A More Sober View of the New Report on Circumcision

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By now you’ve heard that the American Academy of Pediatrics has published their recent findings on circumcision. Until now, the medical benefits of circumcision were questioned and science did not have an “opinion” on the matter. Now, the AAP has found that there are some benefits to circumcision.

Of course, this is being touted as a major victory for Jews and Muslims who circumcise their children and a spear in the eye of the Intactivists here in American and abroad on Europe. I have seen articles on Commentary and Cross-Currents to that effect.

I think there are three slightly sobering points that are important to make in light of this discovery and the cheers from circumcision advocates drunk with joy over this report.

First, we don’t circumcise because of the medical benefits of circumcision. I daresay that even if circumcision were deemed medically harmful we would still circumcise. More importantly, there is no tenet of our belief that requires circumcision be medically beneficial. We believe it is spiritually beneficial. No science can prove or disprove that.

Second, the study simply does not state that they are many benefits to circumcision or that the benefits affect many people. In fact, the benefit described is that circumcised men are less likely to contract AIDS in third world countries. Orthodox Judaism already has a great way of preventing AIDS, it’s called fidelity. That is aside from the fact that we are living in modern countries and not third world countries. This “benefit” hardly benefits the religious community. I mean, are we seriously going to start teaching our kids that Bris Milah is a great way of preventing AIDS? Further, the medical data is subject to change. We can’t rely on science to save circumcision.

UPDATE: When is this medical benefit realized? When one becomes sexually active and the partner has HIV. Is this really something we are concerned with? Further, the objection of the Intactivist is not that circumcision should be banned. It is that children should not be circumcised when they are babies. If one wishes to have the procedure done to minimally guard against AIDS then have the procedure done before becoming sexually active. There is no compelling reason to do it when the child is a baby. The medical benefit does not bolster the argument that we should circumcise at birth. Not at all.

Finally, the argument against circumcision that is being made by Intactivists is unaffected by this study. The reason they oppose circumcision is not because it is inherently harmful, rather it is because the choice is not being made by the person affected by the decision. Would we condone a parent tattooing their child? Obviously not. This is despite the fact that tattoos are not harmful to the child. Intactivists oppose circumcision for the same reason. A child should have the right to decide if they want to be circumcised. It is not the parents’ decision to make. The point is that it makes no difference whether there is a medical benefit, as specious or as generous as the benefit might be, the objection to circumcision is that the parent is making a decision for the child that the child should make on their own.

Creating strawman Intactivists and knocking them down may be great fun and make us feel good about ourselves. But in the end, we need to understand the challenge of the Intactivists and make good, solid arguments in defense of circumcision.

I have argued that the aforementioned objection does not apply to orthodox Jews or Muslims in a previous post. I maintain that this is the best argument against Intactivists and relying on new scientific data is not our best argument. Read that post here: Circumcision Follow Up (or why circumcision is not barbaric for Orthodox Jews). Read it again. It’s still as relevant as it was then.

Links: NY Times, Commentary, Cross-Currents

  • MarkSoFla

    The reason they oppose circumcision is not because it is inherently harmful, rather it is because the choice is not being made by the person affected by the decision.

    Perhaps. But if that is really the case, I would assume that they also oppose vaccinations – the vaccines that are injected INTO the baby’s body also remain there for life, and they stimulate the body to create antibodies that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And similarly the child has no choice in the matter.

    And, frankly, the whole child’s choice issue is somewhat ridiculous because the parents mold the child’s psyche (with the child having no choice at all) in many more important and permanent ways that change the child, certainly much more than the mere cutting off of a tiny foreskin might do.

    • Avi Shevin

      Vaccinations are a poor argument. Vaccinations have immediate health benefits to the child. That’s why they are given at such a young age, after all. Circumcision’s benefit comes later in life, if at all. Also, vaccinations, assuming no adverse reactions, have no downsides. Circumcision retards sexual satisfaction. And despite what many Jews think, sexual satisfaction is important!

      • DG

        Although the NYT article that Rabbi Fink read may have focused on AIDS, other reports say that the American Academy of Pediatrics article (I don’t have access to the article itself) says circumcision also reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections in infants (as well as HPV in both men and their female partners later on).

        In any case, Mark is absolutely right. The only way anyone could say parents have no right to make this decision for their child (as opposed to all the other life-changing decisions they make on their behalf) is if they’re already convinced that circumcision is bad.

      • MarkSoFla

        I agree that vaccinations isn’t a terrific argument (hence the rest of my comment). But I still need to point out that vaccinations for diseases that have been eradicated have no immediate (or even long-term most likely) health benefit to the child. They only have an overall health benefit for the society at large (to ensure continued eradication if perhaps in another far corner of the world it hasn’t been totally eradicated yet). The argument for giving these types of vaccines could be construed as similar to the argument for universal circumcision.

  • Elliot Pasik

    “First, we don’t circumcise because of the medical benefits of circumcision…”

    And we can seek out reasons, as per the Rambam, and others. And doesn’t it help to sound rational, when trying to persuade others?

    • Anonymous1again

      We don’t have to “persuade others”. We just have to follow the Torah and mitzvos and block any attempts to stop us.

  • Gene Bodzin

    I admire your sobriety.

  • MarkSoFla

    When is this medical benefit realized? … The medical benefit does not bolster the argument that we should circumcise at birth. Not at all.

    The medical benefit is realized all the time. That’s because it isn’t as much an individual medical benefit as it is a societal medical benefit. The medical benefit can be described, for example, as such – “A society whose males are predominantly circumcised will, on average, suffer fewer incidences of AIDS.”

    And the reasons why a society would opt to perform the circumcisions at birth is, one, because older males will rarely opt to have it done, two, it is less painful and easier to perform at that time, and three, the infant is already in the hospital, perhaps for the only time in his life before age 45, so it is an opportune time to perform the procedure in a [more] safe environment.

  • L120

    Did you read about the movement in Germany against ear piercing of babies and toddlers for the same reason?

    • Do you really think that is the same thing?

      • L120

        I think maybe I can understand the objection to causing bodily change (which is not medically necessary) in a child who can not understand.