My discomfort with circumcision

Anti-circumcision activist

At the beginning of the month, we posted on the San Francisco ballot-initiative to outlaw circumcision of male babies.  The bill – called the Male Genital Mutilation bill – received significant national attention due to its alleged roots in anti-Semitism.

Now it’s making news again.  The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports that a group of Muslims and Jews[1] have filed a suit arguing that the bill is unconstitutional because it infringes on the right to freely practice religion and the “rights as a parent to choose what’s good for [the] child.”

Viscerally, I’m of course on the side of those filing the suit – I stand by my fellow Jews, and I support our right to carry on traditions.

And intellectually, as a fairly principled libertarian, I’m a strong believer that a family can raise its children how it wants, without interference from the government.  Home schooling?  I’m really glad I wasn’t home schooled, but I definitely support the right of the family to make that choice.

But how far does this freedom extend?  To take the point to its extreme, I certainly wouldn’t support the clitoridectomy practices of some in Kenya and Tanzania, even if the perpetrators claimed it as a religious practice and as a right to raise children privately without state influence.  Similarly, I don’t think parents should be able to bind the feet of their children at an early age, even if it’s a cultural practice.

Obviously these examples aren’t analogous; unlike circumcision, clitoridectomy and foot-binding have physical effects that materially change the child’s life.  The examples do, however, serve to show that there is a limitation to what parents can do to their children, even if in the private domain and part of a religious practice.

So where to draw the line?  I’m not sure, and this makes me uneasy about the circumcision debate.  I’d like to think that circumcision is somehow “grandfathered” in because we’ve been doing it for so long and because so few circumcised men have actually complained about it.

But what if we take a more comparable analogy – say tattooing a big Star of David on the baby’s back, or removing one of the baby’s kidneys?  In both cases, the child’s life will not be physically altered (you can survive just fine with one kidney), and the majority of people will never notice the tattoo or the absent kidney (just as most people never notice the absent foreskin).  Would I support these measures?  The kidney one seems especially offensive to me, but the tattoo one strikes me as wrong too.

So though my first reaction is to jump on the side of the Jews litigants, I’m not entirely comfortable with the logical defense of circumcision as distinguished from tattooing and kidney removing.  Can somebody clear this up for me?  Thanks!

And many thanks to Cory Andrews for keeping the GTJ staff current on this subject.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.

Want to write a response to this piece?  Or have an idea for another story?  Email GTJ’s blog editor, Noa, at

[1] Shame there aren’t legal disputes over circumcision in the Middle East… might similarly bring Muslims and Jews together…