Much Ado About Foreskins

June 9, 2011

On the ballot in San Francisco this November will be a proposal to make it a criminal offense to perform a circumcision on a male under the age of 18. Should secular individuals — who obviously have no religious motivation to carry out such a procedure — support the ban? No. The proposed ban is a singularly bad idea.

I did not envision myself writing about this issue until a couple of days ago, but the issue seems to be getting some attention. The “On Faith” section of The Washington Post recently invited commentary on the proposal from a number or religious and secular individuals, including our own Tom Flynn. (Flynn eloquently, if mistakenly, defends the pro-ban position.) Moreover, from the perspective of constitutional law, the issue may be more important than it might appear at first glance.

First, let’s cut through the misleading rhetoric. Some proponents of the ban refer to male circumcision as genital mutilation and equate it with female “circumcision,” the term sometimes used to describe a clitoridectomy, or complete removal of the clitoris. Clitoridectomies are carried out in some cultures, principally in rural Africa. (In some instances, not only is the clitoris excised, but the labia minora and parts of the labia majora are also removed.) Obviously, the removal of the clitoris results in loss of sexual pleasure.

To equate clitoridectomies with male circumcision is nonsense. The latter is a clip job, resulting in removal of the foreskin from the penis. Although some have argued that circumcised males experience less sexual pleasure, there is no reliable evidence to support this claim. In fact, some studies suggest that the sensitivity of circumcised males is increased, although it may take them longer to reach orgasm. (One can debate whether that is a good or bad thing.) The 2007 position paper of the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP) provides perhaps the most thorough analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of circumcision. This report concluded, “no valid evidence to date… supports the notion that being circumcised affects sexual sensation or satisfaction.” Finally, the vast majority of men in the United States — about 70% — have been circumcised (if you were born from 1950 to 1970, it was standard procedure), and there have been no detectable differences between the sexual drive of circumcised and uncircumcised men. If the goal of circumcision was to decrease sexual sensation and sexual desire, then it must be rated a spectacular, unqualified failure.

But, even if there is no negative effect on sex, are there any valid medical reasons to undergo a circumcision? The AAFP report already referenced thoroughly discusses some of the advantages of circumcision (decreased risk of urinary tract infections, decreased risk of contracting or transmitting STDs, decreased risk of penile cancer and of causing cervical cancer) and finds the benefits real, but minimal. For example, an uncircumcised male has roughly a 1% greater chance of a serious urinary tract infection than a circumcised male.

And, of course, there are risks involved with circumcision as with any medical procedure. The most common complication is infection from the surgery with estimated rates ranging from 0.2% to 1%. More serious complications, such as penile amputation or penile necrosis, are very rare, although they do occur.

Weighing the possible benefits and risks, the AAFP essentially shrugged its shoulders and said there’s no compelling reason to do it, but you’re not irrational if you want it done for your child. The formal conclusion was that physicians should “discuss the potential harms and benefits of circumcision with all parents… considering this procedure.”

The foregoing medical discussion is important because it undercuts the argument made by some secularists that there’s no valid medical reason for this procedure. Granted, the possibility that a newborn boy will experience some avoidable health issues unless he is circumcised is very small. Furthermore, depending on how one evaluates the risks, the potential benefits may be outweighed by the risks of harm. But isn’t this precisely the type of decision we usually leave to parents — and which we should leave to parents unless we want to become even more of a nanny state?

Speaking of the state, do we really want to give more power to the government to control what can only be described as a sensitive, highly personal matter? How exactly is this criminal ban supposed to be enforced? Are we going to have special police units to stamp out circumcision? Undercover cops posing as physicians willing to carry out back-alley quick cuts? Will there be search warrants issued based on confidential information that Johnny was seen at the urinal less than fully intact? I don’t know about you, but I don’t care if my junk is scanned or touched at the airport security line, but I do reject the notion that the government can tell us how it should look.

So far, I’ve hardly breathed a word about religion. But religion and the rights of the religious under our Constitution are a critical component of the circumcision controversy because Jewish males are required to be circumcised and Muslim males typically are circumcised (it’s not entirely clear whether this procedure is mandatory for Muslims). A ban on circumcision would directly interfere with the exercise of their religion.

The constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, of course, does not allow parents to do, or fail to do, whatever they want regarding their children. Failure to seek life-saving medical treatment for one’s child is illegal parental neglect, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. But circumcision is not equivalent to parental abuse or neglect, and trying to make the case that it is simply weakens our legitimate arguments against true parental abuse and neglect.

Were this ban to be adopted, it would be a dream come true for the Religious Right. I have no doubt that those religious groups challenging the ban would prevail in court, and the resulting rulings could possibly expand free exercise rights beyond what they are now. This ban could wind up enabling parents to subject their children to actions that really do harm them. Is that what we want?

I’m tired of secularists fighting the wrong battles. We shouldn’t care whether Johnny, Joel, or Jamal  keeps his hood on.

But speaking of foreskins … now we get to the more interesting part of this post. Jesus was presumably circumcised. Certainly, that was the presumption during the Middle Ages when holy foreskins were prized as relics. And that’s right, I said foreskins because over a dozen of them were floating around Europe for a while. Either some of these were not genuine or Jesus truly was superhuman.

Sadly, some of these were destroyed during the Reformation, which didn’t dig relics. Others were supposedly lost. (Imagine this job interview: “So why were you fired from your last job?” “I lost the foreskin of Jesus.”) It’s unclear whether there are any holy foreskins still around, in part because the Catholic Church has grown reticent about the whereabouts of the nobler parts of JC. But if there were an extant foreskin, and if DNA could be extracted from it, and if we perfected cloning techniques for humans … well, you can figure out the rest for yourself. It gives the Second Coming a whole new meaning.