The circumcision debate, uncut

Minnesota mixes politics and religion with legislation about genital mutilation of minors.

Jake Swede

Last month, the Minnesota State Prohibition of Genital Mutilation Act of 2010 was proposed in the Minnesota State Legislature by MGMbill.org. The bill, intended to protect against non-consensual genital mutilation, specifically to bolster protection for minors. The bill states that genital mutilation applies to anyone who âÄúknowingly circumcises, excises, cuts or mutilates the whole or any part of the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, vulva, breasts, nipples, foreskin, glans, testicles, penis, ambiguous genitalia, hermaphroditic genitalia or genital organs of another person, who has not attained the age of 18 years, or on any non-consenting adult.âÄù I find it hard to imagine that even the morally mediocre among us would not agree that the infliction of such damage upon a child is morally repugnant. Although genital mutilationâÄôs widespread infliction is usually confined to non-modernized people in the collective consciousness, the conscripted genital mutilation of children is commonplace in the United States. It is not performed on strangers, but on family members, while ritual onlookers refrain from interference. By the MGM BillâÄôs definition, genital mutilation doesnâÄôt occur merely in the derogatorily uncivilized form it is generally thought of, but in the much more socially acceptable form of religious circumcision. Although the act does include exceptions for medical emergencies, it does not distinguish various forms of religious and cultural circumcision from genital mutilation. The number of religions that routinely practice circumcision are not insignificant. It is common practice within the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to circumcise male children within the first two weeks of birth as a symbol of the covenant between God and man, according to the book of Genesis. In 2007, the World Health Organization published that, in the United States, âÄúan estimated 61 percent of male newborns were recorded as being circumcised on hospital discharge sheets in 2000,âÄù but it also indicates that the number is misleadingly low since âÄúpost-neonatal circumcisions for religious and medical reasons are not captured.âÄù Undoubtedly, religious groups are going to object to the interpretation of genital mutilation defined by the MGM Bill. But the devastatingly intense pain of bisecting the foreskin (which contains 20,000 nerves) with the glans or âÄúheadâÄù (which contains around 4,000 nerves) is absolutely unimaginable to me, as a male. But the forced circumcision of minors is not exclusive to males. Female genital mutilation is also practiced by some East-African subcultures, often by those who are not trained medically. Female circumcision is not referenced in Jewish or Christian texts; less popular Islamic traditions based on the controversial hadith literature state that a female must also be circumcised. The process of genital mutilation is arguably even more physically and emotionally devastating for women. It is not always performed during their first few weeks of living, when they have the chance to forget the trauma, but instead occurs from ages as young as 3 and beyond the teens. Female genital mutilation also takes different forms based on tradition, from removal of the clitoris and labia coupled with sewing up of the vagina âÄî a process known as infibulation âÄî to the comparatively less severe but still atrociously painful removal of the tip of the clitoris. Female genital mutilation can cause lingering psychological damage as well as infection and risk of death from shock and blood loss. The First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion, is sure to ignite a controversial debate about the MGM Bill. Unfortunately for objectors, Congress has already found that legal impediments upon female genital mutilation do not violate the First Amendment. While it may not be politically popular to say so, the false dichotomy between the Abrahamic religions and cultural practices of female genital mutilation is merely an issue of popularity in the voting pool. If the First Amendment doesnâÄôt cover traditional practices of some East Africans because they are less popular, then surely the constitutional obligation lies in revoking the First Amendment protections for Abrahamic circumcisions. The debate surrounding health and circumcision isnâÄôt much of a debate either. ItâÄôs clear that, for females, no health benefit is derived from genital mutilation, and the risks of infection and reproductive nullification greatly increase. Circumcision for males has long been touted as having medical benefits, though on questionable evidence, such as decreased probability of urinary tract infection, decreased risk of sexually transmitted disease and easier hygiene. The drawbacks of circumcision are the pain and possibility of a botched procedure, as well as the lingering effect of depriving the minor of his natural sensation and violating his choice in the matter. The obsolete nature of circumcision for medical reasons ought to be apparent when considering that we no longer live in the Bronze Age Levant of Abraham but a medically-equipped 21st century where these problems are readily prevented and resolved by knowledge of diet and medical procedure. The Minnesota Congress ought to consider and adopt the MGM anti-genital mutilation proposal as a bold proclamation that reaffirms human worth and individual choice above cruel cultural and religious traditions. Jacob Swede welcomes comments at [email protected]