On October 23, ARC sent a letter to the UK-based weekly political magazine The Spectator (www.spectator.co.uk) in response to Brendan O’Neill’s article, “‘The latest anti-Semitic cry: ban circumcision,” which appeared in the Spectator on October 19 (www.spectator.co.uk/features/9055801/the-first-cut/).

Below is the text of the letter sent to the Spectator.


Thoughtful opponents of non-therapeutic circumcision of boys will not recognize themselves in the piece by Brendan O’Neill for the Spectator (“The latest anti-Semitic cry: ban circumcision,” October 19). Instead we find a mishmash of fabrications and half-baked analyses fancifully yet libelously attacking as ‘anti-Semitic’ anyone who might seek to safeguard children from an unnecessary and irreversible procedure that many males come to resent.

While O’Neill glibly suggests that non-therapeutic circumcision of boys is “simple” and “harmless,” even British medical associations agree that, as with any surgery, circumcision carries risks including risk of serious injury and even death. Circumcision is alien to British tradition and to British law requiring protection of the rights of the child against removal of healthy tissue in the absence of a medical emergency. Moreover, circumcision is painful, invasive, removes between one-third and one-half of the penile covering, and eliminates the protective, gliding, and lubricating functions of the foreskin, which is highly erogenous in and of itself. To regard these losses as harmful is not exactly a stretch.

O’Neill speculates that circumcised men who are critical of the surgery wish to blame their circumcisions “for every trouble that befalls them in adulthood” or for “their inability … to hold down a relationship.” No source is cited for this far-fetched supposition, but one does have to marvel at O’Neill’s flair for armchair psychoanalysis.

The Foreskin Man comic that O’Neill latches onto is indeed repugnant. Of course, the overwhelming majority of those who oppose circumcision, including a large and growing number of Muslim and Jewish intactivists, would say the exact same thing. One person’s offensive behavior does not say anything about an entire movement.

O’Neill blithely refers to “the so-called rights of the child” [emphasis added] while living in a country that—unlike the US—has ratified the virtually universally approved Convention on the Rights of the Child. Does opposition to circumcision “elevate the so-called rights of the child above adults’ freedom of religion?” Far from it. The conflict to which O’Neill alludes does not in fact exist.

The false opposition of so-called parents’ rights and children’s rights is an illusion. Rights accrue to individuals, including children who have those rights from birth, and those rights are absolute. The principle that children have the right to bodily integrity, and that parents cannot risk harming them for religious or cultural reasons, let alone actually harm them, is in fact US law under Prince v. Massachusetts as well as two German and one Austrian court cases. In the absence of a medical emergency, the adult’s rights stop at the surface of the body of the child.

Anti-circumcision activists, or “intactivists,” are accused of “dolling up” an asserted intolerance “in the cynical language of human rights” but it is O’Neill himself whose bullying and intolerant style–-not to mention his rejection of children’s rights–betrays the authoritarianism of his politics. It is particularly bizarre to find someone calling himself a libertarian atheist not only denying individuals the right to bodily integrity but even claiming that opposing removal of healthy body parts constitutes religious prejudice.

O’Neill’s ethical standpoint is plainly incoherent. If you support freedom of religion as a human right, you must support human rights as a general concept, which means accepting that children have the same rights as adults. O’Neill’s approach is muddled enough that one can almost predict the desperation evident in his attempt to paint intactivists as somehow simultaneously “hippies” and “reactionary.”

British (and American) law says that no matter what religious beliefs their parents may have, in the absence of a medical emergency, children alone have the right to decide when they become competent whether to irreversibly remove their functional, healthy body parts. To use O’Neill’s language, it is “intolerance, plain and simple” to label a diverse group of humanitarian volunteers, from many different backgrounds and walks of life, as uniformly prejudiced. My wife and children are Jewish, and my son is currently preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. There is nothing anti-Semitic about protecting children from violations of their human rights.

J. Steven Svoboda
Executive Director
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child