Boldt v. Boldt: A Pediatric Ethics Perspective
On balance, the potential harms and benefits of circumcision in an older child or adolescent are sufficiently closely aligned that parents should be permitted to make decisions about circumcision on behalf of their children. To make a case for prohibition, medical harms would have to be of such likelihood and magnitude that no reasonable potential benefit (social, religious, cultural, or medical) could justify doing it to a child. However, I would suggest that the following additional principles should apply: (1) Informed permission from parents is essential. Only about half of the parents considering neonatal circumcision are given any substantive information about the procedure. That practice is not acceptable for a procedure that is not medically essential and carries some risk of harm. A fully informed consent is essential, and must include a balanced discussion of potential harms and benefits of the procedure to the child. Parents should be given accurate and impartial information and allowed to make an informed decision regarding what is in the best interest of the child. (2) Consent of both parents should be required when the procedure is not medically required. It should not be performed in the face of parental disagreement. (3) Absent a significant medical indication, circumcision should not be performed on older children and adolescents in the face of dissent or less than enthusiastic assent. (4) Circumcision should be performed competently and safely by adequately trained providers.29 This should include infection-control measures, a sterile environment for the procedure, and no mouth-penis contact. (5) Analgesia is safe and effective. Adequate analgesia and post-operative pain control must be provided. In the case of Jimmy Boldt, I would suggest that without some compelling medical reason for performing a circumcision, the procedure should not be performed in the absence of agreement between his parents. The fact that Jimmy's father had sole custody does not eliminate the mother's ethical right and obligation to look after the welfare of her son. While the mother may not have legal decision-making authority, that legal determination does not appear to be related either to a lack of interest in her son's welfare or an inability to carry out that role. Jimmy is her son, and she has an interest in seeing his welfare protected. Whether or not she has legal rights, I would be very reluctant to perform an elective procedure for cultural or religious reasons without the permission of both parents and the unambiguous assent of Jimmy himself. Neither appears to be present in the case as it presented to the courts.