Circumcision & the Non-Aggression Principle

Some of you may know that baby #2 is due in a few short weeks. We elected not to find out whether we’re having a boy or girl, and the anticipation is really exciting! With our first, we did a home birth, and we’re planning on the same for this child. I wrote a blog on why we opted out of the traditional hospital birth, but one of the reasons that was important to my husband and I was avoiding unnecessary interventions. Typically, that might make you think of unnecessary drug administration, labor induction, episiotomy, or Caesarean sections, vaccinations immediately after birth, etc…but that’s not where it stops. So let’s get to the main topic of this blog: routine circumcision has become a very popular trend in America over the past 100 years or so, but how does it fit into a proper libertarian perspective?

First, let’s discuss what it means to be a libertarian: a person who follows the non-aggression principle as a logical follow-on from the concept of self-sovereignty.

What does self-sovereignty mean?

This is the (radical) notion that individuals own themselves, and that this is inherent to every person, everywhere, at all points in time. I say it’s radical, because while most people accept this premise on its face, they fail to follow it through to its logical conclusion. Let’s take a quick look at why self-sovereignty makes sense and why it’s a sound foundational principle on which to base your worldview. We’ll start by trying to answer the question “Who Owns You?” (I’ll borrow heavily from Rothbard). Here are the potential answers, and why they’re debunked or legitimate:

  • You own you. You alone have the right to yourself and your labor, and responsibility for the actions you choose to take. Perfectly legitimate statement.
  • Someone else owns you. You do not have rights over yourself or your labor; someone else does. This is an illegitimate position because who is to say who gets to own others? Are redheads inherently better than brunettes? Is darker skin more legitimate than lighter skin? Are tall people bequeathed special wisdom over others? All of these positions are arbitrary, and thus, the notion that some people own others is ludicrous. It’s also called slavery.
  • Everyone owns everyone. Well perhaps there is no such thing as self-ownership, and we all just sort of belong to one another. While it’s a nice sentiment, think about it practically – must you (or should you) consult everyone else before you make a decision about what to do with yourself or your time? Is that practical at all, or even feasible? Does everyone need everyone else’s permission before they spend their time a certain way, eat an apple, or read a book? This premise is not feasible, and probably not even desirable.

If, like me, you agree that Option 1 is the most sound answer of those presented above, then you’re well on your way to understanding NAP…and my position on circumcision. If you don’t agree, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to politely debunk your statements 🙂

So what is the non-aggression principle?

You can read more about it here, but here’s the short & sweet version: the only morally justified use of force is in defense. If you can be honest enough with yourself to look at circumcision objectively, you’ll realize that a permanent removal and alteration of a body part without a person’s consent constitutes aggression. It should be clear to anyone with half a brain that an infant cannot consent to the removal of his foreskin. To understand why consent is important, please refer to the self-sovereignty section above.


To test the premise that infant circumcision is morally sound, imagine if instead of a foreskin, parents were electing to remove an infant’s left leg, or right thumb, or both ears for non-medically necessary reasons (read here for a slideshow on the medicalization of circumcision in the United States). That would be absolutely ludicrous, right? Why is a foreskin any different than a limb, eyelid, or other appendage? “Oh hey, looks like you were born with two ears…you definitely don’t need both of those…let’s fix that right up for you.” This is a logically inconsistent position, and libertarianism should be consistent (as should all philosophies and moral theories). To test the premise even further, imagine if it became medically popular to permanently alter the vaginas of infant girls. Culturally, we find that abhorrent, and castigate those people around the world who participate in female genital mutilation (FGM). Why is it any different for infant girls than for infant boys? This position is not logically consistent, and I’d argue that we are subjecting our sons and grandsons to a grave injustice.

Let’s briefly address some of the other arguments made for routine circumcision in the States:

  • “It looks funny.” Most of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to think so. And is this really a good enough reason to permanently remove, alter, or potentially disfigure someone else’s body? This is also pretty superficial.
  • “I prefer the look of a cut penis.” Let’s go back to the consistency discussion above – can you imagine the outrage if fathers started advocating alteration of their daughter’s genitals based on their own personal preferences? Icky, gross, and thoroughly inconsistent. Mothers should not do the same to their sons.
  • “We want him to look like his father” and/or “People will make fun of him.” Rather than chopping off a perfectly natural part of your infant son’s body (and causing him much pain), what a great opportunity to teach your children about self-acceptance, confidence, and tolerance for those that may look different than you. Don’t be afraid of these topics!
  • “Uncut penises (penii?!?) are unclean and unhealthy.” Um, no. Let’s refer again to the worldwide circumcision rates, or this slideshow that spells out how most of the studies saying circumcision prevents prostate cancer, crossed eyes, masturbation, cervical cancer, epilepsy, HIV, etc have been enhanced, falsified, or otherwise debunked. IntactAmerica is another great resource to challenge conventional medical wisdom. Why challenge conventional medical wisdom? They used to advocate x-rays for pregnant women, right?
  • “It’s a religious covenant.” I’m not in the business of telling people what they should and should not believe, and it’s virtually impossible to get between a person and their God/higher power/etc. But I’d ask those who subscribe to a religious belief that mandates circumcision to reflect deeply on these questions: did your God design the human body wastefully or unnecessarily? Would He/She create something without function? I cannot answer this for you, but it’s a question worth consideration.
  • “It will hurt the baby less than when he’s older.” There is a pesky little idea that babies don’t feel pain…or perhaps it’s really that an infant cannot express pain the same way a toddler, child, teenager, or adult can. If you have the intestinal fortitude, look at these images…I simply searched for “infant circumcision surgery.” I didn’t even search for “circumcision gone wrong” because I don’t think I could take it.

Here’s the bottom line:

I believe in the concept of self-ownership. If I’m going to be consistent, that applies to my children as well. While I believe it is my (and my husband’s) moral obligation to faithfully shepherd our children and guide their decisions until they have such capacity to do so themselves, that does not give me the right to make permanent, potentially damaging decisions about their bodies for them (medical necessity excepted)…especially for cosmetic or cultural purposes. If my son later wishes to be circumcised, at least we have given him the opportunity to make that choice himself, and he will have informed consent. This is a position that is sound, logical, and aligned with the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression.

PS: A side note on the “earring” question…many people might ask the question “If it’s morally wrong to circumcise your son without consent, why is it alright to pierce your daughter’s ears?” Here are a few quick thoughts:

  • I haven’t pierced my daughter’s ears, either…that’s a decision she can make for herself, and I’ll help her to facilitate it if/when that day comes. I didn’t have mine pierced until I was 13, because I wanted to and that’s the age my parents thought was appropriate. NBD.
  • There is an order of magnitude difference between putting a hole in non-critical flesh (an ear lobe) and completely removing a functional piece of skin that serves a purpose.
  • The potential damage from “earrings gone wrong” (basically scarring and infection) are a lot less severe than those that can come from a botched circumcision (removing too much skin, scarring, decreased sensitivity, infection, curvature, accidental removal of the entire penis, and even death following complications). 
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11 thoughts on “Circumcision & the Non-Aggression Principle

  1. Very good work! One of my (major) pet peeves is people who refuse to be consistent with their so-called philosophies. I am glad to see you address this and encourage you to maintain your position.

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    • Roger, thanks for the feedback. This is one of my favorite articles – I had never even thought twice about circumcision until I became pregnant – it’s amazing how many ways kids will change your life! It’s challenging to stick with non-aggression when it comes to discipline, education, etc. What’s your intactivist story? 😉

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      • What’s my story? You don’t have enough space and time for that. Let’s just say that I have left aggression behind in favor of peace, love, and leaving other people alone to live their own lives. Of course, being the person I am, there will be times when I drive into the ditch, but this is the road I’m on and I intend to travel it and take as many with me as I can.

        Speaking of kids, if I had to do it over again, instead of trying to make them do what I wanted, I’d talk to them openly about their options and decisions, and allow them to make up their own minds. With the understanding, however, that they would also own the consequences for their actions, whether good or bad.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry for the delay in getting back to you…but I was happy to read your comment. Our two year old is learning about boundaries and consequences…I do the best I can, but there’s definitely a balance between teaching autonomy and setting reasonable boundaries!

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  2. Well, sometimes you don’t ask them what they want. You tell them, especially when they’re two.

    I have to apologize about the “Poor Roger’s Almanac” note above. I didn’t realize that WordPress had snuck it in until it was too late. This is the name of a blog I wrote some time ago. I didn’t mean to have that show up. Sorry. I’ll try to stay on top of that from now on.

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  3. I am 62 years old. I had a botched circumcision in a hospital. Throughout my childhood, I had constant infections in my penis. I remember screaming and crying as a kid when I urinated. Today, I have to struggle to keep my penis from getting infected.

    Although I’ve had a “normal” sex life, my penis stayed very small and funny-looking. In spite of what “conventional wisdom” says about penis size, many women ran from my arms upon seeing it. I am so angry at my parents for making me go through this.

    I hope that other would-be parents read this and think twice about an unnecessary and dangerous procedure.

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    • Ouch, thank you for sharing your story – I’m so sorry that this was done without your consent. Sadly, I think many parents don’t think twice about circumcision, which is why it’s so important that it becomes a regular discussion. Thanks for visiting our blog.

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  4. The link below is to an article by the libertarian intellectual Walter Block, critiquing routine infant circumcision in the USA, along lines similar to the post above.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4075101/

    There is no credible research on the adult sexual consequences of RIC. There are no studies, based on North American populations, of the possible correlation between circ status and the usual forms of sexual dysfunction. There has never been a comprehensive survey of the adult North American penis, based on a large stratified random sample. No one has interviewed a random sample of women, asking them if they’ve been in long term relationships with both kinds of men, and what do they think of cut versus intact PIV. Hence we have no idea if RIC is “safe”.

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    • Thanks for passing along the Walter Block article! I have just begun reading it, and it is excellent – thanks for a great resource! I’ll be sure to share this on our facebook page with other readers. If you don’t mind me asking, what is your path towards intactivism?

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