The Circumcision Wars

      Some may just easily chuckle and say that it could only happen in San Francisco. Yet there were efforts to ban circumcision in Santa Monica and a group entitled " The Association for Genital Integrity" recently proposed a circumcision ban in Canada ( it failed). There have also been anti-circumcision groups in Massachusetts. Be that as it may, San Francisco voters this fall will be faced with voting on a referendum petition which declares that it is unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles or penis of another person who has not attained 18 years of age. The penalty fine proposed is $1,000 or a maximum of one year in prison.

    While the petition does allow an exemption to the law where there is a certified physical health issue which might medically call for circumcision, the specific maliciousness of the petition lies in its absolutely refusing any religious exemption. It stipulates that " No account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that person or any other person that the operation is requireed as a matter of custom or ritual." Effectively, Jews and Muslims who regularly perform child circumcision on their male babies are being dis-allowed their intrinsic religious practice. Circumcision, according to the proposed law, would only be permitted--except for medical reasons--at the request of a male 18 years or older.


       Opponents of the proposal claim that it is a clear violation of religious liberty and/or parental rights. Proponents only claim that it can not be performed on children. They see it as a kind of genital mutilation( and, in places, in somewhat exaggerated rhetoric, compare it to female genital mutilation). Proponents point out that it is now against the law to tattoo an under-age child or to inject him with botox and that circumcision inflicts needless pain on un-willing or coerced children. They speak of it as mutilation without consent. Proponents argue that one could opt for circumcision, for religious reasons, once they reached age 18 ( but since adult circumcision is more consciously painful, one can legitimately fear that, perhaps, not many will so opt in).

       I would tend to think that, even in politically--sometimes volatile--San Francisco, voters will reject the petition. Perhaps--as one wag facetiously put it-- it is all just making a mountain out of a mohel. But surprisingly, the petition received twice the required signatures to get on the ballot. Most also think that, even should the law pass, the courts would rule it unconstitutional as a violation of religious liberty.

      To be sure, childhood circumcision ( as the American Academy of Pediatricions has argued) can pose real risks. Some also speak of possible benefits of the surgery ( as a protection against HIV). On balance, at least as a question of medical science, neither its potential risks nor its benefits seem--to me, at least--particularly compelling as arguments.

        Thankfully, non-Jewish voices have been raised against the proposal. San Francisco Catholic Archbishop George Niederauer has forcefully opposed the proposed law. Recently also the National Association of Evangelicals has also come out strongly against the proposed law.

        But the metaphor of making a moutain out of a mohel took on a new and more threatening tone with the appearance of a comic strip, Foreskin Man, in which a chiseled Aryan super-hero rescues babies from the monster mohels ( pictured in a kind of ominous stereotype of Jews). Moreover, the circumcision wars are not likely to remain restricted to San Francisco. The actor Russell Crowe, in a twitter, proclaimed: " Circumcision is barbaric and stupid. Who are you to correct nature? Is it real that God requires a donation of foreskin? Babies are perfect." So, an issue which could and would remain legitimately debatable if it simply tried to outlaw the routine circumcision of non-Jewish or non-Muslim baby boys has now taken on overtones of anti-Semitism. Clearly, Catholic voices need to be raised to protest this action.

        There are, then, three issues involved. First, the violation of the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims. Most of the blogosphere which treats the issue focuses almost uniquely on Jews. While their religious liberty is definiitely precious that of Muslims is not less so and protests against the violation of religious liberty should routinely mention both Jews and Muslims ( I supect a majority of Americans do not know that Muslims also circumcise boy babies!). The second issue is the way pieces of the debate ( especially now through that comic strip, Foreskin Man) have verged clearly toward anti-Semitism by singling out the so-called " monster mohel". This needs also a very specific denunciation by all those who both treasure religious liberty and fight vicious religious stereotypes. The third issue has to do with parental rights. This last may or may not stand up in court ( since, as noted, no parent has a right under present law to give their baby a nose job or a tattoo).

        In some form, the circumcision wars will, I surmise, continue. If such attempts to limit male circumcision allowed clear religious exemptions for Jews and Muslims, I might even contemplate supporting an anti-circumcision ordinance for non-Jews and Muslims. At present around 60% of American male babies are so circumcised. But we have reached a point in the debate where it is no longer just something to shrug off or merely debate. Religious freedom and the obvious denigration of one religious group ( the Jewish) calls for vital protests from other religious groups. Catholics should be conspicuous in this protest. 


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7 years 9 months ago

The Lord said to Abram, “I will bless them that bless you and curse  them  that curse you … in you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed!”  Then having been set apart for a special task the Lord changed Abram’s name to Abraham and said, “You shall keep my Covenant … this is my Covenant … every male among you shall be circumcised.”
Craziness is afloat, reflecting I suspect a kind of  subtle and yes, blasphemous subterranean  anti-religion spew,  bubbling up in a cauldron of medical and sociological babble, trying to negate the Lord’s Covenant of circumcision!  Busybodies in San Francisco and elsewhere are talking about making circumcision an illegal practice, even within Judaism.  Imagine that! Circumcision covenanted  to Abraham was meant to become the starting point to spiritual salvation for all humanity - the Lord said to Abraham, “In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed!” No human institution has the authority to negate a Divine command or the Divine intent!
This is not to say, however, that all males must be physically circumcised. Catholic Christianity  speaks of “circumcision of the heart” a radical conversion, a conversion  so radical that one is turned inside out, cut away and pulled back to righteousness and with spiritual connective tissue adhering  to  the Covenant, a new creation coming into being ,one call with Israel to holiness.
 Through the  physical  circumcision  of Abraham, Judaism holds the primacy of choice and of place  as  a nation set apart, chosen by God to be his own.  It is my belief that “circumcision of the heart”  effects the same transformation for the non-Jew allowing all to share in the singularity of Abraham’s Covenant. This is how I understand the teaching of Jesus, that, “Salvation comes from the Jews!” Because of the Lord’s Covenant with Abraham we all have a chance to righteousness. And circumcision physical, or spiritual is an absolute prerequisite!  The Lord doesn’t change his mind.
This is precisely why no one on this earth should attempt to make circumcision especially as a religious ritual in Judaism illegal!  As a matter of fact to do so for any reason is just plain stupid! Yes, to  do so would be a serious violation of Divine Law, affecting not only Jews but also Christians and  also the offspring of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by the slave girl Agar, from whom  Islam  originated. Abraham is Father to the nations of the earth and my favorite Old Testament saint!
To put this whole  thing concisely, I see  the attempt to make circumcision an illegal practice as nothing other than an attack on religious  belief, another attempt to relegate religion to obscurity, another attempt by the faithless to discredit the faithful! I intend to do my little bit stop the effort in its tracks and I respectfully urge all Jews, Christians and sons of Ishmael to speak up!
William Logan
7 years 9 months ago
John, how would you address the comparison of this bill with the current federal law against female genital mutilation? You say that "the specific maliciousness of the petition lies in its absolutely refusing any religious exemption." But the petition's language disallowing a religious exemption for male circumcision is a copycat of the prohibition of a religious exemption for female genital mutilation ("no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that person, or any other person, that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual." - 18 U.S.C. section 116(c)). And Congress' prohibition of a religious exemption was done after making an express finding that female genital mutilation was indeed carried out by members of religious groups in the U.S. What, if anything, distinguishes the anti-circumcision proposition from the existing anti-female-genital-mutiliation law?
Helena Loflin
7 years 9 months ago
FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and women's bodies.
Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.
Long-term consequences can include:

    recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
    an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths;
    the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3 above) needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks.
William Logan
7 years 9 months ago
Jimmy, I agree that female genital mutilation is severe, but what about when it's done as a religious practice (which was part of Congress' findings when they outlawed it)? If an objection to the San Francisco proposition outlawing male circumcision is that it lacks a religious exemption, should the federal law prohibiting female genital mutilation also allow for its religious practice? 

Why do we accept male circumcision in our society? Is it purely because it's a cultural practice familiar to us whereas female genital mutilation is not? Almost all of the ways in which female genital mutilation violate human rights are equally applicable to male circumcision (e.g. violations of a person's right to health, security, and physical integrity; violation of the right to be free from cruel and degrading treatment; removal of healthy and normal genital tissue).
Kang Dole
7 years 9 months ago
Tut tut! Would you have poor Saint Catherine hand in her wedding ring?
John Coleman
7 years 9 months ago
I am not sure the issues of male and female genital mutilation are equal. As I say, I am not convinced that the arguments ( on pain and medical issues) against circumcision of males and the counter-arguments that circumcision can be medically helpful agsint HIV are compelling on sheer medical grounds. As one of the commentators notes female genital mutilation ( even if performed on religious grounds) is severe and can cause serious medical harms. Few argue that male circumcision ( even if non-consensual on the part of the baby and causing some pain) is equally severe. But  William Logan's point would be interesting if taken up in a court case which would try to outlaw the San Francisco ordinance if it passed. Why would a religious examption be allowed for male circumcision and not for religiously proposed female genital surgeries?  The argument would be that female genital mutilation is so severe that it overrides any religious exemptions. Is male circumcision that severe?
Hugh Young
7 years 9 months ago
Fr Coleman's article is more thoughtful than most on the subject. One aspect he has not covered is the religious freedom of the adult whose parents are Muslim or Jewish. No religion, so far as I know refuses to admit a circumcised man, though Pope Benedict himself said
 ''...the Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Acts 15: 1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision.'' - General Audience, January 31, 2007
So a convert from Judaism to Catholicism could feel he was less than a full member of the Church. Sikhism puts a positive value on an intact body, not even cutting the hair. So circumcising a baby has a negative effect on his religious freedom, lifelong - and is this not of more concern than the freedom of his parents to practise their religion on him?

Likewise, ''parental rights'' to cut parts off him can not trump his right to choose for himself what parts to have cut off - if any - when he is old enough.

To put Foreskin Man in context, the first issue had no mention of Judaism and focused on ''Dr Mutilator'' who was much more monstrous than the mohel. All comic strip characters are stereotypes, and there were sympathetic, attractive Jewish characters in the second issue, but the characterisation of the mohel was unfortunate.

Russell Crowe clarified his remarks (which were addressed to a Jewish friend): ''I love my Jewish friends, I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats but stop cutting yr babies @eliroth''

(Interstingly, real antisemites, the KKK and the American Nazi Party, take no interest in circumcision. Nor did Hitler - except as a way to idenfity Jews - or Henry Ford.)

There is no doubt that the worst of female genital cutting is worse than the average circumcision, yet ALL female cutting, no matter how minor, is outlawed in the USA and most of the developed world. I suspect Fr Coleman does not know that millions of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia ''circumcise'' girl babies, in what seems a quite minor way, in doctors' surgeries, in the name of Isalm. Should we be concerned for their religious freedom to carry on the practice in the USA? I think not, but that we should rather protect the freedom of all people to decide the fate of their own normal, healthy, non-renewable, functional body parts.


7 years 9 months ago
What is the motive of those petitioning for the legislation?  Has there been a sudden increase in death or severe illness from circumcisions that I wasn't aware of?

While the data is inconclusive, there is research that suggests that circumcision does inhibit the passing of HIV during heterosexual sex (hmm, I wonder who would be bothered by that seeming advantage over homoseual transmission of HIV?)  And, of course, you don't even need a study to know that a flap of tissue in the nether regions is prime breeding ground for infections in little boys who aren't good washers, active adolescents who sweat a lot and might not also be the bets of washers, and even mature men.  Such infections can be deadly and passed on to sexual partners.

Find me one man who remembers the pain of his circumcision at birth or shortly after.

This is just another attack, against religion and biological parental control over their children, by homosexuals in, surprise, San Francisco and Massachusetts.  Who else would argue against a procedure whose potential benefits far outweigh its risks in the name of individual rights for infants?
John Coleman
7 years 9 months ago
This is a response to Michael Brooks. I think you are quite facile to ascribe these circumcision wars to homosexuals! The woman who wanted to have a referendum on the issue in Santa Monica was a mother of two young boys who objected to their being circumcised. I have not heard-do you know something I don't know-?- that Russell Crowe is homosexual. I do think that some men and women want to avoid needless pain to their children. Some adult men may regret they were circumcized against their consent. That is why I said that if the San Francisco ordinance included a religious exemption for Jews and Muslims about baby boy circumcision, I might contemplate voting in its favor. It is not just a homosexual issue at all but one about taking away from children a choice that they may regret as adults. I still think religious exemptions are important. I also agree that hardly any baby who was circumcized remembers any of the pain. That is why I do not equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation.


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