Iceland is currently discussing a bill that would ban infant male circumcision and, if it succeeds, it will become the first country in the European Union to do so. I always knew that I would eventually comment on this most touchy of subjects, and in light of this current news I guess now is as good a time as any.
I am aware that for many people, this is not a “tough question” at all. Many have very strong opinions on the subject one way or another, whereas I find myself quite torn on the topic. I am also aware that, as someone who does not own a penis my opinions on the subject are somewhat less valid than someone who has more skin in the game, so to speak, but my current dilemma is mostly based on the science and the fact that both sides often exaggerate or twist it to fit their own notion.
Before we continue yes, I made a circumcision pun. I totally meant it. I apologize… kind of. Now let’s move on.
By now, I would be surprised if every single one of you reading this has not come across this particular debate at least once. I expect you all know at least one person on the pro circumcision side, who says that it is cleaner and healthier to be circumcised, and it is also an itegral part of many people’s tradition so back the fuck off. Then you hear the “against” side, who will eventually compare it to female gential mutilation, and that true gender equality means being categorically against any kind of genital mutilation regardless of gender. The problem is, as far as the science goes, neither of these arguments have much merit.
As far as the “clean and healthy” side goes, there is really no evidence that being circumcised leads to any kind of health benefit. Maybe this was a thing back when running water and regular bathing was not an option, but in this day and age there is no scientific evidence that suggests any such health benefit. While it has been shown that circumcision can reduce the spread of HIV (having to do with the reduced ability of the virus to enter and infect a circumcised penis), this benefit is only relevant in countries with an extremely high prevalence of HIV and is positively dwarfed by the use of actual condoms.
On the other hand, you just cannot compare male circumcision to female genital mutilation. It is not even close. With FGM, you’re talking about cutting off the clitoris and sewing up the vagina so that it can be ripped open upon the woman’s first sexual encounter, and that’s the better case scenario, in which they don’t completely remove the entire labia as well. Saying that is the same as losing a little skin off the top of a penis is, at the very least, hyperbolic. With FGM, the damage to health and well being is clear, whereas a properly performed male circumcision just does not have the same associated adverse effects on health. As far as the science goes, you’re not going to find proof of benefit or harm.
However, note that I said a properly performed male circumcision. As with all surgical procedures there is always a small risk that it will be botched, and one thing you definitely do not want is a botched circumcision. That in the end is the main argument that the proponents of this bill are making: it is completely medicaly unnecessary, there is always some risk associated with it, why take that chance with a baby’s future health? If they really want to have it done, let them do it when they are older and can decide for themselves.
Well, that seems like a logical argument. So why am I so split on this?
Because, while I normally don’t find myself bending over backwards to accomodate old fashioned religious beliefs, I still see the point of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Iceland who claim that this is discriminatory. Basically, it depends on which way you look at it. The Icelandic Progressive Party is saying: there’s no use for it, why take the risk with a child who cannot consent? The Jewish and Muslim communities are saying: there’s no harm in it, why ban us from a practice that is critical to our culture?
Call me a traitor, but they kind of both have a point.
This ban also calls back terrible memories of a not so long ago past, where being circumcised in Europe meant a surefire way of being identified as a member of a persecuted group. I do not think enough time has past for people to say that these concerns have no merit. Instead of letting the practice fizzle out along with other silly religious beliefs, banning it at this point in time would, I think, just make it seem like an attack on a culture rather than a concern for the health of a child. I can also imagine that, if you are a Jewish man growing up in Iceland and you are certainly going to choose to be circumcised, you’ll curse the dickheads who passed a law thinking you’d prefer to have the procedure done when you are old enough to remember it. That wont feel like they were protecting you and your rights in the slightest.
And, let’s be honest, banning a procedure like this just means endorsing the “backalley” variety. Then, if something does go wrong, they will be hesitant in bringing their babies to the hospital for fear of getting jail time. That’s just disastrous all round.
Given that, it sounds like I’m falling on the side of not banning it. However, I start swinging the other way when I think about the overly relaxed attitude that some Jewish and Muslim communities takes in the face of male circumcision, as if it is no more delicate a procedure than getting a hair cut. While I agree that the procedure is minor when compared to FGM, it is still a surgery, and as such should be performed with sterility and hygiene in mind. Most egregious of all, in my opinion, is the practice of some Orthodox groups to have the mohel remove the cut skin and clean the wound by placing the baby’s freshly cut penis in their fucking mouths, which of course can have such charming effects as infecting the newborns with herpes.
Now that I would ban in a fucking second. I am still as shocked and disgusted thinking about it as I was the first time I discovered that it was even a thing.
So, after much twisting and turning over this subject, I think that I would probably ban circumcision in the home. I would say that, if you must do it, it has to be done in a sterile environment, in a hospital or clinic. Let the mohels or whomever get a certification of some kind which proved their competence and do it in a clean room with sterile equipment. But banning it outright? I don’t think we’re ready for that.
Of course I am still kind of on the fence about this, so I am curious to know what your thoughts are on the subject, as I can still be swayed either way.
But before I go, I want to leave you with a little video that highlights the cultural differences between the US and Europe on this issue. It might surprise many of you Europeans that a very large majority of the male US population is circumcised, almost as much as it might surprise many of you Americans that, in Europe, circumcision is almost exclusively a Jewish and Muslim thing. Why this disparity?
Would you believe that you can blame Kellogg, as in of Kellogg’s cornflakes?
I’ll let Adam fill you in on the history of it.