Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Ban on Circumcision?

According to an article I saw in the Huffington Post the other day, San Francisco residents may vote on a ballot measure next year that would outlaw circumcision.

The initiative, which requires 7,000 signatures before it can be added to next November's ballot, would make it a misdemeanor to "circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the...genitals" of all minors, and would not make exceptions for religious reasons.

The decision to permanently remove a boy's foreskin should not be made by parents, says Lloyd Shofield, the proposal's author.

"People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else's body,"Schofield told CBS affiliate KCBS. "It's a man's body and...his body doesn't belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents. It's his decision."

I have so many conflicting opinions about this subject. However I might feel about the merits of the removal of the foreskin of the penis, and however much I might question its necessity I do wonder what world Shofield actually lives in. That last quoted sentence is fairly amusing because, despite his noble-sounding rhetoric, it strikes me as absurd. We are not speaking of a man's body. It is a baby's body and for all intents and purposes, its body does belong to the parents. It may not be fair in many cases, but it is a fact of life and I am not sure how society would work without this system.

Anyway, religions routinely claim ownership of the child's body and its soul: Religious training normally begins as early as possible- as soon as children begin to ask difficult questions.

Another example is the Christian rite of baptism which formerly inducts a baby into the Church and absolving it all that hand-me-down sin left over by Adam and Eve. While certainly not as invasive  as circumcision (or permanent perhaps) it is done without the consent of the infant, condoned by the parents and mandated by the religion. Vaccinations are another case in point where parents make decisions without the consent of the child.

Baby TattooStill, all of us hope that parents will not suddenly decide that Junior looks cool with a full body tattoo. I assume there are already laws regarding child endangerment or abuse that would prevent such a possibility. Let's hope so, anyway.

Of course, this ban will never pass unchallenged. The first amendment of the Constitution clearly states that Congress shall not enact any law that impends the worship of religion. Are Muslim and Jewish citizens to be banned from performing a well-established rite of their respective religion by California law? I can't see that happening.

In Turkey, the circumcision procedure, or sunnet, is a big deal but quite the opposite of the Jewish rite or Brit milah - which is all very discreet and low-keyed.

The Prophet Muhammad recommended performing circumcision at an early age but it is usually customary to perform the ceremony before the age of seven.

As part of the ceremony, the Turkish boy is decked out in a white prince costume with a cape and paraded around in a celebration. In rural areas, he is mounted on a white horse or donkey but in the more urban areas, the family rides in (generally) a red 1960s Chevrolet Impala. Horns are honking, drums are beating as they fly around the neighborhood. A man with a video camera dangles dangerously off the back of the car in front, trying to get every detail for posterity. You would think this rite of passage would involve a lot more trauma and psychological damage. I have heard stories of boys climbing on roofs and having to be cajoled down with lies and enticements, but on the whole, the event passed pretty much as expected. The thing I think would be most emotionally damaging would be the humiliation of being the spectacle of all the family members while the foreskin is removed.

While my mother was dead-set against baptism before the age of consent, she didn't seem to have a problem with circumcision. The doctor, she later informed me, had told her that it was a hygienic procedure and best done at infancy. It was the latest medical fad and I always suspected the surgical removal of my foreskin was merely a way to finance a doctor's holiday in  Florida.



  1. I have very mixed feelings about circumcision. But I do agree that it won't be possible to enforce a law against it. Religious customs are just too powerful...no-one will be able to stop them.

    As for baptism. I'm not religious and my two children were not baptised as babies. They actually made the decision themselves when they were 12 and 14 years old respectively, without any persuading from me or anyone else.

    Vaccinations...it's a difficult one. There have been many conflicting views about the MMR vaccine in the UK. Reports that the multiple vaccine can cause autism for example. My daughter is currently trying to arrange for the vaccines to be administered seperately...not an easy task to achieve..simply because there is autism on both sides of her family. Both she and my son had the MMR with no ill effects, but I guess at the end of the day, good parents will make decisions on most things by weighing up and pros and cons and doing what they think best for the child.

  2. I was confusing people on the comment section of the Huffington Post because I appeared to jumping from one side to the other in the debate. I made some people angry because I said that forcing children to attend religious classes was, for me, far worse because it can do a lot more damage. To this, some man said "My brain may be able to cope and overcome the brainwashing I received as a child, but to my knowledge nobody's foreskin has ever grow back."

  3. I'm really torn on this one too. My primary stance is that I completely and utterly refuse to cut my son's penis, unless it's medically necessary. But then there's my husband and Turkish family who can't begin to imagine the possibility of not cutting him.


    It's a situation that doesn't allow for much negotiation or middle ground. I managed to talk them out of doing it when he was a newborn, and then again while he was a baby, mostly by pointing out the dangers of germs in a poopy diaper-- the MIL couldn't argue with that. Then they all seemed to forget about it. I talked my husband into waiting at least until the boy sort of understands why they're doing that to him-- if it's rite of passage he should be able to understand the passage part...

    I'm not sure, but I've heard there are different types of circumcisions, and the ones they do here are among the most invasive, and remove the most skin. So when the time comes, I'll have to be the one making the biggest compromise but I'm still going to insist on the least amount of cutting possible.

    Still, I have several years left to try to talk them all out of it.

  4. @Stranger
    I never had a chance to ask my mother my exact age when I was circumcised but I remember nothing so I assume it was in infancy. Personally, I believe there is more of a risk of psychological damage when a child is older and has to be lied to, promised gifts or, heaven forbid, manually restrained.
    I was pretty much of a cry-baby all through my childhood, being a sensitive little creature so I doubt very much if I would have survived the sunnet ritual as performed in Turkey. I was too shy to take off my shirt in from of the womenfolk so I can NOT see how I could have managed being splayed out like Jack the Ripper's last victim.
    So, I suppose, I am quite thankful that, if it had to be done, then it was done when I was careless and trusting and shameless. If the situation is inevitable then I don't think a parent does their child any favor by putting it off. But that's just my opinion.
    I am the kind that gets all doe-eyed when he see how they "train" a doberman pup's ears. A poor comparison, I know.

    I've heard that some parents have the actual sunnet soon after the birth of the child and then have a glorious (and painless) ceremony some years later and I would think this is the way I would go. I think it has to be the least traumatic for both the parents and the victim.. sorry I mean, boy.
    Finally, I was reading an explanation on another site about all the health benefits to circumcision. I was not particularly convinced. If a child can wash behind his ears then I am convinced he cam managed the other bits too. But one sentence in the article left me quite staggered. The writer states, "A medium for bacterial growth and further spread of infection is provided by the fecal material trapped between the foreskin and glens of the penis."
    After I collected my thought somewhat, I finally decided the man must have been referring to babies and diapers and not the adult male.

  5. Stranger,

    I was circumcised rather late. Perhaps 8-9 or thereabouts. Looking back, I realize my dad may have chickened out and put it off until he no longer could. Dad had an old school pal who'd become surgeon and it was done by him under general anesthesia. I remember getting taken to a big soccer game (B-BJK) the a few days before the operation (the big deal was more about the pain of waiting in line for hours outside the stadium than the expense back then) and conspiring with my mom's cousin to get an aquarium into the house by exploiting the occasion. Mom wasn't letting me have one. I suspect though the conspiracy went both ways and my getting ideas about acquiring a puppy was skilfully prevented. We didn't have the special dress nonsense and mom just had relatives over for dinner so I could collect the gifts (little gold coins mainly, which I did have use for later).

    I don't think I was scarred other than in the obvious way -- though I cannot really know this. I do think it was harder on my parents than it was on me. I'd gotten cut worse just though general boy stuff and had wounds that took longer to heal than that before but I think they regretted waiting and having that done to their boy at a later age. If I am indeed un-scarred psychologically, it is probably due in most part to seeing this thing as inevitable and as something that worried my folks as much as it worried me. If I had felt as though my folks were getting something optional done to me for some unknown or odd reason I'd have felt differently. As it was, I simply felt circumcision was something that happened to boys and you faced it with your family who played their role -- so it was fine.

  6. Brilliant comment, Bulent. I invite you to got to the linked article and read some of the comments there. It is quite interesting, slightly on the verge of hysteria but quite a lively debate on individual rights or the duty to protect the child vs parental right and the duty of the government to protect vs the right to worship.


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