There have been many campaigns against the practice of female circumcision, or genital mutilation as it is also known. And quite right too; it’s a barbaric act. But why, in contrast, is the practice of male circumcision largely seen as acceptable?
In San Francisco voters are being asked to vote to ban male circumcision. If passed, Article 50 — “Genital Cutting of Male Minors” — would make it unlawful to circumcise, cut, or mutilate the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person aged under 18, except in the case of medical necessity.
No one is suggesting that male and female circumcision are the same thing. But are the two practices similar enough to make it sensible for both to be banned?
There have been arguments that a circumcised male is less likely to catch infections and that it can be a protection against the spread of HIV but there is no real medical evidence to substantiate this.
In the UK, routine circumcision isn’t thought to be medically necessary. This is because the risks associated with having any surgical procedure involving a general anaesthetic and the possible postoperative complications outweigh any possible medical benefits. Most circumcisions in the UK are carried out for religious reasons.
And it is religious groups who are providing the main opposition to San Francisco’s proposed ban, arguing for an exemption from any new law. In Judaism, male circumcision, carried out eight days after birth, is essential, according to religious law. Male circumcision is also practised in Islam. But why do religions carry out this operation?
Maimonedes, the great Jewish sage, believed it counteracted “excessive lust”, while as a secular practice in the US, it was first promoted as a means of preventing “harmful” masturbation. Have we moved on from these extremely outdated beliefs?
The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the US Constitution. But does this freedom include the right to perform a circumcision on a child too young to give consent? Or should the rights of the child outweigh the parents’ religious views?
It is thought unlikely that San Francisco’s voters will approve the ban. But this is an issue that is likely to become increasingly controversial.
Is the first cut really the deepest?