“unable to give their consent”

So you may have heard a while back that a German court ruled that the circumcision of infants was child abuse. Brendan O’Neill has apparently decided that the only reason for this decision could have been anti-Jewish bigotry, and that bigotry came from atheists.

I’m going to quote the part of O’Neill’s article that made me feel a need to address it, I have more to say on the matter but really this is the primary point, the main idea, the one thing that I want an answer to.

There are many bad things about the modern atheistic assault on religion. But perhaps the worst thing is its rebranding of certain religious practices as “child abuse”. Everything from sending your kid to a Catholic school to having your baby boy circumcised has been redefined by anti-religious campaigners as “abuse”. This use of emotionally loaded language to demonise the practices and beliefs of people of faith has reached its ugly and logical conclusion in Germany, where a court has decreed that circumcision for religious purposes causes “bodily harm”, against boys who are “unable to give their consent”, and therefore should be outlawed.

See the quotes there on the part about consent? I want someone to tell me how an infant gives consent. Heck, the court case was about a four year old boy from a Muslim family, tell me how a four year old gives legal consent.

I notice you also put quotes around “bodily harm”. See the thing is, Brendan (may I call you Brendan?), when you use quotes like that it looks like you’re disputing the words used. So this paragraph suggests that you think:

  1. Cutting off a foreskin is not bodily harm, and
  2. Children, including newborn infants, are capable of giving consent.

I really want an explanation of this. Seriously, no bullshit. Use small words because I’m kind of stupid. How is this not causing harm without consent? O’Neill never explains this, he just goes on to say that people who did terrible things to the Jews in history also called circumcision barbaric child abuse. In other news, a stopped clock is right twice a day, Hitler ate sugar, and an association fallacy really isn’t worth stretching into five paragraphs.

That’s the meat of this post. Frankly you can skip the rest if you want because from here on out it’s mostly just shouting. With lots of wine, so it’s not even coherent. 

I find it ironic that O’Neill speaks of religious freedom, because by performing this religious rite to a baby you’ve removed some religious freedom from the child. The freedom to have an intact penis, at least.

From the Guardian article linked in his post:

The court weighed up three articles from the basic law: the rights of parents, the freedom of religious practice and the right of the child to physical integrity, before coming to the conclusion that the procedure was not in the interests of the child.

It rejected the defence that circumcision is considered hygienic in many cultures, one of the main reasons it is carried out in the US, Britain and in Germany.

After much deliberation, it concluded that a circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent”.

It ruled the child’s body would be “permanently and irreparably changed”, and that this alteration went “against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong”.

And this is what you really have to answer, Brendan, and have failed to address. You speak of parents and religious freedom, but it’s not their bodies being modified, not their religious freedom that matters. It doesn’t matter what medieval Jew-baiters said, it doesn’t matter if religious leaders feel that their authority is being undermined, what matters is a person’s ability to control their own personal body, the one they have to live in their entire life.

We aren’t talking about therapeutic procedures to reduce the impact of a birth defect or anything, we’re talking about something that serves no purpose other than a mark of tribal identity. Circumcision is unnecessary cosmetic surgery. I don’t have a problem with that in and of itself, but that sort of thing really requires consent.

But hey, I’m one of those body autonomy extremists, I don’t even like to see babies get their ears pierced.

Brendan says:

What is being attacked here is the fundamental right of parents and communities to pass on their beliefs to their offspring.

This is obvious bullshit. Nothing about this case even vaguely suggests that parents can’t teach their children their beliefs or pass them on. It just says they can’t cut bits off of the kids. Who’s using “emotionally loaded language” here again?

Why does it matter whether a boy gets circumcised at 18 days or 18 years? Honestly the more I think about it the more I don’t understand why people are so up in arms about it. Surely it would mean more if it were something a boy chose to do as he became an adult. Because done to an infant, he has no choice. It doesn’t grow back, you know, you’ve made that choice for him, permanently. Marked him for life.

Maybe that’s what it really is, a child who grows up and decides he doesn’t want to be Jewish or Muslim can’t escape that genital mutilation that was done to him already.

See I think it really goes back to the tribal identity thing, only it’s not the baby’s identity, but the parents. It’s not a way of saying “He’s a good Jewish boy”, I think it’s saying “We’re good Jewish parents”. I don’t think they do it consciously, not really, they just do it that way because that’s the way it’s been done as long as they can remember. Tradition makes it easy to not think about things.

Parental pride is easy to understand, but wouldn’t it speak even better of your good Jewish parentness if the boy decided to be circumcised voluntarily as an adult? And of course if he doesn’t want it done then, well that’s his choice.

His penis, his choice. Ultimately, it’s really that simple to me.

But there’s something even more serious here on the circumcision front than the right of people to decide what modifications to make to their body, and that’s their lives.

I’m giving fair warning here, every time I think about this some part of my mind starts screaming. 

There have been deaths in a New York City ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where babies contracted type 1 herpes from the mohel. It was passed on, and this is the part the gives me the screaming fits, by a ceremony called metzitzah b’peh in which the circumcision wound is cleaned by sucking the blood away with the mouth.

Feel free to take a moment.

Incidentally the specific mohel mentioned in that story turns out to have ignored the court order and continued performing these rituals like some Jewish baby-penis vampire. I usually try to be understanding when people do things that seem weird, pointlessly dangerous or batshit deranged to me, but frankly in this case I don’t think I want to understand why anyone would do this in the 21st century where we have over-the-counter medicines that rival (and sometimes exceed) what the best doctors had available a century ago. Fuck, it wouldn’t even have been vaguely justifiable a century ago!

Now Brendan O’Neill, were he fortunate enough to read this, might feel that I’m being unfair by bringing up some exceptionally horrific cases an ocean away from Germany. That’s understandable, I’ll freely admit that I mostly mentioned it because it was so horrifying to me that I had to share it somewhere, and it seemed relevant here. But it stems from the same place, that unthinking acceptance of tradition. Doing really awful things for no reason other than this is the way it’s always been done.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a tradition because there’s no reason to change it, but we live in a changing world, and our understanding of it is constantly improving. Really, once we’ve identified a good reason to change things, even a minor one, there’s no excuse for not improving matters.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on June 29, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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