A while back, I shared this blog post on Twitter:
Although I’ve lost track of the @replies, I recall that there was significant pushback from a couple of my followers, and so I wanted to say more about the issue.
Basically the argument offered at L’Hôte is this:
“In a free society, individuals are free to make their own choices. And they should particularly be free to make their own choices about their bodies. Any adult man is fully free to go get a circumcision if he wants one. (The fact that none do, outside of the coercion involved in religious conversion in order to get married, should tell you something.) Men who were circumcised as infants are denied that right. One position in this debate increases human autonomy and human liberty, and one restricts it. To oppose routine infant circumcision, you don’t need to be convinced by the arguments against circumcision! You only need to recognize the right of the individual to make his own choice and to have sovereign control over his own body.”
Now let’s recognize at the outset that even the seemingly clear call to give individuals freedom of choice regarding what happens to their own bodies cannot have as straightforward of implications as we might like. On any reasonable moral theory, parents have duties to care for their children, and this will inevitably involve doing things to those children’s bodies well before they are capable of giving informed consent.
Where to draw the line as to which parental actions are liberty-compatible and which are liberty-violating will be tricky and controversial. But to refuse to take a middle position, however subtle, is absurd, given that the remaining options are to claim either that all parental actions towards children are morally permissible, or that none are. The former treats children as mere property, the latter treats children as adults; neither is appropriate.
Using bodily integrity as a guide to which parental actions are morally permissible gives us a way to think about concrete cases, but it doesn’t readily solve them because all of the middle ground between the extreme positions is murky. What constitutes “liberty” is contestable, and even many of the most ardent supporters of individual liberty recognize that it is not the only value worth pursuing. The criteria of bodily integrity definitely suggests, however, that we are to err on the side of leaving children’s bodies alone.
I think it best to understand the permissibility of actions like circumcision as a function of two primary factors: the invasiveness of the proposed action, and what’s at stake in performing it, or not. So, take two examples that readily arise in this context: vaccinations and ear piercing. In the case of childhood vaccinations like that against polio, what’s at stake can be whether or not a child will become immune to a life-threatening disease. There is a risk that the vaccination will have adverse effects, even death, but we can roughly compare the threat of these to the threat of the disease in order to reach a rationally defensible decision regarding the vaccinations. The vaccination is somewhat invasive, being permanent and possibly dangerous, but there is sometimes alot at stake. So vaccinations, depending on the particulars of the vaccine, disease, and child, are often justifiable. The liberty to be free from nonconsensual medical procedures doesn’t mean anything to the victims of easily preventable childhood diseases, after all.
Take now the case of ear piercing. This procedure ranks low both in terms of invasiveness and what’s at stake. Most ear piercings will heal without incident if the piercee later decides (s)he doesn’t want them, but their value is simply cosmetic. Some cosmetic procedures, such as reconstructive surgery for this kid, may stand to dramatically improve children’s current and future quality of life but ear piercing?… not so much. So I would say in this case that parents can and should err on the side of bodily integrity by refraining from piercing their children’s ears until at least such time when the children say that they want the piercings (they may later change their minds, but anyway so do adults). This implication of the bodily integrity view seems ridiculous to some, who take for granted the permissibility of ear piercing and would discount any theory prohibiting it. However, I hasten to add that since ear piercing is minimally invasive and generally reversible, parents do their children no gross wrong in having them pierced without consent.
I understand that the vast majority of parents love their children and have no interest in doing them harm. Of these parents, those who chose routine infant circumcision do so for at least comprehensible reasons: faith, culture, tradition, cleanliness, whatever. But, when bodily integrity is at stake, the bar of justification for parental action is set much higher than these reasons can reach. We do not generally accept religion or culture as properly justifying what would otherwise count as the physical abuse of children, and the procedure by many accounts lacks significant hygienic value. Bottom line: routine infant circumcision – like childhood vaccination – is invasive and irreversible, but – unlike childhood vaccination- is without equally as weighty values at stake. Considerations of religion and culture may explain why so many parents do in fact chose routine male circumcision, and they explain why so few men subjected to it feel victimized, but they do not morally justify the practice.