nobody puts baby in the corner: bodily autonomy and infants
The power that parents have over their children is not always wielded in a benevolent manner; how many of us have looked through old family photos to find that, when we were too young to know better or even protest, we were dressed in the most embarrassing outfits by our parents? For instance, a glimpse at pictures from my own childhood reveals an alarming amount of skivvies.
Our parents make decisions during our earliest years because, obviously, we aren’t able to. They choose how to dress us, what to feed us and what to name us. They teach us to speak, and which language to speak. When we grow up and develop our own opinions and are able to make our own choices, we can move away from those of our parents, to a degree. However, Western parents have the power to make a certain decision about their baby boys, one that is undoable; circumcision.
Consent and body autonomy are significant feminist concerns, and when we examine the practise of circumcision through a feminist gaze, it is clear that such young children have no autonomy over their bodies, and baby boys have no consent in this procedure, as it is usually performed within the first week after birth.
One of the reasons that people justify the choice of circumcision is the supposed health benefit, as uncircumcised penises have a reputation of being “dirtier”. However, many health professionals in recent years have disproven these myths, and have revealed that circumcision truly is a non-essential surgery.
According to the state-sponsored initiative, the Better Health Channel, circumcision makes a baby boy 10 times less likely to have a urinary tract infection (UTI) in the first year of his life; this seemingly impressive statistic is rendered a lot less so when we take into account the percentage of babies actually at risk of a UTI in the first place: 1%. The Better Health Channel also responds to the accusation that circumcision better protects a man against sexually transmitted infections; incidentally, this has never been scientifically confirmed, and it is known that safe sex practices are far more effective in prevention of STIs. This “healthier penis” argument is further made invalid by the fact that less than 20% of baby boys today are circumcised. If circumcision really was the best option, wouldn’t more parents be choosing it?
While circumcision is advised for rare urological conditions, such as a permanently retracted foreskin, it is widely seen as unnecessary for males with healthy penises. For instance, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) states that while newborn circumcision ‘may’ have health benefits, they do not recommend it for all boys as a routine procedure. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians stated in 2010 that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision and the level of protection offered by circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand, and this recommendation is consistent with policies from the British Medical Association, the Canada Paediatric Society, the American Academy of Paediatrics, the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and the Royal Dutch Medical Association.
A procedure that is performed without consent, infant circumcision is a form of body modification. It causes pain, it is non-essential, it affects the sexual sensation of the penis, and it changes that body part from how it otherwise naturally would be. In fact, in 1989 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child threatened to make circumcision a recognised human rights violation and therefore impossible in countries that declared respect for human rights.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines female genital mutilation (FGM) as ‘all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. Interestingly, when we replace the word ‘female’ with ‘male’, the definition of genital mutilation is aligned with circumcision. It is important to acknowledge that there are obviously many differences between FGM and male infant circumcision; FGM is done to deprive women of sexual pleasure, to uphold premarital virginity, to tighten their vaginas to discourage sexual infidelity, or to make intercourse more pleasurable for their future husbands.
Also, as FGM is a cultural practice which is best known to be performed – but not performed exclusively – in the western, eastern, and north-eastern parts of Africa where hygiene and sanitation are huge concerns, with many serious health hazards facing the girls who are subject to it. While FGM and circumcision differ particularly when it comes to the implications of sexuality, gender, and power, what they have in common is that they permanently disfigure the genitals of an unconsenting victim. Interestingly, one is widely seen as a human rights violation, and one is not.
Following the logic that infant circumcision of males is body mutilation performed without consent, vaccinations could possibly fall into the same area*. However, the distinction between these two decisions is that vaccines put into babies and children’s’ bodies are to protect these children, and society. Statistics confirm this: since the introduction of vaccination of children in Australia in 1932, death from vaccine-preventable diseases have fallen by 99%. Vaccinations continue to save up to an estimate of 3 million lives worldwide each year.
Contrastingly, circumcision is not in the same life-or-death category, with proper sexual health education contributing to a healthy penis, not an anaesthetic and a scalpel. I don’t think it’s right that this decision is dictated by anyone other than the person attached to the penis. Voluntary circumcision procedures can be performed on male adults, when they are truly able to make an informed decision for themselves if they so choose. I can just hear my hypothetical future son now, repeating a much loved feminist mantra: ‘my body, my choice’.
*Please note it is not the intention of either the writer or the publisher to give any implicit approval to the antivaxxer movement or its motivations. Any inference of this from this article is a misappropriation of the argument.