The attached article is by Prof. John Radford, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of East London. It was published in Freethinker
about three years ago: www.freethinker.co.uk
and mentioned again on the NSS web bulletin Newsline
on 9 April 2009. Both John Radford and Barry Duke (Freethinker) have given permission for the article to be used here in the hope that it will lead to more males being spared the frightening and unnecessary ordeal of circumcision.
John Radford wrote:
“Barry Duke describes, in the December 2005 Freethinker
, the unpleasant practice of the Jewish mohel
, who after cutting off the male infant’s foreskin, traditionally sucks the blood from the penis. A correspondence I had with the Department of Health may be of interest. I first wrote, addressed to the then Secretary of State, Dr John Reid, on 16th December 2004, as follows.
‘It is reported in East End Life
, the community paper published by Tower Hamlets Council (13-19 December, 2004), that a “hospital based religious and cultural male circumcision service for people registered with a G.P. in Tower Hamlets is to be set up at Mile End Hospital”. The service is to be non-profit making but will charge a fee.
‘I read this report with near incredulity. Male circumcision, I need hardly point out, involves excising the foreskin of the penis, making a permanent alteration and normally leaving scar tissue. Mutilation of the genitals, or indeed any part of the body, cannot be considered as other than a serious assault on the person, unless there is clear medical justification. That is very rare, and is clearly not the case here. It is entirely unjustifiable when the individual is able to give fully informed and free consent. Children are not able to give such consent. Indeed they are usually not given the opportunity to do so. It is absolutely unacceptable that this practice should take place under the auspices of the National Health Service.
The Government is rightly exercised over whether, and to what extent, parents should be permitted the use of corporal punishment. There would be universal agreement, however, that if allowed it should never result in permanent physical damage. Circumcision does just that.
‘It may be said that circumcisions on religious or cultural grounds do take place, and it is better that it should be done in a hygienic environment. This argument could be used to justify any practice, and can be dismissed. Further, any surgical procedure carries some risk, and should never be undertaken unless really necessary. There is also the argument of respect for cultural and religious traditions. However, we do not allow this to override what is acceptable in our society. Fundamental to this is the rule of law, and that law must be based on such principles as respect for the person, equality before the law and protection of the weak. These principles are violated by the practice of non-medical circumcision of children.
‘I should like you to give me your assurance that your Department, and the National Health Service, do not support the practice of circumcision on non-medical grounds, and will do nothing to facilitate or condone it.’
I received no reply, and in writing on 11th February 2005 to request one, added: ‘I would add that since I wrote, legislation has come into force which, as I understand it, makes it an offence to use corporal punishment on a child in such a way as to leave a mark. Circumcision leaves a permanent mutilation. It also appears that non-medical amputation might be illegal under Human Rights Legislation. If not, however, the same would be true of cigarette smoking. This is legal, but in view of the known harm it often does, your Department does what it can to discourage it, especially among children. Circumcision is a precise and certain harm.’
This elicited the following (with apologies for delay), from a William Frost of the Customer Service Centre.
“It is generally agreed that circumcision brings no proven benefits to a person’s physical health, but at the same time, it is of deep significance for the Jewish and Islamic communities. However, this Department has no plans to issue guidance to cover ritual circumcision. We regard with respect the religious and cultural traditions that have existed for centuries and which are ultimately a matter of individual choice. Strategic Health authorities and NHS Trusts are free to choose whether to provide this surgery or not. However, their decision should be based on local circumstances and, if they do choose to provide ritual circumcision, costs should be met from funds available locally.
The legal position is unclear as it is untested. The protection of children from “traditional practices prejudicial to the health of the children” (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) has to be balanced against the rights of individuals to practise their religion, as enshrined in the 1998 Human Rights Act.
The most important issue is the safety of the child. Whilst no surgery is entirely without risk, an operation carried out in an appropriately equipped hospitable is preferable to one carried out by a “lay circumciser” in the community. We support the General Medical Council’s Guidance on circumcision issued in September 1997. This states that doctors who carry out this procedure must be properly skilled, must keep up to date on surgical methods, and must discuss the surgery with the parents beforehand.
I hope this information is helpful”.
Well, it is, in showing that neither reason nor ethics has much to do with it. Everything that is said applies equally to female ‘circumcision’ which is rightly illegal. As I could not see how to make any progress, I acknowledged the reply, merely commenting that it seemed odd for the Department of Health to ‘regard with respect’ the mutilation of children.
Male circumcision is only one of many traditional body markings or alterations with various functions, the most obvious perhaps being to indicate group identity or membership. The group may be a tribe or clan, etc, or one sex, or adult versus child. For Jews, this is exemplified by the myth of Abraham’s covenant with God, in Genesis 17, 10-14 (I guess, invented to account for an existing practice). For Muslims, and other groups, it is simply traditional. It is not mentioned in the Koran, and apparently is considered compulsory by only one of the six schools of Islamic law, though the others recommend it. It is common in the United States, possibly for supposed medical reasons rather than religious ones, but it seems to be declining significantly there.
Child abuse of all kinds is tragically all too common. Male circumcision is far from the worst example. But abuse it is, and I do not see that it can be justified on grounds of long tradition or religious belief. A belief, however strongly held, cannot entitle anyone to inflict harm on others. This is above all the case if the others are defenceless, as children are.
It seems to me reasonable to expect that the national Department of Health, as a minimum, should not condone or encourage it. I have not come across a psychological study of the effects on a boy (Muslims are often aged six to eleven) of his loving parents informing him that they have just arranged for a man to cut off part of his penis. A website www.NetDoctor.co.uk
gives an extensive run-down of medical reasons against it, in an article written by Dr. John Dean who concludes that the best advice is “if it is not absolutely necessary, don’t do it.” This site also carries 187 questions and answers on the topic. But Dr. Dean bizarrely concludes with the assurance that the author has the greatest respect for all religions, and apologises if his words have given offence. Personally I feel no such respect, indeed this barbaric remnant of primitive behaviour would by itself destroy any vestige of it.”