Imagine, for a moment, that the members of a historical cult took it upon themselves to chop off the right hand of all their male babies, for some far-fetched symbolistic reason. Despite centuries of scientific, moral, and civilisational progress the cult, now a major world religion, continues this practice. Critics of this age-old tradition cannot openly say it is barbaric without being shouted down for being ‘offensive’ and impinging upon ‘religious freedom’.
Upon being transported to a parallel world where this practice is widespread we would rightly be repulsed and we would recognise that neither religious freedom nor cultural tradition are legitimate defences of such brutality. Yet in the real world people remain blinded by centuries of tradition that taking a scalpel to a baby’s foreskin seems unremarkable. Non-therapeutic circumcision is perfectly legal in Britain. There is not even any requirement for properly-equipped skilled medical professionals to undertake the task.
Of course, amputating a hand is not the same as a circumcision. The foreskin, though, is more significant than many realise. Its functions are numerous, diverse and important, and its non-consensual removal is an assault on bodily integrity whose seriousness should not be understated. No medical body anywhere in the world endorses routine circumcision as a legitimate health intervention. Non-therapeutic circumcision for religious reasons – principally in the cases of Judaism and Islam – is, in a medical context, entirely unjustifiable.
This is not to say that religious freedom is unimportant. Pluralism is a value which deserves vigorous defence. However, rights and responsibilities overlap, and there is a degree of give-and-take involved. Raising a child into its parents’ religion is acceptable but slicing off a part of that child’s body crosses the line and seriously infringes on the child’s right to bodily integrity.
Circumcision itself is not the problem. If an independent adult wishes to exercise their religious autonomy and consent to the procedure, they are free to do so. The issue arises when it is performed, often irreversibly, upon babies and very young children. They cannot consent and are at risk of suffering adverse health effects in later life – both physical and psychological – as a result.
We rightly abhor female genital mutilation, but we tend to dismiss its male equivalent. Extreme versions of FGM are markedly worse than circumcision, but there are versions of FGM less serious than circumcision too. Condemning one while condoning the other is inconsistent; calling both out as direct assaults on children’s rights is, surely, the only moral course. We should unflinchingly call infant male circumcision what it is: male genital mutilation. Perhaps then we will wake up to the urgency of the issue. The circumcision of children should be banned outright, in order to save countless people from entirely needless harm.