It probably should not have come as a surprise when Romper (a parenting website aimed at millennials and owned by Bustle Digital Group) recently published two stealth pro-MGM articles (both written by Kelly Mullen-McWilliams). With the titles Will the Hospital Pressure Me To Circumcise? You Have Options & Rights As A Parent, and Are There Any Benefits Of Circumcision? What You Should Know About A Controversial Procedure, these headlines surely were intended to lead anyone reading them to assume that Romper had decided to give some space (for a change) to an alternative (that is, a non-pro-MGM) point of view. Romper, it must be remembered, has a history of publishing militantly pro-MGM screeds. (My responses to these may be found here and here, and these, of course, include links to the Romper essays themselves.)
Now, Romper seems to have taken a different tack. The phrasing of the question "Will the hospital pressure me to circumcise?" implicitly acknowledges that neonatal circumcision entails unsavory and unethical behavior on the part of the hospitals where circumcisions are performed and on the part of the medical personnel who perform them. After all, it goes without saying that pressuring parents into subjecting their neonate to a medically unnecessary surgery, when it occurs, is unethical. And if it doesn't occur, why raise the question? Similarly, modifying the noun "procedure" with the adjective "controversial" concedes at the outset that there is anything but a consensus concerning the myriad benefits that its supporters claim for it, the manifold harms for which its critics revile it, the amount of risk that it entails and the ethics of involuntary circumcision. Even the ominous admonition to the reader that "This is what you should know. . . . " in answer to the open-minded question "Are there any benefits to circumcision?" implies that the answer awaiting the reader is a decisive No! But this is not what the reader gets.
Perhaps Mullen-McWilliams deserves some credit for at least one of these articles (Will the Hospital Pressure Me To Circumcise?). Its first two thirds consist largely of her interview with Ashley Trueman of Your Whole Baby, an upbeat, pro-intact website that offers the following statement of its credo: "We believe if you have the information necessary to see circumcision in a new light - free from cultural blinders - you will not choose it for your son." If the point of Mullen-McWilliams's article was to demonstrate the way that the subtle or not-so-subtle coercion of new parents to subject their neonates to circumcision functions to perpetuate this surgery, she could have left it at that. Trueman is an excellent spokesperson and touches on most of the major points.
Unfortunately, and somewhat jarringly, the premise of virtually every one of these points is then undermined by Mullen-McWilliams's veering off in a completely different direction and giving the final word to Deena Blumenfeld (about whom I shall have much more to say below) who asserts, in this article and elsewhere, that the circumcision decision is the parents' "alone, and that there is no one right choice." One might wish to give Mullen-McWilliams the benefit of the doubt. She may indeed have intended to focus very narrowly on the exertion of undue pressure by hospitals on parents either way. But that is not what the title of her article leads readers to expect. Consequently, what the reader is led to believe will be a critique of non-therapeutic circumcision written specifically from the angle - and as an exposé - of hospitals' pressuring parents into circumcising their neonates, instead concludes by endorsing a laissez-faire approach to involuntary non-therapeutic circumcision.
The problem here is that Mullen-McWilliams so constructs her article as to make it appear that both Trueman and Blumenfeld are on the same side of the issue: both opposing undue pressure on parents either way. But they are not on the same side. This is an important distinction and one that Mullen-McWilliams completely obscures. Trueman's position is predicated on circumcision's being always the wrong choice. It follows, then, that if parents simply were given - and simply received - complete information about circumcision in an unbiased way, they would never choose it. This is why hospitals and staff resort to pressuring parents into subjecting their children to circumcision. There is no reason to do it so, in the absence of such pressure, less circumcisions undoubtedly would occur. The crux of the matter is that Trueman does not oppose pressuring parents because she believes that pressuring parents is wrong but because she believes that circumcision is wrong. Blumenfeld, in contrast, holds a detached and amoral view: involuntary circumcision is neither right nor wrong but pressuring parents one way or the other is. As presented here by Mullen-McWilliams, then, all questions related to the harms and ethics of involuntary circumcision itself are essentially shunted to the side in favor of what she plainly sees as the more pressing matter: the freedom of parents to choose one way or the other without undue pressure from either side.
Mullen-McWilliams does not, of course, declare an unbridled support for circumcision. Nevertheless, that her endorsement of the right of parents to impose genital cutting on their infant boys ultimately rests upon a foundation of endorsement of the surgery itself is at least suggested in the second of these two articles, What You Should Know About A Controversial Procedure. This consists largely of a rehash of many of the shopworn and discredited claims made on behalf of involuntary neonatal circumcision: claims that both greatly inflate its benefits while completely dismissing almost all of its harms. Thus, in keeping with the inveigling approach of her two pieces, Mullen-McWilliams affects a tone of reasonableness and moderation, acknowledging, for example, that whereas physicians "once believed that babies couldn't feel pain, they definitely do" (who knew?). She even concedes - as the AAP itself has grudgingly conceded (and one can only imagine with how much gnashing of teeth) that the purported benefits of this surgery are "not great enough to recommend universal circumcision for all newborns." The result of all this is that, after some undulation upon waves of conflicting and ultimately irreconcilable opinion, Mullen-McWilliams's bark is gently brought to rest upon this sunny shore: "That means that the decision is ultimately left up to parents, and to individual choice." Mullen-McWilliams, then, endorses deferring to parental prerogative in the absence of a definitive medical recommendation. Accordingly, these two articles are deftly crafted in language that is, at least on its surface, all about parental choice, hence, ostensibly neutral on the genital surgery itself.
But parental choice in practice means no choice for the person having part of his penis amputated when the exercise of that parental choice results in an involuntary circumcision. Thus, to endorse a pro-parental-choice position, as both Blumenfeld and Mullen-McWilliams do, is to endorse a position that is one of de facto support for involuntary circumcision itself. To claim that one is not pro-circumcision but merely pro-parental-choice is to offer a distinction without a difference. And when Mullen-McWilliams refers to "individual choice," what she means by that is the exact opposite of what the phrase "individual choice" is understood to mean - by medical professionals and laymen alike - in the context of informed consent to an irreversible cosmetic surgery. Note in the following sentence, for example, the legerdemain by which Mullen-McWilliams obscures the fact that involuntary neonatal circumcision supplants the agency of the person most concerned in this surgery with that of his parents. "The biggest reason to circumcise is because it fits your religious beliefs, your own personal preferences, or because it's traditional in the U.S." To anyone just entering a room and hearing Mullen-McWilliams utter these words, the obvious and most reasonable inference would be that the man to whom she was speaking had just confided to her that he was considering undergoing a voluntary circumcision himself but was feeling ambivalent about it. A more accurate rephrasing of that sentence in the way Mullen-McWilliams actually meant it would go something like this: "The biggest reason to circumcise [not your own penis but someone else's penis] is because it fits your religious beliefs [as opposed to the future religious beliefs of the person whom you intend to subject to the genital surgery], your own personal preferences [not regarding your own penis but your "personal" preferences regarding someone else's penis], or because it's traditional in the U.S. [and a tradition is properly carried forward not by the individual who embraces it but by someone else upon whose body the tradition has been imposed by - and thus on behalf of - the individual who embraces the tradition]." While Mullen-McWilliams endorses the right of bodily autonomy for girls and women (as do I), apparently the same right of bodily autonomy for boys and men doesn't exist within her ken. For women, it's Her body - Her choice. For men, His body - His parents' choice.
This is a great deal of parental power over boys' bodies and sexual futures (and, necessarily, over men's bodies and sexuality) that Mullen-McWilliams is arguing for. Or not so much arguing for as stating by fiat: a limitless power of a parent to circumcise (which is a discreet way of saying to mutilate) his or her child's penis "because it fits [his or her] religious beliefs, [his or her] own personal preferences, or because it's traditional in the U.S." That's a radical but by no means uncommon position in the United States. It's hard to tell whether Mullen-McWilliams herself is seeking cover or merely wishes to provide some for her readers (those, that is, who intend to subject their neonates to circumcision) but, however it may be, in both of these articles she invokes an authority from whom an imprimatur for this exercise in parental prerogative is readily obtained. This authority appears in the august personage of Deena Blumenfeld, the owner of Shining Light Prenatal Education. On her website, Blumenfeld describes what she does as follows: "I guide women to the threshold of motherhood so they may step through the door on their own with grace and confidence." She describes herself as "the owner, principal educator and doula madame at Shining Light Prenatal Education and Shining Light Doulas in Pittsburgh, PA." Blumenfeld adds that "I also author The Silent Mother, a blog about the unspoken and ugly parts of motherhood, with a historical twist." On her Silent Mother blog, Blumenfeld describes herself as "a historian, a collector, a writer, a Lamaze certified childbirth educator and a Prenatal Yoga instructor." The pages of Blumenfeld's websites are suffused with eastern imagery and soft hues and replete with mystical phrases that bespeak a decidedly holistic and Yoga-influenced approach to the birth process. The very name of her company - Shining Light - has a spiritual ring to it and is more than suggestive of spiritual, emotional and intellectual enlightenment. It is difficult to reconcile all this professed love of nurturing, wellness, peace, balance, respect for nature and for the very sexuality that culminates in childbirth with the brutality and violence of taking a scalpel or a clamp to an infant's penis and leaving it bloodied, irreparably damaged and scarred for life.
As someone who was subjected to genital cutting, it was with a sense of outrage that I read the statements regarding forced circumcision with which Blumenfeld had furnished Mullen-McWilliams for her Hospital piece. Statements such as these:
It is a fully elective procedure where parental preference should be respected either way.
Parents need to know that the decision is theirs alone and that there is no one right choice. Whatever they choose, it will be right for their son.I was impelled to contact Blumenfeld directly in order to share with her the perspective of someone who feels that this "choice" was not, in fact "right" for me. I was incensed at the callous disregard for my body, my sexuality, my well-being and my rights that was so thoughtlessly and cavalierly yet so unambiguously conveyed by Blumenfeld's words. In the short email that I sent her that very day, I explained that I was writing in order to point out several important errors of fact and of ethics in her comments as they had been reported in Mullen-McWilliams's Hospital article.
With respect to her statement that involuntary circumcision "is a fully elective procedure where parental preference should be respected either way," I reminded her that, when parents make medical decisions on behalf of their child, they are legally obligated to do so in their child's best interests. I noted that circumcision of an infant's penis in the absence of a medical indication for the surgery is never in a child's best interests; moreover, that it violates numerous statutes and medical ethical guidelines. (These points are all thoroughly explored and firmly grounded in a legal framework, including statutory and constitutional law, in Peter Adler's monumental Is Circumcision Legal? They are also well covered from a bioethics perspective by Brian D. Earp in The AAP Report on Circumcision: Bad Science + Bad Ethics = Bad Medicine.) I observed that a parent's preference for amputating part of her or his child's penis should no more be respected than her or his preference for amputating any other body part would be. Parental preference should never be respected when that preference results in harm to the child. Non-therapeutic infant circumcision is a harm in and of itself (again, see Adler). Besides exposing the infant to needless pain, suffering and the risk of additional complications, it also adversely affects sexual sensation, function, and body image. Beyond all this, forced circumcision deprives boys - and the men that they become - of their fundamental right of bodily autonomy.
Thus began what became a somewhat extended back-and-forth by email that, it should probably come as no surprise, ended acrimoniously. In the course of this exchange, it occurred to me that I might come to write this very essay and, anticipating that possibility, took the opportunity to request Blumenfeld's permission to quote directly from our personal correspondence. This she summarily (and somewhat curtly) denied. I do not know what she imagined I had in mind but I think it only fair to give one's adversary an opportunity to have her or his views fairly represented in one's critique of them. I was not a little amused, therefore, when I found this quote, attributed to Thomas Merton, prominently displayed on one of Blumenfeld's websites: "If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn."
As it happens, Blumenfeld is a prolific blogger so my inability to address the specific comments that she made in our private email exchanges did not fatally impede my taking up Blumenfeld (via Merton) on her implicit challenge to her readers to criticize and to condemn some of what she has written. As a matter of fact, it was Blumenfeld herself who pointed me in this direction. Although
she denied me the opportunity to quote her directly from our personal correspondence, I do not believe that it violates either the letter or the spirit of her injunction when I note that, in her first reply to me, Blumenfeld referred me (and was considerate enough to provide a link) to an essay she had written back in 2012 for Science & Sensibility, which describes itself as "A Lamaze research blog about pregnancy, birth, and beyond." I will also go so far as to explain here (nor do I believe that I am violating her wishes when I do) that, from her initial response to my email, I got the distinct impression that Blumenfeld seemed to think that I had misconstrued her position on the question of involuntary circumcision based upon her comments as they had been reported in Mullen-McWilliams's Hospital piece. This possible misunderstanding (at least as Blumenfeld may have perceived it), not surprisingly, turned on the very distinction without a difference for which I criticize both her and Mullen-McWilliams above in my discussion of Mullen-McWilliams's two Romper articles. Namely, the notion that being pro-parental choice does not necessarily entail being pro-circumcision. (But, of course, it does.) I assume that this was what Blumenfeld was getting at because, as I have just mentioned, instead of addressing the substance of my email directly, she sent me the link to her essay, Parental Autonomy in Decision Making: A Follow-Up to the AAP's Newborn Male Circumcision Policy Statement. In this essay, Blumenfeld, while scrupulously avoiding either endorsing or condemning forced circumcision itself - in fact, going so far as to express her own "personal bias towards leaving boys intact" - argues passionately that not only do parents' wishes regarding the anatomical structure of their son's penis matter - their wishes are the only thing that matters.
The fact that Blumenfeld sent me her Science & Sensibility essay in the apparently mistaken belief that it would dispel my concerns about her being affirmatively pro-genital cutting only confirmed for me how blind she is to the ethical heart of the question. Namely, that the only person whose wishes actually matter is the one whose penis is subjected to the circumcision. It means nothing that Blumenfeld herself may be personally biased "towards leaving boys intact." The fundamental human rights of individuals are not contingent upon the personal biases of others. Blumenfeld's inability to recognize this could be what was behind her thinking that her position may have come across in the Hospital article in a way that lent itself to misinterpretation: namely, that her position was pro-circumcision as opposed to "merely" pro-parental choice. But, of course, if that is what she thought, she need not have sent me her Parental Autonomy essay. On the contrary, the position that she staked out in the Romper piece was all too clear. Again and again - in both Romper articles cited above and in her 2012 Science & Sensibility essay - Blumenfeld endorses the AAP position, which is one of support for the "primacy of parental decision making." Time and again she asserts that whether a male human being gets to live his life with the penis he was born with or, instead, is compelled to go through life with one radically altered and irreparably harmed is a decision that belongs not to him but to his parents and to them alone.
Whether it is the AAP or Blumenfeld who invokes "the primacy of parental decision-making" in support of genital cutting, doing so might entail acceptance of one of two premises: that parents have an absolute ownership of (and therefore a right to harm) their children's bodies or, alternatively, that neonatal circumcision is medically necessary in all cases. In these extreme formulations, both of these premises are obviously false. But a qualified form of parental ownership of her or his child's body can easily be justified by the claims of religion, culture or tradition and this is precisely what Blumenfeld does. In her Science & Sensibility essay, she writes "Circumcision is a fundamental part of the core belief system for many people, whether stemming from religious practice or social norms."
Of course - to cite a rather obvious parallel - so is female genital mutilation: it, too reflects sincerely held religious beliefs and has profound cultural significance for those who practice it. So, in order to be logically and morally consistent, one must either endorse the right of parents to subject their daughters to genital cutting or one must repudiate the right of parents to subject their sons to genital cutting. One must either endorse the right of parents to subject both boys and girls to non-therapeutic genital surgery or one must draw a line beyond which parental prerogative may not extend, in which case, the right of bodily autonomy of the child, irrespective of the sex of that child, supersedes the right of parental decision-making.
Blumenfeld's argument, however, as far as I can tell, seems to be that a prima facie claim exists for the validity of any cultural or religious practice - presumably, no matter how harmful and no matter to what extent that practice violates contemporary norms of bodily autonomy and fundamental human rights - provided that three conditions are met: first, that the practice have a long history; second, that someone currently regard that practice as culturally or religiously significant; and, third, that that person want to continue it. As she writes in her essay,
Parents need to know all of their options, with regards to circumcision. Do it, or not; do it in hospital, in the doctor’s office or at home in a religious setting; do it now, do it later; benefits and risks, and so on. They also need to know that their upbringing, social norms, religion, etc. matter. Not only does the AAP think they matter, but I do too.Oddly, Blumenfeld then weakens her argument, rather than bolstering it, by citing the example of Jehovah's Witnesses, writing that,
On the softer, but no less valid side, are our belief systems. We use our religion, our upbringing, and our societal norms to help us determine the right course of action. For example, a Jehovah’s Witness will decline a blood transfusion or other blood products because it is not within their framework. There are those who say this is "silly" or "dangerous," yet we respect this practice in hospital because it is appropriately respectful of that individual’s autonomy.But, as a matter of fact, we do not respect this practice when it comes to the children of Jehovah's Witnesses. Courts in the United States have routinely found that parents do not have a legal right (their first-amendment right of religious freedom notwithstanding) to withhold appropriate medical treatment from a child when to do so endangers that child's life. Perhaps not surprisingly, if highly inconsistently, the AAP, too, has staked out a position of unambiguous opposition to parents' withholding blood transfusions (or other life- or health-saving medical interventions) when such parental choice is exercised in conformity with the parents' religious beliefs. (One wonders, of course, what the AAP position on these practices and interventions would be were its membership comprised predominantly of Jehovah's Witnesses. [See, in particular, Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision as well as Brian D. Earp's response to the AAP 2012 policy statement, The AAP Report on Circumcision: Bad Science + Bad Ethics = Bad Medicine cited above and, especially, Earp's Update in the same place.] )
Among the most troubling moral and ethical inconsistencies in Blumenfeld's essay arises from what I can only interpret as her desire to have it both ways. As noted above, she professes a "bias towards leaving boys intact" yet the theme that she sounds, over and over again, is that boys (and the men that they become) do not, in fact, have an inherent right of ownership of their own bodies and, specifically, of their own penises. Blumenfeld makes numerous statements in support of a parent's right to cut off part of her or his child's penis but not one in support of that child's right not to have (ergo, that man's right not to have had) part of his penis removed. Even when she offers the merest hint of her own personal opposition to circumcision itself (her "bias towards leaving boys intact"), Blumenfeld situates this opposition foursquare within the context of her own personal preference. Thus, she views circumcision in an entirely subjective way instead of viewing it from the perspective of the person who is subjected to it. That is why she opposes circumcision (to the extent that she does oppose it) on her own behalf instead of opposing it on behalf of the person who is subjected to it. That is how Blumenfeld can sustain the fictive distinction between being pro-circumcision (which she is not) and pro-parental choice (which she is). To put that another way, for all intents and purposes, Blumenfeld is simultaneously anti-circumcision yet pro-forced-circumcision. Accordingly, nowhere throughout Blumenfeld's essay (or in her comments in either of the two Romper articles) is there any trace of empathy for the infants (and men) whose subjection to forced circumcision she goes to such extraordinary lengths to defend and validate.
This lack of empathy and respect for the body rights of boys and men is even more troubling given Blumenfeld's other writings concerning the bodily autonomy of girls and women - and of herself. For example, in her essay, Me Too, Sexual Harassment / Assault (in The Silent Mother), Blumenfeld writes, "Point Blank - our society still sees women's bodies as property and objects and we are treated as such." That is exactly how many men who have been subjected to forced circumcision feel.
Or this, from her 2012 essay Fighting the War on Women . . . With a Watergun (This is what a feminist looks like) (in Elephant Journal):
We fight government officials who . . . try to . . . [restrict] abortion and . . . access to birth control. But it's not actually about abortion or birth control.
Regardless of your personal feelings or religious beliefs on either matter, it's about the belief that, as a woman, I have no autonomy; I have no say in what I do with my body; my body must be controlled by the state.
This is a slippery slope.
When the state takes away one right, it sets the precedent to take away others. Restricting access, to what are fundamentally personal choices, tells us that women are incapable of making those choices on their own. . . .Again, men who were subjected to forced circumcision can relate perfectly to virtually every point that Blumenfeld makes here. What is involuntary circumcision if not being deprived of autonomy? What is it if not being denied a say in what one does with one's body? What is it if not being denied the right to make a fundamentally personal choice and being told, in effect, that one is incapable of making that choice on one's own? And if the state fails to protect males and intersex children from genital cutting, who's to say that it won't reverse course on female genital cutting? Who's to say that some clever anti-choice politician will not cite the permissibility of involuntary circumcision as a precedent for further regulating and controlling girls' and women's bodies? It's a slippery slope, indeed.
Or this, from another of Blumenfeld's essays in Elephant Journal, Human Rights in Childbirth: Women's Choices in Childbirth Are Restricted and We Are Not Going to Take It Lying Down!: " . . . a woman is an autonomous individual and she has a human right to have dominion over her own body." Yup.
Even the pseudo-medical justifications (including the medicalization of natural female biological processes and the pathologizing of women's bodies) for intervening in and controlling pregnancy and childbirth to which Blumenfeld takes such great exception when directed at female bodies are matters of no concern to her whatsoever when precisely the same tendencies are directed toward male bodies. In the same essay (Human Rights in Childbirth), she writes "You have to understand that pregnancy is not an illness." Exactly. And the male prepuce is not a congenital deformity. Blumenfeld continues:
Pregnant women aren't sick. But yet, an overwhelming majority of women are treated as if they are sick. You'll get IV fluids "just in case," full time electronic fetal monitoring "just in case," an epidural "just in case" you need a c-section, or a c-section "just in case" we are right and there's something wrong with the baby and so on. Better to be safe, than sorry!Isn't this virtually identical to the sort of medical rationalizing that we keep hearing in ever new versions - "just in case" - for neonatal circumcision? Better circumcise "just in case" of a urinary tract infection; better circumcise "just in case" of penile cancer; better circumcise "just in case" of STDs; better circumcise "just in case" of poor personal hygiene; and so on. "Better to be safe than sorry!"
After reading through a good deal of Blumenfeld's writings on the theme of bodily autonomy for women, counterpoised against her other writings in which she completely dismisses the same right of bodily autonomy for men, I came away with the conviction that her thinking on all this is disordered by one of several factors. First and foremost, Blumenfeld herself comes from a male-genital-cutting tradition and culture. (So do I, however, so that's no excuse.) In her mind, forced circumcision is probably as insignificant a human-rights violation as gladiatorial contests were to the Romans or human sacrifice was to the Aztecs. Then again, I also suspect that it could be attributable to the fact that she has lived her life securely ensconced within the privilege of genital inviolability. She simply cannot fathom what it is to have one's genitals mutilated against one's will. Finally, it could be due to an inability to empathize with members of the opposite sex. Or perhaps it is some combination in various proportions of each of these.
Whatever the cause, of these three reasons, this last one - an inability to empathize with persons who were born with penises - is the hardest for me to grapple with. I hope that that is not what's going on here but I have noticed a pattern of like-minded thinking on the part of women who profess themselves feminists yet seem incapable of applying - in fact, seem downright outraged at the notion that they should apply - the principles of feminism evenhandedly to both female and male bodies and, of course, to intersex bodies. In other words, it somehow escapes them that they should extend to others the same respect for bodily autonomy, human dignity and individual choice in every and all matters related to sexuality that they quite rightly demand for themselves. It's very difficult for me to understand why that is. I certainly do not hold myself up as a paragon of empathetic virtue but I have always been incensed and affronted by what I believe to be infringements on girls' and women's rights to bodily autonomy just as passionately as if they been infringements on my own. I will never be pregnant but that in no way diminishes my conviction that I would not want anyone preventing me from using certain types of contraception or denying me my right to obtain an abortion. That is why, although I do not have a uterus, I have always supported abortion rights. I have supported them actively, with donations, by demonstrating for them in the streets, and with online advocacy. More to the point, however, is that I have supported them on principle. That principle is the fundamental principle that each and every human being is born with an inherent right of ownership of her or his or their own body. That means that no one can tell you what to do with your body and, crucially, that no one can do anything to your body without your consent. That, in a nutshell, is the principle that underlies the genital autonomy movement. It seems so obviously self-evident to me that every argument every self-professed feminist has ever made on behalf of women's bodily autonomy must necessarily apply equally to men's and intersex bodies that I simply cannot fathom the logical and ethical inconsistency and sexual double standard that enable them to tolerate forced male circumcision.
It occurred to me that, in order to get though to someone like Blumenfeld (or Ej Dickson, or Liza Wyles, or Mullen-McWilliams, or so many others of that ilk), I needed to personalize my approach. I needed to try to get Blumenfeld to empathize with male victims of forced genital cutting - past, present, and future - by encouraging her to put herself in my place. And so I asked her, in one form or another, in each of the several emails that I sent, the following questions.
I asked Blumenfeld how she would feel about a debate concerning the forced, permanent amputation of one of her body parts in which the right of her parents to subject her to that amputation was presented as not merely valid but as sacrosanct.
I asked her how she would feel about it if the amputation were framed merely in terms of the "benefits versus the risks" without any acknowledgement of the intrinsic value to her of the body part itself.
I asked her to imagine that she had been subjected to genital cutting as an infant. I asked her to imagine further how she might then feel about this statement: Parents need to know all of their options, with regard to female circumcision. Do it, or not; do it in hospital, in the doctor’s office or at home in a religious setting; do it now, do it later. Or this one: This is a fully elective procedure where parental preference should be respected either way. Or this one: Parents need to know that the female-circumcision decision is theirs alone. Or this one: The decision regarding female circumcision lies solely with her parents and the argument for infant or child autonomy becomes moot. With very minor alterations, these, of course, are all Blumenfeld's own words about forced male circumcision.
Once again it probably will not come as a surprise when I report that, throughout the course of several emails back and forth, and despite my posing these question more than once to her, Blumenfeld steadfastly avoided answering a single one of them.
When I revisit all of this in my mind - the Romper articles, Blumenfeld's own essays, her apparent incapacity for manifesting even an iota of empathy for the victims of forced circumcision - I keep coming back to this thought: Blumenfeld and I probably have much in common. In fact, there is probably much more that unites us than divides us: our backgrounds, our views on women's rights and women's bodily autonomy, our views on health and wellness and - especially in this last regard - a philosophical objection to the medicalization of natural biological events and a deep suspicion of unnecessary medical interventions. Yet, as disappointing as it is that someone like this cannot seem to connect the dots that lead irresistibly and inexorably to actively opposing male genital cutting on the same grounds on which one ought to oppose female genital cutting, and that lead to recognizing for boys and men the selfsame personal autonomy, bodily integrity and basic human rights that one ought to recognize for girls and women, what is even more disappointing is Blumenfeld's apparent lack of empathy. It goes without saying that I am bothered by Blumenfeld's double standard. I believe that she has a moral blind spot with respect to the forced circumcision of boys. But even this failing, I believe, is not as egregious as her utter lack of sympathy for victims - past, present and future - of forced circumcision. If one cannot get on board with a particular human-rights issue as a matter of principle - even if one has never personally experienced or been subjected to the sort of rights violation in question - one ought at least to be able to make a leap of faith, hear what victims are saying and believe them when they declare themselves aggrieved. Although I happen to believe that to do just that is, on a very basic level, a quintessentially feminist thing to do, one does not have to be a feminist in order to do it. One has only to be a human being with an ability to empathize.
It was with a sense of grim irony, then (mingled with an acute sense of the ridiculous), that I came to the concluding part of Blumenfeld's essay, in which she urges her fellow birth instructors to "Please keep your sense of compassion when discussing the issue of circumcision with new parents in your classes and with those whom you interact with online." As if that weren't enough, Blumenfeld then embellishes her essay with a quote from Plato on, of all things, the virtue of kindness. She gilds her essay even more ostentatiously with two additional quotes on the same themes: one from Yogi Bhajan and the other from the Dalai Lama. That Blumenfeld should invoke these sentiments, all in defense of a parental right to subject infant boys to genital mutilation, struck me as an especially gratuitous misuse of the words of the three men she quotes here. Particularly given that these three men, from everything that we know about them, would, in all probability, have been opposed to forced male circumcision: they would regard it as a mutilation of the body. They'd be right.