Ritual circumcision and legal objections to it are in the news. There are two separate but related questions:
1. Whether it’s in the state’s interest to forbid it;
2. How parents are supposed to balance the risks and benefits.
Let’s take the second one first. No one denies that circumcision involves pain and suffering to the child. The long-term psychological damage does not seem to be demonstrated anywhere and seems implausible on its face, given the number of people who have been circumcised and lead happy, psychologically whole lives.
The medical benefits are beyond the scope of this post. However, one kind of benefit that is not generally reckoned, at least in secular analyses, is the benefit to the child from the ceremonial or religious aspects of the ritual. I’ve seen it said that children cannot be considered members of any group of people, since that distinction is reserved for adults. This is silly, of course. We assign children to groups all the time (“Jewish,” “African-American,” ”creative type”) recognizing that these categorizations will only be fully appropriate when the child is of age. That doesn’t mean a child can’t partially participate in the life of a group or enter into the group even upon infancy. Otherwise we would never go to the trouble of – say- giving the child a name, because only adults are completely realized individual personalities. Ritual circumcision is done to confer belonging in a tangible way.
The first and second question share one consideration. Is the pain done to the child by circumcision exceptional enough to put it beyond the pale? It’s hard to say. You could imagine a situation in which the state adopts a default position of disallowing circumcisions, while allowing certain exemptions. But circumcision is by no means the only case in which we cause a child short-term pain for longer term benefit. We draw their blood and give them vaccines. Some people let them cry to teach them to sleep alone. When they’re older, they get braces.
We spend a lot of time making children uncomfortable for their benefit. The fact that circumcision causes pain does not necessarily make it morally problematic.