Against Intactivism

This is a cross-post from falsedichotomies.com

Anti-circumcision activists, also known as ‘intactivists’, are celebrating on the west coast. In November, San Francisco residents will consider a proposal to ban the circumcision of male children. If the measure passes, circumcision will be banned among males under the age of 18, and will be punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to one year in jail. There will be no religious exemptions.

The bill has a minuscule chance of passing, but the intactivist movement should be taken seriously, for their arguments represent a particularly egregious form of liberalism, one that runs counter to pluralist values, and encourages a conformism that is more typical of totalitarian societies (it is no coincidence that circumcision for religious reasons, and infant baptism, was outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1924) than multicultural democracies.

Intactivists argue that circumcision is unnecessary, abusive, lacks the baby’s consent, and reduces sexual pleasure. The evidence in favour of each of these claims is at best inconclusive. In claiming that circumcision is unnecessary, they ignore evidence that it is linked to lower rates of penile cancer, thrush infections, balanitis, posthisis, and phimosis. In Africa, it is linked to a reduction in HIV/Aids and Human Papilloma Virus.

Regarding abuse, intactivists like to tell horror stories, and will occasionally try to equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation. “You never forget the screams,” one campaigner said. “I was witnessing the torture and mutilation of a baby.” For what it’s worth, I’ve attended a few circumcisions, including that of my own nephew, and found it all a bit underwhelming. There were a few seconds of crying, but nothing to suggest that a brutal torture was taking place (incidentally, contemporary mohels like to use a few drops of wine to soften the blow). Babies under the age of two have a reduced sense of pain and memory; presumably if they can get over the far greater trauma of birth they are capable of getting over a minor procedure eight days later. Either way, the allegation that circumcision is brutal enough to be banned is at the very least disputed.

More convincing is the argument that circumcision irrevocably alters the child’s body without his consent. Intactivism is built upon the supremacy of human autonomy: nobody should do something to someone else’s body without their consent. This is why many intactivists are pro-choice regarding late-term abortions, despite the contradictions that accrue from supporting the killing of something that is to all intents and purposes human while at the same time opposing cutting that same human being’s penis three weeks later.

And what about a child born with an ugly facial birth-mark? If the mark could be removed through a simple but slightly painful medical procedure, would the intactivists call the parents who decide to have the birth-mark removed child abusers? And on what grounds? Intactivists are quick to allege that those of us who are opposed to banning circumcision are simply conditioned by our traditions, but couldn’t the same be said of those who want to remove ugly birth-marks? And are the intactivists immune to conditioning?

This leads us on to the issue of sexuality. Intactivists claim that both the circumcised and their partners experience less sexual pleasure than the uncircumcised, but this is also a matter of dispute. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that circumcised men had less sexual dysfunction (i.e. they are less likely to suffer from premature ejaculation) and more varied sexual practices, but also noted anecdotal reports that they had decreased penile sensation and sexual satisfaction. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states: “The effect of circumcision on penile sensation or satisfaction is unknown…No valid evidence to date, however, supports the notion that being circumcised affects sexual sensation or satisfaction.” Conversely, a 2002 review found that it did reduce sexual satisfaction. Regarding female satisfaction, some studies find a decrease in vaginal lubrication for those whose partners are circumcised, but no other statistically significant differences in general sexual satisfaction (I was not able to find any studies dealing with homsexual couples). And other studies have shown that women are more visually aroused by a circumcised penis. Has anyone seen a plastic penis with a foreskin?

At the very least, there is no consensus regarding the claims made by intactivists about circumcision. Given the centrality of circumcision to many cultures, the evidence should be overwhelming (as it is on the topic of female genital mutilation) before a ban is considered. Giving people, including babies, full autonomy over their body is a positive value. But so is tolerance of different practices, even weird ones. When these values clash, you should be absolutely sure that a ban is necessary before proceeding. There is no such surety here.

The intactivist movement is not overtly motivated by racism, but it must be acknowledged that banning circumcision would be both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish. In the case of Judaism, the Hasmonean and possibly the Bar Kochba revolt were triggered by edicts prohibiting the mitzvah of brit milah. If making it illegal to practice Judaism is not Judeophobic, then the word has no meaning. And given that intactivists support libertarian policies when it comes to drugs, they must surely understand that criminalising circumcision will drive it underground, or that Jews and Muslims will simply fly off to the Middle East in order to perform the ritual. As someone wrote on a Facebook debate on the subject a month or two ago, “If that is the unavoidable outcome of such a law, then (according to U.S. law at least), it is presumed to be its intent as well…I can simply say that before you go about making unlawful a practice that virtually no one complains about, and which is foundation to a sizeable minority, there should be unequivocal evidence that it is egregious. There is none in this case.” When the bill fails to pass in one of the most libertarian-learning cities in America, I hope that the intactivists will draw the appropriate conclusions.