedophiles” and “hypocritical religious propagandists” are some of the milder epithets hurled at supporters of circumcision.

Reasoned opposition comes from several directions. Scientific: it has no substantial health benefits. Ethical: the child cannot consent to the mild mutilation. Feminist: what’s banned for girls should be banned for boys. Anti-paternalism: parents have no right to make binding life-affecting decisions for non-consenting children.

The unreasoned opposition is motivated by sexual fundamentalism: it is absolutely wrong to restrict to any degree a man’s capacity for full sexual pleasure. Removing the foreskin is said to do this, although whether this is true is disputed. Arguments from this point of view are often expressed with a rage that outdoes the most blood-thirsty religious fanatic.

All of these were on display earlier this year in, of all places, Iceland.

A ban was proposed in February by Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive Party in the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. She described her bill as an attempt “to protect the interest of the child”. Circumcision of females had already been banned, she reasoned, why not of males? “Every individual, it doesn’t matter what sex or how old… should be able to give informed consent for a procedure that is unnecessary, irreversible and can be harmful,” she declared. “His body, his choice.”

Alarm bells rang for Iceland’s minuscule Jewish and Muslim communities. After all, if circumcision were only a health matter, it would be possible to reach an agreement. But for many Muslims, and especially for Jews, circumcision is an integral part of their ethnic, religious and personal identity.

The penalty for performing or organising a circumcision would have been a sentence of up to six years in prison.

Incredibly, Ms Gunnarsdóttir failed to consult Jews or Muslims and did not anticipate the uproar that ensued. “I didn’t think it was necessary to consult,” she told The Independent. “I don’t see it as a religious matter. Jews are welcome in Iceland. But this is about child protection and children’s rights. That comes first, and before the religious rights of the adult.”

Icelanders were divided. Polling showed that 50 percent favoured the bill and 37 percent opposed it, with the remainder undecided. Local religious leaders campaigned against it.

Some inconsistencies emerged. Intersex children are routinely operated upon, but without their consent. The bill cited the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but Iceland has sometimes deported children born in Iceland without respecting their rights.

So, after a three-month national debate and lobbying from all over the world, a parliamentary committee shelved the ban.

Ultimately, the bill appears to have sunk because lobbyists successfully stoked fears of religious discrimination. “The impact of this would be felt far beyond Iceland’s borders,” said a letter from the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. “This move would make Iceland the first and only European nation to outlaw circumcision. While Jewish and Muslim populations in Iceland may be small, your country’s ban would be exploited by those who stoke xenophobia and antisemitism in countries with more diverse populations.” 

But there are even larger issues which arise from Iceland’s debate. And as sexual fundamentalism becomes more and more a part of the cultural landscape, the trolls will highlight the issue as often as they can, wherever they can. 

Two bioethicists writing in the Oxford University blog Practical Ethics, Lauren Notini and Brian D. Earp, examined the issues more coolly and rationally than most of the politicians. Like many other commentators on this issue, they concluded that religious reasons for male circumcision are probably not justifiable: “Parental religious rights are not unlimited”. They argue that:  

Non-therapeutic genital cutting deprives the child, and the adult they will become, of the opportunity to remain genitally unmodified (or intact). Plausibly, the person whose ‘private parts’ will be permanently affected by the cutting should get a chance to weigh in on whether that is what they desire, in light of their longer-term preferences and values …

However, the less clear it is that a bodily encroachment is in fact in the child’s best interests—considering the child’s strong interest in being able to autonomously make important self-affecting decisions in the future—“the more likely it is that the child’s bodily integrity rights are being impermissibly violated.”

This is a good summary of the most persuasive arguments against circumcision.

But surely the community into which a child is born has its rights, too? Treating the child as a potentially fully-autonomous agent is already a concession to the atomised individualism which characterises Western nations. This is simply unrealistic. An infant is part of a community which is held together by time-tested traditions – in the case of the Jews, traditions stretching back 4000 years.

Traditions are not sacrosanct. If the hurt were grievous, obviously the tradition would have to be modified. But circumcision is a mild injury – as proven by its success in binding Jews together as a community.

None of us can step outside of our tradition – not easily, at any rate, and not until we have already been deeply immersed in it. The name we bear, the language we learn to speak in, the food we are fed with, the family structure which supports us — all these determine a boy’s identity as much as circumcision, perhaps even more definitively. None of these are chosen by the infant. But no one is campaigning for children to be given a provisional name like, say, Epsilon 3796 until they reach 18 and make an autonomous choice. 

If circumcision for religious reasons can be banned, what is there to prevent governments from banning the religion as well? China is already doing this in a muddled way. Children are forbidden to enter churches or mosques in some regions. Perhaps the Chinese authorities believe that religion is harming children. Perhaps they will ban baptism next.

The debate over circumcision is broader than anti-Semitism or children’s rights. It revolves around whether parents have a right to induct their child into their own community or only into a community approved by the government of the day.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet