Introductory remarks from a July 18 debate at The Manhattan Jewish Experience a debate between documentary filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of the book “Kosher Sex.”
By ELI UNGAR-SARGON
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Eli Ungar-Sargon and I’m an independent filmmaker. My first feature-length documentary, “Cut” is an exploration of male circumcision and Jewish identity. I made the film, because I think that circumcision is a really interesting example of a problem that we don’t often discuss openly. Namely, what we as people who care about living both moral and Jewish lives are supposed to do when our own ethics conflict with Jewish law.The film will be coming back to New York at the end of September, so if what I say here tonight intrigues you, come up to me afterwards and I’ll send you an email with more details about the screening.
Infant male circumcision is physically harmful, medically irresponsible, and morally wrong. It is also true that infant circumcision has been a central Jewish practice for at least 2500 years. I’ll come back to the religious side of this issue a little later, but for now, let’s focus on the practice divorced from its religious significance.
Circumcision is physically harmful, because it permanently damages the penis. We now know, that the prepuce, or foreskin as it’s colloquially known, plays an important role in male sexual experience. In a groundbreaking study published in the British Journal of Urology in 1996, John R. Taylor, a Canadian pathologist, examined the foreskin and discovered a neural structure in its distal ridges that no one had ever seen before. Upon closer examination, the neural structure turned out to be a dense network of sensory nerve endings the most numerous of which were mechanoreceptors known as Meissner’s corpuscles.
To understand what Meissner’s corpuscles contribute to sensation, you can brush a finger over the back of your hand and the front of your hand. The ticklish sensation that you feel when you brush a finger over the front of your hand is due to the presence of Meissner’s corpuscles.
There are anywhere from 10-20,000 of these nerve endings in the ridged band of the foreskin, making the male foreskin one of the most sensitive parts of the body.
Circumcision cuts away the foreskin and with it, all of the nerve endings of the ridged band leaving the penis with a much diminished sensory capacity.
But beyond the sensory loss, the circumcised penis also loses its motility. In an intact penis, the foreskin glides back and forth over the corona, or head of the penis. During sexual intercourse, this natural gliding action creates a closed system whereby lubrication is conserved. This, in turn, allows comfortable sex to last longer. Moreover, while circumcised men require artificial lubrication to masturbate, intact men have everything they need, ready-at-hand.
What I have demonstrated thus far is that in the best case scenario, when there are no further complications whatsoever, circumcision causes physical harm.
But infant circumcision is also medically irresponsible, because it’s an unnecessary surgical practice that puts babies at risk. Ask any immunologist or epidemiologist and they’ll tell you that neonates and the elderly are two of the most vulnerable populations to infectious disease. Artificially creating an open wound on an infant is asking for trouble. Precise statistics on circumcision-related complications are difficult to come by in the United States, but a low estimate is 2%. Complications include hemorrhage, sepsis, and even death. In the UK, routine infant circumcision was abandoned shortly after WWII when a comprehensive report found that 16 boys out of every 100,000 were dying of circumcision-related complications annually. A 2002 study published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal looked at 25 years of data and found that circumcised Israeli boys had much higher rates of Urinary Tract Infections than intact boys in the United States. These infections peaked in the 9 days following circumcision. Doctors here in the U.S. tend to minimize the risks and a 2% complication rate might not seem like a lot, but 1.3 million boys were circumcised in this country last year. That’s 26,000 complications last year alone. And every year some unknown number of boys actually die from circumcision.
Reading the news in the United States, you’d be forgiven for believing that the jury is still out on the medical benefits of circumcision. The truth of the matter is that there never should have been a jury to begin with. When considering the practice of female genital cutting, we don’t start from a neutral position of “I wonder whether there are any health benefits to permanently altering the genitals of baby girls? Let’s set up some studies and see what kinds of diseases cutting off clitorises can prevent!” We don’t do this, because we understand the very basic concept that cutting away healthy, functional tissue in the hopes of preventing potential disease is just bad medicine. In fact, the only people in the world who really seem interested in these endless comparative health benefit assessments are people connected to the US medical establishment and their critics, religious apologists, and documentary filmmakers!
When I made my film, I went to three independent experts, two medical doctors, and an expert in quantitative analysis. The doctors were people who perform circumcisions regularly, so it’s not like I cherry picked them and the quantitative expert was a disinterested party who was familiar with the data on circumcision. I asked them what they thought about the health benefits of circumcision. None of them were impressed by the modern data and they all told me that the evidence was flimsy at best. Which brings us to the ethics of infant circumcision.
As pre-autonomous beings, infants are unable to make decisions for themselves and all decisions related to their bodies are made for them by their parents. Everything from how long their hair is worn, to when to cut their nails, to what sort of vaccinations to give them, and how to treat their illnesses. These and many other decisions are made by parents on behalf of their pre-autonomous children every day. Some of these decisions are morally neutral, some are right, and some are wrong. We can all agree, for example, that a parent who refuses to provide their child with antibiotics when they have a bacterial infection is making a morally wrong parenting decision. But some parenting decisions are trickier to judge. Does raising a child with the belief that hell is a real place constitute abuse? How about completely isolating a child from the secular world? Tricky cases, indeed. By contrast, infant circumcision is not a tricky case at all. Is it morally permissible for a parent to permanently alter the body and future sexual experience of their child absent absolute medical necessity? No. A non-lifesaving permanent body modification with life-long consequences is a decision that should be left for a time when the child becomes autonomous and can decide for themselves. Therefore, circumcising male infants is morally wrong.
Ladies and gentlemen. I have just argued that infant circumcision is physically harmful, medically irresponsible, and morally wrong. So what do we do? We’re Jews and we have a conflict. On the one hand, we have the Jewish tradition telling us that we must perform Brit Milah on our eight day old sons. On the other hand, we know that the practice of infant circumcision is wrong. As the philosopher Andrew Pessin recently argued in the Huffington Post, there are three logical paths you can take when this sort of a conflict of values arises: First, you can simply abandon the religion entirely. Second, you can ignore the ethical problems and get on with practicing your religion in spite of them. And third, you can try to move the religion forward. I’ve clearly chosen the third option. For some reason, that I hope to learn tonight, Rabbi Boteach has decided to pretend that there is no conflict. Thank you.
To listen to the full audio of the debate visit Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s web site.