The Abrahamic Covenant
There has been much recent controversy around the issue of circumcision, which has become the male side of the right-to-choose debate in America, where the practice is still common but being challenged.
The practice of circumcision originated in different parts of the world independently but is most often associated with Judaism. In order to attract the Greeks and facilitate their mass conversion to Christianity, Paul of Tarsus had to abolish the barbaric practice of genital mutilation that had been established as part of God’s eternal covenant with the descendants of Abraham. It would have most likely been impossible to convince the Greeks, whose humanism was too entrenched and led them to view the human body as the unit of measure of all good, to adopt the practice. Below is how the covenant of circumcision was established in Jewish scripture:
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. – Genesis 17:10-14
Jews and most Muslims, who have a hadith according to which Muhammad was circumcised, engage in the practice. Most Christians don’t practice it, except many in America.
Hindus do not mutilate their newborn, as they view it as a strange and foreign practice brought to India by the Muslims. Sikhs are strongly against circumcision and, furthermore, against changing anything else that nature does to the natural human person, for which reason the members of the Khalsa Order do not believe in cutting one’s hair ever during one’s lifetime, including beard and all other hair. Intactness of the penis is only one expression of the overall approach of acceptance of the intact human body that is part of Sikh philosophy.
Arguments For and Against
The American medical establishment from time to time has defended circumcision. During the Victorian era, it was argued that it prevented masturbation. In 1949 this view was challenged by Douglas Gairdner, a Cambridge paediatrician who argued:
Nature is a possessive mistress, and whatever mistakes she makes about the structure of the less essential organs such as the brain and stomach, in which she is not much interested, you can be sure that she knows best about the genital organs.
It is today being argued that circumcision prevents STDs, and research has been produced to this effect. But, children are not sexually active when they are being mutilated as newborn. Is it not appropriate, then, to wait for the child to reach puberty so he can make an informed decision prior to engaging in sexual activity?
Aside from the religious views, some people argue in favor of circumcision for scientific and aesthetic reasons. We find that some people believe the circumcised penis is more attractive. Then again, others find the uncircumcised penis more attractive, or are indifferent.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has endorsed a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that circumcision prevents urinary tract infections, penile cancer (a condition rarer than male breast cancer), and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. However, these are groups that profit from the procedure and have a financial interest in promoting circumcision and elevating it to the status of a revered tradition.
As for arguments against the practice: intactivists argue that there are possible serious medical complications and the so-called medical benefits of the procedure do not justify the practice, which is not perceived as normal in most countries.
We must also consider the moral argument in favor of ownership of one’s body. A newborn child is not able to decide whether or not to have an unnecessary, irrevocable procedure where a part of his body is removed from him forever. Implicit in the practice is the premise that it is moral and acceptable for such crucial choices to be made without the consent of the individual. This is a premise which has many and profound ramifications.
And finally, there is the problem of loss of sensation in the head of the penis and surrounding area, which is rich in nerve endings for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Implicit in the practice of circumcision may be the premise that such pleasure is bad, evil, unnecessary, or sinful. All of these arguments are exacerbated by the fact that the procedure is an entirely unnecessary act of genital mutilation and represents the normalization of cruelty.
In recent years, the movement to restore the normalcy of the intact penis has become more vocal and visible, with initiatives like Intact America, a non-profit organization that educates people on the dangers and the immorality of the practice, which is deemed by many as barbaric.
Several cultural memes have proliferated online. There is an intactivist blog titled May the foreskin be with you, there’s Occupy Foreskin, and there’s a moving video online where a mother apologized to her son for circumcising him as a child which has generated mainstream media attention.
On the other hand secularists, particularly those with political tendencies, have branded this a church and state issue and frequently compare male circumcision with female genital mutilation, where the clitoris is removed.
The Hedonic Covenant
If we frame the intactivist movement within the Humanist ethical context, particularly in terms of the Epicurean social contract–an agreement not to harm or be harmed–, it is difficult to argue in favor or circumcision of newborn children.
It is also clear that many who were led to the practice under religious pretenses were obeying tradition blindly and that, within our discourse, the practice acquires the connotation of cultural corruption as opposed to the expected acceptance of the wisdom of nature, of natural selection and of nature as the ideal. The religious attack on the prepuce, seen in this light, can be understood as a departure from what nature intended in favor of a peculiar brand of culture that sees nature as something inferior or evil to be conquered, to be transcended, to be opposed. There is an ecological component to intactivism.
The practice of male circumcision of newborn children, even if found desirable (for instance, for aesthetic reasons), may furthermore be categorized within our ethical doctrine as unnatural and unnecessary, and therefore vain and empty.
For all these reasons, I am proud to add my voice and my moral support to the legions of cyber-intactivists who are fighting this counter-jihad against circumcision. Like the so-called “moral” issue of avoidance of eating the flesh of the pig for religious reasons, this new standoff in the culture wars has the potential to furnish interesting new insights about culture’s perceptions and what culture does to the human body, and can help to uncover some of the problematic and even dangerous premises behind many of the false views upheld by the mobs which affect the basic human rights of children every day.
The First Cut: Should Circumcision Be Banned?