A tale of two cutting cultures

Jonathan Meddings / 08 August 2015

President Obama recently toured Kenya and gave a powerful speech in which he labelled female genital mutilation a bad tradition that has no place in the 21st century. This remains a controversial thing to say in Kenya, where more than a quarter of women aged 15 to 49 are living with mutilated genitals, and Obama should be commended for saying it. But it is ironic (to say the least) that a speech condemning female genital mutilation was delivered by the leader of a country where more than half of newborn boys have their genitals mutilated every year; a country that also happens to be leading the charge in a campaign to circumcise millions of African boys and men based on bad evidence it reduces HIV transmission. The fact is male genital mutilation is also a bad tradition that has no place in the 21st century. Of course, many people don’t view male circumcision as mutilation, and this double standard is exemplified by the case of Chase Hironimus.

Florida mother Heather Hironimus went into hiding with her son Chase in March to prevent his court-ordered circumcision. The verdict, delivered by Palm Beach County Judge Jeffrey Gillen, was the result of a lengthy battle with Chase’s father Denis Nebus, who will stop at nothing to circumcise his now four-year-old son. In May, Hironimus was found and arrested for failing to appear in court and refusing to hand over her son. After a short-lived federal court challenge withdrawn by Hironimus because it appeared hopeless, and with the fear of gaol and losing custody of her son, she broke down in court and signed a consent form authorising Chase’s circumcision. With the consent form signed and Chase currently in the charge (one simply cannot stand to say in the ‘care’) of his father, it seems the worst is about to happen.

Were this story about a parent running off with their daughter to save her from having her genitals cut, the United States would grant them both asylum, but because this story is about a boy, they were instead on the run from the law to save Chase from having his genitals mutilated by court order. This double standard is precisely why Chase may soon join over a million other boys who are circumcised every year in the United States as non-consenting minors. In many of these cases the main reason boys are circumcised is so they match their fathers.

It’s a bizarre logic that says a father should be allowed to cut his son’s genitals so they match. Imagine if a father with tattoos said the same thing before tattooing his son. No one would think that a normal, sane thing to do. And yet just like circumcision, tattooing is a painful, effectively irreversible procedure (barring painful laser surgery).

So why do people make an exception to our common understanding of bodily integrity and autonomy when it comes to male genitals? One reason is because people think religious freedom should allow parents to practice ritual circumcision of children (although in the United States most male circumcisions aren’t performed for religious reasons, and religious freedom isn’t taken as an excuse for cutting girls). But the ritual act of cutting a child’s genitals actually violates the religious freedom of the child, who isn’t given a chance to grow up and decide if they want to follow Judaism or Islam.

Another reason is people think circumcision is more hygienic. When I was born my father wanted to circumcise me because like many people he thought this was true. Thankfully my maternal grandfather was a doctor, and he said they might as well cut off my ears so I don’t have to clean behind them either. Common sense prevailed, and today I still have both my ears, and my foreskin too. Most people don’t realise the foreskin is fused to the head of the penis until around the age of puberty, which serves to protect it. Should a baby be circumcised, there’s certainly nothing hygienic about a bloody wound in a dirty diaper for months while it heals from surgery. Left intact, once the foreskin eventually retracts on its own (one shouldn’t force it to), one can simply clean behind it with water.

Yet another reason people circumcise their sons is because many think there are medical benefits to the procedure that justify it. One can argue about the medical benefits of circumcision all day. In fact we’ve been arguing about them for well over 100 years, since the practice of cutting boys and girls first started to be popularized in Western countries as a means of stopping masturbation, and curing sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, neurological disorders like epilepsy, and imagined disorders like homosexuality. In case you aren’t already aware, circumcision failed spectacularly to do any of these things.

Today new potential benefits are imagined, and it is claimed circumcision can prevent everything from cancer to HIV infection. But even if such medical benefits exist and outweigh the risks of the procedure, the fact remains there are better alternatives to cutting off healthy tissue. That’s why the American Academy of Paediatrics doesn’t recommend routine infant circumcision as a preventative health measure, they merely argue the benefits outweigh the risks and don’t oppose the procedure. It should also be noted the view the benefits outweigh the risks is not one shared by medical associations elsewhere in the developed world, with some in Europe even calling for male circumcision to be banned unless absolutely medically necessary, which it almost never is.

Importantly, the presently claimed medical benefits of male circumcision relate to reducing the risk of 1) urinary tract infections easily treated with antibiotics, 2) sexually transmitted infections that can’t be acquired until the age of sexual maturity (when one is old enough to consent to circumcision themselves), and for which condom use, vaccination and monogamy remain less invasive and more effective alternatives, and 3) penile cancer, a rare disease that usually only affects older men and has good treatment outcomes. And it’s not like anyone would advocate cutting out the mammary glands of young girls to prevent breast cancer.

The medical benefits of male circumcision are debatable; that it violates medical ethics when performed without consent is not.

The arguments supporting male circumcision – that it’s more hygienic, has medical benefits, looks better, or should be permitted because of tradition, religion, or because a lot of people do it – were all once used to support female circumcision in much of the developed world, and still are in parts of the world where the practice remains common. But female circumcision is a practice we’ve outlawed and a euphemism we’ve abandoned in the developed world, because we recognise the non-consensual, medically deferrable genital cutting of girls for what it really is – female genital mutilation. There will come a day when we also view the non-consensual, medically deferrable genital cutting of boys as mutilation, but for Chase and millions of other boys that day won’t come soon enough.

All the more reason.