|CC license Brad Kebodeaux|
Judge Jeffery Dana Gillen stated “She is going to sign the paperwork authorizing Chase’s circumcision or she’s going to sit behind bars until she does.” (Philly Voice)
This case highlights several issues around the notion of consent.
- Surely forced consent is a complete contradiction in terms and a pointless exercise?
- Fundamental to consent is the right to withdraw it any time prior and during the event.
- Can a non-consenting minor be forced to undergo an elective procedure without medical grounds?
As feminists have been busy defending the rights of our daughters to intact genitalia, it could be argued that we are failing to protect our male children. Although male circumcision is seen as a more minor procedure, to oppose it in no way belittles female genital mutiliation. Circumcision is the cultural practice of mutilating the genitals of non-consenting minors of both sexes. The only difference is that one is legally permitted in Western countries, one is not.
When male circumcision goes wrong, it has the potential to go very wrong. While religious leaders may traditionally perform the ceremony with varying levels of experience and hygiene, hospital circumcisions are perceived as safe and even healthy. Having worked as a student nurse at a private hospital in London offering elective circumcisions, I have assisted in taking tiny babies to theatre, bringing them back to their parents bandaged and dosed up on painkillers after a totally unnecessary procedure. The parents look anxiously at their little one's nether regions and worry about his fractious crying and well they might do. Best case scenario he will be sore and bruised. Worse, there could be bleeding, infection or damage to the penis itself in between 7 and 20% of circumcisions in newborn boys (Professor Frisch 2015).
We also often forget that general anaesthesia is a risky business, especially in the very young. I have blithely consented parents for their child's surgery, complicit in the assumption that their child would come back from theatre maybe a bit drowsy or irritable but with no long-term ill effects from anaesthesia. Then I saw a child return from an operation, permanently brain damaged after an unexplained drop in blood pressure, and the risks, however small, became much more real.
I understand that it is easy to attack a practice from the outside. The religious and cultural arguments in favour of circumcision are alien if they are not something you have grown up with. I am not Jewish or Muslim. I do not subscribe to the beliefs about life without a foreskin being "more hygienic" or "healthier", shown to be weak by comparing rates of STIs and penile cancer in countries with high male circumcision rates like North America and countries with low circumcision rates in Europe (Professor Frisch 2015). Just as I do not believe these arguments about "cleanliness" when they are trotted out to justify female circumcision as anything other than a barbaric practice orchestrated by the powerful on the weak. A non-Jewish friend agreed to have her son circumcised as the Jewish father felt it was important his son looked like him. The leader of a feminist workshop I went to last year, said the difference is that the Jewish people have faced genocide and thus they have the right to enforce this code of belonging on their offspring. Why should the horrific violence against a people justify the mutilation of non-consenting minors? Whatever your reasons, be it aesthetics, belonging, or a perceived reduced risk of STIs, all of these can wait until adulthood.
Of course, we do all kinds of unnecessary things to our bodies. But even if central to religious belief and cultural norms, any practice with permanent physical effects ought to be within the realm of consenting adults. But it is "safer", "less painful" in babies, we hear. In fact, we often assume that illnesses or procedures are more minor or less painful in children than in adults when in fact they are not. Until the 1980s, newborns were undergoing open heart surgery without anaesthesia (see this study by the University of Oxford). Horrifying to contemplate in terms of what we know now about newborns having increased sensitivity to pain, not less. Surely if a procedure is a cultural choice, without medical grounds, rather like piercing or tattooing, it must be done on a consenting healthy adult, able to understand, cope with and consent to the risks and pain associated with a procedure.
I was flabbergasted when friends asked if I would be circumcising my newborn son. I would be as likely to have my son's foreskin removed as I would have my daughter's clitoris clipped. I didn't know then of the intactivist movement but the one thing this tragic case has highlighted, is the right of boy and girl children to the bodies they were born with.
Shame on the surgeon who cuts that little boy against his and his mother's wishes.
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