Let’s put aside the question of whether the people behind the bill to ban circumcision in San Francisco are anti-Semites. Their comic-book depiction of the villainous Jew, which certainly feeds on vicious stereotypes that have stirred up much trouble in the past, certainly suggests that their motives may not be of the purest. But let’s put all that aside, for the moment, and just assume, for the sake of argument, that the promoters of this bill to outlaw ritual circumcision have nothing in mind but the autonomous rights of the individual, in this case, the rights of newborn boys.
Let’s also put aside the various questions that have been raised about whether male circumcision has health and/or hygiene benefits, so that having the foreskin removed is ultimately good for the baby, just as vaccinations are. After all, nobody asks an infant whether he wants a series of painful injections. But let’s put that whole set of questions aside, too, and just assume, again for the sake of argument, that there are no overwhelming medical benefits (or harms, for that matter) derived from male circumcision.
So then, putting all this aside, what’s there left to argue? Just this, and it’s a serious philosophical dilemma: where do the rights of a parent, specifically their rights to practice their religion, end in relation to the rights of a child? To what extent is a child to be considered as owned by his parents, to do with him or her what they will?
We have, as a basic Constitutional right, the freedom to practice religion, No matter what one’s views of these religious practices are, no matter how illogical or primitive they may appear to one, there it is: People have the right to practice their religion, and even a religious skeptic like me thinks this is a necessary requirement of a free society. There it is, the First Amendment, and an excellent thing that amendment has proven itself to be.
But children also have rights, and there are times when the rights of children conflict with the religious rights of their parents. Increasingly, sentiment has grown on the side of children’s rights in these cases rather than the side of parents’ religious rights This is why there are laws for compulsory education, and why there has been intervention when parents’ religious views keep them from seeking medical treatment necessary for their children’s welfare.
Our increasing sensitivity to children’s rights is part of our increasing sensitivity in general to human rights. And this, too, seems to me an excellent thing. The insistence on human rights seems most pressing when one is dealing with the powerless, and who are more powerless than children? Children are not merely the possessions of their parents, with no rights of their own, and children’s right can come in conflict with those of their parents.
So what do we do when these rights—the religious rights of parents, the rights of powerless children—clash? We have these clashes all the time. So, say there is some sect that believes, at least according to everyone who’s not in the sect, some utter rot, which the believing parents, in the tradition of believing parents from time immemorial, indoctrinate into their children, threatening these little tots with hell’s fury if they even dare to harbor any doubts. Has the welfare of these children been harmed by their parents being allowed to indoctrinate them with their views? I’d argue yes. I think that to have your head crammed with superstitions that frighten you away from the pleasures of seeking truth freely and rationally is to suffer a real harm, a stunted life. But allowing parents to indoctrinate their children with their own falsehood is so inseparable from granting the parents their right to practice religion that in these cases the children’s welfare must, regrettably, be sacrificed. You can’t have the First Amendment to the Constitution without allowing parents the right to indoctrinate their children with rot. Unless we’re willing to repeal the First Amendment—a terrible idea!—a certain amount of harm to children is inevitable. It’s a balancing act, of course, as it always is when opposing rights clash. And at least we have some laws on the books for compulsory education, so even the most indoctrinated of children has some chance of maybe finding herself to some good books.
Now, at last, I come to circumcision. I can’t speak as well for Islam, but I do know that male circumcision is regarded in Judaism as unusually important, as indicated by the Hebrew word for circumcision, bris, which translates as covenant. This is a practice that goes to the heart of Jewish religious emotions, membership in a historical community. Just as you can’t very well allow for freedom of religion without allowing parents to indoctrinate their kids with their own superstitions, you can’t allow Jews their freedom of religion without allowing parents the right to circumcise their sons.
It’s yet again a balancing act, although I think that here, in the case of ritual circumcision, the harm to the welfare of the child is fairly minimal, as compared to the harm inflicted on children’s minds by indoctrination. But maybe I just feel that way because I’m a philosopher, so I feel that mental mutilation is worse than token bodily mutilation. Or maybe, even more to the point, it’ s because I’m female!
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.