Who Owns The Body?

It’s interesting to reflect, in light of the recent German ruling, on the fact that circumcision is now an embattled parental right whereas infant ear piercing is not. The statistics clearly show that ear piercing is more dangerous (3-20% risk of complications versus .2-.6% for circumcision#) and clinical studies suggest that circumcision may even have health benefits, whereas as far as I know ear piercing has none. It is possible that ear piercing has simply not come to the attention of the anti-circumcision advocates, but I suspect this points more to the fact that harm is not actually the issue here.

What’s actually at issue is the modern value of autonomy. Post-enlightenment Western values celebrate the individual and the individual’s rights over him or herself. My body belongs to me- how dare anyone else change it without my consent? My opinion is worth more than the opinions of my parents or my tribe.

Religious circumcision as practiced in Judaism and Islam is a ritual which arises from a fundamentally different value structure. In both of these cultures the body is seen as at least partially the property of the tribe, of the family, and ultimately of God, before it is the property of the individual. The decisions of the tribe, the family, and the accepted tribal laws of reality (Torah, Quran) supersede my own desires. It is an honour to be initiated into the practices of the tribe, and that communal belonging writ forever on my body is assumed to be welcome. The average religious Jew or Muslim thinks, “What Jew or Muslim wouldn’t want a circumcision?”

I think this sense of “who wouldn’t want it?” may be behind the secular acceptance of infant ear piercing. What girl would be upset that she came into adulthood with already pierced ears? Doesn’t every woman in our western tribe pierce her ears? Or so the thinking must go, anyway.

This is why secular people cannot understand why many Jewish parents are so comfortable with circumcision. The concern is not harm, it is autonomy. It is still assumed by many Jewish parents that their son will be happy he was circumcised. This assumption is not unwarranted- most Jewish men, especially those who remain involved in the Jewish community, are happy they were circumcised.

This brings us to the next point- to not circumcise is also an action with its own effects. The uncircumcised Jew has also had a decision made for him- that he will not carry on his body the mark of tribal membership- that he will thus be seperated from his male ancestors and from most of his brethren. Since adult circumcision is much more impactful than infant circumcision, not circumcising a Jewish infant may be in many cases a decision that assumes the wrong thing about the latter’s wishes, and at least at this point in history may be cause more suffering for the uncircumcised adult than there is any risk of causing with circumcision.

All that said in the end the argument will always come back to the issue of autonomy. Does a parent, does a tribe, does a religion, have the right to change an infants body without the infants permission? Who owns the body? The person or their family and tribe?

I am not sure there is actually an objective, logical answer to this. I’m sure many of my readers will argue that there is- that autonomy clearly trumps all, that obviously the infant owns its own body. I think this “obviousness” is not based in logic but instead is a culturally conditioned view. I think if you asked any of the indigenous peoples all over the world who practice some form of tattooing, piercing, surgery, scarring, etc. on their children before they’ve reached the age of majority they would feel that the traditions of the tribe were obviously more important than the desires of one individual. They might have some good arguments showing that their practices foster greater belonging and psychological wellbeing, and they may even be right.

We in modern cultures have clearly set down the path of autonomy, however, and our whole legal and cultural matrix is founded on it, at least in theory. Consequently it seems likely that autonomy will trump other concerns and religious circumcision is on its way out, barring a massive paradigm shift in our group consciousness some time soon. Perhaps circumcision will be practiced in secret by some- maybe false foreskins will be designed to foil casual detection. I wouldn’t put it past the Orthodox Jewish community, who are fiercely loyal to this custom- and who will probably move away from any municipality or country that outlaws it.