Should male circumcision be banned?

15 June 2011 by

Yesterday Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld asked via whether it is Time to ban male circumcision? The article was prompted by attempts to ban the practice in San Francisco.

Male circumcision is common amongst Muslims and Jews, but judging from the 286 comments (so far!) to the article, there are a lot of people who feel that the practice is outdated and should be banned. I have responded with my own article, arguing that whilst the debate is by no means settled, a ban at present would amount to a disproportionate interference with freedom of religion rights.

The debate has been fierce in San Francisco, with even actor Russell Crowe stepping in. He called the practice “barbaric and stupid” on Twitter. See also this Washington Post blog and the Wikipedia page on circumcision and law. For an interesting discussion see this article from 2000 on Circumcision after the Human Rights Act 1998. One interesting point which emerges from that article is that

the Law Commission indicated that “male circumcision is lawful under English common law”, but recommended that the lawfulness of male circumcision on infants and children in accordance with the Jewish and Muslim religions should be put beyond doubt.

I cannot find a web link to the original report:  Law Commission Consultation Paper no. 139, Consent in the Criminal Law, para. 9.1.

As I have written, I see it as very unlikely that we will ban the practice in the UK on the current scientific evidence in relation to the costs and benefits of the practice. Unless there was strong evidence of harm – something which the World Health Organisation amongst others basically rejects – I cannot see a politician taking on this cause, let alone Parliament voting on it.

We have covered the ongoing debate on religious freedom on the blog on numerous occasions – see this link for our posts on religion.

Please feel free to comment on the article itself.

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  1. I believe that a fundamental human right is ownership of oneself, body and mind. This right goes with being a person and is effective from birth and perhaps before. Adults who decide to mutilate a child, whether male or female, are using their power over the child to alter the child’s body before the child has enough power to refuse that act. This is a transgression of the child’s ownership of his/her body and should be illegal because the duty of government is to protect every person’s rights, regardless of age.

  2. Circumcision means cutting some or all of the foreskin (prepuce) from the penis. Circumcision both for the male and female is strictly not permitted within Sikhism. Also, as a further extension of this same principle, other violations of the body – tattooing, body piercing, body mutilation, etc for the same reason are considered anti-Sikhi. For many peoples of various cultures and religions it was common practice to be subjected to this ritual during the time of the Sikh Gurus from 1469 to 1708AD. However, the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib is clear on this subject.

    This was and is a common practice among Muslims who believe that by performing circumcision, the person becomes a “true” Muslim. The Sikh Gurus have questioned this and highlighted the gender inequality in this practise.

    This is what the holy text of the Sikhs say about this practice:
    ਸਕਤਿ ਸਨੇਹੁ ਕਰਿ ਸੁੰਨਤਿ ਕਰੀਐ ਮੈ ਨ ਬਦਉਗਾ ਭਾਈ ॥ ਜਉ ਰੇ ਖੁਦਾਇ ਮੋਹਿ ਤੁਰਕੁ ਕਰੈਗਾ ਆਪਨ ਹੀ ਕਟਿ ਜਾਈ ॥੨॥
    Sakaṯ sanėhu kar sunaṯ karī­ai mai na baḏ­ugā bẖā­ī. Ja­o rė kẖuḏā­ė mohi ṯurak karaigā āpan hī kat jā­ī. ॥2॥
    Because of the love of woman, circumcision is done; I don’t believe in it, O Siblings of Destiny.
    If God wished me to be a Muslim, it would be cut off by itself. ॥2॥
    (SGGS p477)

    The Shabad continues:
    ਸੁੰਨਤਿ ਕੀਏ ਤੁਰਕੁ ਜੇ ਹੋਇਗਾ ਅਉਰਤ ਕਾ ਕਿਆ ਕਰੀਐ ॥ ਅਰਧ ਸਰੀਰੀ ਨਾਰਿ ਨ ਛੋਡੈ ਤਾ ਤੇ ਹਿੰਦੂ ਹੀ ਰਹੀਐ ॥੩॥
    Sunaṯ kī­ė ṯurak jė ho­igā a­uraṯ kā ki­ā karī­ai. Araḏẖ sarīrī nār na cẖẖodai ṯā ṯė hinḏū hī rahī­ai.॥3॥
    If circumcision makes one a Muslim, then what about a woman?
    She is the other half of a man’s body, and she does not leave him, so she remains a Hindu.॥3॥
    (SGGS p477)

    Further, the holy text continues to highlight how one requires to make changes in their behaviour to attain any spiritual benefit. Rituals like circumcision or fasting do not have any value in the Lord’s Court; one must become modest and improve one’s conduct if one wants to be closer to God. The SGGS explains:
    ਸਰਮ ਸੁੰਨਤਿ ਸੀਲੁ ਰੋਜਾ ਹੋਹੁ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ॥
    Saram sunaṯ sīl rojā hohu musalmāṇ.
    Make modesty your circumcision, and good conduct your fast. In this way, you shall be a true Muslim.
    (SGGS p140)

    It is clear from the above quotes, that the Sikh Gurus and Bhagats were not in favor of this practice practice and considered it unnecessary for Muslims and therefore forbidden for Sikhs. It is regarded as a “blind and empty ritual”.

  3. joshua aubin says:

    There is no right, to compare the circumcised one look more attractive than the uncircumcised one, and any person that support uncircumcised is one of them and he is not happy because he is ashame of his uncircumcised one. Nothing bad in it as i do enjoy it and happy to show mine.

  4. Commenter says:

    You are using wrong terms in this blog article. It’s never issue of the all of male circumcision. In reality that is very common medical procedure when there are correct medical reasons. It is totally different thing to speak about operations made with only religious reasons and without true medical reasons. The reasons can be fully evaluated as in every medical operation. Thease two different things should always be separated from each other.

  5. mike farrell says:

    freedom of thought conscience and religion surely extends to the freedom to choose also whether or not you adhere to or practice religion? on that basis surely it is an infringement of a childs right to this freedom to forceably impose upon them a pointless, potentially harmful and most certainly painful surgical procedure with little or no medical benefit when they have no freedom to decide for themselves?
    the procedure should be banned against any persons who are not legally capable of deciding for themselves whether or not to have it undertaken, and should therefore only be available for those capable of making an informed decision or those in need of the procedure for genuinely medical reasons, whether for religiousmreasons or otherwise.
    i believe the situation regarding this procedure is worse in the states where it apparently used to happen as a matter of course, regardless of religion. not sure if it is still that way or not.

  6. Sean Fear says:

    Matthew Hess, one of the leaders of the campaign, has published his own online comic. Issue 2 gives quite a clear idea, in my view, of what his real motivation is.

  7. John Dowdle says:

    Someone mentioned the practice of female circumcision briefly but I feel this needs much greater stress. Permitting male circumcision makes it possible, even respectable, for the practice of female circumcision to continue.
    I am not a woman but all the literature I have read on this subject tells me that women’s lives are ruined by this practice.
    So, why not have a universal ban on all forms of circumcision/genital mutilation?

  8. Dominic Houghton says:

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, children, especially babies, do not have a religion. It therefore follows that freedom of religion cannot apply to the circumcision of children. The best solution would be for anyone under 18 who wished to have this performed to have to show their competence to make that decision, though the number of cases would probably make that impractical. I would suggest banning it for anyone under 18, and for regulation to ensure that those performing this piece of surgery – for that is what it is – be held to the same standards as apply in other surgical areas.

  9. You call this a human rights blog, then go on to advocate for genital mutilation being forced on non-consenting children… WTF?

    And how about mentioning the 20,000+ erogenous nerve endings and numerous specialized structures that are permanently lost, or the hundreds of boys who are killed or maimed every year from botched circumcisions? Again… WTF?

    ~Barefoot Intactivist
    A Jew Whose Human Rights Were Violated By Genital Mutilation

  10. Peter says:

    I started thinking about this subject, after watching Michael Moore’s documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’ where he makes the point that gun ownership in Canada, approaches gun ownership in the US, yet gun crime in the states is far higher, why?

    So I started digging around in nationmaster as regards national statistics and male circumcision rates and this caught my eye. The majority of men are circumcised in the following nations. Circumcision-(male)

    Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali ,Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Samoa,Tonga, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United States of America, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu and Yemen.

    My contention is that it does not change the individual that much, but changes society.


    A comparative perspective. Undue burden on religion may not be enough to strike down the ban in San Francisco.

  12. Vik says:

    To call the practice barbaric and stupid seems to me like insulting the muslim, jewish and the majority of the african people. There needs to clear dialogue as to why the practice is common amongst particular cultures and religions. Balanced views need to be taken into account; especially from those who do not suffer any harm from being circumcised.

    Just because it is not common practice amongst the western people/western society does not make the practice wrong, stupid or barbaric or a breach of human rights for the matter.

    Maybe an opinion poll/survey could be carried out!

  13. Xzanron says:

    I was circumcised as an adult for legitimate medical reasons. I can therefore fully attest to the fact that it’s extremely painful (it’s normally done under general anaesthetic) and remained extremely painful for over two weeks after the event. Despite heavy duty painkillers any real movement caused waves of pain. It remained sore for almost two months.

    If someone had done it that to me without my permission and/or without a clear medical need I would demand to see them in prison.

    As I said elsewhere:

    If a man walked into a police station and said:

    “I was placed on an operating table, without anyone asking my permission and I was held down without any chance of objecting or evading; not even crying or struggling helped me. I had my clothes removed and then someone took my penis and cut off a significant chunk of the skin from it.”

    I’d be pretty sure that the CPS would prosecute for assault, GBH, and probably sexual assault as well. The attacker would go to prison and be put on the sex-offenders register.

    The irony is that most assaults on children by adults are seen as more serious than assaults by adults on adults. Yet if you are religious and you get the medical establishment to collude in the assault you get away with it.

    Defending this assault on a child on a human rights blog is perverse.

  14. Mad as **** Gaz says:

    I don’t understand circumcision as maybe those that work in medicine do but feel it was a cultural thing back in the dark ages when men got into the need to see diseases so it didn’t kill them- i.e. you might not see a disease below the foreskin until it has already weakened you.
    It may have been a religious thing that promoted non masturbation, I believe in females they are meant as concubines and not allowed to masturbate but they go further and remove the clit so it is a sign that they are not meant to have pleasure. – AS I have said I don’t know enough. I will say that I believe my own foreskin protects me from some uncleanliness and from being a child can tell you it plays its part in masturbation (which is in fact concluded to be a good stress release for those in puberty) and in adulthood adds to my sexual experience- to deprive males of their natural form is somehow stupid but I will agree that when some men get older it is sometimes done to prevent restriction of blood vessels as the skin can tighten horrifically.

    My vote is wait until the lad can make an informed decision as to whether he wants one or not- and its cruel to do it at birth.

  15. Jack says:

    It is undeniable that up to 15 sq. inches of sensitive, nerve-filled, and vein-rich tissue is lost to adult men who were circumcised. About 20000 fine touch and stretch nerve endings are removed from the sensory system. That is strong evidence of harm.

    Another way to look at it is functional loss. The following are some functions lost to those that have penis parts cut off:

    1: Erotic pleasure, especially via the ridged band and Meissner’s corpuscles
    2: Acts as a rolling bearing in intercourse and masturbation
    3: Prevents dyspareunia (painful intercourse)
    4: Stimulates partner’s genitalia, giving erotic pleasure
    5: Supplies skin to cover the shaft in erection (to allow full erection) and prevent tightness
    6: Stores pheromones and releases them on arousal
    7: Stores, releases and helps distribute natural lubricants (“smega” and pre-ejaculatory fluid)
    8: Provides a seal against the vaginal wall to contain natural lubricants

    10: Prevents the glans becoming keratinised, and keeps it soft and moist
    11: Protects the thin-skinned glans against injury
    12: Protects the nerves of the glans, retaining their erotic function
    13: In infancy, protects the urethra against contamination, meatal stenosis (glans not exposed to feces, urine and foreign bacteria)
    14: Provides lysosomes for bacteriostatic action around the glans
    15: Pigmented, it protects the unpigmented glans against sunburn
    16: Vascular (rich in blood vessels that bring heat to the tissues), it protects the less vascular glans against frostbite, as Sir Ranulph Fiennes found on his epic transpolar walk.

  16. P Rogers says:

    Religious rights? for whom? The parent or the child?

    Ban it now, no more of this nonsense.

  17. Julia Hines says:

    I do not believe male circumcision should be banned. However, I feel very strongly that male circumcision should only ever take place in a hospital environment with the benefit of a general anaesthetic.

    My brother was circumcised at home by a rabbi, something my mother now regrets. She was assured that, at that age, he would “feel no pain”. I asked her whether there were any other circumstances in which she would allow someone to take a knife to her babies without anaesthetic and whether she was ever in any doubt that, from the moment of birth her babies were capable of feeling pain. If religious sensibilities are left aside we would (and I would argue should) call this child abuse.

    I have seen appalling cases of infection and scarring, as a result of the operation not taking place in a sterile environment.

    However, I do believe that this is an operation which is important to religious communities and furthermore, I feel it would be necessary to offer the operation on the NHS. This is because many parents would not be able to afford to pay for this privately (and indeed when this was offered as a private option in an NHS hospital I worked for, it was found that chasing impecunious parents for bills they could not pay cost more than was brought in). Because of the importance attached to circumcision there is a risk of “backstreet” providers springing up with a further lowering of standards.

    Before anyone tells me that mohels are very experienced and have high standards I would revert to my first point. Sticking a knife into a child’s genitalia without ensuring adequate pain relief cannot, in my view, be described as a high standard.

  18. Anon says:

    I had to have a circumcision in my thirties due to medical necessity. I am in the rare position to be able to say from experience that sex without a foreskin is greatly inferior.

    No parent or religious leader has the right to perform this mutilation for the sake of faith. When that child become an adult they can then make the choice for themselves. Those performing this procedure on a child should be charged with sexual assault of a minor.

  19. Tara Davison says:

    I agree but feel it should be considered banning this for children as it is an unnecessary operation and interferes with the child’s rights. Obviously what adults do is entirely up to them.

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