Banning the ban on circumcision

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.

Circumcision bans are a terrible idea. They undermine parental rights, they trample on the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims, they almost certainly contribute to poorer public health, and as we saw in the case of many supporters of this year’s attempts to ban circumcision in California, they are often motivated by deep hostility to religion in general and Judaism in particular.

For all those reasons, banning circumcision is wrong. But laws which ban such bans, like the one signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown of California, are also not the way to go. While both the impulse for creating, and the end result achieved by such bans on circumcision bans is positive, they also undermine the democratic process, our commitment to maximizing political participation, and the free exchange of ideas.

People, at least as much as possible, should have the right to argue for, and legislate in favor of, really stupid things, including banning circumcision. We preserve people’s right to be wrong as much as possible, for as long as possible. Like it or not, that is a truth upon which our form of government is based, and no matter how well-intentioned, we cut away at that principle at our own peril.

Ultimately, we trust that when popular initiatives, such as those which sought to ban circumcision, run afoul of larger legal rights which we trust our courts to uphold, those initiatives will be struck down. While it’s a messier process, and one which in this case is particularly upsetting to Jews and Muslims especially, it’s a process which protects the freedoms which we all cherish most deeply.

Furthermore, by banning bans on circumcision, California now drives the debate about this issue underground, where it will fester among the most hostile and deranged opponents of circumcision, instead of remaining a legitimate question of concern about which decent people can disagree. The fact is, it’s a sensitive topic and one about which people should feel comfortable sharing their concerns and objections without being labeled crazy, Islamophobic, anti-Jewish, etc.

In the short term, the new California law delivers a positive result, to be sure. Ultimately though, it does nothing to address either the legitimate concerns that some people have about circumcision or the blinding rage which this particular ritual provokes on the part of others. Both need to be addressed.

The long-term value of the new legislation, if there will be any, lies in its ability to lessen the anxiety felt by people who support the right of parents to choose to circumcise their sons — freeing them to engage those with legitimate questions and expose those who are simply motivated by rage.

As with so many such issues, when we substitute legislation for conversation, we find ourselves locked in inherently adversarial combat as opposed to engaged in asking important questions about how we want to raise our children, live out our most deeply-held values and protect the rights of others to do the same. That is something circumcision opponents fail to understand, and the rest of us should not follow them into that misunderstanding.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • jackno1

    Baby boy pen is part removal should already be considered illegal under the 1996 federal law banning genital cutting — 14th Amendment equal protection clause. Those saying that preventing the cutting off of pe nis parts of a baby boy violates the cutter’s freedom of religion, are way out there in irrational land. One’s religion ends where their knife touches another human’s body. The idea that another human’s ritual (rite) trumps ones right to body parts is insane and creepy. Baby boy pen is parts removal cuts off thousands of fine touch and stretch nerves. This is like disconnecting the fingertips or lips from the brain. No human should be subjected to sensory system harm as well as a forced decrease of sexual function and PLEASURE for life!

    BTW imposing consent requirement for pe nis partsremoval “certainly contribute to poorer public health” NOT.

    The real world just does not show any risk change as to HIV, HPV and STDs by having less pe nis. Certainly not in high HIV US with high circ and in Europe with lower HIV and lower circ. In fact real world data shows a natural pe nis is not at higher risk for HIV, HPV and all other STDS. Also consider some interesting Africa data:

    The US sponsored DHS Comparative Reports No. 22 showed that in Africa there appears no clear pattern of association between male circumcision and HIV prevalence. In 8 of 18 countries with data, HIV prevalence is lower among circumcised men, while in the remaining 10 countries HIV prevalence is higher among circumcised men.

    In 2010 the same Kisumu team (Bailey) that did one of the flawed Africa studies reported the cut Kenyan men were no less likely to have HIV after all.

    The recent CDC Zambia study did find that men with herpes were more likely to be HIV-positive, but also found that lack of circumcision did not increase the risk of HIV infection.

    In 2009 the same Rakai team (Wawer/Gra-y) reported that the Ugandan men they cut were 50% MORE likely to infect their female partners.

    There is no

  • pkjames

    Circumcision is a terrible idea. Banning it has nothing to do with anti religious veiws or positions. It has to do with the right of an individual to not be have unecessary surgery on their genitals, marking them as a religions they may or may not choose. Warren Jeffs tried to claim religion as defense. We know many of the women went along with what happened, because they trulty believed it was “God’s will”.
    I don’t want to have my genitals made over into “jewish” or “muslim”. It’s disgusting to me. I do not want to be made a jew or muslim.
    It doesn’t take much sense to realize that this is marking a person physically for the rest of their life as a religion.
    Jews and muslims are free to prcatice their religion, on themselves, not others.
    Circumcision removes much more than tissue. It removes the choice of a man,to how his genitals work and look.
    Can you think of much more vulgar. And in NYC, they couldn’t even get the health depr to stop the oral suction that is thought to have killed 3 chiclren by herpes. It’s impinging on relegious freedom. So three kids die and you call the people who oppose this “deranged”. So a few kids die, or lose their genitals entirely. God forbid we stop a parent form their god given right to kill their child play with their sexual organs. What kind of relgion would require you to fashion the genitals of s child into a statement of the parents relgion.
    This has nothing to do with heeath, jews will be the first to tell you, that has nothing to do with it.. They will say god commanded this and they’ll do it. If it affects you sexually well then it’s a sacrfice to god.
    It’s only been about 100 years since we stopped working kids as slaves in factories. and it was the Humane Society who really sorta came to their rescue. Children are not property. They’re responsibilities to take care of.
    This is a local phenomena of abuse. The rest of the world has long come down against it. Men here I guess don’t want to admit they had no choice,

  • persiflage

    JACKNO1 – I’d say you were informed by your anti-circumcision ideology, and are pretty much wrong on virtually every count – but by all means don’t circumcise your own son. That is your right as a parent.

    PS. I’ve personally never heard of an circumcised male complaining of a lack of sensation during sex – but I have known of males that required circumcision because of pain during sex i.e. due to the condition of pimosis.

    The procedure of male infant circumcision is about as similar to the custom of female genital mutilation in purpose, function, and outcome as removing an appendix vs removing any truly vital organ without plans to replace it. The appendix is a vestigial organ that is expendable.

    Personally, I’d never seek a foreskin transplant but I might consider a liver transplant if the need arose. Anti-circumcision rhetoric and negative diatribes are generally inflammatory, histrionic, and rarely based on real-world facts.

  • BrianWestley

    persiflage, your lack of anecdotal evidence for circ males complaining of lack of sensation proves nothing, and since both males and females can die from circumcision, but most survive, your analogy to removal of a nonvital vs. a vital organ is ridiculous.

    Here’s my analogy…
    Suppose a couple brought their young son to a doctor to have their son’s left pinky finger amputated at the joint nearest the fingernail. The parents point out that the boy is right-handed and removing a small part of the smallest finger of his off-hand would not be a significant handicap.

    The doctor sees nothing wrong with the boy’s finger and asks why they want it amputated.

    The parents recognize the symptoms of sickle-cell anemia in their son, and, since survivors of this condition have noticeably foreshortened fingers, the parents want to do what their ancestors have done for centuries – deliberately shorten one of their son’s fingers as a kind of sympathetic magic to increase his chances to survive sickle-cell anemia.

    Of course, there’s no genuine medical reason to think that doing this will help; it’s essentially a religious/superstitious reason.

    Anyone in favor of circumcision (of minors incapable of consent) should be in favor of amputating the boy’s finger, as far as I can see. It’s being done for a sincere, religious belief.

  • dude233

    The rights of children, and women have evolved since the bible was first marketed to civilization. Rituals such as human sacrifice, burnt offerings, and FGM are no longer acceptable, so it seems. Equal rights for boys, and girls, and let women no longer be considered chattel.

  • commuted

    Bans do limit parental rights and increase the rights of children and infants. Claimed benefits are grossly overstated by flawed studies in Africa. The control group was given safe sex training, if they had been given a painful tattoo to remind them the impression would have been deeper and longer lasting. All the three studies were ended early on humanitarian grounds. We know there are no detectable benefits from infant circumcision in western countries. It’s odd that to believe in circumcision it helps to not believe in evolution or God.

  • nocirc


  • haveaheart

    Has anyone else noticed that the most vociferous anti-circumcision protesters here are practically illiterate?

    It bears thinking about.

  • louiscd

    And you are trampling on the (human) rights of the new born child.

  • hugh7

    What a pleasantly moderate piece! But Brad Hischfield should have read the law (AB768) before he wrote. It doesn’t just “ban bans”. It actually says

    “No city, county, or city and county ordinance, regulation, or administrative action shall prohibit or restrict the practice of male circumcision, or the exercise of a parent’s authority to have a child circumcised.”

    That makes it legal for anyone of any age with no training to circumcise anyone, with a boxcutter if they wish, so long as
    1. one parent has consented
    2. the victim is under 18 and
    3. male,
    – and a Bill before the Senate (HR2400 – with a further implication that it must be a clean boxcutter) will spread that freedom across the USA.

    So far from driving circumcision underground, these Bills compltely legitimize back-street circumcisions.

  • hugh7

    “humans have been altering their bodies for millenia with a little help from friends, family, and society in general. ”
    Altering your own body is fundamentally different from others altering it without your consent, as the law acknowledges in every other case but this.

    There is nothing special about the foreskin that should make it fair game from any family member who wants to cut it off, but there is something very peculiar about circumcision – once it is entrenched, people won’t stop looking for excuses to do it.

  • DaveInDC1

    The author is wrong; banning the bans does not “undermine the democratic process, our commitment to maximizing political participation, and the free exchange of ideas”. Democratic process can still undo the bans of bans, given a sufficient majority; and political participation is in no way limited, for the same reason. And the free exchange of ideas is not inhibited, as the ban of bans is not censorship, it affects only legality of legislation.

    A ban on the bans is not making bans a thought-crime as Holocaust-denial has been ruled in a number of European countries. In fact, a legislative ban in pre-WW2 Germany on any banning of circumcision might have been for the protection of Jews who, absent such a ban, were denied their religious practice and ultimately their lives during Nazi rule.

  • Carstonio

    Hirschfield’s argument is deceptive to some degree since the vast majority of circumcisions in the US are performed for medical reasons and not for religious ones. I feel the state does have a legitimate interest in protecting babies and children from being circumcised against their will. I propose we split the difference and forbid circumcision before age 13, thereby performing it only with the boy’s consent while allowing the boy to practice his religion as he sees fit.

  • persiflage

    I think we should do the same for tonsillectomies – the fact that this hyper-charged issue is all about the male sex organ aside….parts is parts.

  • Carstonio

    That comparison is not that far off. I’ve read that there’s some debate in the medical community about the necessity of tonsillectomies versus other treatments. I suspect that both procedures have become part of accepted wisdom for the majority of practitioners.

    By contrast, the horrific procedure that’s misleadingly labeled “female circumcision” is explicitly designed to control girls, specifically to reduce their desire and enjoyment of sex. I haven’t heard of that objective for male circumcision, and if so, I doubt that it would even have that effect.

  • haveaheart

    “Back street circumcisions”?

    Get real. Circumcision is a societally accepted practice. No one has to prowl dark alleys to get the deed done.

  • persiflage

    Carstonio, you said:

    ‘I propose we split the difference and forbid circumcision before age 13……….’

    I’m wondering if that arbitrary age is mentioned because it coincides with the Jewish rite of passge for males known as Bar Mitzvah?

    Obviously we can’t apply that same rule to folks of other religious persuasions – or with no religious affiliation at all.

    It seems better to me if we leave off legislating against procedures that statistically present little danger or risk while offering a number of possible benefits.

    And I completely agree that conflating male circumcision with female genital mutilation in order to make a point is disingenuous to an extreme and even unconscionable degree.

  • Carstonio

    What are the possible benefits? I don’t necessarily favor a legal remedy since I don’t know the relative benefits or risks of male circumcision. My issue is that the surgery qualifies as elective, and it feels wrong to me to perform any such surgery on individuals who are too young to be able to give informed consent. I feel the same way about ear piercings, where some families have these done on infant girls.

  • BrianWestley

    Persiflage, there are times when circumcision is medically necessary, such as paraphimosis, and times when amputation of a finger is necessary, such as the onset of gangrene.

    The existence of medical reasons for performing either act does NOT justify doing either one for superstitious/religious reasons to minors incapable of consent.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks. I’m curious to know how it reduces the spread of STDs. I’m tempted to think that uncircumcised males aren’t being taught the appropriate hygiene.