Banning circumcision in San Francisco

Noah Berger AP In this Sunday, May 15, 2011 photo, Benjamin Abecassis rests on a pillow sounded by family members, … Continued

Noah Berger


In this Sunday, May 15, 2011 photo, Benjamin Abecassis rests on a pillow sounded by family members, immediately following his Bris, a Jewish circumcision ceremony in San Francisco. San Francisco voters in November will be asked to weigh in on what was until now a private family matter: male circumcision. City elections officials confirmed Wednesday, May 18, 2011 that an initiative that would ban the circumcision of males younger than 18 in San Francisco has received enough signatures to appear on the ballot. The practice would become a misdemeanor. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

San Francisco is poised to become the first American municipality to ban the circumcision of infant boys, and like most things associated with circumcision, it’s a very sensitive issue. In fact, as I write this, I know that whatever I commit to words here will be seen as brutal and/or betraying by at least many of those who read it.

Were I to begin with the fact that with the birth of each of our three daughters, I experienced not only profound joy, but a certain inchoate sense of relief at being spared the obligation to circumcise them eight days later, many readers would accuse me of betraying Jewish tradition for simply admitting my ambivalence. Were I to begin by saying that had we had sons, they would have been circumcised in full accordance with Jewish tradition, including the genuine celebration which accompanies the performance of this sometimes disturbing and deeply beautiful 3,000 year old tradition, I would be branded a barbarian by yet other readers.

Both propositions accurately reflect my feelings, and it is precisely that level of complexity which is rarely present in the ongoing debate about infant circumcision in America. Instead of admitting that the sensitivity of this issue is what makes it absurd to legislate and litigate, each side wraps itself in competing claims about the health, legality and morality of the issue in order to get others to see it their way.

In fairness, those opposed to circumcision are far more aggressive in the use of this approach, though I genuinely feel for people, especially Jews, who admit their ambivalence about circumcising their infant sons. Too often they are immediately lectured about the fact that if they do not do so, their kids will not be Jewish (not true), or that circumcision is clearly healthier and that failing to circumcise their kids endangers them (a matter of debate, though most evidence still suggests that it is).

Meeting genuine questions with questionable assertions is hardly the way to go. There are many good reasons to circumcise our sons, but they are not strengthened by failing to seriously address the questions which people have.

In fact, the intensity of the debate around circumcision, like so many issues in religion, is about much more than we let on. Anxiety about not circumcising, among Jews at least, is often about fear of assimilation as much as it is about the importance of one particular commandment. The same anxiety among non-Jews, for whom there is no such commandment, is often about the rights of parents to shape their children’s future. Those are big important questions – ones which deserve to be discussed openly, not fought over by proxy.

On the other hand, there is something truly wrong with people attempting to strip parents of their rights as guardians and undermining the free exercise of religion. The legal experts will battle over that one I am sure, but the fact that those seeking to ban circumcision don’t also pursue banning other medical procedures which parents elect to have performed because they believe it to be the right thing for their kids, indicates that the whole fight about circumcision is really just an expression of the opponents’ hostility to religion in general, or to the notion that parents have a legitimate right to make decisions which shape their kids’ futures because that too is a part of parenting.

It’s as if we fight about what to do with our kids, or worse, what other people should do with their kids, because of what was done to us by our parents. That strikes me as a poor way to make decisions about parenting, public policy, or the various spiritual paths we follow.

Instead, I suggest that we focus on the hopes and aspirations we have for our own children and pursue, as best as our consciences dictate, those practices which we believe will aid in their attainment. Sometimes we will get it right, sometimes not, but maximizing the freedom to give it our best shot – short of endangering the health or life of the kids involved, should remain, as it has for hundreds of years in this country, a sacred trust.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • mglass3

    Instead of weighing in on the debate about the proposal to ban circumcision, I would like to see action on ensuring that problems associated with circumcision are reduced or eliminated.

    First of all, I would like to see more restrictions on operators, so that unqualified people who try to circumcise people should be prosecuted.

    Secondly, dangerous customs, such as oral sucking, should be prohibited by law. The risk of herpes is just too great.

    Thirdly, the law should ensure that without the written consent of both parents, the circumcision of a child is unlawful. This might help to eliminate the unedifying fights about circumcision between estranged parents. If the parents can’t agree, then the decision should be deferred until the owner of the foreskin is grown up, and then he can decide what to do about his foreskin.

    These three provisions wouldn’t stop circumcision or end all abuses, but they would help to minimize the damage of an unregulated cultural and medical practice.

  • Barefoot_Intactivist

    The pro-circ crowd would tell you oral sucking is also protected by so-called “freedom of religion.” The reality is that genital mutilation is actually far more harmful than oral sucking, however disgusting and potentially dangerous that practice may also be.

  • Barefoot_Intactivist

    Much more important than the parents’ supposed right to mutilate the genitals of their child is the child’s right to protection from genital mutilation. Bodily integrity is one of the most fundamental human rights. The author seems to have forgotten this by cloaking sexual mutilation as a “beautiful” tradition. Violating and permanently reducing a child’s genitals is hardly beautiful.

    The author also fails to mention, in dismissing the MGM Bill as “absurd,” that female circumcision was banned in the U.S. — WITHOUT religious exception. Prior to this, female circumcision was tolerated in the U.S. Female circumcision is also considered a “beautiful” religious tradition in cultures that practice it. Male circumcision is no different. Time to stop hiding behind the dubious idea that “freedom of religion” allows you to inflict sexual mutilation on a non-consenting minor.

    ~Barefoot Intactivist

  • Barefoot_Intactivist

    EDIT: Female circumcision was banned in 1997 in the U.S. Prior to 1997, it was tolerated here, and even practiced alongside male circumcision to “prevent masturbation” dating back to the medical quackery of the 1800’s that made circumcision so popular here.

  • daniel12

    I have mixed feelings about circumcision. I was not circumcised but remember feeling uneasy in school locker rooms because so many boys were circumcised. I would say my mixed feelings come from the pressure in society to be circumcised. It seems a male must be circumcised, have not too much body hair, have short hair, have a shave and so on.

    Other than social pressure I am extremely grateful for not being circumcised. I see no health issues with being uncircumcised. When taking a shower you just pull the foreskin back and wash. The foreskin is the protector of the sensitive head of the pen*s and from times I have had my pen*s with foreskin pulled back in pants (without erection) it has been uncomfortable.

    I can understand a health issue with circumcision if one was born in a desert two thousand years ago with little water around–although even there I would say one would be more likely to get stinky dick than anything else–but in a modern society? And even more amusing how suddenly HIV appears and we have the medical rationale for circumcision (supposedly circumcised men are less likely to get AIDS). I suppose Jewish people everywhere are glad of HIV otherwise there would be no medical rationale for circumcision.

    I guess it would be too obvious of me to say I am no more likely to get AIDS than a circumcised man because I have a brain and choose sexual partners with a careful sex life. Also amusing how San Francisco is one of the most liberal places in the U.S. –and of course Jews and the liberal party are close–but San Francisco is uncomfortable with circumcision.

    I suspect circumcision will one day be a lifestyle choice only, that children will not be allowed to be circumcised. By lifestyle choice I mean a decision by an adult, like many people follow religious and/or cultural practices of this or that ancient society–Celtic or African tattoos and piercing for example; Mohawk or Sikh hairstyles.

    Circumcising a child is a particularly harsh way of telling the chi

  • slowe111

    Religion is an Embarassement:
    We do not always have to use the legal system to become more civilized. Sometimes just social pressure to do something or not is the better way to go. Circumcizing infants should become an embarassment (not a crime) for all plarents. And doing it for religious reasons even more embarassing! Eventually, all religius practices should be come embarassing. Kinda like believing in Thor would be today.

  • lepidopteryx

    “…sometimes disturbing and deeply beautiful 3,000 year old tradition…”

    What exactly is “deeply beautiful” about removing a piece of your newborn’s sex organ?

  • Secular1

    The medical rationale is I believe very very shallow & hollow. I dare say the vast majority of the world population is uncircumcised. There is no statistical data to back up the stupid medical claims. No affliction is statistically more prevalent among the uncircumcised than circumcised. Given that it i stupid that we in the 21st century are willing to blindly follow the prescriptions of a handful of ignoramuses from 30 centuries ago. After all we don’t go around following the 10 – 12 century old alchemistry recipes to convert gold into, or is it lead into gold – how does it matter any way. Why do we give credence to those ignoramuses of yester years. Oh! i get it, because it is cloaked in that bane of human existence – RELIGION.

    When we can teach how to floss, I submit pulling your foreskin back is not at all that much of rocket science, you all Jews and Muslims can teach your children, just like you teach them how put on a condom. For those who claim to have the direct line to the sky daddy, as the chosen ones, you cannot master this simple thing that most of the non-chosen ones do it as matter of child’s play. HIP HIP HOORAY. Screw the free exercise of religion BS over keep the born child safe.

  • Secular1

    Don’t you see red is beautiful, more so the blood soaked swab cloths ought to be that much more beautiful for those stupid blinded religionists.

  • Secular1

    “The male foreskin serves an important protective feature in utero, but after birth foreskins are much like your appendix – it’s unclear what beneficial role these fleshy appendages play in adults but when something goes wrong with one or the other, the results are dramatic to life-threatening. ” I take great deal of objection to this claim. In case of foreskin the severity is not as grave as in the case of appendicitis. For nearly, 4.5 to 5.0 billion peoples in the world this is not even a procedure does not even cross their thought process, much alone contemplated. In the two religions this notion of circumcision was born out of ignorance than any considered medical opinion. Also i know of several adults who were not circumcised in their infant hood, who had to undergo in their late twenties and a few in their seventies with virtually no big deal. Knowing their circumstances it was nowhere close to threatening as an appendicitis. These were very rare cases. Since we do not remove the appendix in the childhood, I personally do not see the need to put a new born through it. One big benefit is that the males are know to have greater pleasure during skin when the foreskin is intact. The religious reason smack of unnecessary masochism. I again submit there is no statistical evidence that circumcision deleterious to the health of the 4.5 billion people in the world who absolutely have no introduction to it, culturally or medically.

  • tweetThis

    The issue aside, I find it odd that a city that objects to the religion of others would be so narrow minded in return. Clearly the need to push your views on others is not limited to those who espouse religion.

    On topic, a recent study showed almost 30% of males with foreskins intact were harboring HPV virus.

  • usapdx

    Only a adult male MUST be allowed to have a circumcision on only HIS body. Once it is done, it is done.

  • persiflage

    Uncircumcised males are directly associated with the spread of both HIV and HPV (human papilloma virus). HPV causes cervical cancer in women – a particularly virulent and deadly cancer. The reason circumcision is now pervasive in Africa has to do with the aforementioned association with HIV. From a practical standpoint, there are of course many lesser difficulties associated with foreskin preservation and these were mentioned in the links that I provided.

    This nonsense about uncircumcised males having ‘greater sexual pleasure’ has a pseudo-religious mythical tone to it – befitting the ancient cults of Aphrodite and Priapus vis the Greek mystery religions. All in all, a highly subjective assertion.

  • YEAL9

    The circumcision mutilation pales in comparison to the horror of ripping apart growing babies during the one million abortions performed annually in the USA .

    And all because some woman forgot to take her Pill or some guy forgot to use a condom!!!

  • persiflage

    Tell that to the millions that are tattooed, pierced, have body parts removed as a lifesaving measure, undergo multiple plastic surgeries to ‘improve’ their body parts, and so forth.

    Mutilation is a concept having much to do with one’s personal values…….and is entirely subjective.

    If one take the pro-choice position and supports reproductive freedom for women, as an example, it would be pretty difficult to avoid hypocrisy by objecting to male circumcision – a completely benign procedure by comparison.

    It’s crystal clear that uncircumcised males probably do not support it – whereas males that have had the experience see it in a positive light. Like religion, it’s all in how one is raised…….

  • Sajanas

    There is a vaccine for HPV now too.
    Which religious people didn’t want to give their daughters because they thought it would encourage them to have sex.

  • jason2010

    I feel like anybody who is against circumcision got made fun of in the locker room for being uncircumcised. I am not Jewish, I’m circumcised, and I would hate to have that extra flap. Further, I would hate to have to get that removed at an age where I’d remember it.

    This just baffles me. Why is it even an issue? I will circumcise my son and he will thank me for it.

    Finally, government has no role in this issue; the fact that people think it does simply proves this country is going downhill fast.

  • acebojangles

    Why do you think he’ll thank you for it?

  • acebojangles

    30%? I’ve heard that something like 80% of adults in the US have HPV. Maybe having a foreskin helps you avoid HPV then?

  • acebojangles

    I think that if you performed male circumcision on older males, your perceptions of the procedure would change.

    I think there is a difference between male circumcision and female circumcision, but it’s a difference of degree. The proponents of each procedure seem to use similar arguments.

  • persiflage

    Apparently you don’t fully understand female anatomy……the two procedures are different in kind, rather than degree. The majority of circumcised males are not Jewish, and are not circumcised based on religious customs or traditions. Until Africa began practicing circumcision wholescale as an HIV preventative, most circumcisions were performed in the West.

    The rationale for male circumcision is not remotely similar to the functions of female circumcision, which is found almost exclusively in primitive tribal societies or sub-cultures. Although a number are associated with Islam, it’s doubtful that the actual practice is religiously based.

    As I said, male circumcision later in life can be a more complicated matter. Here’s a true story – a friend of mine suffered from phimosis, a painful constriction of the glans during erection. In those days he was a drinker, and he performed a circumcision on himself after imbibing a sufficient amount of anesthetic. While it corrected the problem, he was lucky he didn’t die of a serious infection. Apparently drunks are looked upon favorably by the gods…….

  • Secular1

    Persiflage, for all the protestations, you have not presented any compelling statistical evidence showing whether the female populations in Asia or not uncircumcising cultures are more prone to HIV or HPV.. Nor have you shown any deleterious affects in male health. Till then it is considered unnecessary. As to your comparison with reproductive rights, etc i agree the procedure is no where as risky as the abortion of others. That said, it should be taken by aan adult male for himself not the parent when he is hardly a week old.

  • YEAL9

    The circumcision mutilation pales in comparison to the horror of ripping apart growing babies during the one million abortions performed annually in the USA .

    And all because some woman forgot to take her Pill or some guy forgot to use a condom!!!—————————————————————-

  • gonnagle

    Stop saying the same thing. It makes you sound stupid.
    Oh and by the way you can’t compare a collection of cells without out a nervous system with a fully viable human.
    At least though you agree with contraception because most in the abortion debate are against that too.

  • jason2010

    Because I do not know one circumcised male that would rather be uncircumcised. I doubt he would feel any different