Students For Liberty – Circumcision: Cutting to the Core of Freedom

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Running an engaging group discussion is a difficult art to master, especially for libertarian student organizations. Unsurprisingly, asking staunch individualists to cooperate in a collective dialogue can quickly turn chaotic. Light-hearted banter about current events somehow devolves into swapping conspiracy theories. Deeper discussions get lost in abstraction with endless intellectual namedropping and defining of terms. Worst of all, conversations get sidetracked by heated anarchy-versus-minarchy debates that scare away new recruits. With all these recurring obstacles, choosing a discussion topic that engages and entertains everyone in the room regardless of their respective knowledge of libertarianism almost seems impossible. But, there is hope!

In my three years as a leader of UC Berkeley’s libertarian club, I’ve discovered what I consider to be the Holy Grail of discussion topics: circumcision. Giggle away, but I’m being serious. The surgical removal of foreskin from the male penis is an issue loaded with philosophical repercussions ripe for exploring, especially from a libertarian perspective. What makes circumcision so interesting to us liberty lovers is that there is no obvious libertarian solution. To the contrary, both sides of the issue can make a compelling case that the other seeks to limit liberty. Indeed, any way you cut it, you’re going to come up with an infringement on freedom (pun very much intended).

Proposed circumcision bans have swept the globe over the past few years, with recent attempts in Germany and San Francisco gaining international attention. Although no country has yet to prohibit the practice completely, these proposals have stirred outrage among citizens for attempting to infringe upon parents’ freedom to choose the best health practices for their child and believers’ religious freedom to continue the sacred practice.

Regarding the former, the most recent medical evidence suggest that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatricians recently updated their long-held neutral stance on the procedure to a supportive one,  concluding that circumcision leads to “[a] markedly lower risk of acquiring HIV… sexually transmitted infections…  urinary tract infections” and much more.  Regarding the latter, circumcision is seen as a sacred ritual in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, representing “a token of the covenant” between God and his believers according to Genesis 17:11. Indeed, some literalists of these three religions believe that circumcision is a prerequisite for eligibility in Heaven, with God having threatened to “cut off from his people” any uncircumcised male for having “broken [His] covenant.” The seriousness of the repercussions can be seen in how ardently religious leaders have objected to proposed circumcision bans in Germany and the United States.

With these important health and religious considerations in mind, the case against circumcision almost seems difficult to defend. Yet, there is just as compelling a counterargument from a libertarian standpoint. After all, circumcision at its core is non-consensual mutilation. An infant cannot agree to having his foreskin slit. So, in executing the operation, the parents and doctors involved are initiating force against the newborn — a clear violation of the non-aggression principle if ever there was one. If mutilating someone’s body without their consent is unethical and illegal, then why are the laws of morality suddenly suspended around a baby’s groin at birth?

This question gives rise to another interesting philosophical problem often overlooked in discussions of circumcision that completely ignore an entire sex — that of female circumcision. Although still practiced today in indigenous tribes scattered across the globe, female circumcision is abhorred and criminalized in the vast majority of the world. So, if mutilating a female child’s genitals is intolerable, shouldn’t such prohibition be extended to males as well for consistency’s sake?

Although I won’t take a stand for one argument or the other, as I’m undecided myself, I’ll happily report an interesting trend I’ve noticed having held the discussion several times as a leader of Berkeley’s libertarian club. Often, the most hardline adherent of the non-aggression principle will get caught up in the circumcision debate and concede that their so-called axiom does not apply in this specific instance. Indeed, I’ve seen so many Randians and Rothbardians suddenly drop their deontology and take up utilitarianism to argue for circumcision’s merits.

Perhaps there is a compelling deontological argument for why initiating force is justifiable in the case of circumcision, but I have yet to hear it. Indeed, the libertarian literature on children’s rights is lacking in general. In researching this article, for example, I could not find any commentary on circumcision by libertarian scholars at all! Perhaps the thought of discussing penises peeves them.

Thus, the circumcision discussion represents a unique opportunity for young libertarians to shape our ideology’s stance on this complicated issue. Although seemingly juvenile at first glance, such a discussion delves into depths of libertarian ethics by exploring which forms of freedom should be valued the most. It’s a stimulating discussion that I encourage all libertarian student organizations to have. Plus, you get to crack dick jokes, so you’re sure to keep everyone entertained.