THE ETHICS OF
MUTILATION: PROBLEMS CONNECTED WITH SURGERY
from Medical Ethics by
Father Edwin F. Healy, S.J., Loyola University Press, Chicago 1956
Chapter FOUR (pages 121-122)
MUTILATION IS AN ACTION (an excision or the
equivalent) by which an organic function or the use of a member of the body is
intentionally destroyed either partially or wholly. The action consists of cutting
out, crushing, burning, X-raying, or in some such manner directly destroying a part of the
human body or of rendering an organ permanently inoperative. The mutilation may result in
the suppression of an organic function- for example, the destruction of one's vision or
power of procreation- or it may consist in the amputation of an arm or a leg. To
strip off skin from the body to use for grafting is not a mutilation, for in this
operation no organic function or member of the body is destroyed. Neither would a blood
transfusion, nor a face-lifting operation, nor dental extraction be considered mutilations
in the technical sense of the term. Even procedures such as these, however, which
are not mutilations in the strict sense of the term, may not be licitly used without a
The general rule regarding mutilation is this, that mutilation is licit only when
necessary for preserving the health of the whole body. The reason that the scope of
justifiable mutilations is thus limited is that man has the supreme ownership neither of
the whole body nor of its various parts, and that he is therefore not permitted to treat
them as though he were the supreme owner. Man is merely the custodian of his body
and its parts. Directly to destroy the body or one of its parts is to exercise over
that object supreme ownership. One cannot act more clearly in a manner that implies
ownership over a thing than by destroying it, for by so doing he puts an end to its very
Mutilation is, however, licit if it is required to conserve the health of the whole body.
To save one's life even at the expense of losing part of the body is the act of a
wise administrator. The whole obviously is better than any single part; and since
God has made us stewards of our bodies, we may presume that He desires that we sacrifice a
part of the body if that is necessary to conserve the rest.
of Newborn Males
Case 55 (pages 128-129)
Dr. J makes it a practice to circumcise all
male infants shortly after birth. He says that this is merely routine procedure and
that it is recommended by most competent physicians.
Unless there is a positive indication for circumcision, the operation should be omitted.
It has been said that too many physicians practice routine circumcision and give little
thought to the complications that can result. In by far the majority of the operations, it
is true, there have been no serious complications, but in some cases severe hemorrhage and
infection have developed from the surgery. Unsightly scars, too, have at times
resulted. To expose an infant to such dangers, though they be remote, would not be
justified unless there were present a compensating reason. . . In premature babies, or in
those not gaining weight as they should, or in those suffering from a blood disease or
some infection, there would hardly be sufficient reason to run the risks involved.
Some physicians, it seems, circumcise all male infants, and their motive appears to be
mercenary. Such physicians act in a manner unworthy of their high calling.
William J. Schmidt, S.J.
Provincial of the Chicago Province
May 31, 1956
Austin G. Schmidt, S.J.
June 4, 1956
Samuel Cardinal Stritch
Archbishop of Chicago
June 7, 1956