It must be fun-with-philosophers day, because Ron Lindsay has written an article for CFI declaring that male circumcision should not be a major concern for humanists. He has several bad arguments to support this idea.
One is that he doesn’t think it’s very important. No, really; he’s in charge of ranking our priorities.
The head of the affiliate said they were going to concentrate on making an all-out effort to ban circumcision. I remember thinking to myself: of all the ills of a society on which a humanist organization could concentrate, this organization is going to focus on saving the foreskin?
STOP EVERYTHING. I say the biggest crisis looming over our heads is climate change, so of all the ills our society faces, why is the Center for Inquiry wasting their time opposing religion? Get some perspective, people!
Another reason he gives is that the foreskin is so teeny-tiny, and people aren’t seriously harmed by lopping it off, so it’s a trivial matter, especially compared to real problems (don’t forget, Ron Lindsay is the arbiter of what matters).
For humanists who are concerned about how the bodies of children are permanently shaped by their parents, I suggest they concentrate on how children are educated. We need tougher regulation of homeschooling and we need to prevent public funding of religious schools— something which seems quite possible under the new administration. The appropriate response to male circumcision is a shrug of the shoulders; it’s just not that significant an issue. We have other work to do.
I agree that education has a greater effect on children than circumcision. But this is just the fallacy of relative privation: that problem A has more severe consequences than problem B does not mean you should ignore B until A is completely solved. There’s always other work to do. It never ends. I taught two courses this term, but when the work piled up in one I couldn’t just tell the other class to stop meeting and stop learning until I’d caught up. You make do.
I’ll also point out that Lindsay was head of an organization of many people, and that he didn’t do all of CFI’s work. Ron Lindsay could ignore one cause; that doesn’t mean the entire organization isn’t allowed to work on it.
Then he dismisses the entirety of the autonomy and consent arguments!
The other reason I think many humanists are so opposed to circumcision is their adherence to a philosophical principle which, superficially, has strong appeal, namely that no permanent changes should be made to someone’s body without that person’s consent. Seems eminently reasonable—the problem is that it is impossible to comply with this principle with respect to the most important part of our body, namely our brain, and the possible harm that may be done to us via the shaping of our brain when we are young makes the loss of a foreskin trivial.
Yes. The universe is not perfect. We have to compromise all over the place. The fact that we cannot control what people teach their children means, what the hell, let ’em make any ol’ cosmetic change to their children’s bodies that they want. They have the right to teach children that Jesus is real, so we shouldn’t complain if they want to tattoo a picture of Elvis on their forehead. Or snip off the end of their penis.
Because piano lessons.
Most developed countries do exercise some control over the training and education children receive, imposing various legal standards and restrictions, but even so, wide scope is given to parents in terms of how they raise their children. Homeschooling is permitted in the United States, for example, with minimal oversight in most states. (Interestingly, homeschooling is forbidden in some European countries, such as Germany—again a significant cultural difference.) With respect to training in music or sports, parents can subject their children to extensive training, just short of physical abuse. Hour after hour of piano practice or swimming lessons. When grown, these children might be grateful for their training, or they may resent the physical or psychic pain they had to endure while forced to pursue an activity which they never liked. On the other hand, some children will receive no training in music or sports, something which they may regard as a handicap in later life. Either way the bodies of these children will have been permanently altered by their parents.
It’s true! Excessive focus on one discipline, whether it’s football or piano, can be damaging to a child’s development, especially if they have no talent or interest in the subject. These wrongs therefore justify another itty-bitty wrong, docking their penis. Or tattooing Elvis on their forehead, as long as we’re building arguments around hypotheticals.
He wraps it up with this pile of garbage: we should impose limits on what parents can do to their children, but elective cosmetic surgery doesn’t cross that line, because maybe it helps something.
Nothing in the foregoing analysis should be interpreted as saying we should allow parents to change their children’s bodies in any way they regard as suitable just because their role in shaping these bodies is inevitable. Clearly, limits should be— and are —imposed on what parents can do. Parents cannot inflict disabling injuries on their children. But, as indicated, the evidence regarding male circumcision is that it provides some small benefits. It cannot plausibly be characterized as medically necessary, but, with appropriate use of analgesia, it’s not harmful. The energies that some devote to opposing male circumcision might be better spent lobbying for tighter regulation of homeschooling. The cerebral portion of young male bodies should receive as much attention as the genital portion.
I’ve read the CDC summary, and some of the papers that claim there are benefits to circumcision. I’m unimpressed. There are multiple reasons why those arguments of a benefit are weak.
They fail to show any benefit to American children. Some claim to have found significant benefits to some African populations, which are under a very different regime of infectious diseases.
Even those effects in African populations are inconsistent. Some claim statistically significant reductions in infection rates, others don’t.
The studies that do show an effect show that late, voluntary circumcisions are as effective as post-natal circumcisions. So why force it on babies?
All of these studies are carried out under a complicated set of biases. Americans have high rates of circumcision, Europeans don’t. Strangely, American studies say it’s not a problem, European studies find it harmful. Isn’t that odd? It’s almost as if cultural biases influence the results, although we know that can’t possibly be.
The CDC summary is not without strong dissent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced a set of provisional guidelines concerning male circumcision, in which they suggest that the benefits of the surgery outweigh the risks. I offer a critique of the CDC position. Among other concerns, I suggest that the CDC relies more heavily than is warranted on studies from Sub-Saharan Africa that neither translate well to North American populations nor to circumcisions performed before an age of sexual debut; that it employs an inadequate conception of risk in its benefit vs. risk analysis; that it fails to consider the anatomy and functions of the penile prepuce (i.e., the part of the penis that is removed by circumcision); that it underestimates the adverse consequences associated with circumcision by focusing on short-term surgical complications rather than long-term harms; that it portrays both the risks and benefits of circumcision in a misleading manner, thereby undermining the possibility of obtaining informed consent; that it evinces a superficial and selective analysis of the literature on sexual outcomes associated with circumcision; and that it gives less attention than is desirable to ethical issues surrounding autonomy and bodily integrity. I conclude that circumcision before an age of consent is not an appropriate health-promotion strategy.
Lindsay is comfortable with dismissing people’s objections to circumcision because he thinks it is a trivial problem, but somehow, a trivial and disputed positive effect is enough to justify disregarding any concern about an unnecessary surgery routinely performed on infants for no good reason at all. Does he even realize that circumcisions were not performed because there was evidence that they helped at all?
This makes no sense.
You know what’s much more important than circumcision, or state executions, or the ongoing harassment of women, women in his own organization?
Chupacabras, that’s what. That is the other work CFI must do. Valuable and scarce resources must continue to be invested in debunking this plague on our nation, while the only appropriate response to those other nuisances is a shrug of the shoulders.