Critics of circumcision regularly hurl insults at the ancient practice. Calling circumcision "male genital mutilation" has become trendy, while calling it a "sacred ritual" or citing its likely health benefits has gone out of vogue.
Yet most American Jews and Muslims are circumcised for religious reasons, and as many as three quarters of all American males have been circumcised medically, each group at the discretion of their parents. Clearly not everyone is listening to circumcision's detractors.
So what is the role of government in overseeing religious ritual -- and why is this ritual different from others to the more than 7,000 people who successfully petitioned to get a proposed circumcision ban on San Francisco's ballot for next fall?
First, I would suggest that the government's role in overseeing religious ritual is to prevent serious harm and, in the instance of a ritual performed on children, to ensure their well-being. Otherwise, government should step back and allow religious practices to take place freely. Religious freedom should only be limited if it infringes on other fundamental rights of American citizens. (Supreme Court cases Wisconsin v. Yoder and Prince V. Massachusetts certainly support these ideas.)
At first thought, circumcision may seem problematic and perhaps even worthy of government intervention. It involves the cutting of a piece of foreskin from a child's penis. Indeed, Lloyd Schofield, who spearheaded the efforts to get a circumcision ban on the ballot in San Francisco noted a desire to penalize "forced genital cutting," to which his website attributes problems "from excruciating pain, nerve destruction, loss of normal, natural and functional tissue, infection, disfigurement and sometimes death."
While Schofield's website is full of problems he sees in circumcision, I find myself wondering about the medical (and for that matter, legal) recommendations of a retired hotel credit manager. In determining the potential benefits and harm from a medical procedure, wouldn't it be best to turn to doctors to see if there really are grounds for government involvement?
One finds a very different notion of circumcision from medical professionals than one does from Mr. Schofield's website. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes in its official policy statement on circumcision:
Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. In circumstances in which there are potential benefits and risks, yet the procedure is not essential to the child's current well-being, parents should determine what is in the best interest of the child. To make an informed choice, parents of all male infants should be given accurate and unbiased information and be provided the opportunity to discuss this decision. If a decision for circumcision is made, procedural analgesia should be provided.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control are both reportedly considering a more affirmative stance towards circumcision, in light of increasing evidence of its benefits -- notably that the procedure may reduce urinary tract infections and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
Resonating to Mr. Schofield's rhetoric or a visceral aversion is one thing. But ignoring the stance of the American Academy of Pediatrics is quite another. Unless there is a preponderance of medical evidence against the procedure, the government should stand back and allow the religious ritual and medical procedure of circumcision to continue.
In an instance where child welfare is not at stake but religious freedom is, the latter must be protected. Science seems to increasingly back the religious and medical practice of circumcision, while "intactivist" rhetoric distracts from the valid choices of parents.
Follow Rabbi Joshua Stanton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoshuaMZStanton