Why I am against Routine Infant Circumcision- A Catholic Perspective

Why post this?  Why not?  After a non-productive facebook discussion, I feel a personal need to lay out the reasons why I have formed this position.  It is logical to me, I hope it helps some other person to see some logic.

1. Religious Reasons forbid me from circumcising my sons.  This is an obvious, based on Scripture, and the papal bull from the Council of Florence which states (in part):The Holy Roman Church “…commands all who glory in the name of Christian, at whatever time, before or after baptism, to cease entirely from circumcision, since, whether or not one places hope in it, it cannot be observed at all without the loss of eternal salvation.” This is, generally speaking, a non controversial thing. Baptism replaced circumcision, therefore, may not do it for religious reasons.

2. The papal bull, in my reading of it says “whether or not one places hope in it”.  To me, this logically says that even if you do not place hope of salvation in circumcision, you still may not do it.  This is where a lot of debate lies, as there is not a lot of further writing from the Church. The only other official statement is from Pope Pius XII in 1952 who said:
“From a moral point of view, circumcision is permissible if, in accordance with therapeutic principles, it prevents a disease that cannot be countered in any other way.”  To me, this is a pretty clear response to the rise in routine infant circumcision in the US.  It’s reasonable, reassuring people that if they need a circumcision to fix or prevent a disease with no other treatment, that circumcision is fine.  Combining this with the Florence stuff leads me to conclude that for a Catholic, circumcision is only permissible in case of medical necessity.  Preventing HIV in a baby is not a medical necessity.  UTI’s, which are a risk, have other treatments like antibiotics, which can be attempted before circumcision.

(For a fun contrasting thing, imagine if the vatican had a statement that said, “Catholics may not practice any religion that uses yoga poses, such as Buddhism.  Yoga is prohibited, whether or not one places hope in it”.  That would clearly state that you can’t do yoga, even if you don’t believe in any spirituality associated with it.)

3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 2297 (under the heading Respect for Bodily Integrity)  “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.” Now, some people say that because this does not specifically say “circumcisions”, that it’s not talking about them.  I disagree.  The Catechism does not need to spell out that amputating your ear for cosmetic reasons is wrong.  Or that turning yourself into a cyborg is wrong.  Or any other various medical procedures which fall under amputations/mutilations. It is vague, and is not a direct reference, but it obviously has some meaning.  An “amputation” is “to cut off (all or part of a limb or digit of the body), as by surgery.”.  “Mutilation” is “to injure, disfigure, or make imperfect by removing or irreparably damaging parts”.  I think it is quite clear that circumcision removes a body part permanently and irreparably.  Mutilation has some bad connotations to it, no one wants to be told they were “mutilated” or that they are doing that to their children.  However, the fact remains that the definitions fit, and that is the word used in the catechism.  For me, that much is clear.  The Catechism also makes clear that such amputations/mutilations are permissible when performed for a medical reason, which is the same thing Pope Pius XII said.

4. I like that the whole section in the catechism is in the “Respect for Bodily Integrity” section, because this is the largest defense of leaving your child intact from a secular perspective. There are clear scientific reasons that the foreskin exists.  It has numerous nerve endings, it provides lubrication to both the man and woman during sex, and is NOT like an appendix and totally useless.  So the argument is that without a medical need, the choice to have one’s penis look and function a certain way should be left up to the owner of the penis.  Yes, it’s “less” traumatic for a boy to be circumcised at an age where he won’t remember it.  However, that is not a good enough reason for me to make an irreversible decision.  I don’t pierce my daughters ears as babies, because I’m going to let that cosmetic decision be up to them, at an age where they can take care of it properly, and when they are old enough to have it done at a proper piercing store, so that it’s done properly with the least amount of scar damage. That’s a reversible thing too!  And I still won’t do that to my kids.  Their bodies, their choice in how to have it look.

There are various other reasons, which I think are silly and that no Catholic should circumcise for.  Things like locker room comparisons, or whether or not son looks like Dad.  The only VALID reason that one could argue for, is a medical reason, and that’s only if you weigh the minor benefits as outweighing the moderate risks of surgery.  I’d also point out, in addition to the risks with any surgical procedure (blood loss, accidental amputation of the whole penis or the glans, etc), there is a risk of breastfeeding issues.  Not common, but for me that was a personal risk I wasn’t willing to take, considering the issues I had with Grace when she was born.

Do I think cosmetic/prevantitive circumcision should be illegal?  I lean in both directions.  I’m a big big fan of parental autonomy, and letting parents make decisions for their own kids.  For that reason alone, I don’t want to see laws regarding things like mandatory vaccinations, or making circumcision illegal.  On the other hand, female circumcision of any sort IS illegal.  It’s known as “female genital mutilation”, and even a direct correlation (just the removal of the clitorial hood, which doesn’t impede sexual function, or completely reduce pleasure) is illegal per federal law.  To me, this seems like a double standard.  For girls/women, it’s mutilation, for boys, it’s circumcision, when the procedure has identical results.  For most of the history of circumcision, there were no known medical benefits.  The only argument for it was to stop boys from masturbating (and Kellogg, who started it all, actually pushed for female circumcision as well, for the same reason).  We have established that there are some minor medical benefits in the reduction of UTI’s and HIV.  Who is to say that there isn’t any medical benefit to female circumcision?  Without scientific studies, we can’t know that… maybe removing the clitoral hood and labia minor would reduce the number of UTI’s in a similar way as  male circumcision.  However, our society recognizes that it’s not worth experimenting with women’s genitals in order to find a medical benefit.  As a feminist, I think we need to give that same respect for bodily integrity to men as well. Let them decide if their personal risk of HIV is great enough to necessity preventative measures.  We don’t give ear tubes to all babies, to preventatively help the 700,000 kids who get them placed each year.

And on a side note, drop side cribs got banned for 32 deaths in 9 years.  Approximately 117 boys die each year from complications related to circumcision.

This is long, and kind of rambling and if you read it all, I applaud you.  I’m not going to debate this.  These are my personal reasons for MY choice to not circumcise my son(s).  America is a land of choice, and you can make different choices and that is just fine.  If you have questions, or would like my thoughts on something related to this, feel free to ask nicely.

Edited to add: I strongly suggest reading this paper: http://www.cirp.org/library/ethics/clark2006/ It addresses the issue from an ethics perspective.  Highly informative and MUCH better written than anything I could write.


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