Notable thinker and influential Secular Humanist Ron Lindsay recently published an essay which was not quite an apologia in defense of routine neonatal circumcision, though he seems to have toed up to the line. I would like to look briefly at just a few of his supporting claims and central arguments.
Danish doctors’ recommendations are in line with most Europeans’ thoughts on this issue.
More saliently, Danish doctors are in line with the expert consensus of most other European medical associations. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any first-world medical association outside of the United States which has come out in favor of non-therapeutic neonatal circumcision. To the extent that Lindsay has conveyed the impression of just two “dueling medical associations” to his audience, he has—perhaps inadvertently—misled them.
For the sake of argument, though, let us proceed on the assumption that the U.S. (the only modern nation which routinely circumcises newborn males even in the absence of an explicitly faith-based justification) got it right, whereas the Australians, British, Canadians, Danes, etc. all got it wrong. Our working hypothesis will be that infant circumcision is “a procedure that’s medically justified, but not [medically] necessary” the vast majority of the time.
Having answered the relevant scientific questions to his own satisfaction, Lindsay goes on to analyze and refute the following moral principle: No permanent changes should be made to a person’s body without their consent. He correctly notes that the choices parents make invariably effect brain development, which indeed a permanent physical change. Other permanent and non-consensual physical changes come to mind as well, such as the development of antibodies as a result of childhood vaccinations and the irreversible changes which occur as a result of being denied puberty-blocking drugs. All of these choices are routinely made by parents and guardians on behalf of their underage wards, and any of them may lead to permanent physical changes which grown children will have to deal with throughout their adult lives.
We rightly value self-determination, but our ability to choose our own path and make our own decisions about our bodies begins after our bodies have already been shaped by our parents in ways we are powerless to change.
This is true, so far as it goes, but refuting the “no permanent changes without consent” principle is not particularly progressive or illuminating unless you have a more refined moral principle in mind. Otherwise you run the risk of liberating parents, surgeons, tattoo artists and body modification specialists from any sense of moral restraint. Lindsay recognizes this problem, and suggests the following:
Parents cannot inflict disabling injuries on their children.
This does not go nearly far enough, in my view. Artistic body modification of all kinds is not disabling, at least not in the usual sense of disability, but surely we would frown upon those who would give their small children neck tattoos and ornamental horns. These are harmless cosmetic changes that may well confer aesthetic value or ingroup identity, however, due to their relative permanence and our general preference for bodily autonomy, we wait until children have the ability to say what they would like for themselves.
A number of other body modifications also fall short of disability, but nevertheless violate our moral intuitions regarding bodily autonomy. Baldness is not a disability, and there are various ways to permanently remove cephalic hair. Cosmetic surgery to enhance one’s appearance is not disabling, indeed, it may make life somewhat easier in the long run. Sterility is not a disability, so far as I can tell; post-menopausal women and infertile men are still perfectly capable of moving about in the world in a self-directed and self-actualized way.
In light of these examples, we need to formulate a general moral principle which strikes a balance between the primacy of bodily autonomy and the unavoidability of natural development over time. I would suggest something like the following: Parents should avoid actively intervening to bring about easily avoidable permanent changes to the bodies of their minor children which are unlikely to confer a medically necessary benefit, unless the children are old enough to understand and consent to the change in question.