Examining Nontherapeutic Circumcision

Health Matrix 28:1-77 (2018)
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Abstract

This study in moral, political, and legal philosophy contends that it is morally impermissible to circumcise male minors without a medical indication (nontherapeutic circumcision). Male minors have a moral anticipatory autonomy right-in-trust not to be circumcised. This right depends on norms of autonomy and bodily integrity. These norms generate three direct non-consequentialist arguments against nontherapeutic circumcision: (1) the loss of nonrenewable functional tissue, (2) genital salience, and (3) limits on a parental right to permanently modify their sons' bodies. An indirect argument holds (4) that if it is morally impermissible to remove the female prepuce (clitoral hood), then it is also morally impermissible to remove the male prepuce (foreskin). Although there is debate across medical cultures, a reasonable understanding supports the claim that nontherapeutic circumcision causes some harms and imposes unwarranted risks on male minors. The overall moral case applies to secular circumcisions and, with some qualifications, to religious circumcisions in Judaism and Islam. Arguments of political philosophy that invoke the freedom of religion, toleration, multiculturalism, and social meaning qualify somewhat, but do not eliminate, the case against circumcising male minors without a medical indication. Nevertheless, the arguments deployed in this study do not warrant legal interference at this time with secular and religious practices of nontherapeutic circumcision.

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Stephen Munzer
University of California, Los Angeles