Circumcision Ban Does Not Go Far Enough

With the exception of the physical punishment of children, the topic of male circumcision appears to be the most controversial parenting issue in the United States. Now that San Franciscans will be voting in November on whether to outlaw male genital cutting that is performed on minors, emotions are running high. (I can already hear the gasps following my referral to the procedure as “male genital cutting,” even though that is exactly what it is.) The loudest voices among the critics are people of faith, since many Jews and Muslims believe that they are religiously mandated to circumcise their sons.

Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Comittee, calls the proposed ban “an assault . . . on a central ritual in a recognized ancient religion.” The San Francisco proposal is seen as being so iconoclastic that Evangelical Christians have joined forces with Jews and Muslims in opposing it. Even though Mormons tend to circumcise for cultural rather than religious reasons, one Mormon blogger calls the ban “unconscionable,” partly because it does not offer a religious exemption. Two congressmen, one who is Jewish and one who is Muslim, are so alarmed by the San Francisco measure that they are co-sponsoring a House bill that would prevent a municipality from prohibiting circumcision for males under the age of eighteen.

Proponents point to male circumcision’s medical benefits; it has been shown to reduce penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. The World Health Organization recommends that men in AIDS-ravaged parts of the world be circumcised as a way to stem the disease. The circumcised penis is easier to keep clean. But studies showing such medical benefits have been debunked. Plus, hospital surveys reveal that parents generally don’t have their sons circumcised because they fear the boys will one day get a UTI, AIDS, or penile cancer. Instead, their reasons are cultural: They want their boys to look like their fathers and other males in the family or community.

What’s more, there is a big difference between a medical benefit and a medical necessity. I suppose when my daughter was born, I could have asked the hospital pediatrician to remove one of her ovaries. Surely this would have lessened her chances of getting ovarian cancer later in life, perhaps as much as 50 percent. (Had I done this, I imagine the doctor would have sat me down and explained the meaning behind the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm.” After that, he might have made a call to Child Protective Services.)

male circumcisionThe recipients of medically unnecessary genital cutting should be the ones to decide whether their genitalia are altered. The procedure is painful and cannot be reversed. All medical procedures carry risk. When it comes to male circumcision, most Americans are not aware that some of those risks can be life-threatening. Infants have died from hemorrhaging and other complications. A Brooklyn toddler recently died after receiving anesthesia during a circumcision.

The foreskin is not a throwaway part of the body; on the contrary, it has the important role of protecting the infant’s sensitive glans penis. According to the Canadian Children’s Rights Council (CCRC), “At birth, the foreskin is normally fused to the underlying glans, protecting that delicate organ and, also, the urinary meatus. As the child gets older, the foreskin very gradually loosens and becomes retractible. . . . Modern circumcision . . . forcibly detaches the protective foreskin from the glans and removes what would eventually become a third or more of the adult’s total penile skin covering.”

Only in extremely rare instances is male circumcision medically necessary. This explains why no major medical organization advocates for routine male circumcision. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.”

female genital cutting mutilationIn Breaking Their Will, I question whether we are hypocritical in how we look upon female genital cutting. All forms of female circumcision are illegal in the U.S., even though some types of this procedure are relatively minor. In fact, one could say that one form of female circumcision—the excising of the clitoral hood—is the genital equivalent of removing the male foreskin. The AAP, which categorically opposes female genital cutting yet does not oppose male genital cutting, admits, “Some forms of FGC are less extensive than the newborn male circumcision commonly performed in the West.”

What about the religious mandates? It’s interesting that, among the many Jewish voices opposing the San Francisco ban, I have yet to hear one mention this critical fact: In Abraham’s day, only a tiny snippet of the tip of the foreskin was removed, the minimal amount needed to mark Jews as being different from other people. Since no attempt was made to loosen the foreskin prematurely, the penis was able to develop normally, says the CCRC. It was only later that rabbis insisted that more and more—and finally all—foreskin had to be removed. On the Islamic side, it should be noted that male circumcision does not appear in the Qur’an. Some Jews and Muslims oppose circumcision.

If I have any qualms about the San Francisco proposal, it’s that I don’t believe it goes far enough. Why should we only outlaw the genital cutting of boys and girls?

ear piercing of childrenI began asking this question after reading the view of an opponent of the male circumcision ban. The writer made the “slippery slope” argument, stating that, if San Francisco were to pass the measure, perhaps the next thing on the chopping block (if you’ll excuse the expression) would be the piercing of ears of very young children, which is practiced by numerous cultures and also carries medical risks. The writer’s argument backfired with me, because I think it’s wrong for parents to pierce the ears of their infants and toddlers. Sure, babies look cute wearing earrings, but they are their ears and their bodies. Can’t parents wait until the child is old enough to decide for herself whether she should have her ears pierced?

Then I got to thinking that such ear piercing falls under the same category as male circumcision: that of medically unnecessary, painful, risky, often irreversible body-altering procedures that are performed on children. Think Chinese foot binding, Christian tattooing, female genital cutting, tribal scarring, and other abusive, religiously or culturally motivated rituals and customs. As far as I’m concerned, you can add to that list both ear piercing and male circumcision.

“Just because something has been done repeatedly doesn’t make it moral or ethical,” Lloyd Schofied, the chief promoter of the San Francisco measure, told the Sacramento Bee.

Therefore, I advocate for broadening the male circumcision ban. Specifically, we should outlaw any medically unnecessary puncturing, tattooing, excising, or mutilating of the body of minors, regardless of whether the procedure is popular among religious or cultural groups.

[Note: When I first wrote this blog post, I had advocated for the circumcision ban to extend only to children who are under the age of 13. Some commenters opposed this idea. I see their point, however, I still think that the question of age is worthy of discussion.]


  1. I agree with most of the article except for the idea that 13 year olds are neurologically and psychologically mature enough to make an informed decision about cosmetic surgery they aren’t.

    • “Coming from a European background… where many Jews reject a brit milah as an archaic and barbaric ritual… This author grew up in France in a traditional Jewish family. Not a single male of her generation or her children’s generation within her large family (or in her circle of Jewish friends) was ever circumcised.”
      – Nelly Karsenty, Humanistic Judaism, 1988.


      “The human right to body integrity would, in this instance, override their religious right.…non-fundamentalist Jews, who constitute a very large number of Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox Jews, believe that human ethics are an essential element in the Jewish tradition. …there is a Jewish tradition practiced by virtually all Jewish parents today that is morally wrong. This should give pause to any non-fundamentalist religious Jew, and it is a black eye for the liberal movements that they have not taken this issue more seriously. Perhaps a law prohibiting circumcision is just what these Jews need to start a serious discussion about the problem of brit milah.”
      – Eli Ungar-Sargon, Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews?, Forward, the Jewish Daily, May 20, 2011


      “All attempts to justify a custom such as this by means of one or another symbolic explanation collapse in the presence of the baby, in agony under the mohel’s knife.… there is enough of worth in Judaism to guarantee its survival, even after it rids itself of this disturbing custom. It may even be strengthened this way.”
      – Professor Hanoch Ben-Yami, Central European University
      Letters, Azure, Summer 5767 / 2007, no. 29

  2. It is tragic that we are adopting a barbaric ritual of male circumcision and female genital mutilation
    that belongs to Iron age in the twenty-first century.

    From the moment of birth, every child has all the human rights of any other person –
    including the inviolable right to freedom from non-consensual, non-therapeutic bodily alternation.

    Muslim and Jew Males and females are being denied their inherent right to keep all the body parts
    with which they were born. Fixation of Muslims and Jews with physical matters like on diet,
    bodily cleanliness and circumcision reveal their spiritual improvishment.

    Informed medical opinion is now unanimous that circumcision confers no benefits.
    Circumcision is a cultural phenomenon that affects 15.3 million children and young adults annually.
    In terms of gender, 13.3 million boys and 2 million girls are subjected to the involuntary
    removal of part or all of their external sex organs every year.

    Their external sex organs cut off for reasons that defy logic and violate basic human rights.
    Doctors, parents, and politicians have been misled into thinking that circumcision is beneficial,
    necessary, and harmless.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the rights of the child
    and other important international texts don’t mention the right to physical integrity,
    most probably to avoid interpreting it as a condemnation of male circumcision.
    UNICEF never produced any document on male circumcision, and always refused to
    open the debate about this subject.

    Raise your voice against male circumcision and female genital mutilation.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful and fair article Janet. I also take issue with the idea that a 13 year old boy might be able to make this decision. I do not think offering a boy this choice at this time in his life would be fair proposition. Would you suggest that a pubescent girl should be offered breast implants? What message would you be sending her by suggesting she should decide? A child of this age has has no sexual experience, can be greatly influenced by peer pressure and adults. You have to recognise that for an adult to even offer this option to a child, there comes an implied endorsement and the question of the adult’s mindset toward the boys natural body that he would be invited to make such a change. Even a young man who is sexually active, can have little understanding of the long term effects of circumcision on the sexual dynamics with his future spouse and how it will continue to change once she has children or goes through menopause. Circumcision changes the way a male and female body interact during intercourse. The result of this decision will remain with him for his life, he needs to have a mature objective perspective to understand this in an emotionally secure non-coercive environment.

    If you look to the Philippines where boys are frequently circumcised in groups at this age (tuli), you will see that a intolerant abusive culture has sprung out of connecting circumcision to this very critical time in a boys emotional and physical development. Google the word “supot” to learn of the prevalent attitude toward boys who have not yet been circumcised… and you will see that the fact that they are eager to be circumcised is nothing but emotional abuse and cultural coercion.

    • I appreciate these comments concerning what age a child needs to be before parents can have him circumcised. I admit that I struggle with some ambivalence in taking this position. I still believe that young people past the age of twelve know whether it feels right or wrong to be cut. In fact, I think that children quite young would be understandably horrified at the thought. Yet, as Sarah points out, making a child as old as thirteen undergo circumcision could have negative psychological consequences. This could be true, even if parents gave the child the choice to make.

      That said, I still think it would be helpful to put off a parent’s right to circumcise until a child is at least thirteen as a step toward giving children more autonomy in making this decision, or at least expressing their opinion. It would make more parents consider the child’s wishes than completely denying them a say in the matter. It would also draw attention to the fact that this is not a minor procedure. I believe many adults think they are not doing damage in having their babies circumcised, because the foreskin of an infant seems so tiny. Of course, these adults fail to take into account that the foreskin is not that tiny relative to the child’s body.

  4. “I think once boys reach the age of thirteen, they are old enough to decide whether to have their foreskin removed.”

    I think no physician but a quack could ever mutilate man or child without strict and serious medical motive.

    Non therapeutic circumcision is illegal mutilation.

  5. Hi there, You have completed an extraordinary job. I will absolutely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I am certain they are going to be benefited from this internet site.

  6. This really answered my difficulty, thank you!

  7. I’m happy to add the perspective of a Jewish Intactivist. There is a growing number of Jews of all denominations who are refusing to circumcision and instead doing alternative rituals that honor our religion without harming children.

    Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    Brit B’lee Milah (Covenant Without Cutting) Ceremony

    Jewish Voices: The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    The Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

    Interview with Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack

    Jews who believe that circumcision should be against the law.

  8. I agree with those who say 13 is too young. Many 13 year-olds will not have entered puberty, and may have only the vaguest idea how their genitals function or what effect circumcision might have on them. The foreskin is erogenous tissue – perhaps more or less in different indivuals, but very much for some. A young man has a right to find out the full extent of his functioning in that department before he has to choose whether to meddle with it.

    The proposed measure was an age-restriction, not a ban. Peer pressure is powerful at 13, less so at 18. It will do a young man no harm to make him keep all his genitalia for another five years.

    • “The issue of circumcision, in my view, is whether we want submission and wounding, as a symbolic act, to mark a man’s relationship to God and to the community in general. I no longer believe such a wounding is defensible.”
      “There is more emotion about eliminating circumcision than perhaps any other traditional practice. But it is time to find a different symbol of a boy’s entrance into the community. Instead of cutting our sons, we might celebrate their masculinity. A more appropriate symbol would be a nurturing act, one that would affirm a boy’s relationship to a loving father, both his own and that of his God. We might, for example, feed our sons, since a meal is also a traditional symbol of covenant. Indeed, in one text, Moses and Aaron and the elders go up to the top of the mountain, and when they see God, they eat and drink. Feeding our sons, rather than wounding them, would be a symbol of our nurturing relationship to them.”
      – Professor Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, A Masculine Critique of a Father God
      Tikkun Magazine, September/October 1995
      Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, Ph.D., was trained as a Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has taught Jewish Studies for ten years, and helped to launch the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University, where he was the head of the Jewish Studies department.


      “The practice of circumcision predates Judaism. Peoples as diverse as the Jews, Muslims, and South African Xhosas all practice it, but none of them invented it. The specific origins of circumcision are lost in antiquity, but the earliest records of the ritual are from Africa…. Circumcision was never universal in Judaism. Notable Jews from Moses to Theodore Herzl (the founder of Zionism) declined to circumcise their sons. Today in Sweden only 40% of Jewish boys are circumcised.”
      – Norm Cohen, What About Religious Circumcision?, NOCIRC of Michigan

  9. I find your comment about Abraham and his method of circumcision amusing. There are no reliable sources to base your assumption on. Jewish tradition has a volume of sources that point to the fact that Abraham performed the procedure exactly as Jews of today do.


      “The original biblical circumcision of Abraham’s time was a relatively minor ritual circumcision procedure in which only the redundant end of the foreskin extending beyond the tip of the glans was removed. This was called Milah. It is from this term that the Jewish Religious Covenant circumcision ritual Bris Milah or Brith Milah got its name. Following Milah, a penis so circumcised would still contain a considerable portion of the foreskin and the penis would have continued to go through its natural development since most of the foreskin would have remained intact.”

  10. “Well our pastor teaches that males have to be PUNISHED!” was a remark I once heard on this miserable topic.

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