While many people might struggle to connect the topics of veganism and circumcision, they are intimately related. Veganism is not simply a diet but is a lifestyle; it represents a way of life that rejects exploitation and harm to animals while at the same time reducing humanity’s impact on the environment. One of the large issues around this exploitation of animals is consent. Just as cows do not consent to be kept in horrible pens and fattened until they are slaughtered, human babies do not consent to circumcision. If male circumcision happens, it must be with the full consent of the man involved and so should not happen when he is a baby.
Circumcision has become relatively common place in the United States in particular, although most men in the world are not circumcised. In the 1980s, the rate of circumcision in the US for newborn males reached 64.9% and even by 2010 had only fallen to 58.3%. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that there was insufficient evidence to recommend routine circumcision of newborns in 1999, but rates have still stayed relatively high. I was personally circumcised as a baby because I was raised as a Jew (although I am now atheist), and I had never really given circumcision much thought. It has been thoroughly normalized in the United States as a procedure that many male children receive. While I cannot say that I have had long-lasting trauma or ill effects from circumcision, I do think it is fundamentally wrong to circumcise a baby without his consent. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that circumcision is usually painful for the male baby (evidence has shown that babies have facial expressions that indicate they are feeling pain), and some men report feeling psychological consequences when they grow older including symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
If there are all these issues surrounding circumcision and ethical consent, then why has it become a routine procedure in the US? In order to understand the answer to that question, one needs to go back to the 19th century and concerns around masturbation. In the 19th century in Britain (although circumcision only occurs in around 17% of British men today) and the United States, physicians began to recommend circumcision to prevent boys from masturbating. They also wanted to circumcise girls, but that practice did not become routine thankfully. Indeed, studies have shown that men who have been circumcised are 4.5 times more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and may also suffer from reduced sensitivity in their penis. Thus, physicians in the 19th and 20th centuries could ensure that men would masturbate less if they were not getting as much sensation.
In addition to preventing masturbation, doctors also argued that circumcision provided a number of health benefits in terms of preventing disease. They argued that not only would circumcision prevent boys from masturbating, but it would also reduce the risk of diseases like cancer or syphilis. One of the arguments used today, in fact, for male circumcision is that it reduces the risk of HIV transmission. Certainly, growing up I heard discussions in the media that male circumcision reduces transmission of HIV. However, even if male circumcision reduces the risk of transmission, this does not justify using circumcision because it is imposing harm upon the baby without his consent. There is also evidence to suggest that circumcision increases the risk of meatal stenosis, which is the abnormal narrowing of the urethral opening. When this happens, urine will have trouble flowing out from the bladder, and this can lead to kidney problems and urinary tract infections.
Thus, male circumcision clearly has severe ethical as well as health complications. But what about female circumcision? Why it is so acceptable in the US for doctors to remove the foreskin from the male penis but not to cut away female genitalia? After all, doctors in the 19th century also supported cutting off female genitalia as a way to reduce sexual activity and sensation. Cutting off female genitalia from female babies (or adults) is painful and certainly they cannot consent to it just as male babies cannot consent to male circumcision. The ethicist Brian Earp writes how the discourse around female circumcision is that it constitutes Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which is “barbaric” whereas cutting off the male genitals is referred to as simply male circumcision. He argues that it is unethical to perform any genital mutilation on a child regardless of gender. The principle of consent needs to be brought into the discussion around circumcision, but he also acknowledges that after children become adults, they are free to choose circumcision provided they understand and can consent to what it would involve. Thus, challenging the norm of preforming male circumcision should highlight how it involves genital mutilation and is a violation of male bodies similar to how FGM constitutes a violation of female bodies.
An argument that might support male circumcision would argue that the procedure is no different from vaccinating a newborn male. However, vaccination does not involve the mutilation of a child’s body without his consent and is in fact protecting the child from harmful diseases. Moreover, vaccinations do not have the risk of leading to lasting trauma (which male circumcision can lead to) and have minimal side effects.
Just as women around the world are subjected to FGM without their consent, male circumcision as a practice must also stop. While veganism is mostly associated with preventing animal suffering, it should also be concerned with preventing human suffering and exploitation (because humans are also animals too after all). In this way, veganism as a life choice and philosophy should seek to prevent the genital mutilation of human males (and females too). The history of male circumcision as preventing masturbation also means that vegans should oppose male circumcision because humans should be able to have sexual pleasure (providing they are not hurting others without their consent). Thus, veganism should challenge the idea that it is acceptable to cause pain to human babies. Circumcision without consent is never acceptable.