Sunday, 22 July 2012

Circumcision is an affront to decent human behaviour

We rightly decry female genital mutilation. Why, then, are so many happy to condone the male equivalent?
Jonathan Romain
Rabbi Jonathan Romain. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
Checking the official website, I can find no denial to date that would cast doubt on the claim, by rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, that the Queen chose to have HRH the Prince of Wales and his brothers, Andrew and Edward, circumcised. But perhaps that is to be expected: the rabbi said their circumcisions were common knowledge. In Charles's case, he told the BBC's Today audience, the "snip" was performed by a Jewish expert, or mohel, who later had the honour of reconfiguring the speaker's own private parts.
The hope, presumably, was that – particularly in this jubilee year – loyal listeners would accept that anything that is good enough for royal British knobs, particularly that belonging to the Duchy Originals magnate, cannot also amount, as a German regional court has decided, to "grievous bodily harm". While I wish the rabbi all the best, there seems no obvious reason why the royal family's traditional aversion to foreskins should prove any more influential than its passion for polo, corgis and homeopathic remedies. Particularly when, as the rabbi will know, secular circumcision has been declining in Britain, even among its principal enthusiasts in the upper classes, in the decades since doctors ceased to extol its allegedly "hygienic" effects, much cherished by Victorians. It was not only that they hoped to control lustfulness and avert a staggering variety of illnesses, the operation would further cleanse and tidy up a zone one supporter depicted, in 1890, as a "harbour for filth".
Admittedly, for a risible Victorian health obsession, male circumcision has done supremely well. While diagnoses of the vapours and melancholy have all but vanished, ditto the more recent fashions for tonsillitis and MPD, the official protection of non-therapeutic circumcision for cultural reasons has, in turn, licensed its religious supporters to advertise the ritual as a helpful and rational advance in disease control.
Rabbi Romain would not, I think, have risked some preposterous hints about "health reasons", as if divinely ordained amputation had an equally sound basis in current epidemiology, if the BMA did not still endorse the parental right to excise healthy bits of a male baby. Official guidance to British doctors has long been clear that "evidence concerning the health benefits from non-therapeutic circumcision is insufficient for this alone to be a justification". But parents, the BMA believes, should be entitled in this case "to make choices about how best to promote their children's interests".
In contrast, the controversial judgment by a regional German court, following a case in which a Muslim boy suffered a botched procedure, concluded that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents". The boy could decide for himself, later, if he wanted to be circumcised.
Circumcision enthusiasts from usually contradictory faiths united to denounce a ruling that Germany's Central Council of Muslims described as a "blatant and inadmissible interference" in parents' rights. A German rabbi called it "perhaps the most serious attack on Jewish life in Europe since the Holocaust".
The German parliament has, perhaps understandably, voted to overturn Cologne's judgment and to protect the non-therapeutic – ie, pointless circumcision of male newborns – thus upholding, simultaneously, the wise choices of the British royal family, the Muslim tradition of khitan and the enduring authority of God's covenant with Abraham, as set out in Genesis: "He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant."
Unlike Romain's playful "snip" and the BMA's preferred "intervention", Genesis makes it clear with its no-nonsense "flesh" and "foreskin" that British circumcisers enjoy an unusual, anomalous freedom where children's bodies are concerned. Even smacking parents are restrained if their obedience to the Old Testament exhortation "he who withholds his rod hates his son" leaves more than transient redness. Properly, male circumcision should be categorised with a host of ritual crimes against children, including facial scarring and forced marriage, force-feeding and tooth extraction, which are usually summarised as harmful traditional practices and suppressed, whatever the religious or cultural arguments.
Parental rights have not, opponents of male circumcision often point out, been allowed to trump those of young girls in the case of its related barbarity – female genital mutilation – which is officially banned and denounced, even in its least-devastating manifestations, as an inexcusable assault on a child's physical integrity. Neither the prevalence of FGM nor the argument that prohibition will only force it underground has dissuaded the World Health Organisation from unequivocal condemnation. "FGM," it says, "is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women."
The extent of this cutting, which "has no health benefits", involves removal of "healthy and normal female genital tissue" and is associated with ideas about "unclean" sexual parts, is immaterial. "It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death."
And the genital mutilation of a boy? The WHO has a separate, notably upbeat fact sheet about that. "Male circumcision is one of the oldest and most common surgical procedures worldwide," it notes, respectfully, "and is undertaken for many reasons: religious, cultural, social and medical." Here, it finds, the removal of healthy, normal genital tissue and violation of a child's rights and physical integrity for reasons often associated with sexual cleanliness can be a positive boon, now that circumcision may – or may not, given risk compensation – help contain HIV. For neonates, the WHO commends the Mogen clamp method and a local anaesthetic, adding that "a pacifier soaked in sucrose solution has been found to be effective in reducing fussiness in infants".
It can't only be because the Queen is a fan of trimming the sexual organs of non-consenting male minors that this practice, with its well-documented risks of infection and disfigurement, is still, in a culture of improving child protection, allowed to pass as unexceptional, even civilised behaviour. Some critics of circumcision speculate that the extraordinary contrast in the protection now extended, in theory at least, to the bodies of young girls and boys, relates to conventional expectations about female vulnerability and male endurance of pain.
Whether Genesis, the law or local culture explains the difference in approach, the original German judgment was right – children need protecting from it. Either the mutilation of children is wrong or, as many resentful supporters of FGM would argue, it is every parent's fundamental right to redesign their child's genitals.

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