Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Rights of the Parents; Rights of the Child

From a comment over at the Volokh Conspiracy, about the proposal in the county of Santa Monica to ban circumcision unless it's medically necessary:

rumpelstiltskin: Look up the statistics on botched circumcisions. You’re talking about something like between 2% and 10%, depending on what study you look at, with over a million circumcisions per year. Literally TENS OF THOUSANDS of cases of messed up circumcisions. You can’t possibly compare that to the future potential for a few hundred cases of penile cancer, many of which are also contingent upon lack of hygiene and STDs

leo marvin: Do we really want parents feeling like they need an opinion letter before they can risk exercising good faith judgment about their children’s best interest?

The issue of parental rights over their children as property is a fraught one. The assumption has been that unless otherwise proven to the contrary, the parental judgement about what is right for the child should prevail.

The question is about “unless otherwise proven”.


  • The removal of legs from children so they will have successful careers as beggars, a common practice in much of the 3rd world. It is for the good of the child.
  • The binding of the feet of little girls, breaking the bones so they will have “lilly feet”, more attractive to men, and so they will not be different from their peers.
  • FGM of course, ranging from a cosmetic nick to the clitoral hood, to complete removal of the external genitalia.
  • Circumcision.
  • Castration of boys so they will not be tempted into the sin of Onanism, and so imperill their immortal souls.
  • Sex-reassignment of Intersexed children, often sterilising them and leaving them with insensate genitalia, but at least it looks normal so they won’t be bullied at school and won’t be rejected by their parents.

All “for their own good”. All actually practiced in many parts of the world, some of them not just common, but nigh universal in the USA.

I’m currently involved in a Legal Reform effort in the Australian Capital Territory. Current thinking is that parental rights to alter their child’s body are conferred only by objective medical neccessity. If it does harm, it’s not permitted.

This puts us on a collision course with the religious beliefs of a significant fraction of the community. It may be that in a purely practical “harm reduction” model, that fewer problems would be caused by de-criminalising un-neccessary circumcision, in order to reduce complications from backyard, covert procedures. That should really be the test. The medical evidence against circumcision is overwhelming: it’s the complication rate that’s the problem, it’s many orders of magnitude worse than even the most optimistic claims for circumcision’s efficacy at preventing disease, a claim that is very debateable but I think has to be accepted given the deeply-held beliefs of many.

Ritual clitoral hood nicking may also have to be permitted, if we’re not to have backyard infibulations with broken glass.

“Normalisation” surgery on Intersexed children, which is often (1/3 of the time for most conditions) the “wrong way”, usually lumbering little boys with female bodies, should be forbidden. Only genital reconstruction to provide urinary and fecal continence, to reduce pain, or to remove an immediate (not long-term post-pubescent) cancer risk or similar medical neccessity is allowable.

The opposite side of the coin is that when the child is Gillick-competent, or reaches the age of consent, or is otherwise judged to be competent enough to make decisions (younger if supported by medical experts and parents), then they should be allowed such surgery.

I hope that it would be possible for circumcision in the Jewish Faith to be part of the leadup to Bar Mitzvah — a procedure performed (or not performed) with the boy’s informed consent between the ages of 12 and 13. A compromise between medical facts and religious belief.

I really hate arrogantly riding roughshod over others beliefs. But the ones that are most important are the children, and the record of parents when it comes to genital modification of their children is quite frankly bloody appalling.


Major said...

I'm not sure we actually disagree here, but I feel the need to to clean up some loose language.

"If it does harm, it’s not permitted"

Taken literally, this would eliminate almost all medical care. Medicines are regulated under the Poisons Act for a reason: they are all poisons. A more reasonable rule would be

"If it does nett harm, it’s not permitted"

Of course this is also much harder to assess.

Lucrece said...

I'm circumcized and quite frankly find it obnoxious when these people seeking bans condescend to me about how deprived and scarred I must be.

I'm pretty good with my sensation, and have little regret about my dick.

The only hang-up I will admit to is that since I've been around and pretty much all the dicks I've seen are circumcized, I happen to be biased against non-circumcized ones and find them gross.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Lucrece (above) is welcome to his lack of skin, of course. He can choose FOR HIMSELF whatever he wants - pierced nipples, surgically removed limbs for enhanced begging, tattoos on his face - but it seems to me allowing adults to snip away at their children because they think some part of that child is "gross" (or icky to their God) is not good policy.

Imagine if adults could sue doctors who performed purely elective surgeries upon them before they were old enough to legally consent. There would be fewer doctors willing to do them?

Anonymous said...

I absolutely believe that circumcision should never be done to an infant unless there is a valid medical need. Parents have the right to practice their religion on their own bodies. Just as the saying goes "My right to swing my fist ends at the tip of the other man's nose", a parents right to practice their religion ends at the body integrity of their children. I personally believe in every individuals right to complete body autonomy and forced circumcision is a violation of that autonomy.


Lucrece said...

Glenn, what part of my comment suggests that because I have a problem with finding uncut dicks "gross", that I would advocate for circumcision?

My point was that circumcision is being blown out of proportion with language like "mutilation".

Personally, I won't bother with circumcising my children, simply because I find no reason to do so. Not because I have anything against it or find it deplorable --- parents, after all, have plenty of other aesthetic alterations to their children(including dietary options, which won't be removing stretch marks even should the child in later adulthood choose to exercize and lose weight).

And quite frankly, you know what I think you can do with that condescension of bodily alterations. Neither tattoos or nipple piercings are the terrible alterations you seem to be implying they are.

Anonymous Woman said...

The majority of people in this world physically carve into a baby's healthy, functioning anatomy to satisfy the ancient demands of an invisible, unprovable, magical being...

...and someone vaguely talking smack about pierced nipples is what angers you?

Yeah. That makes sense.

wreckage said...

It seems to me a later circumcision would meet the ancient religious requirements and also be a lot safer. The problem here is that while circumcision is harmless and safe, performing it on babies is not.

Anonymous said...

I see circumcised penis to be ugly. They look deformed and they make me loose sexual energy.

Major said...

Wreckage writes: It seems to me a later circumcision would meet the ancient religious requirements

Sadly, no. Ancient religious requirements have a nasty habit of being rather specific, in this case Genesis 17:12:

And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.

Joseph said...

The same reasoning that might lead people to ban infant circumcision could also be used to ban children's haircuts. After all, children do not normally consent to haircuts.

It's possible to argue that circumcision is the permanent removal of a body part, whereas hair grows back. On the other hand, I suspect that by the time a child circumcised today reaches puberty, circumcision will be reversible by minor surgery. On the gripping hand, if there is a remote risk of permanent "disfigurement," we must recall the possibility of barber accidents. ("Never mentioned is the missing piece of his left ear."---Ben Katchor)

To sum up:

1. Haircuts have no proven medical benefit.

2. Hair is part of the body so removing it is clearly mutilation.

3. Ears are also part of the body and they do not grow back or even have a restoration option currently available.

4. Even if one in a million objects to possible ear loss that is sufficient to ban parents from manipulating their children that way.

If it was good enough for Samson it should be good enough for everybody else.

On the other hand ... There is a real problem with routine circumcision: It might be a copyright violation.

mythusmage said...

Muddying up the matter some what, it has been shown that the people behind the measure are anti semitic, and even have a comic book out about Da Evil Joos and their hunger for foreskins.

Zombie over at PJ Tatler has the details.

wreckage said...

Yeah, I followed a link to that comic, it was stomach-turning. The thing here is that unlike so many of the other things mentioned, a successful circumcision is totally harmless.

It would also be interesting if those who were so concerned about the neo-natal rights of the child were in favour of late- and full-term abortions. It seems absurd to object to minor cosmetic surgery less than a fortnight after defending termination of the same cellular mass.

Major said...

rumpelstiltskin invited us to "Look up the statistics on botched circumcisions" and then proceeded to quote some numbers which I assume (s)he pulled out of the air.

Christakis et. al. actually did look up the statistics. Nine years or 354,297 males worth:

Overall 287 (.2%) of circumcised children and 33 (.01%) of uncircumcised children had complications potentially associated with circumcision coded as a discharge diagnosis.

Putting this into context relative to the medical benefits of circumcision:

Six urinary tract infections can be prevented for every complication endured and almost 2 complications can be expected for every case of penile cancer prevented.

Their bottom line is that the bottom line is not clear and they handball the problem to the parents:

Circumcision remains a relatively safe procedure. However, for some parents, the risks we report may outweigh the potential benefits. This information may help parents seeking guidance to make an informed decision.

Anonymous Woman said...

Yes. If we stop people from slicing into infant's genitalia for religious reasons, then a ban on haircuts is sure to follow.

Let me guess. You are of the camp that babbles about gay marriage leading to marrying animals. Am i right?

Logical fallacy much?

wreckage said...

The question here is to what extent the government has the right to decide what's best for children, and to what extent parents do. So, haircuts are an extreme case, but analogous. Haircuts are not necessary and can have permanent and disfiguring complications.

In point of fact, just to muddy this issue even further, failure to circumcise can have harmful effects, too.

That said I did not choose on behalf of my son, to have him circumcised because in my assessment the expectation and severity of complications outweighed the expectation and magnitude of benefits.