Tuesday, 31 May 2011

San Francisco Circumcision Ban

San Francisco is going to put a circumcision ban on the ballot in November.  Unlike other recent cases of gov't meddling in San Francisco, e.g., the "happy meal" restrictions, I think this is a sensible law to consider. It's the kind of situation in which the government really can play a useful protective role in a potentially physically abusive situation. It's hard to think of circumcision as abuse mostly because it's so common, but given the intense pain that it causes and the lack of any clear medical justification, a very strong case can be made that it is, in fact, abusive.  Of course, some would argue that there are medical benefits associated with circumcision, but, as noted in the linked article, these data are unclear and not adequate to have resulted in medical associations recommending it.

Sometimes there are good health reasons for circumcision but the actual bill provides for medical exceptions: "A surgical operation is not a violation of this section if the operation is necessary to the physical health of the person on whom it is performed because of a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need with no less-destructive alternative treatment available, and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner"

Some will object that this violates freedom of religion. But it's hard to take such arguments seriously. We don't allow other kinds of abusive actions in the name of freedom of religion. Nobody gets to cane their children and point to Bible passages about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Religious freedom doesn't trump freedom of children to be kept free of intense unnecessary pain. We don't let religious practice trump child welfare considerations in the case of female circumcision.

I'm not sure that the ban is a good idea, but I think that whether or not it's a good idea turns on the question of whether or not clear medical benefits exist, not the fact that it's common or that it's an important religious practice. Without the existence of demonstrable medical benefits, those factors should only motivate the need to protect children from well-meaning parents who might have their sons circumcised for the wrong reason.

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