If you like cutting penises so much, cut your own

RELAX, put the scalpel DOWN, and move AWAY from the baby. SLOWLY.

If it’s true societies are judged on how they treat the most vulnerable in their care then future generations of humans will read history books about ritual male circumcision whilst trying to keep down large mouthfuls of vomit. “They did what?”, they will ask, “To baby boys? And those who spoke out against it were the crazy ones? Savages.”

Assuming this barbaric practice ever stops and a record of this blog remains, it will be nice to be on the right side of history, but any satisfaction I get from that is wiped out by the knowledge that circumcision continues to do harm today.

Sunday 1 July 2012 saw a discussion on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live programme of the recent legal case in Germany which held that circumcising young boys for religious reasons amounts to bodily harm (the discussion starts at 18min 40sec of the first link).

The “journalist” Rosie Millard diligently set out the excruciatingly weak/non-existent arguments for circumcision:

1. This was a German court, which is therefore deeply culturally insensitive

Do the horrific, undisputed crimes of the Third Reich mean that a competent court of a democratic Germany, respecting the rule of law, cannot ever declare any act of a Jew to be wrong, ever again? Hitler liked German Shepherd dogs. So do I. Sorry, what’s your point, Ms. Millard?

2. This is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish and Muslim faiths

Is religious freedom without limit, even when it involves removing perfectly healthy parts of a baby? If you can’t draw the line for religious freedom at some point before the most intimate part of a baby boys starts getting mutilated, Ms. Millard, then I’m guessing you’re incapable of drawing that line anywhere.

3. This has gone on for thousands of years

[In case you’re wondering, yes, Ms. Millard is a grown-up with a job.] Traditions that are good or harmless achieve the privilege of continuing; those that are harmful do not. Perhaps you would like to renounce your right to vote, Ms. Millard, being the traditionalist that you so clearly are?

4. What’s next, banning christenings?

There is no case to ban christenings because a cold bath in a church is harmless (assuming the priest has been CRB-checked). Cutting genitals isn’t like having a bath. It’s like, well, cutting genitals. If your brain can’t differentiate between those two things, Ms. Millard, you might as well donate it to medical research right now, or if that’s too extreme an option then perhaps just check yourself in to your local nuthouse. As much for your own protection as anyone else’s.

5. We should stay out of the traditions of different communities and let them get on with it

You can almost smell the horseshit now. This is the classical post-modern, culturally relativist position of granting different rights to different people based on the “community” into which they are lucky or unlucky enough to be born. Ms. Millard, cultural and religious diversity is a good thing but diversity of human rights on the basis of culture or religion most certainly is not. Do you know why we call them “human rights”, by the way? Don’t worry, I’ll explain. It’s because (a) we are all entitled to exactly the same rights (hence the word “human”), and (b) rights are not there to be handed out or withdrawn at the discretion of religious “leaders” or even parents – they are provided and protected by law (hence the word “rights”). Do you need me to explain that again? This time with picture cards, perhaps?  Let me know.

Is it anti-Semitic to ban or criticise circumcision? No. I say it’s anti-Semitic not to give a baby boy born to Jewish parents the same right that others are lucky enough to take for granted: the right to decide what he does with his own penis.

Is it Islamophobic to ban or criticise circumcision? Again, no. The word “Islamophobic” is generally meaningless and is typically used to instantly extinguish any discussion – let alone criticism – of Islam. Ironically, here its use might be legitimate, but in a different sense: I say it’s “Islamophobic” not to uphold the lawful rights of babies born to Muslim parents on the basis of: “that lot are different”.

Do I expect this to stop soon? Of course I don’t. Consider this. I used to work with a Jewish guy. Very pleasant chap. He described himself as an atheist and secular Jew. That means he saw himself as Jewish only in the loose cultural/racial sense rather than a theological one.

It means that although he didn’t personally believe in God he wanted to live life in such a way that people are neither advantaged nor disadvantaged on the basis of their religion or lack of it. He wanted to pass on certain traditions to his children (and like the best human traditions, most of the ones he explained to me seemed to revolve around food) and of course he has every right to do that free from persecution or discrimination. Importantly, he also wanted his children to make their own decisions on religion, just as he wanted them to make their own decisions on politics or other matters of conscience. We shared many opinions, including a hatred of faith schools of all brands.

This guy had two daughters. One day I asked him  given his strictly secular interpretation of his own Jewish identity  if he would have arranged to circumcise any offspring of his born with an extra Y-chromosome.

He told me had considered this issue before and he even admitted he was relieved to have had two daughters – because it meant he could avoid making the decision. Can you imagine the scene in the delivery room? “Darling, it’s a girl! We don’t have to decide whether to mutilate any genitals!”

He really wrestled with his conscience before telling me that, on balance, he would probably have had a son circumcised because he wouldn’t have wanted to “deny” that son its identity. Remember: this was an atheist and secular Jew. This was someone who – I thought – would stand with me virtually shoulder to shoulder as far as secularism was concerned. Condemning ritual circumcision was a step too far even for him, though. Bear that in mind when trying to convince even a moderately religious Jew to put the scalpel down.

A part of the debate that is often overlooked, especially in this country, is the widespread use of circumcision for non-religious reasons (America is a prime example). I am equally as opposed to non-religious circumcision as I am to religious circumcision. Whether for religious reasons or not, the practice is unnecessary and harmful. Any invasive and irreversible physical procedure – and if this doesn’t include male circumcision then I’m a papaya – must only be carried out on an infant on objective, evidence-based, medical grounds. If there is no such justification in an individual case then for goodness sake let the owner of the penis wait until he is an adult and can make the decision for himself.

But I need to emphasise that my disapproval of religious circumcision is two-fold. Firstly, the mere act itself is unnecessary and harmful. Secondly, such a glaring exception to a civilised and legal behavioural norm (“Hey, don’t take a sharp implement to a baby boy’s dick unless there’s a good medical reason, ok?”) granted purely on religious grounds highlights just how important it is to bring religious institutions and religion generally firmly within the rule of law.

And it gets worse.  There is an even more disturbing interpretation of circumcision practised by some Orthodox Jews called metzitzah b’peh (which translates as “suction with the mouth”).  Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

In this case the mohel sucks blood from the circumcision wound on the baby’s penis, and there have been cases of babies contracting herpes from the mohel, and dying.

Of course, if one accepts that religious freedom has no limit and that tradition is in itself a valid reason for anything, one is forced to conclude that metzitzah b’peh is unobjectionable.

I decided to put this to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who describe themselves on their Twitter profile as “the elected representative organisation of the UK Jewish community to government, media and other faith groups.”  The Board of Deputies was represented on Sunday Morning Live yesterday and, as you might expect, their Vice President Jonathan Arkush robustly criticised the German court decision.

Here’s our Twitter exchange (apologies for the cack-handed technical execution):

@BoardofDeputies What’s your view on metzitzah b’peh (mohel sucking circumcised penis)? Surely an example of religious freedom? #bbcsml

@renlightenment Not a practice necessary for Brit Milah and not one carried out by the substantial majority of the British Jewish community

I hope you noticed the complete failure by the Board of Deputies to condemn the practice on moral grounds.  I certainly did.  So then I was more specific:

@BoardofDeputies Thanks for the reply. Do you condemn it unequivocally (as I do)? One word answer on that, please.#circumcision #bbcsml

I’ve not heard back but as and when I do, I will update this post.

What else can I say?

Stop mutilating the penises of baby boys, now.