Keep in mind this is a hypothetical scenario.

I was recently very surprised to find out that many males in the United States are circumcised shortly after birth. No one had ever told me (it's not a subject I've spoken at length with anyone about), and certainly no one asked my permission before the procedure was performed on me. And yet it happens all the time, probably still to this day.

So this got me thinking, what are the legal limits to which a parent can physically modify a child? Could they turn a girl into a boy, or vice versa (I assume hormone therapy would work best when started at an early age)? Could they give them elf ears or vampire fangs? Could they replace all their limbs with state-of-the-art prostheses in an effort to create a Baby Robocop? As far as I know, all of these things can be legally done to oneself, but children aren't old enough to consent, and there are definitely cases where things are done to them against their consent by parents, with the law supporting the parents.

Let's assume that any modification has no perceived detriment to the child (for instance, in the limb-chopping scenario, assume prosthesis are advanced enough to match the abilities of natural limbs). Also assume that the procedure is painless, performed by a certified medical professional, and does not impede the mental and physical development of the child.

Are there any laws that specifically prevent these sorts of modifications? Or are there more general parenting laws that apply?

  • 1
    The rate of male circumcision in the United States isn't an outlier compared to the world or even OECD countries. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prevalence_of_circumcision
    – Golden Cuy
    Sep 9, 2015 at 1:58
  • There are deaf activists who would use the political system to prevent parents from having a cochlear implant surgery on their kid.
    – user662852
    Sep 9, 2015 at 12:07
  • This is an interesting question. I wonder what would be the legal status of the practice of say, carving a square on the bottom of a child (I chose the bottom as it is usually as much invisible as the penis in the question), in other words a surgical act which is invasive but usually not heavily impacting (neither physiologically nor culturally because of the visibility), all in the name of a legally recognized religion.
    – WoJ
    Dec 2, 2016 at 15:44
  • 2
    @AndrewGrimm: well, looking at the page you linked to I see from teh various numbers that it is currently around 50%. Also the page states that "There are various explanations for why the infant circumcision rate in the United States is different from comparable countries. Many parents’ decisions about circumcision are preconceived, and this may contribute to the high rate of elective circumcision" (emphasis mine). When you compare these numbers to Western Europe, they are very much higher.
    – WoJ
    Dec 2, 2016 at 15:49

1 Answer 1


At least one court has found that unnecessary surgeries are child abuse.

Quoting from Is Circumcision Legal? by Peter W Adler (I recommend this article to you, it goes into common law and Constitutional law around surgeries). I think that we should not be distracted by the definition of abuse adopted by the court (risk of death, impairment of function etc) because even with your caveats about wonderful bionic legs, the replacements are not members of the body. Arguably.

A 2010 Tex as appellate case, Williamson v. State , confirms that any unnecessary surgery on children constitutes statutory child abuse. The Williamson court held a mother criminally liable for unnecessary surgery that caused serious bodily injury to her son, defined in Texas as “an injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes death, serious permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.” A physician testified that unnecessary surgery does not constitute reasonable medical care. The court also found a scalpel to meet the definition of a “deadly weapon” as it can cause death or serious bodily injury. Circumcision, whether male or female, is thus criminal child abuse.

  • 5
    This looks like a great answer, but I have a hard time believing the cited paper because its conclusion is that male infant circumcision, still widely practiced in the U.S., is illegal. Is the Richmond Journal of Law a serious publication? How does this argument and conclusion square with reality?
    – feetwet
    Sep 8, 2015 at 22:40
  • 1
    @feetwet the author certainly takes a presumptive tone and his interpretations of sources may be off, but we can read his sources and draw our own conclusions.
    – jqning
    Sep 8, 2015 at 22:47

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