One of the most common comments on this topic that I have come across is that it is not a big deal so why not allow the practice to continue. Of course that is apt to the reply that if it is not a big deal then it won’t be a big deal if it is outlawed which clearly won’t satisfy those who raise this comment. This comment is meant to function so as to justify the continuation of the practice of cutting infants sex organs because it does not cause lasting psychological damage. That is what it is not a big deal tries to signify.
I think that there is evidence to suggest that if a practice is part of our normal experience then we tend to think it is justified unless there are good reasons to think contrary. So if we tried to bring in a practice of cutting off one of our nipples because it was part of a religious tradition the practice would not get any sympathetic support. It would simply be too weird and deviant from the norm to get any widespread consent. However if the practice already existed and was widespread within out culture we would not be as likely to notice that something was amiss.
The fact that male circumcision is widespread especially in places like Australia and USA makes it feel like it is already morally justified and needs some good reasons for overturning the practice. If we already have the intuition that the practice is justified then it will be harder to make people question what they have taken for granted. This assumption resides behind the “It is not a big deal” comment.
Still lets accept that male circumcision is not a big deal in the sense that it does not do lasting psychological damage. After all plenty of circumcised adults are not complaining about it (even if they are not in a position to know what they are missing or know how they might feel had they not been operated on, and have now failed to remember the operation).
What follows from this?
Well one thing that does not follow is that if it is not a big deal then the practice is morally justified.
Consider the infliction of a minor harm on me. If your parents request a surgeon to cut part of my toe off, or pull one of my nails out for no other reason than it is part of their religious tradition and doing this will help me fit in with others who have had this done, and the surgeon complies, then you are being harmed for no good reason. Clearly this is not morally justified and we might add surgeons (or parents) that did this would be faced with a charge of child abuse.
However from the perspective of my later years this early abuse need not have scarred me mentally or caused me lasting psychological damage (regardless of whether it left a permanent physical scar or not). So later in life I may say “it is no big deal.” I may even say that “it did not harm me” as I have forgotten about the experience.
Clearly the fact that this practice does not tend to lead to lasting psychological damage does not entail that it is morally justified. It is classed as a form of assault as it involves a harm being knowingly inflicted on you and you would find very few surgeons willing to engage in this sort of procedure .
Male circumcision looks comparable to this case as it also involves medical practitioners to knowingly harm an infant when there is no known benefit likely to accrue. The psychological harm may not be lasting but this does not excuse the practice. The only difference is the cultural background which male circumcision takes place in – it has been so widespread and unquestioned for so long that it has been automatically taken as morally acceptable – when it is not.
So the important point to make here is that if male circumcision is not a big deal in that it does not cause lasting psychological damage this does not make it morally justified. When it is done for non-medical reasons it still involves a form of physical harm or even assault on an infant.
1)Nothing in the above would deny that human introspection is notoriously unreliable over long time spans. Hence circumcision might have been a big deal at the time but may not be so now. Second having to live with being circumcised is likely to make those adapt to this condition. After all we have to live with our parents who have harmed us but whom we love and we have to live with our own bodies. Finally it might be a big deal for some people who have been circumcised without their consent. It is just that whether circumcision is seen as a big deal or not by those who have been circumcised does nothing to justify the practice.
2) David Shaw (2009) makes exactly the same point above in the context of his paper “Cutting through red tape: non-therapeutic circumcision and unethical guidelines” where he argues that the GMC and BMA guidelines are vague and require surgeons who want to opt out of circumcisions for non therapeutic reasons to cite conscientious objections. On the contrary he argues no ethical surgeon would engage in circumcision for non therapeutic reasons.
In the below extract NTC = Non Therapeutic Circumcision:
And finally, imagine a situation where two adherents of a minority religion ask their doctor to pull off their son’s thumbnails, as this is part of the religion in which they want to bring up their son. The pain will be transient, and the nails will grow back, but the parents claim that it is an important rite of passage. I think it is reasonable to say that the doctor would send them packing, without recourse to conscientious objection or fear of backstreet nailpulling. In the case of NTC, the foreskin will not grow back; why should this procedure be treated differently simply because of the weight of religious tradition? The very fact that NTC is also sometimes referred to as ‘ritual’ circumcision implies that it is something that is done out of unreflective habit. If you ask the father who is requesting NTC for his child why he wants it, the most likely response apart from ‘it’s my religion’ would be ‘my father had it done to me’. But this is not a good reason for exposing a child to risk.
David Shaw (2009). Cutting Through Red Tape: Non-Therapeutic Circumcision and Unethical Guidelines. Clinical Ethics 4 (4):181-186.