Law and Ritual Practices: On Circumcision and Ethics

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About Nilofar Ansher

Nilofar Ansher is a writer, editor and researcher from India. She recently earned her Masters of Arts in Ancient Indian Civilization. Nilofar is also the Community Manager for the 'Digital Natives with a Cause?' project, a research initiative of the Centre for Internet & Society that looks at the changing dynamics of youth, technology and change in the Global South. She is still trying to figure out the most basic questions of life: what motivates people to get out of bed each day, how do we change the world, where do we go from here and how does inter-space travel work in Asimov's books? In the mean time, she keeps busy with her communications job at the United Nations initiative, G3ict (, maintains a blog ( and another one (, indulges in a trip every 4 years, loves sinking into sci-fi movies and reading fiction, and cooking when it's accompanied by a willing partner ready to gulp the end result. She lives with her husband in the southern part of India.


  1. Beth Chariton says:

    This is obviously a very complicated issue to debate. I am jewish, and my son was circumcised, as was my ex-husband and as is my husband-to-be. My father was not circumcised as an infant. As a grown man, he ran into many medical complications and health issues with side effects like impotency, and had to have a circumcision as an adult. It was extremely painful for him, and the recovery took a long time. If it’s not done at infancy, you certainly wouldn’t put a young boy or a teenager through it, so why take the chance and wait until adulthood for complications to arise? If it is outlawed. Then there’s no choice at all.

    • ” so why take the chance and wait until adulthood for complications to arise?”

      Yep, totally agree. And, given the rising rates of breast cancer, we should remove all the breast tissue from young girls to avoid potential complications in adulthood. Sound OK to you?
      Honestly, your argument makes no sense at all. I’m sorry to hear about your father, but the vast majority of uncircumcised men go through life quite happily with foreskin attached.

    • I am uncircumcised, my penis was fine. The majority of men uncircumcised do not have any major problems. How about we remove the uterus at birth to stop our children getting cancer there?

    • John Anderson says:

      “If it is outlawed. Then there’s no choice at all.”

      No choice for the parents, but should they be the people with the choice? You talk about choice then remove choice from the person who’s penis it is. I’ve suspected for a long time that opposition to MGC was about preserving choice for women about giving women control and hegemony over male bodies.

      One of the largest populations in the world, Asians, don’t get circumcised. Yet, they’re over half the population of the world. They don’t appear to have problems with impotency, quite the opposite.

  2. There is nothing much to comment except that this is an outraged lay lawyer defending her or her community’s ways. The rest doesn’t matter.

    But I do feel that harping on doctors and hospitals or how harmless or beneficial the procedure is … is just so much verbiage. The author needs to look up data… what percentage of population is served by doctors and hospitals ? what % can afford it ? Look up FGM, especially in Egypt… they framed laws to ban it after years of advocacy… yet reluctantly. But who cares ?

    Recently, a boy had to be surgically bobbitised in India during circumcision …in oder to save his life !

    The author’s plea is : let us be !
    Huh … my plea is : let those in her community who believe ottherwise go, not question or force !!

  3. If they’re not your genitals and it’s not a true emergency, then cosmetic surgery not your decision. That would be the end of the discussion with ANY other body part. What in hell makes the penis so different?

  4. Margaret Escobar says:

    I don’t see the gain of banning a religious practice that does no proven physical harm. Why interfere in the rules of two religions simply to make a point? In all the writing on the subject I’ve seen no medical harm listed, just the larger philosophical one of parental control on the infant’s body. I have seen reports that circumcision has some benefit in slowing the spread of AIDS in Africa. Female circumcision does have a demonstrable loss to the subject as such it is possible to make a medical argument for it’s banning or control. Arguments can and perhaps should be made against the circumcision of males at birth in American hospitals for nonreligious reasons, but these should be medical arguments. Against “plastic surgery” for infants? Perhaps infants with clefts should forgo rhinoplasty (a common surgery for children with clefts) until adulthood as well? Parents make many decisions for their children every day that have the potential to alter their bodies and lives. The decision to follow a religious precept and pass on a culture and religion is simply one of them.

    • How about we remove the breast tissue in our young girls to avoid breast cancer, remove their labia for hygeine, etc. Removing a cleft doesn’t affect the sexual performance of a child, circumcision however can have very serious consequences for the child. How about parents quit being lazy and learn how to clean a penis safely? In my country circumcision is rarer and we men grow up fine without it. The only time it’s really needed is to fix phimosis and not all men get that.

      “I have seen reports that circumcision has some benefit in slowing the spread of AIDS in Africa”
      So why do that in western countries where we have access to condoms and there is no real need for it? Why do it to western boys when they can simply wear a condom, and should be wearing one to help reduce the rates of all other STI’s? Removing breasts helps slow down the rate of breast cancer too.

      The only time circumcision of under 18′s should be allowed is for fixing phimosis and other problems. It sickens me that people try to justify genital mutilation in the name of their religion. Some religions also think women are far below men, do you follow that too and remain subservient to a man?

    • John Anderson says:

      Funny I’ve seen reports that female circumcision has medical benefits also. They seem to mirror the same benefits that people claim male circumcision has. Less gets trapped in the folds of the labia when they are shortened. If their was harm to FGC, why would it be legal for adult females to get designer vaginas? So why shouldn’t FGC then be controlled (possibly limited), but not banned?

      • I know of no women electing to get a clitorectomy, which is what most types of FGM do. They usually are just reducing their labia size because of ridiculous portrayals of what labias “should” look like. Changing of the vagina by elective cosmetic surgery can not be equated to a non-elective ceremony to reduce women’s libido with an enormous amount of complications post surgery. Female circumcision and male circumcision absolutely have no health benefits, period. Later on in life men and women, when they give their consent, can choose to have a cosmetic surgery to achieve a certain look it that allows them to have a greater sense of culture. FGM is never performed for a medical reason. Male circumcision, however, may be performed in a very, very small percent of cases for a few very specific conditions for medical reasons and should not be confused with infant circumcision for religious or cosmetic reasons. Very different intent.

    • wellokaythen says:

      “I don’t see the gain of banning a religious practice that does no proven physical harm.”

      One could make that case for a few water sprinkles at a baptism, but not for circumcision.

      I’d count the pain and blood of circumcision as evidence of physical harm. Scar tissue seems to be clear evidence of harm. But, okay, maybe we could discount all that as minor and temporary. Let’s say for the sake of argument that there’s no long term physical damage from being circumcised as a baby.

      We could then say the same thing about cutting off one of your baby’s earlobes. Living without an earlobe would make no difference in your long-term health. If someone cut off your baby’s earlobe and claimed religious reasons for it, I think you’d be violently angry, and you wouldn’t accept the “no real physical harm” argument. It’s just a piece of skin, and the baby won’t remember it anyway, so what’s the big deal?

      At least, I _hope_ you would be angry if someone cut off your baby’s earlobe and tried to tell you that it’s what God wanted…..

  5. This is hard because it’s not a black and white issue. At what point do religions/cultures use coercion for members to do something they would not have wanted to do under different circumstances? And is that an issue? When should the minority be protected from the power of the majority if harm is a potential factor? What amount of harm should be tolerated (in life, “none” is not an option)?

    In FGM there is clear medical evidence that it does harm. I’m not sure that going along with traditions and not changing for fear of causing disruption and disorder is worth the physical damage (even if women feel empowered and there is no psychological damage, at some point the sheer amount of physical damage that the women would not choose if they came from different circumstances, has to be taken into consideration). In male circumcision, which this article is clearly biased in favour of based on the language used, there are very, very few very rare cases in which the foreskin must be removed for medical reasons. It cannot be justified for medical reasons, there are no significant medical benefits. Unlike FGM, it is usually practiced in a sanitary manner and has low risk of complications, and will likely not cause any long-term residual pain. Safety in having it performed is generally very high. So, that ties back to how much harm is it really? And how much of a right do parents have to give their sons an elective surgery that will not improve their quality of life, but may increase their sense of belonging in their culture?

    • Except that it is a black and white issue. On the one hand, you mutilate and abuse your male child for no good reason whatsoever (religion notwithstanding) – on the other hand, you don’t. It’s not that complicated.

      • As a non-religious person whose parents were adamantly against circumcision, I don’t see any logic in it either. I’m trying to ask questions that the article didn’t address and since the article was trying “not to present one view point” (though obviously it was in favour of circumcision) I attempted it. Not sure if it was pulled off.

    • John Anderson says:

      “And how much of a right do parents have to give their sons an elective surgery that will not improve their quality of life, but may increase their sense of belonging in their culture?”

      What prevents the child from getting circumcised as an adult, if he wishes to do it to feel closer to his culture and what of children who decide that they don’t wish to be closer to their culture or reject their culture for another? Since circumcision is irreversible, morality, hell common sense, dictates that erring on the side of non-circumcision is the correct thing to do.

    • “but may increase their sense of belonging in their culture”
      What is that but forcing them to conform to a cultural norm? Circumcision is only part of a culture because it was in the past. Culture can change. This one would have long ago if it wasn’t done to someone who can’t resist. Saying “God said we have to do it” doesn’t make it so, nor is the parents’ bellief that God ordered it any guarantee that he will believe it.

  6. “[T]o question the sanctity of a parent-child relationship–across hundreds of countries and millions of parents who perform circumcision (or any other religious rites for that matter)–is plain ridiculous and disturbing.”

    Foot-binding was widely practiced across China for hundreds of years. Just because a lot of people are doing it doesn’t make it correct, ethical, logical, or even sane.

  7. To the women arguing in favor of circumcision, I only have this to say:

    My body, my choice.

    Why shouldn’t it apply to men?

    • I agree. The balance of “look at the benefits of circumcision!!” are biased and totally unnecessary. Most of Asia isn’t losing penises left and right because of the lack of circumcision. Hygiene is not a good reason, foreskins aren’t inherently dirty just like how vagina’s aren’t inherently dirty.

    • It applies even more strongly to men, because the ethical argument against abortion is that the rights of a second person have to be considered. (The big question there is not whether, but when.) There is no other person involved in circumcision.

  8. There is a belief out there that because morality is related to our experiences (i.e. cultural experiences) then talk of morality must be subjective. It is not, or at least, it should not be. Facts exist with regards to how conscious creatures experience culture which can differentiate between experiences of misery or well being.

    Religious notions of morality cannot be exceptions to the facts of our well being. They cannot simply be followed for their own sake. They must make moral sense. Moral blindness in the name of cultural tolerance is a stupid belief, as is the notion that religious moral relativism should be sustained as a self contradictory universal moral truth. Cultural practices that are not grounded in factual the well being of our consciousness must be made extinct.

  9. John Anderson says:

    For those who support choice when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to infant circumcision and claim that there are health benefits to circumcision, what have you done to support the health of men and boys? Did you sign the petition demanding that the government remove the gender disparities in the ACA? Are you helping to provide nutritious meals to young boys / men because proper nutrition impacts health?

    If pro-choicers can ask the question what have you done to care for the unaborted children, if your concern is actually for the children. It’s fair to ask pro-circers if the health of men and boys is a concern for you how have you advanced it other than wanting to mutilate their penises?

    • I supported my mother and other striking nurses who refused to attend infant circumcision because anesthesia was not administered adequately at our local hospital. And why gender providing nutritious meals? I support nutritious meals for all children across the gender spectrum because it is important for brain development. We all have brains.

      • John Anderson says:

        “who refused to attend infant circumcision because anesthesia was not administered adequately”

        So they’d have no problem with MGC if it was? I just lost a lot of (not all, it was still a good thing to do) respect for those striking nurses.

        “And why gender providing nutritious meals?”

        Not advocating only providing meals to boys or men. Simply pointing out that those arguing in favor of MGC for “health” reasons are not actually concerned with men or boy’s health.

        • Because the way circumcision is performed inherently doesn’t provide adequate anesthesia. Do you think nurses have the great power to strike against every procedure they don’t agree with? They have to pick an aspect of something they do not like. Sure they can run around striking here there and everywhere, but it’s not going to work if you don’t use a specific aspect to bring the attention to the issues surrounding the procedure. Want to disrespect that? Don’t agree with strategy?

  10. “how can you question the ethical connotations of a religious custom?”
    Very easily. Why not? Many religious customs of the past were evil, and rightly ended. Human sacrifice, to name only the most obvious example. Are all religions equally sacrosanct, from Scientology to Jedi? And if not, who is to say which religions are true enough, or old enough, to be protected, and not to be questioned? Cutting children’s genitals without pressing medical need crosses a line between upbringing or teaching and unacceptable imposition on their human right to bodilly autonomy.

  11. More argumentum ad populum claptrap.

    What in god’s name are we to even make of a statement like this?:

    “You cannot argue for the ban on one custom and champion other rights and practices–it doesn’t sound too moral to my ears.”

  12. wellokaythen says:

    Let’s say I have some houseguests staying with me who have an uncircumcised baby boy with them. One day, without the parents’ consent, I go into the room where the baby is staying and I cut off the baby’s foreskin.

    In that case I should be charged with some combination of aggravated assault and sexual assault of a child. My action should outrage the entire community. I should be sent to prison for a long time and registered as a dangerous sex offender. During the trial, the prosecutor would be sure to highlight the blood that I spilled, the baby’s screams, and the violation of an innocent little child who couldn’t defend himself.

    If I expressed no remorse, because I defended my action on religious grounds, that would only make me look more deranged. I would have no defense that I was just exercising my religious freedom, because the law would come down on the side of protecting innocent people from mayhem. I would get no reduced sentence because I made a really skilled incision or because I’ve done this lots of times before. No one on the prosecution side would suggest that I have violated the parents’ rights by taking the choice out of their hands. I would not be accused of violating anyone’s religious freedom.

    So, let’s say the only difference is that the parents sent me into the room to cut off the baby’s foreskin. Let’s say I’m a pediatrician or a mohel who’s paid by the parents to cut it off. Maybe instead of a houseguest the baby is delivered in my hospital.

    That makes it all okay, no crime at all? It’s still the same screaming, the same blood, the same innocent baby who can’t defend himself. Babies get no protection from genital mutilation as long as the parents consent to it? Somehow I don’t think the screaming, bloody baby can spot the difference.

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