Monday, May 30, 2011

Back away from the penis!

San Francisco on the cutting edge

The voters of the City and County of San Francisco have placed a proposed circumcision ban on the November general election ballot. It would make it illegal to remove the foreskins of minors without a showing of medical necessity. It would not, however, have any impact on adult males who wish to have their penises clipped. The rationale is simple: Baby boys cannot give informed consent.

The reaction to the ballot initiative is unsurprisingly shrill. Here's the opening paragraph of an opinion piece by Rabbi Gil Leeds, which was published on May 20, 2011, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Freedom of religion, enshrined over two centuries ago by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is now subject to a vote with the certification in San Francisco of the referendum on circumcision for the November ballot. The vote will empower a secular majority to impose its will, and ban one of the oldest religious traditions known to humanity. When religious belief and practice become subject to vote by the majority of a city council, government agency or referendum, it endangers all of our rights and freedoms.
The proposed legislation contains no religious exemptions, so the traditional Jewish bris ceremony could no longer be practiced in San Francisco if the circumcision ban were enacted. That is why Leeds frames it as an attack on religious freedom. This got me to thinking.

What does religious tradition protect? How far can it go? Leeds correctly points out that male circumcision is a very old religious practice, so it definitely fits under the mantle of tradition, at least for Jews. It's also long been considered normative for American males, quite apart from religious practice. As a culture, we're inured to it and most people take it in stride as expected and unexceptional. While a few circumcised men have complained about having been robbed of their foreskins, most clipped males appear to be content with their condition. It hasn't been a major controversy.

On the other hand, female circumcision is widely condemned as genital mutilation and is against the law in the United States and the target of an international campaign to suppress it. In fact, “circumcision” is rather a misnomer for the procedure(s) applied to young girls in those cultures that practice it. The term comprises a broad range of actions, from reduction or amputation of the clitoris to wholesale excision of the labia. The most extreme form involves infibulation, stitching up the vaginal passage to make it smaller and to ensure the virginity of the victim; the procedure may be reversed when she is properly married off.

Female “circumcision” is an ancient practice that is done in secret in places like the United Kingdom and the United States, nations in which it is legally banned. Members of immigrant families may go to great lengths to ensure that their daughters are genitally cut so that future suitors may be assured of their respectability. The UK and US make no allowance for the ancient tradition, deeming it a violation of basic human rights and labeling it as “female genital mutilation.”

The sponsors of the anti-circumcision measure in San Francisco took a page from the international campaign to protect girls when they titled their proposal as the “San Francisco Male Genital Mutilation” initiative. The city attorney toned that down to the “Male Circumcision” measure, but Leeds the mohel is unmollified:
The proposal's backers are trying to deceive the voters by labeling it a “ban on genital mutilation.” Honesty would have demanded they called it a ban on circumcision. By using such a toxic term as mutilation, they hope to garner support from an unsuspecting public.
My question is this: How is cutting off part of a little boy's penis not a “genital mutilation”? Because our society is inured to it? Because some people practice it as a religious rite? Because it's not as grotesque as the female version? Because there are some supposed health benefits?

What if a religious sect insisted it was their right to practice infibulation on their infant daughters? Would we be violating their freedom of religion if we refused to allow it? (We have clearly already decided that question, haven't we?)

Circumcised males can take comfort in being in the majority and having undergone a procedure that has long been considered unremarkable and of which they haven't the slightest recollection. They understandably react negatively at being told that they were “mutilated” at birth. It's a charged term. At the same time, the uncircumcised minority cringe at the thought of having their foreskins lopped off and marvel that their clipped brethren can be so complacent about having lost theirs. It's what you're used to, I suppose.

The religious aspect doesn't faze people for whom religion is just a superstitious practice that gets more respect than it deserves. Rabbi Leeds hung his argument on the right of people to clip their sons' penises in honor of a supposed covenant with Yahweh. After his article appeared in the Chronicle, San Francisco's archbishop weighed in with an angry letter in support of the rabbi:
I would like to add my “Amen” to the op-ed piece by Rabbi Gil Leeds, “Circumcision ignores our basic religious freedom” (May 20).

The proposed ban on circumcision represents an unconscionable violation of the sanctuaries of faith and family by the government of San Francisco. Although the issue does not concern Christians directly, as a religious leader I can only view with alarm the prospect that this misguided initiative would make it illegal for Jews and Muslims who practice their religion to live in San Francisco—for that is what the passage of such a law would mean.

Apart from the religious aspect, the citizens of San Francisco should be outraged at the prospect of city government dictating to parents in such a sensitive matter regarding the health and hygiene of their children.

George Niederauer, Archbishop of San Francisco
I don't know that you're helping, George. Protecting the health and hygiene of one's children these days would seem to include keeping them away from Catholic churches. May I suggest that you—ahem!—keep your hands off their penises?


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you say "the uncircumcised minority cringe at the thought of having their foreskins lopped off and marvel that their clipped brethren can be so complacent about having lost theirs".

Most of the (admittedly few) men I know who are uncircumcised wish that they had been circumcised as children but are reluctant to have the procedure done as adults because they fear the pain. They certainly cringe at the idea now, but certainly envy their compatriots who never have to consider it.

In my (admittedly irrelevant) opinion, it shouldn't be something that just gets done willy-nilly (pardon the pun). I certainly wouldn't want to see it become such a hot issue that parents with a son with genuine issues with infection have trouble getting the procedure done out of fear that they're "faking" infections, but I also don't like the idea of forcing that sort of surgery on a child that can't consent unless it is a matter of immediate health benefit. I would hope that this can be put in place with minimal squawking so that it doesn't end up being heavy-handed in response to the use of any and all loopholes for ill-purposes.

Zeno said...

By virtue of my ethnic background, I know many guys who made it intact into their adulthood. "Cringe" is a mild word to express their reaction to the thought of the knife and what they risked losing by being born in America. Your uncut acquaintances who wish they were cut are possibly reacting to their minority status and wish they were more like their peers. I don't know if anyone has hard data about how many uncut men wish their foreskins had been taken away in infancy. Your unrepresentative small sample and my large monocultural sample won't settle the matter, I'm afraid.

Cheri said...

Who's religious freedoms are being protected? The infant is surely not able to make that choice - it is being made for him. I would think that if an adult male wants to be circumcised for religious reasons that would be ok - the choice would be his. But then, if parents aren't allowed to dictate religion to there children, what would happen to religion?

Dan Bollinger said...

The real issue here isn’t religion, it is sexism. Cutting boys is a human rights violation. These men are not permitted to have a say in how their body looks, works, and feels. This is doubly important because it effects their sexuality, too. We protect girls from harm, and rightly so. The Federal female genital cutting law, which has no religious exemption by the way, prohibits even a pinprick to extract one drop of blood. Male genital cutting--aka circumcision--is certainly worse than that. We’ve come a long way with gender rights; let’s not perpetuate this harmful double standard.

Megan said...

I had to make this decision for my boychild when he was born 3 years ago yesterday. I don't have a penis, and my husband is cut, but I was not sure I wanted to cut my son. I spoke with my brother, 15 years younger than myself, who I remembered was not cut when he was born.

Admittedly small sample, but he said if he has a son, his son will be cut. He wishes he had been cut. He would do it now, but it's a kind of big deal, and would require him to not work for some period of time, and he can't afford to not work for that long, since he was supporting his girlfriend and their daughter. I asked why, he didn't say anything about minority status, or looking like the other kids in the showers at the gym. He said he has had repeated infections tucked away in there (uncomfortable!), and worse, that it tears during intercourse - not frequently, but once would be more frequent than I would want to experience. He said it's happened several times and it (not surprisingly) is NOT fun when it does - and that he wasn't doing particularly wild and crazy motions or positions at the times that he has experienced these tears. They take days to heal properly. If he could afford the time off, he'd get cut tomorrow.

My husband, to my surprise, had no strong opinion on whether or not to cut his son. He doesn't miss his, but wasn't necessarily determined to have his son cut. We did have our son circumcised, after talking with my brother.

My brother's GF has since had a boy, and he was cut. My brother still is intact - and still wishes my parents had made a different choice for him when he was a baby.

BTW, I'm atheist, so religion played no part whatsoever in my decision. If anything, I was initially inclined to not do it at all, because of the association with religious beliefs.

Zeno said...

Thanks for sharing your brother's story, Megan, but he's a nonrepresentative sample of size N = 1, as you yourself noted. His plight is highly unusual and suggests that he missed something basic about genital hygiene. Either that, or he has an unusually low threshold for infections. No one among a few dozen male cousins has had to contend with chronic infections. (Of course, I can't include my one circumcised cousin in this tally. Anyway, his do-it-yourself circumcision was an accident.)

Lucy said...

@Megan - I know at least one guy who had to get a medical circumcision, which your brother should absolutely do if he's that infection prone. The guy I know wishes very much that it hadn't been necessary and would never want it for his children. He is quite adamant that it's a downgrade from the natural state.

Only around 1% of men will get infections of the foreskin, most of which will not require circumcision to stop. You're basically saying we should preventatively mutilate all male babies, on a less-than-1% chance such an operation will become necessary in later life. I find that pretty creepy. Surely better hygiene is easier?

Megan said...

I don't doubt that my baby brother might indeed have some hygiene issues related to those skin infections (but that might be just because I remember what a pig he was when he was younger!)... but the tearing! Ugh. That's just awful. Mostly that's what convinced me, that and his vehemence about it, and the fact that he'd looked into it enough to have met with a doctor and tried to schedule the surgery.

I understand the argument against it - which was what originally made me call him and ask. I expected him to say how glad he was that he wasn't circumcised, and that he would never do it to his son. I thought my brother would be the one convincing me to leave my son intact.

My favorite bumper sticker reads "If you can't trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?" These choices have to be made daily by parents, without the consent or approval of the child. That's the biggest job parents have, is making decisions that may affect their child's life for decades to come. Doing the best we can is all we can do. No one expects a child to approve their own name, or have a say in whether they get vaccinated. I think circumcision is in the same category of procedures. I understand the rationale for not doing it, but I am glad I was able to get it done for my son.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"Most of the (admittedly few) men I know who are uncircumcised wish that they had been circumcised as children "

Why? How does it bother them?

Fascinating how these worthies of California are up in arms when they perceive the State encroaching on their turf. Where was their outrage when Religion banned gay marriage? Do we need to form a(nother) religion where same sex marriage is a sacrament?

phalacrocorax said...

The topic of circumcision provides further evidence of why one should not seek treatment from witch doctors:

Each year, 50,000 Xhosa boys descend on the vast province to undergo the secretive ritual – including circumcision by a "traditional surgeon" and one month's seclusion in nakedness. "We see horrific cases of rotting penises, septicaemia and inadvertent castrations"

Which reminds me that at least one form of male mutilation is no longer seen as ok: castration.

Zeno said...

Which reminds me that at least one form of male mutilation is no longer seen as ok: castration.

Well, I don't know, phalacrocorax. Castration has a long religious heritage. If a sect devoted to Attis were to arise in San Francisco, would the religious intolerance of the Bay Area culture deny them the right to cut off boys' balls?

Zeno said...

No one expects a child to approve their own name, or have a say in whether they get vaccinated. I think circumcision is in the same category of procedures.

I really can't equate permanent amputation of part of the body with vaccination. That's stretching it too far.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

'My favorite bumper sticker reads "If you can't trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?" '

Well, if we can't leave you with your kid, without your starting to snip off bits and pieces, perhaps we can indeed not trust you with a child.

Megan said...

Regardless of the absurd attempt to suggest that I'm a bad parent, I'm actually not. My point is that every parent has to make choices for their children who are unable to consent. Based on what I learned, I made the best judgement I could for my son.

People do all sorts of things for/to their kids. We'll never know if my son will regret not having his foreskin, but since I've not met a single circumcised man who has missed it (and I've asked many over the years), I don't think I'll get any crap from him about it. The men I've known who were left intact weren't all pleased, but I've never met a guy who pined for his missing tidbits.

If it was something that could easily be done as an adult, I might have hesitated. If I were to have another boy, I would probably make the same decision, and I could give a crap about Sili's opinion of my parenting skills. S/He can choose whatever they want for their own son, if they have one, and I don't think I'll find it necessary to insult their ability to be a parent, regardless of the choice they might make. I'll assume they made the best choice for their son, too, even if it's different from the one I made for mine.

Some would argue that vaccination is very risky (I'm not one of them), and there have been historical vaccinations that were much more risky than those we have available today, which caused many children to die, even though their parents made the best choice they could. Parents choose to get their kids' ears pierced, they vaccinate, they don't vaccinate, they do lots of things to their kids before the age of consent, in the belief that their choices are the best for their kids.

It's a lot like abortion, or gay marriage. If you don't like circumcision, don't get your son's penis trimmed.

If you don't have a son, you don't get to choose for someone else's. If you do have a son, you can choose for him. That's how parenting works. If you don't like it, become a parent, and make all the best choices you can for your kid(s).

Robert said...

Megan: "I've not met a single circumcised man who has missed it (and I've asked many over the years)"

I can fix that. My name is Robert. Pleased to meet you. I am a circumcised male who would rather not have had my foreskin removed.

While we're adding our personal anecdotes, I have met many circumcised males who feel the same way, though I don't even remember directly asking anyone.

"Some would argue that vaccination is very risky"

Unless you think there's actually some merit to their argument (and, let's be honest, there's really not), then it's irrelevant.

"If you do have a son, you can choose for him. That's how parenting works."

That point is pretty weak. There are limits to those choices, and I think it's reasonable to suggest that routine surgeries that usually have little or no non-cosmetic value should not be performed on infants who have no say in the matter.

Paul said...

"If you don't like circumcision, don't get your son's penis trimmed.

If you don't like female genital mutilation, don't mutilate your daughter's genitals.

Should that ban be removed? Not so simple, yeah? The difference is in degree, not kind.

The comparison to earrings is perhaps apt, if you're doing hardcore earlobe stretching, sticking corks in your child's ear, etc. Would you have no issue with other parents doing that? Smaller ear piercings heal to where they'd never be able to tell the difference, so while I'm not a fan of ear piercing (at least until they're generally sentient and able to clearly express preferences using words and reasoning, before that the parent is just poking holes into them to make them a better ornament), but at least it has that going for it. How about filing teeth to points? Or foot binding? De gustibus non est disputandum? Prophylactic mastectomy at puberty? A woman has a much greater chance of developing breast cancer (12%) than a man does of having serious infection issues due to having a foreskin (1%), and at that point a medically indicated mastectomy is less likely to even fix the problem than a medically indicated circumcision.

Perhaps we should respect a child's bodily autonomy unless there is a clear and present medical reason to overrule for their own good? If they hit majority and would rather be snipped than have greater hygiene needs and a 1% risk of recurring infection, they can make that choice for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Megan, asking a cut man if he misses it is no different than asking a person born blind if they miss color, or a deaf person if they miss music, the fact is nearly all men who remember having a foreskin wish they still had it. As for the issue of infection, a healthy foreskin actually prevents infection by secreting antibodies and enzymes to fight bacteria. So much so that circumcision is actually a risk factor for contracting and spreading STD's. Your unfortunate brother needs to grow up and learn to bathe himself properly. And if he thinks tearing is bad now how would it be with 50% of his skin gone and the remainder stretched tight as a drum?

Anonymous said...

"While a few circumcised men have complained about having been robbed of their foreskins, most clipped males appear to be content with their condition. It hasn't been a major controversy."

Yes, naturally. Who never had legs won't ever know what it is like to have them. Circumcised guys have no way to learn how their sex life was ruined. And one day they might be prematurely impotent, like at 40 or even before, and they still won't connect it to their circumcision.

Why not to circumcise boys: