There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

Animal dildos: An ethical analysis

Note: This post contains frank discussion of sexual topics. Some content may be of a graphic nature.

Certain sex toy vendors manufacture toys that are based on the penises of animals. While many of these toys are hand-sculpted, some horse-based and dog-based toys are marketed as “life-cast”, meaning they are directly cast from a mold taken of a live animal’s erect penis. Is this process ethical, and is it ethical for consumers to buy from these vendors?

1. The justification, and the objection

One vendor of “lifecast toys” describes the production process as follows:

The casting process takes approximately five minutes, and the animals are always happy to help! No animals are harmed in any way, physically or otherwise.

Their position is that, in the absence of any apparent harm to the animals or visible resistance from these animals, this process should be considered acceptable.

Others disagree, with one blogger writing:

For starters there is the whole thing of *how* they got the animals penis erect, most certainly they probably did not just wait around for it to happen you have to figure there may have been stimulation involving someone sexually touching them which is full stop animal sexual abuse. Secondly they have to put the cast on which may discomfort or confuse the animals.

In response to the supposed compliance or enjoyment by the animals, they add:

An animal may not fight against those things or may even enjoy it but that doesn’t mean they are not being sexually exploited for human gain. In the same way a child cannot consent to sexual acts even if they go along with it an animal cannot.

I’ve spoken with others who likewise contend that, because an animal is not capable of providing informed consent to sex, this sexual stimulation of an animal is therefore sexual abuse. As they see it, just as an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of sex does not mean they are capable of offering meaningful consent, the compliance of these animals with sexual stimulation likewise does not change the fact that they cannot consent to such an act.

The casting process would thus constitute a non-consensual sexual act, making it unethical.

2. Variables in the ethical equation

I do not find it necessary to address the premises, reasoning or conclusion of the argument that this is sexual abuse of an animal. As I see it, that syllogism is a valid (and important) one. So I will not be attempting to dispute any of the following points:

  • Whether these animals suffer harm
  • Whether pleasure translates to consent even when an entity lacks the capacity to provide consent
  • Whether sexual abuse can be ethical

It is also not my intention to derive some concrete, absolute, airtight answer of whether the sex toy production process in question must be considered right or wrong. Instead, I’d prefer to examine situations similar to this process in order to provide a broader picture of how these issues are treated in society. There are a great many more questions that lend an important background to how we understand concepts like “harm”, “consent”, and “sexual abuse”. These words are not merely empty symbols – they have substance, and represent complex ideas. Questions pertaining to this complexity might include:

  • In what situations, other than the production of molds for sex toys, do sexual interactions occur between humans and animals?
  • How commonplace are these situations? Are they largely regarded as acceptable or unacceptable?
  • Why do these sexual interactions occur – what motivates this? Are these motivations seen as justifying such acts?
  • To what extent are people willing to accept the suffering of animals, and violations of animals’ consent, in exchange for their own pleasure and enjoyment?

In this way, I intend to offer a descriptive exploration of existing attitudes toward these questions, rather than a prescriptive and binding moral conclusion of whether it’s okay to stimulate animals sexually in order to sell or use replicas of their genitals as sex toys. I believe this may be more useful than a short, simple and inarguable syllogism. By equipping people with a wider array of information relevant to this question, we can provide them with a somewhat more expansive ethical equation into which they can input their own personal values. They can derive, not a singular right answer for everyone, but an individual answer which is more solidly rooted in a better understanding of the related issues.

3. Disregard for the consent of animals in non-sexual contexts

Livestock farms are businesses: they are motivated to maximize their production while minimizing the expenses they incur. Because this business involves using live animals as a source of meat, milk, eggs, or other products, and providing the resources necessary to ensure humane treatment may come at additional expense, optimizing for profitability can lead to compromising the welfare of these animals. Such compromises occur as a part of routine, widely accepted industrial farming practices. The commonplace treatment of animals by large-scale farming operations includes:

The lack of adequate space for broiler chickens. Broiler chickens – birds raised for their meat – are densely packed into production houses, with around 20,000 animals occupying a space roughly the size of a football field. Each bird therefore has only about as much space as a single sheet of paper. The birds unavoidably walk around in their own accumulated excrement, and the breakdown of this waste produces unsafe air levels of ammonia. The presence of these contaminants leads to irritation, lesions and ulcers on the birds’ legs and feet. Specialists within the industry have written:

[L]imiting the floor space gives poorer results on a bird basis, yet the question has always been and continues to be: What is the least amount of floor space necessary per bird to produce the greatest return on investment?

The close confinement of egg-laying hens. In the United States, 95% of egg-laying hens are kept in small cages for most of their lives. Five to ten birds are placed in a cage about the size of a large file drawer, without room to extend their wings fully or engage in normal behaviors such as nest-building, perching at night, or foraging for food. Due to the enclosed space, the hens have no room to exercise, resulting in bone weakness.

Battery hens in a cage.

Battery hens in a cage.

The close quarters can also lead to cannibalism, something which farms attempt to mitigate by “de-beaking” the hens. Up to two-thirds of a bird’s beak is removed without anesthesia, often using a hot blade that causes painful damage to this nerve-rich area.

A de-beaked chicken.

A de-beaked chicken.

The long-term caging of pregnant pigs. Breeding sows are commonly isolated during their pregnancy to prevent fighting between sows, which could cause injury or death. 60-70% of breeding sows in the United States are kept in individual gestation crates that are about two feet wide and seven feet long. These cages are only slightly larger than the pig, leaving sows unable to turn around, lie on their sides, or walk more than a step forward or backward. Slats in the floor allow waste to fall through, and living above a pit of urine and excrement results in respiratory disease from exposure to high levels of ammonia.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows in gestation crates.

Sows are confined to these cages for the duration of their pregnancy – about 4 months. They typically birth at least two litters per year, and are immediately re-impregnated after their piglets are weaned. Most of a sow’s life will be spent nearly immobilized in a crate. Pig gestation crates are now banned in the European Union, and nine US states have enacted similar bans. In defense of this practice, National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Dave Warner stated:

So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around. … The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high.

Suppose we grant that a horse or dog cannot consent to being sexually stimulated or having a mold taken of their genitals. In comparison, it also seems unlikely that a pig or chicken could consent to being locked in a small crate for months, having a part of their beak cut off without anesthesia, or suffering foot ulcers from constantly walking around in their own waste.

Yet these practices are nevertheless carried out as cost-saving measures. Treating animals this way is seen as less expensive than providing larger facilities and allowing for the possible loss of some sows, piglets and hens that would come with giving them greater space to move around. Farmers benefit from these practices because they can manufacture a greater quantity of their product at a reduced cost. Consumers benefit from being able to purchase pork, chicken or eggs at a lower price.

Many people give little thought to this inhumane treatment of the animals that produce their food, or if they do, they ultimately find this to be an acceptable tradeoff. And they reaffirm this acceptance in their everyday food choices, far more frequently than anyone purchases specialty animal dildos.

4. Violations of the sexual consent of animals for breeding purposes

Domesticated animals are the subject of selective breeding to optimize for whichever traits may be desired. People decide to retain and emphasize certain traits of these animals, while getting rid of unwanted ones. This is done by choosing animals that express a given pattern of traits, and forcing them to reproduce. The practices surrounding such breeding efforts can involve close contact with the animals’ reproductive organs. Specifically:

Breeding soundness exams, semen collection and artificial insemination of cattle. Cattle may be bred with the aim of producing higher quality beef or greater quantities of milk. As one rancher described a particularly valuable bull named Revelation:

… Revelation’s progeny were showing beef marbling scores that were off the charts, along with breathtaking rib-eye areas. Producing a bull whose offspring have even one of these super stats is like hitting the lottery. But two? A near miracle.

A breeding soundness exam is often conducted to ensure that a bull will be a worthwhile purchase and that it will be able to produce offspring:

Bulls that do not settle their share of cows early in the breeding season contribute to reproductive inefficiency. … Bulls are selected for their genetic potential to improve the cow herd. It is economically important that all bulls are fertile.

Such exams include close study of the bull’s genitals and other organs:

The internal organs can be examined by rectal palpation while the bull is restrained. The vesicular glands, ampullae, and prostate should also be examined for evidence of inflammation, adhesions, or fibrosis. Furthermore, the spermatic cord, scrotum, testicles, and epididymides need to be examined for evidence of abscesses, injury, frost bite damage, or tumors. …

The penis and sheath should be examined for any sores, lacerations, abscesses, scar tissue, hair rings, warts, or adhesions.

A central component of the exam is acquiring a semen sample from the bull in order to evaluate its fertility. This requires that the bull be stimulated to arousal and ejaculation. Semen can be collected by way of an artificial vagina, “a hard tubular casing with a rubber inner liner filled with warm water to stimulate the bull’s penis via temperature and pressure”. However, a sample is “most often collected via electroejaculation”. Electroejaculation is conducted as follows:

The electroejaculator consists of a rectal probe that has a series of linear banded electrodes connected to a variable current and voltage source. The bull is restrained in a chute, the rectum is emptied, and the entire lubricated probe is inserted rectally with the electrodes oriented ventrally. A hand-operated rheostat permits intermittent pulses of current to be given as the voltage is gradually increased. The response varies considerably, but it is common to use 2- to 4-sec pulses repeated at 5- to 7-sec intervals. After a variable number of such stimulations, erection and protrusion of the penis may be seen, followed by a flow of seminal fluid, or the bull may ejaculate into the sheath without protruding the penis.

Electroejaculation is known to be uncomfortable or painful for bulls:

…electroejaculation is associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and the strength of the muscular contractions induced by electroejaculation suggests that the bull experiences pain and distress. Compared to controls, bulls subjected to this procedure vocalize more frequently, which is considered an indicator of stress and pain.

However, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association maintains that electroejaculation of bulls is an acceptable practice.

Electroejaculator devices.

Electroejaculator devices for bulls.

The process of using bull semen to inseminate cows is similarly invasive. One rancher was praised for his skill in this area:

“He has a gift with his hands to know how to feel into a cow that most people don’t have,” Donnell says. George will feel the reproductive tract with one arm, then with the other hand, guide the syringe through the cervical rings (the tricky part) and deposit the semen at the opening of the cervix. It takes maybe 60 seconds per cow, and every cow on the ranch, 1,300 in all, is bred that way, as many as 400 in a single day.

Breeding soundness exams and semen collection of stallions. As with cattle, horses have been domesticated into various specialized breeds which serve different purposes. Desired traits can include their endurance, strength, speed, skill at working with livestock, or performance at racing and show jumping.

Stallions are prized for their ability to produce a high number of quality offspring, offering a better value to horse breeders. A very fertile and healthy stallion can be a good investment, while a stallion with poor fertility may be of little use. For this reason, they are subject to comprehensive breeding soundness exams similar to those of bulls:

Veterinarians should also evaluate the stallion’s reproductive anatomy during a breeding soundness examination. Threlfall explained that the penis must be able to retract fully, and there should be no abnormal swellings or enlargements of the genitalia. All aspects of the reproductive tract–including the penis, scrotum, and testicles–should be palpated for abnormalities, he added.

Stallions may exhibit resistance to such examinations:

…especially during this portion of the exam, it’s important to stay safe as some stallions will bite, kick, or strike when their reproductive tract is palpated. Twitch or tranquilize the horse if necessary to maintain safety.

Semen collection from stallions can also involve the use of an artificial vagina. Workers apply the artificial vagina (AV) in this manner:

The stallion’s penis should be deflected into the AV, not grasped, because some stallions take offense to being grasped. The AV should be held firmly for the stallion to thrust against and should be at the same angle as the mare’s vagina. As the stallion ejaculates, the AV should be lowered to allow the semen to run into the collection bottle.

Applying an artificial vagina can be a complicated task involving multiple workers to ensure (their own) safety:

All the handlers should be on left side and everyone is advised to pull to the left if there is a problem. The entire collection has to be a choreographed effort by everyone involved in order to get a sample and keep everyone safe. Approach the mare at an angle and allow the stallion to mount the mare. Let the stallion thrust and guide or allow the stallion to insert his penis into the AV. Gently touch the ventral penis and feel the urethra for the ejaculatory pulses. Others can watch for the flagging of the tail that indicates ejaculation.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

An artificial vagina for stallions.

However, collection can also be accomplished by “manual stimulation”, and the training of stallions to accept this stimulation:

You can attempt manual massage of the erect penis with moist towels while the stallion is standing or while he is mounting. Experimentally it took about 1 1/2 training sessions to train stallions to do this.

Semen collection and artificial insemination of dogs. Over 150 distinct breeds of domesticated dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club. While some of these breeds serve working roles – such as assisting disabled people, herding livestock, retrieving prey for hunters, tracking scents, or subduing criminals – many dogs are no more than companions for most people.

To ensure conformance to a given breed standard, people select which individual dogs are bred together. As with cattle and horses, semen collection is part of a typical breeding soundness exam, and artificial insemination using collected semen can allow for vastly more instances of impregnation than a single male dog would be capable of without assistance. The collection process is similar to that of bulls and stallions:

Canine semen is collected using digital pressure and massage. … Collecting semen from dogs is not difficult, but like many things, is much easier after you’ve done it a time or two. The basic process is conducted in the following series of steps:

  • Grasp the prepuce and pull/push it back to expose the tip of the penis.
  • Slide the collection cone over the protruding penis and slide it over the penis, pushing the prepuce back over of the bulbis glandis …
  • Lock your fingers in a ring around the penis, essentially holding the bulbis glandis inside your fist.
  • Apply pressure with forward and backward movement; in most cases, the male will begin to thrust back and forth.
  • Watch for semen to flow in the collection tube. Most dogs stop thrusting as they begin to ejaculate.

Transcervical insemination is one of the less invasive methods of artificially inseminating dogs:

The transcervical insemination (TCI) is performed with the bitch in a standing position. No sedation nor anesthesia is required. A fiber optic cystourethoscope is used vaginally to visualize the opening to the cervix. A flexible catheter is maneuvered through the cervix into the uterus. …The semen is gently pushed through the catheter from a syringe.

A more invasive method involves surgery:

A surgical insemination is a minor surgical procedure that allows the surgeon to inject the semen directly into the uterus. … A bitch’s greatest chance of conception is by having a surgical semen implant. …

A 2-3 inch incision is made on the abdomen through the skin and underlying muscle. The uterus is isolated and evaluated. The semen, whether fresh collected, fresh chilled or frozen, is inseminated though a small hypodermic needle into the uterus. The veterinary surgeon can see and feel the uterus fill as the semen is deposited.

The procedures involved in the breeding of these animals are, at times, essentially identical to the stimulation of horses and dogs performed in the course of producing a mold of their genitals. In many cases, the breeding-related practices go far beyond that and are substantially more invasive. Yet these practices are well-established and accepted among breeders, simply for the purpose of avoiding any expenses or inefficiencies that would come with having less-than-optimal animals among their breeding population.

The general attitude appears to be one of regarding animals as little more than objects, from which semen can be extracted and into which it can be deposited at will, by whatever means people find to be most effective. So it should come as no surprise that, in the drive to obtain desired traits with great efficiency, the consent of these animals is treated as broadly irrelevant.

5. Human needs: Animal exploitation as a norm

This widespread inhumane treatment and disregard for the consent of animals is done in the service of certain human needs. People may need animal products for food, draft animals for working purposes, or dogs for detecting explosives or other roles. But the extent to which these needs justify certain treatment of animals is, of course, debatable. Ardent advocates of animal rights might contend that nothing justifies forcing animals into any working roles. Vegetarians or vegans may feel it’s not acceptable to use animals as a food source at all. Even people who do consume animal products may choose to avoid food sourced from crated pigs or chickens.

One way or another, that ethical line is drawn in a certain place depending on a person’s values. And when it comes to the needs these animals serve, it can be unclear just how necessary some of these roles are. Sure, people require food, but does that mean people need to eat prime rather than choice cuts of beef? Horses may be the best method of transportation for certain purposes – but does anyone actually need a horse for dressage, a sport described as “horse ballet”? Sled dogs may be needed in some areas, but does a person ever really need a Chihuahua? What needs are some of these animals serving that are so crucial, it justifies disregarding their consent? And what makes the desire to own a replica of a dog’s erection for use as a sex toy any less legitimate than the desire to own a pug as a companion animal?

Many of the practices involved in keeping and breeding these animals would also fail the “child test”, badly. As others have argued, an underage person’s apparent enjoyment of a sexual act does not mean they are therefore capable of meaningful consent to this act. Suppose someone were to argue that a child is completely okay with being kept in a crate too small for them to turn around, or that a child actually enjoys having a device called an “artificial vagina” applied to them, and that therefore the child consents to this treatment. Such claims would be considered monstrous and appalling.

Yet most people who eat pork, drink milk, and own dogs do not seem to apply the “child test” as a standard of ethical acceptability. They are largely content to tolerate at least some of these practices in the course of the breeding and raising of animals. And if they do tolerate this, it seems unavoidably inconsistent and arbitrary to accept practices such as:

  • Providing an individual chicken with no more living space than a sheet of paper
  • Forcing chickens to walk around in piles of excrement and breathe ammonia-rich air
  • Keeping a chicken in a cage so small that it cannot extend its wings
  • Removing a portion of a chicken’s beak using a hot blade, without painkillers
  • Keeping a pregnant pig in a cage so small that it cannot walk or turn around, for several months
  • Restraining a bull to examine its reproductive organs by rectal palpation
  • Inserting a rectal probe into a bull and repeatedly applying a painful electrical current until ejaculation occurs
  • Inserting one’s entire arm into a cow in order to deposit semen onto its cervix
  • Tranquilizing a stallion to prevent it from biting or kicking during a genital examination
  • Guiding a stallion’s penis into an artificial vagina and holding the device in place until the stallion ejaculates
  • Stimulating a stallion by massaging its penis with moist towels
  • Placing a “collection cone” onto a dog’s penis
  • Manually stimulating a dog’s penis to obtain its semen
  • Introducing semen via a catheter inserted through a dog’s cervix and into its uterus, without sedation
  • Partially removing a dog’s uterus from its body via surgery, and injecting semen into it

While rejecting practices such as:

  • Stimulating a horse or dog to arousal in order to take a mold of its genitals

What sort of ethical standard would allow for the former practices while soundly rejecting the latter? In terms of potential harm to animals or violations of their consent, how would one go about isolating the act of creating animal-based sex toy molds as any more harmful or violative than the rest of these commonplace practices? What marks this case as unique?

I believe such a standard is best explained as the product of a sexual taboo. Harm and violation of animals is often uncritically accepted when it is in furtherance of:

  • The fiscal enjoyment of farmers and breeders who reduce expenses and increase output by neglecting to provide humane facilities for their livestock and avoiding the purchase and upkeep of infertile animals
  • The competitive enjoyment of farmers and breeders who are able to produce higher quality animal products
  • The culinary enjoyment of consumers who now have access to “off the charts” marbled beef and “breathtaking” rib-eyes
  • The sporting enjoyment of athletes (and spectators) who use horses for racing, show jumping, or dressage events
  • The personal enjoyment of people who keep dogs for companionship

Yet this harm and violation is seen to reach a wholly unacceptable level when it occurs in the pursuit of:

  • The sexual enjoyment of people who would like to use sex toys cast from a mold of a horse or dog penis

It seems that this sexual motive is seen as being more trivial, more frivolous, and less justifiable than these non-sexual motives. But an identical act, the stimulation of an animal’s genitals to arousal, takes place in both the sexual case and the breeding case. The harm to the animal, and disregard for its consent, is neither exacerbated nor diminished simply by the intentions of the person performing the act. If someone does not consider the argument from harm and lack of consent to be sufficient to condemn these selective breeding practices, then the argument also does not succeed in condemning the sex toy production process.

It may be the case that nobody truly needs such a dog toy. But if so, they do not need a toy dog, either.

Looking Gosnell in the Eye

In early 2011, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was arrested on charges of murder related to his abortion services: one charge for the death of a woman who had sought an abortion at his Philadelphia clinic, and seven additional charges for the killings of infants that had been born alive. The grand jury report on Gosnell’s clinic contained a variety of emotional appeals that were largely irrelevant to the actual charges, and at the time, the sensationalized report received wide coverage and was frequently used to attack abortion generally. My partner Heather analyzed the report and its subsequent coverage, and found many arguments by the grand jury and the media to be lacking. Many magazines and publications refused to print her analysis, and now that the trial of Gosnell has begun and these same arguments have flared up once more, we’ve chosen to republish her piece here. -Zinnia



Looking Gosnell in the Eye
by Heather McNamara

In the wake of the release of the grisly grand jury report and the media firestorm surrounding the atrocities at Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic, we, as pro-choice feminists, have been posed a difficult question. Basted in gruesome quotes, the emotional appeals from the pro-lifers (and more reserved pro-choicers) who read the report are everywhere and seem to ask, “Did you know it was this gruesome?” The responses from pro-choice advocates have been reserved – usually articles featuring calming, tranquil images of very pregnant women in silhouette standing by windows, presumably contemplating all the trials and joys ahead of her, and certainly not crying on the bathroom floor with a positive pregnancy test. “Think of the women!”, we say, “think of the babies”, they say, and nobody seems to be answering the question: well, did you know it was that gruesome?

The difference between flashing the grand jury report and flashing large poster images of aborted fetuses in front of clinics is subtle but effective. Gosnell broke the law. He kept an unsanitary facility; he performed abortions that were so late term that they should have been done, assuming they were legal, in hospitals where better monitoring was available; he did not properly care for his patients; and he was arguably negligent with the way he prescribed drugs. These things are absolutely wrong, and no doctor, no matter how much good they intend, should be recklessly endangering lives. Each and every woman who sought the help of Dr. Gosnell deserved a safe, clean, well-staffed clinic. It’s difficult to argue that the abortions Gosnell performed were not wrong, because there were clearly so many things he did that were wrong.

However, there is no connection between the lives Gosnell endangered and the ethicality of abortion, and some of the things in the grand jury report that disgust us – jokes about the fetuses being “so big they could walk me to the bus stop”, for example – are things that could happen in clean, professionally staffed clinics. There is no law against bad taste. So why were they even mentioned in the grand jury report? Among the shocking and frankly manipulative language contained within, we find outright misleading quotes such as “these women were giving birth” to refer to the induced contractions to dilate cervices, “he played with the baby” to refer to his touching the fetus’s hands, and “he stuck the scissors into the back of their necks” to refer to a method of terminating a fetus that has long been widely recognized as entirely valid and comparatively humane. The proper vernacular is “intact dilation and extraction”. Quotes like these, considered rationally, should not compel us to question abortion, but instead should make us question the state of mind and competency of the grand jury. In legal contexts, emotional appeals are out of place.

The reality is: medical procedures can be violent, visceral events. Every day in hospitals everywhere, people are bruised, broken, and cut open. Ribcages are cracked open, skin sliced open, veins burned and yanked out, sensitive areas cut, and burns scraped. These things are done to help and save people. The inner workings, procedures, ethics, and yes, tasteless jokes in any clinic could be detailed in such a way as to turn you off the idea of healthcare forever, but that does not make anyone’s need for it any less valid.

Dr. Gosnell ended the lives of some fetuses, which, left alone, would have become cute little bouncing pink babies in adorable little outfits. He cut into the backs of their necks and severed their spinal cords. Legitimate abortion providers also do this. They dilate women’s cervices, which can be painful, they terminate fetuses, and they cut flesh. And so what? Does the weakness or strength of your constitution, or anyone else’s, comprise a valid basis for granting or removing a woman’s control over her most precious domain – her body?

These arguments exist for one purpose: to desensitize us to the plight of the presumably healthy, if scared and distraught pregnant women we imagine, and turn our attention instead to the horror we can observe. They’ve caught us at a vulnerable time when several states are introducing bills to limit and outright deny access to abortion. Now is not the time to be squeamish. Now is the time when we, as feminists, can show we’re not afraid to confront the difficult and unpleasant realities of abortion – the disturbing bloody images, the fact that sometimes women don’t actually have a Very Good Reason to be seeking one, and even the unfortunate physical and emotional consequences that sometimes follow. Once we acknowledge that these things are there and real and unpleasant, we can continue to assert our right to do it anyway, and in doing this, remove their power over us.


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at

The view from nowhere on female genital mutilation

Following the Lisa Wade/Hastings Center/FGM controversy, Heina of Skepchick made note of a certain prevalent attitude toward female genital mutilation:

Most conversations about FGM among Westerners not had by sociologists and other such academics indeed center around some version of “Ugh, that’s so horrible and disgusting! Who would do that to children?!” at best, and, at worst, a variant of “Let’s kill the monsters that do this!” This corroborates some of what Wade initially posits: Westerners’ reactions are highly informed by their particular perspectives in ways that they might not fully comprehend. To them, it’s clear and unquestionable that FGM is bad and that its practitioners should feel bad.

Many average people who oppose practices such as FGM probably do hold the very simplistic and ignorant view that those who engage in such acts are innately and completely evil, and doing it purely for the sake of being bad because that’s just how they are. This is obviously a neglect to consider certain universal aspects of the human condition. People who think this way don’t attribute their own ethical failures or wrongdoing to an inherent “evil” nature on their part – but the others, the ones who do things like mutilate the genitals of their children, are different from them. They must be “monsters”, because what person like themselves could do such a thing? The undercurrents of prejudice in this mindset are clear and unavoidable, and this does nothing to help them understand why a disturbing practice like FGM happens.

At the same time, the reaction of “who would do that to children?” may not always be wholly rooted in the assumption that the people who do this to children are incomprehensible, inhuman monsters who are totally unrelatable. Rather than concluding that these people are simply not like us, the discomfort and bafflement may arise from the realization that they are like us, they are people too – that in another life, we could have been them.

While it’s unnerving to think – mistakenly – that the world contains people who are little more than evil automatons that do awful things like FGM, it may be even more unnerving to accept the reality that these are average people who have somehow reached a point where they consider FGM to be morally good and the right thing to do for their children. The horror at the sheer moral difference between us and their beliefs and practices is only amplified when considered in the context of the sameness of our and their human nature. People don’t have to be fundamentally dissimilar, or inhuman, to do this. They just have to believe it’s right, and they just have to want to do the right thing. No different from us.

Acknowledging that we might very well do the same thing, if we believed as they do, means having to accept that anyone is capable of this – that there is not a bright line encircling and protecting and separating us, the chosen ones who would never do such a thing, from a moral void where monsters lurk. It means accepting that the capacity for such acts is always among us, whoever and wherever we are. What’s beyond the naive view that FGM practitioners are purely monstrous is even more outrageous, saddening and tragic: not only does something as brutal as FGM occur, but it occurs because good and honest people who care about their children have come to believe that it is right.

It’s important to keep this in mind so as not to dehumanize people, or hold them any less than fully accountable for their actions. But it’s also crucial that this recognition of the universal human capability for baffling, horrifying choices in the name of “good” is not used as an excuse to treat all beliefs and practices as though they were the same. The understanding of “you might do the same thing if you were in their position, because they believe it’s good” has at times been construed to mean that we have no possible grounds to criticize anyone for what they do, as all behaviors are somehow created equal – and whether a thing is right or wrong hinges on nothing but how its practitioners feel about it. It’s wrong to us, but it’s right to them, so who are we to judge?

This is somewhat like the “view from nowhere” in journalism, where certain issues are misleadingly presented as though every point of view is equal in its validity, even though some of them may not be valid at all. What is right? What is wrong? It’s not our place to say. There are only things that happen, from which we must detach any personal judgment.

The report on FGM by the Hastings Center, issued for the alleged purpose of correcting media coverage of the practice, promoted this perspective. They make clear their intentions to exclude any viewpoint on whether FGM is right or wrong – they just wanted to present some facts. That’s all.

The problem is that their presentation of certain facts served to minimize the impact of FGM in just about every way possible: suggesting that journalists should be less “hyperbolic” about infibulation as it occurs among “only” 10% of girls who undergo FGM, implying that sexual functioning is not affected by means of blatantly equivocating statements about how women who haven’t undergone FGM also sometimes report dysfunction, claiming that complications from the practice are “sensationalized” and “infrequent”, lazily dismissing the possibility that FGM results from patriarchal society or male beauty standards by merely noting that women are involved in the practice and largely approve of it, and offering red herrings about how these societies also circumcise boys.

In their pursuit of neutrality toward viewpoints on FGM, disconnected from any judgment of the practice, they ended up inadvertently promoting the view that FGM isn’t all that bad. It does not matter whether they did this on purpose or not. That was the end result regardless of their intentions: they produced a report that downplays the effects of FGM. That’s the problem with the view from nowhere. The appearance of neutrality can disguise the fact that something is not neutral and not accurate in how it depicts a certain issue.

The hands-off stance toward judging the practices of people who believe differently from us functions similarly. When people assert that it’s not our place to decide whether FGM is right or wrong, this actually means allowing FGM to proceed unhindered. Those who hold this view may deceive themselves into thinking they’re being neutral, but the result is not neutral at all. And just because we might indeed endorse the practices of another group if we believed what they believe, that doesn’t mean they can’t actually be wrong for doing it, and it doesn’t mean we can’t actually be right to disapprove of it.

I’m glad that many people strongly disapprove of FGM and want to see it ended. I’m not so glad when some of these people promote what seems to be an impotent version of this belief that’s stripped of any force to create meaningful change. Heina says:

How they hope to actually enact change with that approach is beyond me. To endlessly remind ourselves that we know that FGM is a terrible thing accomplishes very little more than what has been done before. In terms of a Western audience, or one familiar with Western thought, it is absolutely no surprise that relatively few to none, even of those who are accused of being apologists for it, actually condone or support FGM in any way. “FGM is bad” is the real platitude in this context.

…In reality, infibulation is not very common, women who have undergone FGM can experience sexual pleasure and desire*, women enforce and perform FGM on other women (although it does stem from patriarchal notions about governing femininity and female sexuality, something Wade neglects to mention), some non-Africans do it, and Western-led efforts (which often rely on outlawing) are usually unhelpful at best and backfire at worst.

To point these things out does not necessarily trivialize FGM.

Frankly, how anyone hopes to bring about change with this approach is beyond me. If it’s pointless and unproductive to say that FGM is simply wrong, if infibulation ought not be that much of a concern due to its relative rarity (suggesting that other types of FGM may be even less of a concern), if its effects on women are minimal if not completely absent, then why should we want to end FGM, anyway?

Why even be concerned with how unhelpful certain approaches are, if FGM just isn’t that big of a deal? How should we bring about change when we’re deprived of any compelling reason to oppose FGM? Heina notes:

To this day, in Western society, the mutilation of baby boys’ genitals as well as those of intersex babies’ is considered normal. Outlawing said practices does little to change the cultural zeitgeist regarding them. The lowered rates of male genital mutilation reflect not on the efforts of some outside entity declaring it wrong, but forces and voices from within the group working towards change.

Recognizing that lasting and effective change follows from genuine changes in the beliefs of the group in question, rather than restrictions suddenly imposed from outside, is definitely important. But how are we supposed to convince people to change their belief that FGM is acceptable? What can we tell them to make them realize that FGM is unacceptable? What reason would they have to change their minds, their culture, when we’ve decided that saying it’s wrong is too aggressive and that the harms it causes aren’t all that significant or important?

Again, while it’s wonderful that many people want FGM to be ended, it’s disconcerting that some of them endorse an approach that seemingly amounts to standing back and hoping the cultures which practice it will eventually decide to stop on their own. I don’t doubt that they would like to see FGM abolished. I do question the specifics of how exactly they believe this can happen. What does it mean to believe that we should oppose FGM, while also insisting that this belief should in no way impact its practitioners? The truly razor-thin line here is the one that people must walk in order to believe that FGM should be done away with, while avoiding any use of the words “bad” or “harmful” or “wrong”.

Female genital mutilation: “Balance” at the expense of justice

At Sociological Images, Lisa Wade has decided to promote a report by the Hastings Center on the practice of female genital mutilation. In response to what they consider “hyperbolic and one-sided” coverage by “Western media” without regard to the “cultural complexities” of mutilation, the report claims to offer “a better account of the facts”.

By uncritically parroting the report’s findings, Wade repeats its central mistake. For the sake of “balance”, she and the report both leave a gaping chasm where you might expect to see the most pressing, urgent, relevant aspect of the entire issue: the outrage that children are made to undergo medically unnecessary, disfiguring and disabling surgery upon their healthy, normal genitals without their consent.

However much they’ve tried to dance around what should be the central concern here, and excise any suggestion of moral judgment of FGM (they reserve that for “hyperbolic” journalists), its absence screams throughout the piece. You just can’t avoid noticing how this bioethics think tank seemingly displays no interest in considering the ethics of the very practice under discussion.

And while their intention may have simply been to dispel misconceptions about FGM rather than offer yet another condemnation of the practice, their overall characterization of this issue treats it as something that can be sterilized, prettified, and abstracted away. They repeatedly downplay the reality of mutilation – they prefer to call it “surgeries” or “modification”, stripping away any hint of negativity – with an attitude suggesting that those who oppose it should find something better to do with their time. It is a masterwork of callousness, sure to appeal to anyone who regards women as less than human.

This is underscored by the shortcomings of the “facts” they purport to offer. Their claims are almost wholly irrelevant to the inescapable problems presented by FGM, and provide only a cursory analysis of complex phenomena like cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies before dismissing the very possibility that this could have any bearing on the practice. As a whole, it comes off as pathetically reaching for any remotely plausible reason to oppose the “one-sided” condemnation of FGM, in the name of mere contrarianism.

For instance, the report criticizes a New York Times columnist for describing the mutilation as “the sewing or pinning together of both sides of the vulva, by catgut or thorns, and the obliteration of the vaginal entrance except for a tiny passage”. They contend that this “is not factually correct”. The report goes on to explain how three subtypes of mutilation are performed.

Type I is “restricted to procedures involving reduction of either the clitoral hood (the prepuce) or the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue, or both.” Type II “involves partial or complete labial reductions and partial or complete reductions of the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue.” In type III, infibulation, “the operation is concluded by shielding and narrowing the vaginal opening with stitches or other techniques of sealing, which forms a smooth surface of joined tissue that is opened at the time of first sexual intercourse.”

The authors then point out that “infibulations amount to approximately 10 percent of cases across the continent” and are sometimes performed using sutures under hygienic conditions in hospitals or clinics. Yes, what a relief that only one in 10 girls subjected to FGM have their vaginal opening sewn shut before later being torn open, whereas the other nine in 10 must only endure having their labia or the visible portion of their clitoris cut off. Surely the Times was out of line for implying that there’s anything wrong with this practice.

So just how many women do undergo FGM, anyway? Could it be that it’s just very limited, and blown out of proportion by “one-sided” reporters? According to the report:

In some countries, the prevalence among women aged fifteen to forty-nine is very high (over 80 percent). These include estimates from Djibouti (93 percent), Egypt (91 percent), Eritrea (89 percent), Guinea (96 percent), Mali (85 percent), Sierra Leone (91 percent), Somalia (98 percent), and northern Sudan (89 percent).

Oh. So it turns out that 10% of about 90% of adult women in these nations have had their vaginas painfully sealed shut. This is not a small number. I don’t see why anyone would be reassured by the fact that 10% of these women have been forced to undergo infibulation. When millions of girls are still subjected to FGM, it doesn’t cease to be a problem merely because one writer’s description of a certain method’s prevalence was off by perhaps a factor of 10 and most of these girls “only” have their labia or clitoral tissue sliced off.

But hey, maybe FGM isn’t all that bad. Maybe it’s just a harmless little “modification”. And yes, that’s where they’re taking this:

Research by gynecologists and others has demonstrated that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction, and their frequency of sexual activity is not reduced. This is true of the 10 percent (type III) as well as the 90 percent (types I and II).

Most obviously, how does one tell the difference? Just as in male circumcision, girls are subjected to FGM long before they become sexually active. So how would they know what they’re missing? Of course they don’t notice any difference in their sexual satisfaction – they have no basis for comparison. This doesn’t mean that these practices have no impact whatsoever on their sexual functioning.

The report continues:

It should also be emphasized that cases of sexual dysfunction and pain during sex have been reported both by women who have undergone female genital surgery and by those who have not.

Notice how this sentence is carefully crafted to give the impression that women experience sexual dysfunction and pain at similar rates regardless of whether they’ve undergone genital mutilation, while actually telling us absolutely nothing. All it says is this: Some women who have undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain. Some women who haven’t undergone FGM experience sexual dysfunction and pain.

Well, so what? This provides no information whatsoever about the rates at which these two groups experience sexual dysfunction and pain, or the nature of the dysfunction and pain, or its cause, or its intensity. The report completely glosses over these relevant facts, instead preferring an ambiguous, equivocating, intellectually dishonest statement of “well, sometimes women have pain during sex even when they haven’t had FGM”. This tells us nothing about the effects of FGM.

Regardless, they continue in their attempts to minimize these effects:

The widely publicized and sensationalized reproductive health and medical complications associated with female genital surgeries in Africa are infrequent events and represent the exception rather than the rule.

What’s especially ironic is that the article Lisa Wade cited in her blog post says just the opposite:

It shows that few studies are appropriately designed to measure health effects, that circumcision is associated with significantly higher risks of a few well-defined complications, but that for other possible complications the evidence does not show significant differences.

Regardless of how exceptional the risk of complications may be, why should it be acceptable to expose a healthy child to these risks at all for no medical reason? Just because something is “the exception rather than the rule” doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable risk.

Yet even if there were never any complications, and even if this never caused any sexual dysfunction or pain, removing parts of a child’s body without reason and without consent simply isn’t justifiable. It also doesn’t really harm a child’s ability to function if you arbitrarily decide to give them a permanent tattoo, or remove one of their testicles (they’ve got two!), or lop off a toe or fingertip. But for some reason, people who do this to their children for no medical reason are arrested. Why? Because a lack of harm – or minimal harm, or low risk of harm – doesn’t equate to an unlimited license to alter a child’s body frivolously.

The report then goes on to explore the motivations behind this mutilation:

Female genital surgeries in Africa are viewed by many insiders as aesthetic enhancements of the body and are not judged to be “mutilations.” From the perspective of those who value these surgeries, they are associated with a positive aesthetic ideal aimed at making the genitals more attractive—“smooth and clean.”

Surprise, surprise. It seems the Hastings Center has discovered that People Tend To Think The Choices They Make Are Good. Of course the people who do this think they have a good and right reason for it. It would be ridiculous to think they just go around intentionally being evil and doing this to girls for no other reason than “hey, I’m evil and I’m going to slice up this girl’s genitals!” No one envisions themselves as the villain in the story of their life. This is to be expected.

But it doesn’t mean that their reasons or their aesthetic value judgments are valid. Just because someone has a justification doesn’t mean this justification is sound. While these explanations can help us understand what drives this practice, it’s not an excuse. Even if a culture regards a certain body modification as a visual improvement, it doesn’t justify violating a child’s bodily autonomy. If aesthetic sensibilities are so important here, where is the respect for that child’s own judgment? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to make these decisions for their own body as an adult, instead of having it forced upon them at a young age?

And why is anyone this concerned with the aesthetic appeal of a child’s genitals, anyway?

The red herrings keep on coming:

Customary genital surgeries are not restricted to females. In almost all societies where there are customary female genital surgeries, there are also customary male genital surgeries, at similar ages and for parallel reasons. In other words, there are few societies in the world, if any, in which female but not male genital surgeries are customary. As a broad generalization, it seems fair to say that societies for whom genital surgeries are normal and routine are not singling out females as targets of punishment, sexual deprivation, or humiliation.

This is an enormous and unexplained logical leap. While some societies may perform both male circumcision and female genital mutilation, this fact alone is not sufficient to conclude that the motivations behind each of these practices must be identical, or that a desire to control women and their sexuality could not possibly be a factor in FGM.

Indeed, just a paragraph later, the report explicitly acknowledges this:

In some societies where genital surgeries are customary for females and males (for example, in Northeast Africa), chastity and virginity are highly valued, and type III surgeries involving infibulation may be expressive of these values, but those chastity and virginity concerns are neither distinctive nor characteristic of all societies for whom genital surgeries are customary.

So, the practice of infibulation may be tied to values of virginity and chastity. Yet somehow, sealing a girl’s vagina into just a small opening must have nothing to do with inflicting sexual deprivation upon women. I suppose if they started bending boys’ penises in half and sewing both sides together, that would have nothing to do with sexual control, either?

The authors outdo themselves with the next conclusion they jump to:

Female genital surgery in Africa is typically controlled and managed by women. Similarly, male genital surgery is usually controlled and managed by men. Although both men and women play roles in perpetuating and supporting the genital modification customs of their cultures, female genital surgery should not be blamed on men or on patriarchy. Demographic and health survey data reveal that when compared with men, an equal or higher proportion of women favor the continuation of female genital surgeries.

Just because women are involved with a practice, or endorse it, does not mean that their views haven’t been influenced in any way whatsoever by the values of a male-dominated, male-controlled society. A woman’s approval does not suddenly make a certain practice completely acceptable. An opinion of “but I like it!” should not exempt these values from being critically examined. It doesn’t mean that the origins of these values are now irrelevant just because, hey, women say they’re okay with it. It’s not as though every choice made by a woman is morally unimpeachable and has nothing to do with the beliefs and standards of her culture.

The report declares that “far greater attention should be paid to the perspectives of African women who value the practice and describe it accordingly (for example, as genital beautification or genital cleansing).” Where does the notion that this mutilation is actually a “beautification” come from? The authors explain:

Within the aesthetic terms of these body ideals, cosmetically unmodified genitals in both men and women are perceived and  experienced as distasteful, unclean, excessively fleshy, malodorous, and somewhat ugly to behold and touch. The enhancement of gender identity is also frequently a significant feature of genital surgery, from the point of view of insiders who support the practice. In the case of male genital surgeries, the aim is to enhance male gender identity by removing bodily signs of femininity (the foreskin is perceived as a fleshy, vagina-like female element on the male body). In the case of female genital surgeries, the aim is often to enhance female gender identity by removing bodily signs of masculinity (the visible part of the clitoris is perceived as a protruding, penis-like masculine element on the female body).

Yes, because people have so often failed to give a fair hearing to the notion that someone’s healthy, normal genitals are actually dirty, smelly and ugly. After all, our society has never held such negative views toward genitalia, especially women’s genitalia. It’s unheard of! Likewise, I’m sure that the literal stripping of any perceived hint of femininity from boys’ bodies has no connection to the lengthy global history of elevating men above women and removing any association they might have with a lesser sex. And these attempts to deprive girls of the “masculinity” they were born with certainly has nothing to do with the goal of keeping them out of the elevated status of men.

The sheer laziness and deceit of this report, from a supposedly esteemed bioethics group, is disappointing enough. That they would engage in these intellectual contortions and willful ignorance for the purpose of downplaying the genital mutilation of girls, and criticizing those who speak out against this practice, is outrageous. It just goes to show that bioethicists don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about it. Despite their title, they have no greater grasp of morality than anyone else, and the Hastings Center has made that unavoidably clear.

And it’s a discredit to Lisa Wade’s blog, usually an excellent source of analysis on how negative attitudes toward women are expressed in media, that she saw no need to point out the glaringly obvious flaws in this piece before giving it her stamp of approval. Good job adding some “balance” to counter all those silly people who think girls shouldn’t have their vulvas fused shut, you rebel you!

This is what a Catholic country looks like

A nightmarish ethical dystopia that succeeded in slowly and painfully killing an innocent woman for the sake of nothing.

Savita Halappanavar, 17 weeks pregnant, was miscarrying. There was no chance that the fetus would survive. In excruciating pain, Savita asked for an abortion. The hospital, University Hospital Galway in Ireland, refused. Why? There was still a fetal heartbeat, and as Savita and her husband were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

They forced Savita to wait, “in agony”, for another two days until the fetus died. By that time, she had to be taken into intensive care, and died a few days later of septicemia and E. coli infection.

Where Sister Margaret McBride made the choice to ignore the rules of her church and order a life-saving abortion at a Catholic hospital for a woman who was otherwise going to die, the doctors at Galway evidently could not bring themselves to do the same.

The fetus was certain to die. At that point, the staff’s only concern should have been ensuring Savita’s well-being. There was no justifiable reason whatsoever to allow an already doomed fetus to survive a couple more days while its presence made her so ill that she required intensive care.

Yet they were willing to stand by, watch her condition deteriorate, and do nothing, for the sake of a fetus that was not going to survive anyway.

This should have been the simplest moral decision in the world. Even if they consider the fetus a “life”, or a “person”, that life was already going to be lost. So, should one person die, or should two people die? Any one of us could have made the right choice here. But Savita’s life was in their hands, and she died because of their perverted ethics.

She died because of a faith that values adherence to a rule over saving a life, a religion that thinks its laws are more important than whether she lived or died.

And they would have been willing to put any one of us in the same situation as Savita. That should scare us. Catholic hospitals should scare us. Catholic countries should scare us. Here, they’ve shown that their beliefs are more than just an empty expression of piety. They’re willing to put our lives on the line for their church. Are you okay with that?

Selfish relative to what?

Among the many issues people have with transgender identities and the process of transitioning, one especially mystifying notion is that this is somehow selfish or vain. This is a difficult accusation to counter, because the concepts of “selfishness” and “vanity” are slippery things. In common usage, whether something is seen as selfish or vain is largely based on an individual’s subjective opinion, something which can widely vary. This makes it hard to refer to any kind of objective standard of selfishness or vanity and show them, “no, it’s not.”

But it often seems like they don’t even really intend to demonstrate how this is selfish or vain. They don’t actually bother to explain why it must be so, they just declare it to be so. Rather than making a serious argument, they may simply be using these labels to signal disapproval. They have some kind of problem with people being trans, and to justify this, they have to come up with a reason for why it’s bad. So they just pick any random thing that’s commonly seen as bad and which sounds vaguely plausible. They think being trans is wrong. Being selfish is a thing that’s wrong. Therefore, they’re going to argue for the bad-ness of being trans by saying that it’s selfish. In this process of thinking in reverse, they overlook the need to identify which aspects of being trans actually coincide with the distinguishing features of selfishness or vanity. They’re just trying to pass off a hollow imitation of a reason as though it were a real basis for their claims.

But despite how subjective people’s standards may be, there is still generally some minimal – if vague – consensus on what actually constitutes selfishness or vanity. Selfishness is typically understood as an excessive focus on the self, at the expense of concern for others. Someone’s gender identity and the process of transitioning are necessarily focused on the self, but that alone is not enough to make this selfish. Not everything that has to do primarily with the self is selfish just for that reason. There must also be some kind of negative impact on others as a result of that emphasis on the self.

It’s common for people to lower the threshold of selfishness on a situational basis so that they can attack almost anything for allegedly being “selfish”. For instance, someone might decide that my daily medications, which cost less than a cup of coffee, are a selfish indulgence because I could have sent that money to developing nations. Of course, we probably wouldn’t see them going to a Starbucks to berate the patrons for their “selfishness”. At some point, we have to recognize that it is often acceptable for us to do certain things for ourselves, and most people understand this when they aren’t trying to use the accusation of selfishness for dishonest purposes.

Things we choose to do for ourselves rather than others, but which are not actually selfish, might be better described as self-centered, self-focused, or self-oriented. But even this still carries the connotation of being selfish in a bad way, because the choice to describe it as pertaining to the self at all is often perceived as being in contrast to an unspoken baseline standard of appropriate balance between self-interest and concern for others. Any emphasis on the self thus implies that this is now out of balance, which makes it difficult to talk about anything that has to do primarily with the self without this being read as some kind of transgression.

But regardless of the difficulties in discussing this, it’s still not clear what exactly about being trans must be selfish. For this to be selfish in a bad way, there would have to be some element of it which adversely impacts others to an unacceptable extent, and which is disregarded so that the individual can pursue their own desires. Again, merely choosing to work toward their own goals is not enough to make this selfish.

So, does this cause any harm to others? If so, what are these harms? And are they genuine harms, or just harms that have been imagined and constructed? Finally, are these harms so substantial that they should outweigh the need for trans people to live as their true selves? Only then can we conclude that being trans is unacceptably selfish. So what might these supposed harms be? When might someone have such an important obligation to others that it overrides their own need to identify and live as they wish?

Many of these supposed “harms” seem to be of the same nature as the harm suffered by a Catholic mother who must endure the presence of gay people holding hands at a public park where her children can see, or the injury inflicted upon a Muslim who is exposed to an illustration of Muhammad. These are not actually harmful things. Plenty of people are able to be in the presence of gay people or drawings of Muhammad without acting like this constitutes some kind of real damage to them.

Those who pretend that this is a genuine harm seem to think that because they hold particular beliefs, everyone else is obligated to live their lives in accordance with these beliefs, and if they don’t, their unwillingness to let someone else’s beliefs deter them from living the life they want must mean they’re selfish. But this is not a legitimate obligation that anyone else is required to accept. The fact that you’re prejudiced does not mean that anyone is actually harming you by being part of a group that you’re prejudiced against. And the fact that you follow a certain religion does not mean anyone is harming you just by not following that religion.

People object to these things, not because they’re really causing injury to anyone, but because they choose to be bothered by them, and they believe the rest of the world must therefore honor that choice and tiptoe around it. But being gay, or doing something the religion of Islam wouldn’t approve of, does not deprive these people of anything other than their desire to control the lives of others to a clearly unacceptable degree. And the only burden it imposes upon them is one which all of us must already learn to live with: being part of a world full of people who won’t always agree with you.

It is not selfish to be gay, or to disagree with Islam, just because some people don’t like that. And likewise, it is not selfish to be trans merely because some people may vigorously disagree with it or claim that we’ve offended their delicate sensibilities. But considering the serious burden they seek to impose upon trans people by discouraging them from being themselves on the grounds that this is “selfish”, it truly is selfish for them to prioritize their personal comfort and inexplicable need for everyone not to be trans over another person’s identity and self-fulfillment.

It’s difficult to fathom how someone’s strong feelings on the matter could be important enough to obligate someone else to closet themselves, silence themselves, and disguise themselves every day as a gender they don’t identify with. Our choice to live our lives as we wish does not inflict any real harm upon those who demand we do otherwise. But their expectation that our life decisions should never stray from their standards would cause unacceptable harm to us. Such expectations really are selfish in a bad way.

There are certain situations where there could be more concrete harms tied to being trans, such as circumstances where it might have a significant impact upon someone’s partner or children and their relationships with them. This won’t be applicable to every trans person, and it isn’t something I have much experience with, because my partner and her entire family have always known me as a woman. At this point, it would be a surprise to everyone if I came out as a man! And again, it’s possible for people to be tempted to exaggerate the harm of someone close to them being trans in order to make it seem unacceptably selfish.

But when this does come out of nowhere, and nobody is sure of how best to work through it, the effects can potentially be similar to any other disruptive or destabilizing event that changes the nature of the family. Families are supposed to be a place where love, stability, and being there for each other are paramount, and choosing to be a part of a family represents an implicit agreement to maintain this and further these goals. To that extent, the feelings of one’s close family can be somewhat more relevant here than the opinions of random people.

For example, Dan Savage once claimed that it was selfish for a woman not to postpone her transition until her son was 18, because he was greatly distressed about this. If someone has children, how they’re affected by such decisions is certainly something to take into account, although it’s hard to see how the supposed harms that were previously compelling enough to demand that she delay her transition would suddenly cease to enter into the moral equation as soon as her son turns 18. If its impact on her children warrants such a delay, then isn’t it possible that she might be obligated to postpone this indefinitely? And if not, why would it necessitate such a delay now?

If transitioning were to lead to a breakup, then the effects this would have on one’s partner and children need to be considered as well, but to argue that this is unacceptable just because it would cause a breakup is essentially the same as arguing that divorce is always too selfish to be permissible. But sometimes divorces and breakups do end up being the better option once everything is taken into account. Similarly, each family’s situation is different in ways that make it impossible to issue blanket pronouncements of when being trans is or isn’t okay, or how it should be handled. This is something to be worked out on an individual basis.

And while it may seem easy to say that one person should be expected to make sacrifices for the sake of the rest of their family, it’s also important to consider the negative effects of having a member of the family repress and closet themselves for a lengthy period of time, in terms of how this impacts the health of the individual and everyone else. This is not something that can be simply ignored out of existence. Just imagine what kind of difficulties could arise from forcing a cis person to identify, present, and live in the role of the opposite sex for years at a time, in order to avoid disrupting their family. The very idea would likely be offensive to many people. And no matter how noble the intention might be, this could end up being quite unhealthy for themselves and the rest of the family.

All of these factors need to be weighed against one another, and many of them can be too complex to quantify in a straightforward way. This decision isn’t easy enough to be made by advice columnists and other amateur ethicists. It’s a deeply personal matter to be worked out by the individual and their loved ones. And if someone does choose to make a personal sacrifice in terms of hiding who they are for the sake of their family, that’s their choice. But it doesn’t mean that anyone who chooses otherwise is necessarily selfish. Being trans is not something that’s reliably harmful to one’s family. Not everyone finds it to be so flagrantly unacceptable, and not everyone believes their own needs are important enough to compel someone to pretend to be something they’re not. And if they do, there’s still the potential for selfishness in their belief that the individual’s need to live openly is not important and can be disregarded. In any case, people outside of these situations probably don’t have enough information to evaluate whether the impact of someone being trans is so severe that they should have kept it secret in order to please their family.

And just as with selfishness, the concept of vanity is usually misunderstood, misused, and mostly subjective. Most people care about how they look to some extent, so the accusation of vanity can easily be used to criticize anyone for caring about their appearance at all. Given that presenting as a certain gender is closely tied to how we look, it’s no surprise that trans people are often singled out and accused of being vain for altering our appearance. But simply caring about how we look is not enough on its own to conclude that we’re vain. Just as how selfishness describes an excessive fixation on the self, vanity describes an excessive fixation on one’s appearance – not simply caring about it at all.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why people might think that changing your appearance to that of another gender is so drastic that it can only be described as excessive. But the magnitude of that change on its own does not mean that it must therefore be in excess of what’s reasonable. In the case of someone who’s trans, the desire to live and present as their preferred gender is entirely reasonable. This is only excessive if people wanting to be seen as their gender is excessive. Do we call cis men and women vain for getting haircuts or buying clothes and makeup? Most of the time, we see nothing wrong with this. So how vain is it when I wear women’s clothes, compared to a cis woman wearing women’s clothes? If you consider all of the trappings of gender that people spend time and money on over their entire lifetime, it might start to seem pretty incredible no matter whether they’re cis or trans. Yet in the case of cis people, this isn’t usually treated as an excess focus on their appearance, but an acceptable focus.

Of course, one key difference is that trans people often take certain steps to present as their gender which most cis people will never have to. But this is simply the nature of the condition, and the various procedures associated with transitioning are considered by medical authorities to be necessary treatments as part of the standards of care. When cis people have to correct their appearance due to a medical condition, this generally isn’t seen as objectionable. If a cis woman with PCOS seeks to remove her excess facial hair, does anyone have a problem with that? Do they have to rock that beard or else risk accusations of “vanity”? So why should we consider it vain when a trans woman wants her facial hair gone? If a cis man with gynecomastia wants to have his breast tissue removed, is he just being vain? So why would it be vain for a trans man to have chest surgery? Sure, these can be major, costly procedures. But again, that doesn’t mean they’re excessive or unwarranted given the circumstances.

In the case of genital surgery, some people may consider it an act of vanity to operate on organs which are undesired but otherwise functional. But the need for genitals that match their body image is no less legitimate in trans people than it is in cis people. Consider the case of male combat veterans who have suffered disfiguring injuries to their genitals. If it’s easier to construct a vagina rather than a phallus, as it very well may be in some cases, would it be mere vanity for these men to prefer a functional phallus – or for them to have any preference at all? Should they have to settle for whatever they can get regardless of their desires, or else be considered vain? Whether people seek genital surgery because of their gender identity or because of involuntary disfigurement is immaterial. Just as in the case of undesired facial hair or breast tissue, the legitimacy of their preferences is what matters, and if these preferences are legitimate for cis people, they should be considered legitimate for trans people as well.

Simply living as your identified gender is not normally considered an example of selfishness or vanity. Yet this is all too often considered an outrageous act of self-absorption when trans people do it. The expectation that anyone should have to abandon their gender to avoid being seen as selfish or vain is never applied to cis people, because it’s plain to see how unreasonable this is. I’m entitled to my gender, just as you’re entitled to yours. But I’m not entitled to anyone else’s gender – and you’re not entitled to mine. One of the most important things my mother shared with me was her realization that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life living purely for other people just to keep them happy. Is that selfish? No. They have their own lives to live, and I have mine.

Are they really religious? Yes!

Following widespread attacks and protests at US embassies in the Middle East in reaction to a film insulting Islam, several people have linked to a story from February by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany. In the article, titled “Are They Really Religious?”, Aswany criticizes Egyptian Muslims who follow the letter of their interpretation of Islamic law, but disregard basic human decency.

He cites the examples of a male pharmacist who refused to give an injection of insulin to an elderly diabetic woman because of “sharia”, hospital employees leaving their patients unattended for hours so they could pray at a mosque during Ramadan, and Egyptian police officers insisting on letting their beards grow as Muhammad commanded after they had raped, tortured and killed protesters during the revolution. Aswany says:

True religion requires us to defend human values: truth, justice and freedom. This is the essence of religion and it is much more important than growing beards or giving the call to prayer in the Parliament chamber.

So, are these supposed hypocrites “really religious”? Yes, they are still religious. When people insist on spending hours in prayer, or protesting any insult against someone they consider a prophet of their faith, this is obviously driven by religious beliefs, and it is religious behavior. Considering this an act of hypocrisy, or something other than religious in nature, requires redefining religion to mean an idealized “true religion” that upholds a certain set of universal moral values. And while it may sound nice to say “religion is good, and when it’s not, people are just doing it wrong”, that simply isn’t true.

If Aswany wants to denounce medical neglect, human rights violations, and “Egyptians who observe the superficial aspects of religion and pray regularly, but in their daily dealings are far from truthful and honest”, then this is all certainly worthy of criticism in its own right. But just because something is bad doesn’t mean it’s not religious. In reality, religion is not synonymous with respect, honesty, fairness, tolerance, peace, freedom, the golden rule, or anything else that people might insist is a part of “true religion”. Certainly, most sects of most religions will profess to hold most of these values, but in practice, their interpretations often leave exceptions wide enough to fly a plane through.

To claim that religion can only be responsible for good, and that anything terrible which results from it must not have been motivated by religion at all, would severely compromise our understanding of religion as a phenomenon and its role in shaping human behavior. If we recognize that people can be inspired to acts of extraordinary heroism and self-sacrifice by their beliefs about the foundation of existence and the ultimate purpose of humanity, what sense does it make to deny that these same beliefs could also drive people to commit acts of great evil which they think are actually good?

Even simply adhering to ideals of truth, justice and freedom still isn’t enough to prevent some people from completely screwing things up when they put this into action. Why is it so implausible that someone’s religious ideas about what’s inherently good could in fact be utterly atrocious? A society that values shallow displays of piety over respect for human life has absolutely been influenced by religion. Bad religious behavior by religious people doesn’t happen in spite of religion. It happens because of it, and it doesn’t stop being religious when it starts being a problem.

Equating religion with ethical conduct, and the absence of religion with immorality, implies that non-religious people do not share the basic, humane values that are attributed to this “true religion” – or that if they do, they must indeed be religious. Neither is true. People of no religion are fully capable of acting ethically, and their ability to do so is not hindered by the absence of religious faith. It doesn’t mean that they must be either secretly immoral or secretly religious. The lack of religion is not synonymous with a lack of morality, because godlessness and good behavior were never incompatible. The denial that religion could ever be responsible for any wrongdoing is not only false – it also unfairly maligns every person who doesn’t need religion to know right from wrong.

Those who put their prayers before their patients, kill protesters while defending their beards, and attack embassies in the name of Muhammad have not failed to be religious. They’ve succeeded. And just because that success is in the fields of inhumanity, ignorance, frivolity and violence doesn’t mean a lack of faith had anything to do with it.

Ethicists don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about

Purdue Pharma is currently running trials of the opioid painkiller OxyContin on 150 patients aged 6 to 16, after previously discontinuing expensive youth trials in order to redirect their resources to developing an abuse-resistant form of the drug. All of these children were already on other opioid painkillers to manage pain from cancer, severe burns and sickle cell anemia.  Doctors have already been prescribing OxyContin, but without the benefit of any studies showing its effects on children specifically, and the FDA’s offer of a six-month patent extension on the drug in exchange for conducting trials on children was enough to get Purdue to resume testing.

Ethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan has a problem with this:

“It looks to me like a raw, crass, last-gasp exploitation of a drug that has been synonymous with misuse, abuse and harm to patients,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, the head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Putting aside Purdue’s possible motives, I’m not sure why OxyContin should necessarily be considered uniquely “synonymous with misuse, abuse and harm to patients”, or why this is a reason not to acquire data about its possible effects in children who would already be taking other opioid painkillers anyway. Does OxyContin possess some property which presents a much higher risk of addiction than all other opioids in common use as painkillers? When used properly, is it still more harmful than other opioid painkillers? Are these same objections somehow inapplicable to other opioids, which also pose a risk of addiction and can be harmful when abused?

Or does Dr. Caplan believe that OxyContin itself now inherently possesses some kind of Aura of Badness just because of the widespread trend of people abusing it? If OxyContin did pose any sort of elevated risk to people beyond that of any other opioids they may be taking for pain management, then this argument should be made on the basis of relevant evidence – and OxyContin being a trendy street drug is not relevant evidence here. And even if it did carry additional risks, those risks should be weighed against its effectiveness as a painkiller, and viewed in light of the need these children have for pain relief. This isn’t as simple as “everyone is focusing on people abusing this one drug, therefore it can have no legitimate medical use.” If OxyContin itself is really so ethically objectionable, why not just pull it from the market entirely?


Actually, the recognition of circumcision as child abuse is a long-overdue ethical insight

Following a German court’s ruling that the circumcision of male infants constitutes a violation of child’s right to bodily integrity, The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill has mounted a particularly vacuous defense of the practice. As he sees it, “The rebranding of circumcision as ‘child abuse’ echoes the ugly anti-Semitism of medieval Europe” – yet he somehow finds a way to blame this on atheists:

There are many bad things about the modern atheistic assault on religion. But perhaps the worst thing is its rebranding of certain religious practices as “child abuse”. Everything from sending your kid to a Catholic school to having your baby boy circumcised has been redefined by anti-religious campaigners as “abuse”.

Let’s just take a moment to contemplate how remarkable it is that someone can make the entirely fact-free assertion that atheists are “assaulting” religion and that this is a bad thing, and have it published in a major newspaper. As far as introductions go, this has all the grace and composure of a 6th grader’s five-paragraph essay on current events. Apparently this modern atheistic assault on religion has become so extreme that the only other example of it he can find is the occasional labeling of a religious upbringing as “child abuse” – a rhetorical flourish that’s less of a serious accusation, and more of a way to raise questions about the ethics of forcing narrow and rigid dogma on young people. And O’Neill considers this particular offense among “the worst” committed by atheists. Clearly the situation is much more grave than we thought.

Regardless, his distaste for the so-called “New Atheists” has no bearing whatsoever on the ethical status of infant male circumcision. Whatever “anti-religious campaigners” have called it, this doesn’t change whether it’s actually right or wrong. It’s disingenuous for O’Neill to treat this situation as little more than a chance to express his personal grudge against atheists. What few arguments he has for allowing circumcision are unconvincing, if not outright incoherent:

This is an alarming attack on freedom of religion and on parents’ rights to initiate their children into their faith. The court case centred around a four-year-old Muslim boy who was given a very bad circumcision, but the precedent set by the case will of course affect Jews as well as Muslims. And as Germany’s Central Council of Jews rightly said, the court’s ruling is “an egregious and insensitive measure”, which represents “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in religious communities’ right of determination”.

How can “freedom of religion” possibly be construed to extend so far that it allows religious people to remove parts of other people’s bodies without their consent and for no medical reason? Tattooing results in even less impairment than removal of the foreskin, yet parents who apply tattoos to their children have often faced charges. Are we to believe that the mere fact that some people might believe something as part of their religion is enough to make this completely acceptable? And if so, what are the limits to this?

When religion is used to justify something that would otherwise be considered wholly unacceptable, it’s nothing but an excuse for the inexcusable. Treating religion as the only reason you need to remove body parts from others is really no reason at all beyond “we want to”. How could someone else’s religion be so important that it makes this okay?

And how exactly does circumcision function to “initiate their children into their faith”? Having your foreskin removed is not something that automatically initiates you into any religion. It’s not like cutting it off implants some kind of permanent Judaism/Islam module in the child’s brain – otherwise there would be a lot more Jewish Muslims in America. Nor is circumcision practiced exclusively by religious people or as a way to mark a child as a member of a religion.

Such a doctrine is utterly ignorant anyway, because the presence or absence of a foreskin has no relation to what someone professes to believe (and reducing a person to nothing but a vector for your preferred ideology is intensely disrespectful of their agency). When you leave the religion that was responsible for your circumcision, that part doesn’t grow back! It’s asinine to focus on the importance of freedom of religion, while not caring at all about the freedom not to have parts of your genitals removed at will by others – especially when you’ve just argued that the state of the foreskin is a part of religious identification and expression. If it’s really that important, then what about the child’s freedom of religion?

Oh, but it doesn’t end there:

But in truth it echoes centuries’ worth of nasty anti-circumcision posturing by people who hate certain religious faiths. In Medieval Europe, as pointed out in the book The Covenant of Circumcision, Jew-baiters often depicted circumcision as “cruel and grotesque”. The “barbarous and cruel Jews” were slated for callously snipping off their own boys’ foreskins and for secretly desiring to do the same to Christian boys, too. These “merciless” creatures were described by one English writer as “foreskinne-clippers”. The modern atheist’s description of circumcision as “child abuse”, though used to attack both Jewish and Muslim communities, is only an updated, more PC version of the old anti-Semites’ description of it as “cruel and grotesque”.

To O’Neill, it’s practically impossible that circumcision actually could be a violation of the child’s rights – such a finding must be motivated by anti-Semitism rather than sound judicial and ethical reasoning. I suppose it hasn’t occurred to him that using the existence of anti-Semitism as an excuse to ignore any arguments against circumcision isn’t particularly respectful of the Jewish people either.

Just because circumcision is a Jewish practice doesn’t mean a ban on circumcision is specifically targeting Jewish people, and just because a history of ugly anti-Jewish prejudice exists does not mean that circumcision can’t be wrong – yes, even if opposition to circumcision has played a role in anti-Semitism. Hitler can say it’s sunny out, but that doesn’t mean it’s raining. Ted Kaczynski can believe in global warming, but that doesn’t mean anthropogenic climate change must not exist. O’Neill can question the motivations behind this finding until the cows come home, but any historical association with prejudice it may have doesn’t justify his refusal to engage with its actual points. If considering all infant male circumcisions unethical – not just those conducted by Jewish people – is “only an updated, more PC version” of anti-Semitism, then not hating Jews is apparently the new hating Jews.

And yes, that’s where O’Neill is taking this:

History tells us that the rebranding of religious practices as child abuse can have terrible consequences. Many anti-Jewish pogroms in the past were justified on the basis that Jews abused children.

I hope O’Neill is aware of who was responsible for most of these pogroms. Hint: it wasn’t the work of “New Atheists”. If he’s seriously trying to claim that infant male circumcision must be allowed in order to prevent some future explosion of anti-Semitic violence resulting from its prohibition, he’s going to need a lot more evidence than that to justify removing foreskins as a peacekeeping measure. As is, he’s only reiterated the confluence of unexamined tradition and unwarranted respect for religion that have so often enabled much of society to look the other way on this issue – a moral question with an answer that would otherwise be clear as day.