Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Homegrown Child Mutilation

Little Green Footballs posted this revolting photo of a Muslim mother helping her son beat himself bloody with a sword in celebration of Ashoura Day. The caption for LGF's commentary was "Cult of Blood and Death."

Radley Balko rightly observes that we shouldn't demonize an entire culture based on the behavior of a few extremists. And I think Mark is correct that condemning Muslims as a group just because of a single tradition is a form of bigotry.

But Mark makes his point in a manner that is (I think) entirely unintentional. "I wonder," he asks, "whether the folks at LGF have ever attended a bris." A bris is, of course, the ritual circumcision of male infants in the Jewish faith. Did Mark intend this to be an example of a bloody but entirely innocuous religious practice? The more I think about it -- and I've probably thought about it more than I should -- the more sickened and horrified I am by the practice of circumcision, whether performed in a religious ceremony or a hospital maternity ward.

Supposing there was ever any basis for circumcision (more on this below), there's just no justification any longer. To my knowledge, no credible study has ever shown that circumcision has medical benefits. (The word "credible" is key, as there have been numerous bogus studies, including the one about lower rates of cervical cancer among women with circumcised partners.) Some argue that circumcision reduces the likelihood of infection, but even if that's true, it's an incredibly lousy justification in the modern world, where we have ready access to (a) soap and water and (b) antibiotics. Genital mutilation should be a last resort, not a preventive measure.

And besides, the whole protection-from-infection argument always struck me as peculiar from a biological standpoint. If the foreskins really make men more subject to infections that could kill them or render them infertile, shouldn't evolution have weeded them out ages ago? Yes, I know, evolution is not a perfect mechanism -- we still have appendices, after all -- but I've never heard any plausible argument for why foreskins might have been adaptive at some point in our ancestry and then became maladaptive later on. I imagine that susceptibility to penis infections has been about the same throughout our evolutionary history, with the exception of the last century in which we have developed better medicines.

Even if there were some benefit to circumcision, is it great enough to justify the cost in terms of potential loss of sexual pleasure and personal autonomy? The foreskin houses literally hundreds (possibly thousands -- it's been a long time since I've read about this) of nerve endings. Although, like all men circumcised at birth, I haven't had the opportunity to compare, it seems highly implausible to me that removing a chunk of incredibly sensitive tissue wouldn't affect the sex act. Given that millions of men live perfectly healthy lives with their penises intact (circumcision is the exception, not the norm, in Europe), would it be so terrible to give men the option of deciding for themselves whether to become circumcised, instead of forcing an irrevocable choice on them at birth?

If Mark intended the example of circumcision to show that Westerners commit acts just as pointless and brutal as Arabs, and therefore condemning only Arabs for their bloody rituals is hypocritical, then his point is well made. But I practice equal opportunity condemnation: Arabs sometimes behave like barbarians -- and so do we.

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