By Dan O’Connor, PhD
Do you remember how, when you were a kid and you’d have dinner at your best friend’s house? Everything would be going great, just like dinner at your house but more fun because, hey, we’re going to be allowed to stay up and watch Thundercats on VHS after. And then… and then… there, right at the dinner table, your friend’s family would do something which would reveal them to you as moral pervert aliens from the planet Vogon. OH MY GOD WHO DRINKS MILK WITH DINNER? EXCUSE ME ARE YOU PUTTING CHEESE ON YOUR CURRY? IS THIS A TUB OF MARGARINE I SEE BEFORE ME? SWEET MOTHER OF GOD WHY IS THERE NO KETCHUP ON MY SPAGHETTI? The merest variation from the eating habits of your own family (paragons, naturally, of the right and proper way of doing all things) would be enough to make you look at these people and realize that, although they looked just like you, THEY WERE DIFFERENT ALL ALONG.
So, this is basically how I feel about talking about circumcision in America.
And I imagine it’s how lots of my American friends feel when they talk to me about circumcision.
What I’m going to write about here isn’t the ethical arguments for and against circumcision (these are many, varied, and all over the interwebs for your reading pleasure). My writing about how I think it’s a questionable practice steeped in sexual hygiene paranoia isn’t going to help anything (note, though, how I managed to sneak that in anyway). It’s about the look I get on my face when you tell me you’ve circumcised your child, and the look you get on your face when you realize I think it’s wrong. It’s about the distinct sense of mortification I feel when my Jewish friends ask me what I think about circumcision.
Oh, yeah: some of my best friends are Jewish.
And I still manage to be friends with them even though I think circumcision is wrong.
Just like I still manage to be friends with my devoutly atheist friends who have circumcised their boys.
I don’t know why I say ‘manage to be friends’ – it’s pretty easy actually. We just have that quick, awkward moment where it becomes apparent that we both think the other is ethically wrong and then we get back to the serious business of drinking beer.
Sometimes we’ll have got far enough into the serious business of drinking beer that we’ll feel chemically enhanced enough to dip our toes back in the ethical waters. Sometimes the subject of religious freedom comes up and, encouraged by an excellent Czech Pilsner, I will wonder: Just how does one go about asserting one’s belief that your friend’s religious freedom doesn’t extend to a baby boy’s penis? If we’re in a really daring mood, we’ll let the subject of health benefits dance coltishly across the table, although this only ever results in me using words like ‘spurious’, ‘questionable’ and ‘why doesn’t everyone in France have syphilis then?’, which is usually when the next round of beer arrives and saves each of us from reaching the inevitable conclusion that the other ought to be arrested for crimes against morality.
And so, when BBC news call my work and ask if there is a bioethicist in the house who will give the anti-circumcision viewpoint, I beg off. “Unavailable”. “He wants to be alone”. I would be a terrible interviewee on the subject, anyway, insisting as I would upon wearing a big sign which read “Not actually anti-Semitic, honestly!” and prefacing my every argument against circumcision with rambling spiels about what loving and caring parents my friends are. I’m not even against circumcision in all circumstances! If you, an adult, want to do it, go ahead! It’s your body. It’s the non-consenting practice on children which bothers me.
The thing with circumcision is that, like your best friend’s family’s weirdo ways with food, it doesn’t actually indicate anything deeper. It’s just so different that it’s almost impossible for me to contemplate. And so when I momentarily look appalled at you for thinking circumcision is OK, that’s all I’m questioning. I’m not disgusted by you or your body. I’m not worried about about the rest of your moral universe, nor about your parenting skills or those of your own mother and father. It has nothing to do with how I feel about the rest of your religion. I just think you’re wrong on this one thing. Just the circumcision. Just the ketchup with spaghetti. And you think I’m wrong, and that what I’m saying is upsetting. Which wasn’t my intention at all.
Which is why it’s so hard for me to talk to Americans about circumcision.
Edit: This post was modified on 9.15.12 in response to a discussion on my Facebook page. I have changed some language and added a few points. The substance of the post has not been altered.
Dan O’Connor  – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases