If accidents or disease reduce the bodily functions of a child, we do whatever we can to remedy the damage. Why then inflict such a loss on healthy children ourselves?
June 27 was a sad day for Danish boys. On this day the minister of health, Astrid Krag, rejected legislation against boy circumcision on the basis of a newly delivered report from the Health Council. But the report and Krag’s arguments only relate to a very narrow health perspective, they do not deal with the equally important human rights aspects.
I am a member of an association – Intact Denmark, Association Against Child Circumcision – which has as it’s goal to restrict circumcision to persons who themselves express the wish to have it done and who have reached the age of consent. The arguments for this view among the members of the association vary but my own is quite simple: It should not be allowed to remove healthy functional tissue, no matter what, from a child without medical reasons. The human body has evolved through millions of years. It is reasonable to be confident that this evolution has formed organs of the body that fulfil beneficial functions. If accidents or disease reduces the bodily functions of a child we do whatever we can to remedy the damage. Why then inflict such a loss on healthy children ourselves? Actually, I do not understand how any mother or father is able to overcome this barrier of reasoning at the cost of their own child.
The irreplaceable function of the foreskin
It appears from the very anatomy of the foreskin that it fulfills a unique function. The amount and the kind of sensory nerves that run through the inner side of the foreskin are particular to this organ and are not found in ordinary surface skin. Some circumcised men attempt to create new foreskin by different techniques that stretch the small amount of skin that has been left. But the skin which is formed – skin is increased when it is stretched – does not possess the specific sensory nerves of the original foreskin, which means that however much they try, these men will never regain the sensitivity they potentially had.
Since the foreskin has this unique function, it is inappropriate to compare circumcision to correction of jug ears or the cutting of hair or nails, as it is often done. Unlike circumcision such bodily modifications do not diminish the functionality of bodily organs. If one wants to compare, the closest comparison is in fact to the docking of dog’s tails, which already is illegal, according to the Danish veterinary law.
Inevitably reduced sensitivity
Proponents of boy circumcision do not think that the unique function of the foreskin is necessary. But we have to ask: Necessary for what? Seen from the narrow perspective of reproduction they are right. Humans propagate sufficiently even without a foreskin.
But today we get older than in antiquity, when these rituals developed, and we have access to contraception, so the consideration of reproduction alone is far too narrow a perspective. Sexuality is a source of pleasurable human activity, of which adults in modern societies have rightful expectations.
Many circumcised men have suffered gradually reduced penile sensitivity with age, and some complain that for this reason they feel difficulties having an orgasm. In the report from the Health Council it is mentioned that this reduced sensitivity has not been examined sufficiently to make solid conclusions about it. But for many of us men in Intact Denmark who have been circumcised as babies, the personal experience of reduced sensitivity is real and the reason we endorse a prohibition of boy circumcision.
Other circumcised men may not have experienced these problems. Research which compares the sensitivity of circumcised and uncircumcised men in different age groups is therefore desirable. My argument, however, is that even the unique anatomy of the foreskin is sufficient documentation. The removal of the foreskin and its function-specific sensory nerves reduces penile sensitivity, regardless of whether circumcised men are able to have orgasm or not.
Whose freedom of religion?
As is well-known, it is predominantly the Danish Jews and Muslims who have their boys circumcised. Health arguments are irrelevant to the actual practice which is religiously or culturally motivated. The most frequent argument in favour of circumcision is therefore that a prohibition will infringe on the freedom of religion. But we have to ask: Whose freedom of religion? That of the parents, or that of the child? According to UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), article 14, children have freedom of religion too. Even though their parents naturally have the right to bring them up in their own religion, they must do so in a way that respects the freedom of religion of the child. This means that the child potentially may make his own choices, independently of the religion of his parents. It is in this connection that circumcision – unlike many other identity-forming rituals – is problematic, because in this case the ritual inflicts a bodily mark which cannot be removed later. As long as a child is a child and cannot give his own consent such bodily marks should not be allowed.
Discrimination of boys
Another rule in UNCRC, article 24.3, demands that “States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children”. I guess most of us agree that “health” cannot be understood merely to be equal to lack of disease but also involves full bodily functions. Accordingly, this rule also applies to boy circumcision, just like it does to girl circumcision, which was made illegal precisely with reference to this article in the UNCRC. This prohibition even includes the minor circumcision of girls, the so-called sunna-circumcision, which, when performed under the same medical restrictions as those that are required for boy circumcision, is a medically less severe procedure than the latter. In this regard, it is a direct circumvention of the UNCRC article 24.3, which unmistakably addresses “children”, and not only girls, to implement it exclusively in relation to girl circumcision only. It is also a breach of UNCRC’s article 2, which specifies that the rights of the Convention are valid for each and every child irrespective of sex, race, ethnicity, religion etc.
Denmark as pioneer country
Lastly we have the social and political aspect of boy circumcision. It is claimed that boy circumcision is such an important ritual for Danish Jews and Muslims that a legal prohibition amounts to an exclusion of these groups from the Danish society. But what kind of society do we want? Is it not a society based on the idea that the individual has the right to be protected against physical attacks that any of us could in principle be exposed to? So to what extent should we allow single groups of people to act towards their children in ways one would not accept to be subjected to as a child oneself?
Of course parents do many things to their children that the majority does not approve of, without leading to legal prohibitions, as in case of school choice, activity coercion or similar. But circumcision is different because its effects are irreversible. Not only does it inflict physical injury to the body, but it does so in ways that cannot be remedied.
Is a child an individual? He is, according to the UNCRC, even though he depends on his parents and must be protected. The argument that a prohibition against boy circumcision is socially and politically unrealisable is a backward-looking argument, because it places the religious group over the individual, at odds with the very mindset our modern society is built on. This is a mindset, the implementation of which step by step has given citizens the right to make their own choices, regardless of the traditional expectations of the family or the religion in which they are born. Should we not expect this development to continue? In that case we may also expect that a legal prohibition against circumcision – of boys as well as of girls – will become a reality sooner or later. Denmark may as well move in front and only allow circumcision for persons who have expressed the wish themselves and are old enough to consent.
(Mikael Aktor is Associate Professor in History of Religions at the Institute of History, University of Southern Denmark, and a member of Intact Denmark – Association Against Child Circumcision)
- Help change the way we think about male circumcision in the UK (mensconferenceuk.wordpress.com)
- Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe (secretsofthefed.com)