In the UK, we have freedom of religion like all other secular countries and it is a freedom which is supposed to entitle people the freedom to believe what they want and practise what they want without interference from the State.
But some religious groups abuse this freedom and act in ways which we would usually call inhumane. We sometimes refrain from calling these acts inhumane just because they are the acts of a religious group.
One religious custom I believe should be explicitly illegal – based on the harm it inflicts on the individual and the individual’s interests it ignores – is non-consensual, medically unnecessary male circumcision (or genital mutilation).
About a year ago my cousin had a son and being Jewish it was natural for him to call in a ‘Mohel’ and have his son circumcised. I was invited to the bris (Jewish ritual of circumcision) and I was interested to see what the ritual involved. During the hour-long process, however, my curiosity changed to disgust. I felt like stopping this scalpel-wielding stranger hacking the skin off this baby’s genitals. Imagine for a second that this practice never existed amongst an organised group. Now imagine an individual being in someone’s home slicing off the foreskin of someone else’s newborn infant. We would either send that person to jail for child abuse or to a psychiatric ward if they pleaded insanity.
The Children Act of 1989 gives the NSPCC statutory powers to protect children when they’re at risk, but the NSPCC would not be allowed to prevent circumcisions. Why? Well, there is no reason, except that it is expected of politicians and the general public to respect what religious groups do in private. But when one individual harms another, without consent, then this calls for State intervention.
Removing the foreskin of an infant violates that infant’s freedom, as well as the infant’s interest in not being harmed. It’s also worth noting that the Mohels who do the circumcising are not trained in anaesthesia, nor are their implements sterile, considering that the bris happens in the home and not in a hospital. So I think under the Children Act (1989) the practice of circumcision on non-consenting boys or girls should be considered child abuse and warrants the State to condemn it, just as it condemns child molestation, neglection and other forms of abuse. The only way in which circumcision should be allowed to exist, in a religious and non-medical context, is by the individual deciding to have it done as a consenting adult.
I’d wager that if this is how circumcision really worked, by individuals consenting at a mature age, there would be increasingly fewer people being circumcised on the basis of faith.
It’s also worth a reminder that the foreskin, or prepuce, exists for a reason and serves several biological functions. Some include: preventing chafing, increased sexual pleasure, (the prepuce has the most nerve endings compared to the rest of the penis), prevention of infection during early age. And the list goes on…
Also, here is a fascinating article on common misconceptions and myths surrounding circumcision. Circumcision, without anaesthesia, is a painful form of mutilation which carries many health risks and long-term psychological problems.
On a quick side note, it is worth mentioning that the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed in 1985 and makes it a criminal offence for one to remove or mutilate a female’s genitalia for cultural or religious reasons. There is no act, however, which says it is a criminal offence to mutilate the genitals of a boy for religious reasons. This is nothing short of a double standard.