In Western democracies, circumcision stands at the crossroads of tradition, misinformation, and human rights, bringing forth pressing ethical dilemmas. As we peel back the layers of this painful practice, we are compelled to confront a profound question: Does circumcision, mainly when performed on those unable to provide informed consent, stand in contravention of our constitutional rights? This article seeks to probe deeper into the constitutional veracity of a practice that, to this day, is still heavily pushed by the medical establishment, societal and cultural pressures, and other medical institutions.
A Constitutional Case Against Circumcision
Exploring the intricacies of the circumcision debate, this article delves into the constitutional concerns surrounding the practice. Sitting at the intersection of personal liberty, child rights, and medical ethics, we need a renewed dialogue on this age-old tradition based on modern legal frameworks.
The Medical Debate: Necessity vs. Ethics
At the heart of the circumcision discussion lies a contentious medical debate over the benefits of circumcision. But the claims of the pro-circumcision crowd, which includes many in the health field, have been debunked by modern science. Proponents of circumcision frequently cite supposed health benefits that include reduced risks of urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, and penile cancer. These claims have been proven to be wholly untrue.
Conversely, intactivists and organizations like ours raise concerns about the vastly underreported circumcision risks and consequences, ranging from infections and pain to more severe implications like hemorrhage, tissue damage, loss of function, decreased sensitivity, partial or complete amputation, and, in rare cases, death, nullifying the supposed advantages.
But beyond the tug-of-war on its medical merits, the practice raises profound ethical dilemmas. The most prominent revolves around consent and the right to bodily autonomy. Infants subjected to circumcision are incapable of providing informed consent for a procedure that permanently alters a part of their body. Without a pressing and immediate medical reason, making such an irreversible decision for another person encroaches upon their constitutional right to personal autonomy and self-determination.
Constitutional Rights and Bodily Integrity
The U.S. Constitution, while not explicitly detailing every right, is grounded in protecting certain inalienable liberties. Among these is the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of personal liberty, which the courts have repeatedly interpreted to encompass a range of personal choices and bodily decisions. A cornerstone of this liberty is the concept of bodily integrity—the right of individuals to exercise control over their bodies without interference from the state.
Bodily integrity is seen as a fundamental extension of our constitutional rights, emphasizing the importance of personal autonomy and self-determination. The principle suggests that barring compelling interests, the state should not have the authority to force, prohibit, or dictate actions that intimately and irreversibly affect an individual’s body.
The U.S. legal system has set several precedents to emphasize the importance of bodily integrity. For instance, this principle is rooted in the right to refuse medical treatment, even life-saving treatment. In another context, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade underscored a woman’s right to decide about her body. While these cases don’t specifically address circumcision, they bolster the overarching theme of bodily autonomy protected under the Constitution.
In addition, 41 states have criminalized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which refers to the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs. This also sets a precedent for protecting boys from Male Genital Mutilation (MGM), any permanent modification of the external genitalia, i.e., the surgical removal of the foreskin, a normal body part with several beneficial functions.
As Marilyn Milos points out in her book Please Don’t Cut the Baby!:
“Even though no bills protecting the bodily integrity and genital autonomy right of male minors have been passed, our Constitution, state laws, and several international documents, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child make it clear that every person has a right to safety of their person.”
Given these legal touchstones, non-consensual circumcision is an infringement upon the child’s constitutional right to bodily integrity. Therefore, the practice raises fundamental questions about the limits of parental decision-making and the state’s role in safeguarding individual rights from birth.
The European Perspective
“Circumcision rates in Europe are generally much lower than in the United States, often below 20%. For example, in the UK, the circumcision rate is estimated to be about 8.5%.” — British Medical Journal
Europe has been at the forefront of many legal challenges concerning circumcision, especially in the context of non-medical, ritualistic procedures on minors. While the practice spans various cultures and religions, its intersection with European human rights law offers a window into the issue’s evolving legal and ethical stances.
Many European countries have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which, among other rights, protects the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8). Several cases challenging circumcision have been brought forth, arguing that the procedure, when performed on minors, infringes on this right. Moreover, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union underscores the principle of the child’s best interests. Intactivists and opponents of circumcision argue that the non-consensual removal of a part of a child’s body, especially in the absence of immediate medical need, conflicts with this principle.
Germany notably grappled with this issue in 2012, when a regional court in Cologne ruled that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounted to grievous bodily harm. This decision momentarily made the procedure illegal. Though the ruling was later superseded by national legislation specifically allowing religious circumcision, the case sparked intense debates about children’s rights, religious freedoms, and national sovereignty.
In contrast, Nordic countries like Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have been more consistent in advocating for strict regulations or outright bans on non-medical circumcision of minors. Their arguments often hinge on human rights perspectives and concerns about the child’s well-being.
The European trajectory on this issue suggests a growing discomfort with non-consensual, non-medical circumcision of minors. As these challenges play out in European courts, they set a precedent and offer legal and moral arguments that reverberate far beyond the continent’s borders.
Conclusion: Protecting Rights and Fostering Dialogue
As societies evolve and our understanding of rights and ethics deepens, it becomes imperative to approach age-old practices with a fresh, multidimensional lens. The debate surrounding circumcision now finds itself at the crossroads of constitutional rights, mainly when it concerns the vulnerable—our children. Their rights and protection should be at the forefront of this conversation. Our hope—and one of the things we fight for—is informed consent. We envision a future where the voiceless are no longer subjected to this barbaric, irreversible surgery.