The Problem with a Religious Exemption to an Anti-Circumcision Ban
As I discussed in a previous post, events that occurred earlier this year in San Francisco made me question whether I would support a legal ban on the medically unnecessary circumcision of male infants and children. The answer is yes, though I think a great deal of public opinion-changing will need to occur before any legislative ban has a chance of passing.
The backlash against the ballot measure brought together an interesting coalition of doctors and religious rights organizations. The former claimed the measure would interfere with their right to practice medicine (actually, there was a state preemption issue which alone would have probably killed the municipal law). The latter claimed that the proposed bill was the equivalent of “hate speech,” driven by anti-Semitism, and so deeply divisive that to allow San Franciscans to vote on it would be “dangerous.” They also claimed that interfering with infant circumcision would interfere with the religious freedom of Muslims and Jews.
As a result of the backlash, some intactivists expressed the opinion that perhaps any future proposed legislation should contain a “religious exemption.” I could not disagree more.
For one thing, nobody arguing for their religious freedom to cut babies is saying that they would support a ban on medical circumcision of minors so long as it provided a religious exemption.
Additionally, there are practical considerations. Who, exactly, would be entitled to the religious exemption? Only Jews and Muslims? How “Jewish” would parents have to be? Would they have to observe Jewish dietary laws? Attend synagogue regularly? Or just say – as a Jewish friend of mine, married to a Greek Orthodox man, did – “If I had a son, I would have to circumcise him, because otherwise my mother would freak out when she changed his diaper.” Would Christians also be allowed the religious exemption if they took the position, as I have heard often from callers when I do radio interviews, “It’s in the Bible”?
The real issue, dwarfing the practical and legal problems of defining and setting the boundaries of a religious exemption, is that we cannot bargain away the rights of a child – any child. If we believe – as I do – that to circumcise a child is to violate his most fundamental personal right to autonomy and to an open future, if we believe that circumcision is an assault and battery when conducted on a person who did not and cannot consent, then how can “we” through legal means or a policy statement, grant an exemption allowing certain children to be assaulted? How can we say, “Circumcision is a brutal violation on a child who cannot consent,” and then say, “but it’s ok to cut some babies, if their parents’ religion recommends it”?
For those who accuse intactivists of anti-Semitism, I have this to say. Roughly two percent of the U.S. population is Jewish, and the birth rate among American Jews is reportedly low. Increasing numbers of Jews are choosing not to circumcise, and among those who do, many have their sons circumcised by doctors in hospitals, a practice that carries no religious significance. So the number of ritual circumcisions carried out in this country is no more than a few thousand each year. Isn’t it rather absurd to suggest that an entire movement to protect children’s rights is based on the hatred of a religious group responsible for a fraction of one percent of the one million infant circumcisions performed in the United States each year? The intactivist movement has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with protecting children – all children – from harm.
The real issue is, whose rights – to autonomy, to religious freedom, to bodily integrity, to safety and security of person – does child circumcision violate? The baby’s rights, of course.
Babies have no religious opinions, and to allow somebody else – parent, mohel, doctor – to remove part of their genitals, to mark their bodies with a permanent scar where that normal, natural body part used to be, precludes their own rights to make a choice in the future.