Jackson Doughart
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Infants can't choose
Why Canada should ban male circumcision

The National Post, 24 January 2011

Last November, CBS News in San Francisco reported about a proposed measure banning male circumcision which may be included on a municipal ballot measure next November. The proposed ban, which would make it a misdemeanour to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the genitals of a person under 18, has catalysed a debate about the legality of male circumcision among medical professionals, religious leaders and those opposed to ritual and medically-unnecessary circumcisions, also known as intactivists.

Regardless of its controversial nature, this is an issue that should be debated in Canada, where about a third of infant boys are circumcised. Canada has no laws restricting male circumcision, despite recommendations from the Canadian Paediatric Society that the procedure not be routinely performed on infants. Ritual male circumcision, better described as genital mutilation, amounts to strapping down a child and cutting off his foreskin. The procedure leads to trauma, dulls sexual sensitivity and can cause serious complications for the child if the physician errs during the surgery. This practice is an indefensible violation of individual rights, as the person being circumcised is too young to know or understand the procedure being performed and thus cannot consent. Accordingly, the Canadian government should pass legislation to prevent parents, religious leaders and healthcare professionals from performing and authorizing ritual circumcisions on children.

Perhaps the oldest justifications for male circumcision are the religious superstitions rooted in the dogmas of Judaism and Islam. Today, religious traditions are usually viewed as inconsequential and non-threatening to the freedom of others. However, there could not possibly be a grosser violation of ones personal liberty than having parts of his genitals cut away in the name of following a religious tradition to which he has not even chosen to adhere. Indeed, religious freedom as guaranteed by Section Two (a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a self-determining right. Paradoxically, we acknowledge this in the case of female genital mutilation, which is universally condemned despite its religious justifications, but we fail to apply the same logic in the case of male genital mutilation, which continues to enjoy widespread legitimacy in Canada.

There are several other justifications that some parents give for having their sons cut. Perhaps the most common ones are appeals to aesthetic preference, derived from the Western tradition of routinely circumcising infant boys, which was standardized even among non-Jews in the 20th century as a means of discouraging masturbation. The prevalence of circumcision in some parts of Canada also manifests itself as a justification, as many parents fear that leaving their sons intact will subject them to teasing from their peers. While it is clear that the intentions of these parents are genuine, this demonstrates precisely why the practice should be legislated against. As long as the moral question of circumcision is left only in the hands of parents to answer, the decision about whether or not to circumcise children will always be impacted by the choice of other parents to go through with the procedure, regardless of their justification. The ethical standing of routine circumcision is an important social question which involves everyone, not only parents.

In recent years, research has shown that the procedure can reduce a mans chances of contracting and spreading HIV. This discovery has added a new dimension to this debate, as advocates of circumcision can cite such findings to encourage the practice of routine male circumcision. While it appears that there may indeed be value in the procedure for lowering HIV transmission, there are far better ways of achieving this goal than routinely mutilating the genitals of children. Educating adolescents about sexual health and about condom use before they become sexually active is a far better means of curbing the spread of HIV because irresponsible sexual behaviour is at fault for spreading sexually-transmitted diseases, not foreskins. Had this been better understood during the outbreak of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, we would doubtless be far less burdened by this devastating disease. Interestingly, the initial wave of widespread infections took place mostly in the United States, whose circumcision rate is the highest of any Western country.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons for an adult man to choose to undergo a circumcision. The difference is that the procedure would not be imposed upon him before he understands what is being performed. The debate about whether or not circumcision is a worthwhile operation should involve those who can actually make a decision about their own circumcision status and not with children who have no say in the matter. Outlawing routine circumcisions would protect the liberty of children, who are currently not consulted about surgery to their genitals, but who are forced to live with the results for the rest of their lives. It is time to rid our society of the shameful practice of routine male genital mutilation and to move on to a more enlightened and just state of affairs, where individuals can make decisions about optional surgeries for themselves.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com