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Parental Freedom of Religion vs. the Child’s Physical Integrity

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I usually agree with Brendan O’Neill but once in a while I disagree with him. This is one of those times.

His contentions are:

  1. Banning male circumcision, carried out as part of religious ritual, is an attack on the freedom of religion and on parents’ rights to initiate their children into their religion.
  2. Corollary to the above is that parents have the right to physical and mental modification of the their offspring to conform to their religious beliefs.
  3. Description of male circumcision as child abuse is an anti-semitic trope centuries old.
  4. Parents imparting their religious beliefs is not abuse and labelling it so is a “cynical tactic”
  5. There is a slippery slope. Now parents are being prevented from circumcising their male children. In the future parents will be be prevented from imparting their religious beliefs to their children and will not be allowed to raise their children in their faith.
  6. This is also excessive interference in the family life by the state.

Against this I argue:

  1. Circumcision is a permanent body modification of the male child without its consent. Male children (by definition) are incapable of consent. Violating the physical integrity of any person without consent is abuse.[1]
  2. Not every religious practice deserves respect. Sati was sanctioned in certain strains of Hinduism. I would be interested to note what O’Neill thinks of banning Sati as a prohibition on the free exercise of religion.[2]
  3. Christian Scientists believe in praying over modern medicine as a means of treatment. This has led to preventable deaths in children. Commonwealth v. Twitchell was a famous case where the Christian Scientist parents were prosecuted for the death of their child who was treated only according to Christian Science tenets. While the parents were convicted, on appeal their sentence was overturned on grounds of religious freedom.
    • Even if the practice is carried out by a community which was historically persecuted, that should have no bearing on whether such practice should continue.
      • The right thing can be done for the wrong reasons; the right thing can be done for the right reasons.
      • The current court decision does not single out any particular class of people for prosecution unlike the anti-circumcision posturing of the Middle Ages
  4. O’Neill has been framed the debate as freedom of religion vs. the State. What if parents want their son circumcised to prevent masturbation? Would he support their right to do so? If he answered no, would he change his answer if the parents have a religious objection to masturbation? (And if he answered yes to the penultimate question does he believe that parents have the right to control all manifestations of their child’s sexuality? I can imagine parents not wanting their child to engage in sexual intercourse until the child has achieved a certain level of maturity.)

I am sympathetic to O’Neill’s argument that this is a slippery slope. One needs to articulate a limiting principle which would prevent state interference in the freedom of religion while balancing the interests of the child.

  • Firstly a distinction has to be made between physical transformation/modification and a mental transformation (via education in religious beliefs). One has to recognise that while physical transformation is irreversible, mental transformation is not irreversible. People brought up in religious households can turn their back on their religion of birth. They can covert into other religions and even give up on religion altogether.
  • Therefore unlike banning circumcision, banning religious education is an overreach because such education is reversible, children on turning older can change their minds regarding religion. This is not the case with circumcision.
  • There is thus a limiting principle which can limit the state’s interference with the right of the parent to raise his/her child in the way the parents best sees fit.

I agree with O’Neill that the imparting of religious education to children cannot be classified as child abuse. If it can be so then can imparting one’s politics to one’s children be far behind? Will parents who tell their children which politician to admire and how they should vote when they grow up be considered as child abusers? Let the parents impart whatever education they want. Children will grow up and make up their minds on their own. They may even change it.

Finally O’Neill refers to the Waco Siege as an example of where charges of child abuse can lead to significant harm. But that doesn’t mean all allegations of child abuse are false. And in the case of Waco the deaths were not due to allegations of child abuse but due to bad tactics and impatience shown by the FBI. The moral of Waco is not that allegations of child abuse should not be taken seriously (otherwise one could end up with Jerry Sandusky) but that situations like Waco need to be handled with more patience and care. In fact all allegations of child abuse must be treated with care (see here, here and here). And finally incidents of circumcision are not alleged. The male child can be readily verified to be sans foreskin.

[1] Unless as a means of penal punishment?

[2] Some will say that I am conflating culture with religion, but in my defence what I am attacking is parental practice based on faith, whether informed by religion or by culture.

Written by Polevaulter Donkeyman

June 30, 2012 at 23:26