Children vs. parents vs. the government (circumcision)
Yesterday, I came across a blog post on calls for a ban on circumcisione beginning with “The loony Left is at it again.”—surprising, because while the Left is often loony, circumcision is a very real evil (I will expand on this side-topic below) and something which I would expect at least the Libertarian right to strongly oppose.
Upon my protest, the author replied that:
The issue is not circumcision; it’s whether some Left-wing (or Right-wing for that matter) Moon-bats know better than parents and should be allowed to intervene in child rearing. Just look around and see the results. We are in the 5th decade of the Progressive experiment to have Social workers and other government agencies take over the responsibilities of raising our children. Object failure with kids coming out of school who cannot read, teenage pregnancies and abortions at all time highs.
Government does very little right. Suggestion that we continue to cede parental rights to it makes no sense.
While there is more than a grain of truth in this comment, it also contains several missteps. Seeing that these missteps reflect an attitude I have seen on a number of occasions, I will try to straighten them out:
The core issue is the rights and best interests of the individual (in this case, the child—not the parents!) and how to protect these.
In many cases of government intervention, rights and interests of the individual are infringed upon. This is the case e.g. when highly inefficient and unduly time consuming schooling is opposed on children, when boys are put on Ritalin just for being boys, or when schools are abused for indoctrination; this is the case e.g. when hard-earned income is stolen (typically through taxes), when “affirmative action” destroys equality of opportunity and prevents companies from hiring the most suitable candidates, or when marriage and family is turned from something a man can be proud of into a divorce-trap of alimony payments and unfounded accusations of domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Here, however, we have something else entirely, namely the government protecting the rights of the child against the misdeeds of the parents. (Notably, unlike some other cases, e.g. where social workers take children from a sub-optimal environment to put them in a down-right poor one, this is not an issue where the risk of incompetence in the handling of individual cases is a concern.)
Parents have obligations towards their children, but their actual rights (from an ethical POV) are highly limited: A child is not a possession. Arguments based on parental rights are therefore almost always fundamentally flawed: It is, for instance, wrong to argue that a parent (or government!) should have the right to perform religious or political indoctrination. (However, an argument based on undue legislation preventing parents from fulfilling their obligations can still be valid.)
Indeed, in many cases, we have a conflict between two parties (parents and government) who do not have rights and who have different opinions as to what is in the child’s best interest. The question now becomes one of the lesser evil (or, occasionally, greater good)—parents or government. As the poster correctly remarks, the government is very often the greater evil; further, supporting the parents has the advantage that damage can be limited: The typical individual parent, if incompetent, will only do damage to 1–3 children; the government can screw up an entire generation. Cases like circumcision (cf. above and below), however, are of a different character.
Why is circumcision something that children should be protected from? It has no known benefits, but can have medical side-effects—including infections after the operation or reduced sexual pleasure as an adult; in rare cases, penis-loss or even death follows; and there are speculations about psychological trauma (however, I would generally urge to caution when allegations of trauma are raised, until considerable proof is presented). Further, it is a permanent alteration of the body and thus a decision that should be made by the individual for himself at a time when he is sufficiently mature to do so. Further yet, unless there is compelling evidence of benefits, the “natural” state should be given preference, as it is less likely to bring unforeseen problems. (Note that there are some alleged, but unproved, benefits, including claims about a reduced transmission of STDs; however, apart from the lack of proof, these would be relevant in cases of poor hygiene and insufficient use of condoms. A far better solution, then, is to address hygiene and use of condoms.)
To make a brief compare-and-contrast:
Tattoos are similar: Permanent alteration with no benefits and some risk of medical complications—a decision to be made by the individual.
Vaccination: Does bring some risks, but also considerable benefits (if restricted to those vaccinations that are medically sensible). Further, the non-positive permanent effects are negligible or non-existent. The case for vaccination is, therefore, far better.
Amputating a limb to avoid possible death (e.g. due to gangrene): This decision is sufficiently large (including severe permanent damage) that it should be left to the adult individual; however, unlike circumcision, it cannot be. By the nature of the situation, the decision has to be made within a highly limited time frame and unless the child is already old enough to make at least a semi-informed decision (in which case his opinion should be given due weight) some constellation of parents and physicians must take the responsibility. The case for the parents making the decision is far better than for circumcision (however, it does not automatically follow that “amputate” would be the right decision in any given case).
Corporeal punishment (on a moderate level): No permanent bodily damage is done, the risk of medical complications is very low, and there could be (this area is insufficiently researched, but there is considerable anekdotal evidence and general plausibility) benefits in terms of effective child-raising. Psychological damage, in turn, seems to arise not from (moderate) corporeal punishment, but e.g. from unfair or gratuitous punishment and emotional punishment. Corporeal punishment is then more justifiable than circumcision. (Under the mentioned constraints and with some reservations for future research.)