Tuesday, May 3, 2011

San Francisco Circumcision Ban

At the end of last year, a man named Lloyd Schofield made the news by announcing his resolve to ban circumcision in San Francisco. The ban would make it a misdemeanor to circumcise boys, and offenders would be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 or up to a year in jail. To put the ban on the ballot for the November election, Schofield would have had to collect 7,000 signatures. On Tuesday, April 26, 2011, Schofield submitted 12,265 signatures to the city's Department of Elections, far exceeding the amount necessary for the initiative, and emotions are running high.

Supporters of the ban cite that there is already a federal ban on female circumcision, only instituted in 1996. The ban makes any kind of genital alteration to a girl’s genitals, major or minor, illegal, and there is no exception for religious, traditional or cultural reasons. Those who oppose the ban, however, assert that male and female circumcision “aren’t the same,” and that such a ban would infringe on “parental rights” and “religious freedom.” On my blog, I will discuss some of the topics and arguments that come up whenever this ban is brought up.

Too much government intervention
People opposed to the ban often pout that “the government is taking over our lives.” They cite the latest crackdown on McDonalds' happy meal toys as an example of how San Francisco is taking government intervention to ridiculous proportions. While I will agree that the happy meal law is ridiculous, comparing the selling of happy meal toys with a permanent, cosmetic, surgical alteration of a child's genitals is a gross non-sequitur. Furthermore, I must point out how the government already intervenes, and in many cases, it is a welcome intervention.

Quite frankly, if parents had the freedom to do whatever they want with their children, there would be no need for child protective services. If parents could get away with doing whatever they want with their children by mere virtue that they are their children’s parents, then there would be no such thing as child abuse. Parents fed up with their children would be allowed to beat them limp, parents who felt like it could engage in sexual acts with their children, and if they wanted to, they could toss them into the bay. After all, they ARE the parents, and who is the government to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong?

No, sometimes the government does need to intervene; not all acts on a child are justified because a parent performs or endorses them.

This ban would infringe on parental choice and religious freedom
Directly related to what I have discussed above, this statement bemoans “government intervention,” and it seems to imply that an act is justified when it’s a “religious ritual.” The fact of the matter is that yes, even when it comes to religion, when it involves the abuse of children, the government can and does step in. Can snake handlers involve their children in their rituals? Can Jehovah’s Witnesses deny blood transfusions to their children? Can Muslims slash their children’s heads on the Day of Ashura? Can people where female circumcision is a custom have their daughters circumcised?

The fact of the matter is that there is already a federal ban on female circumcision, and there is no exception for “religious,” “traditional” or “cultural” reasons. Female circumcision is a custom in certain African tribes, and it is observed as “Sunnah” by Muslims all over the world, including different countries in Africa, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The federal ban criminalizes female circumcision in any way, shape or form, and it infringes on the “parental rights” and “religious freedoms” of people from these countries, and yet nobody seems to mind.

This anti-Semitic act is an attack on Jews
Because circumcision is a religious blood ritual central to Jewish identity, the proposal of this ban is already being pawned off as a deliberate act of anti-Semitism. This accusation might hold water, if the ban specifically banned Jews from circumcising their children. I must remind readers that in America circumcision isn’t exclusive to Jews. Only about 3% of all circumcisions that happen in this country are Jewish brisim performed by mohelim; the rest are secular circumcisions performed at hospitals.

Male and female circumcision are not the same
Somehow, advocates of male circumcision have managed to keep the thoughts “Female circumcision is mutilation” and “Male circumcision is religious, cultural tradition” in their heads simultaneously, albeit in different compartments. Whereas they give importance to “religious tradition” and studies that show circumcision might have “medical benefits” in male circumcision, female circumcision is condemned a priori.

“Male circumcision and female circumcision are not the same,” claim advocates, “because male circumcision is an important religious tradition.” “Female circumcision is meant to subjugate a woman, and control her sexuality, and anyway, male circumcision has health benefits.” Advocates of male circumcision go to great lengths to keep male and female circumcision separate in their heads, to maintain the harmony between venerating the same act as “religious tradition” and “prophylactic surgery” in males, while condemning it as “genital mutilation” in females. But closer examination reveals that none of these alibis actually hold any water.

While advocates of male circumcision defend male circumcision as “important religious tradition,” somehow it escapes them that female circumcision is also. While they condemn female circumcision because its purpose is to “subjugate women” and “diminish their sexuality,” actually, so was male circumcision. Rabbi Maimonides says in his Guide for the Perplexed that diminishing the male organ was precisely the whole reason behind circumcision, and John Harvey Kellogg marketed circumcision in America as a way to stop masturbation.

"...with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is... the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible...
The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision...
...violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened."
~Rabbi Moses Maimonides
"A remedy [for masturbation] which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision...The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind...In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement." ~Dr. John Harvey Kellogg

“Female circumcision,” claim some, “completely eliminates a woman’s ability to orgasm.” Most Americans accept without question that “female circumcision is so much worse than male circumcision, because it involves the complete excision of the clitoris, cutting off of the labia, and the sewing up of the vaginal opening to leave a small hole for menstruation,” and not much evidence is needed to substantiate these claims. The reality is much different however.

In reality, there are quite a few varieties of female circumcision, and not all of them involve the removal of the clitoris and/or the sewing up of the vaginal opening. The WHO divides the severity of female circumcision into four different categories. According to an article in the New York Times “A Cutting Tradition,” the kind of female circumcision most people in the West are familiar with is actually the rarest kind of female genital mutilation. Cutting off the clitoris, outer labia and sewing the remaining opening so that it heals together can be called “infibulation” or “pharaonic circumcision,” and it comprises of only 15% of all female circumcision globally. The rest isn’t as severe, and contrary to popular belief, even women who have undergone the worst kind of female circumcision are able to orgasm.
Believe it or not, female genital mutilation exists in the West, albeit not in the sense that most people think. There are surgeons that offer cosmetic surgery to women who would like to have their labia reduced, and/or completely removed, and/or remove their clitoral hoods. This is also female genital mutilation, but the difference is that when it happens in a clinic in the West, the procedures are euphemised in scientific terms. The reduction or complete removal of the labia is called "labiaplasty," and the removal of the clitoral hood is called "unroofing." Don't believe me? Google these terms. When it happens in the African bush to girls and women against their consent, these self-same procedures are condemned as "female genital mutilation." What makes them acceptable in the West is medically euphemising it, the same way we prefer to call the removal of the foreskin "circumcision." Additionally, and this is at the crux of the argument against male infant circumcision, women undergo these procedures out of their own volition.

Incidentally, "studies show" that labiaplasty can increase sexual satisfaction for both the woman and her partner.

From the site:
- The study found an overall satisfaction rate of 97.2% for women undergoing labiaplasty and clitoral hood reduction
- An overall satisfaction rate of 83% in women having a vaginal tightening procedure (vaginoplasty/perineoplasty), and 91.2% for women combining both “outer” and “inner” work
- Sexual satisfaction with 92.8% of women having both experienced improvement in their sexual satisfaction
- The data also revealed that those women undergoing vaginal tightening (vaginoplasty) reported an estimated 82.2% overall improvement in their partner’s sexual satisfaction as well.

Quite a contrast from what we're told, that female genital mutilation, nicely couched in clinical terms here, "reduces" or "elliminates" a woman's ability to orgasm.

Readers, please do not conflate my pointing out of the facts with wanting to justify female circumcision. I am against the forced genital mutilation of ALL sexes. My purpose is to underscore the blatant sexist double-think with which we often dismiss male infant genital mutilation. Often the justification for male infant circumcision is "it doesn't reduce or affect a man's sexuality like female circumcision does." I have just shown proof that female circumcision doesn't always deminish or elliminate a woman's sexuality. In fact, as shown above, "studies show" that it may actually IMPROVE it. The point that I'm trying to drive home is that the same alibis do not equally justify the forced genital modification of both sexes.

Female circumcision can range from infibulation to a simple prick to draw blood. Last year, in May, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) tried to endorse a “ritual nick” for girls. The idea behind this was that if a “ritual nick” were available here in the US, then parents would be less inclined to take their girls abroad to undergo more severe forms of female circumcision. The AAP itself admitted that the severity of the “ritual nick” would be dwarfed in comparison to male infant circumcision. The month of May did not pass before the AAP was forced to retract their statement. The world had spoken loud enough for the AAP to get the message; under no way shape or form will any doctor come near a girl’s genitals with a knife, not even for as much as a “ritual nick.”

Of course the list of “reasons” why male and female circumcision “aren’t the same” doesn’t end here. Female circumcision is supposed to be much much “worse” than male circumcision because it is performed on girls and women who are old enough to remember, it is performed in the bush, with no pain killers, by an amateur using dirty utensils like rusty razor blades and glass shards. In some cases, girls bleed to death. Of course, many boys and men are circumcised in pretty much the same way in those same exact countries. Every year, in South Africa, scores of young men die as a result of ritual circumcision, and many more lose their entire penises to gangrene, but this is accepted as “tradition.” Besides, in the West, baby boys are circumcised in pristine hospitals using sterile utensils by a professional. But would we accept circumcision in baby girls under these same circumstances? Are these acts universally acceptable when performed on infants that will be “too young to remember?” Or do these double-standards only apply to baby boys, and only when regarding circumcision?

It is often said "female circumcision is worse than male circumcision because it is performed in newborns, where they will be unable to remember." Actually, most Americans are unaware that in the Muslim and Filipino tradition, boys are circumcised at a much older age. They only know that female circumcision happens to girls and women...

Kurdish girl being circumcised

Muslim boy being circumcised

...but do they feel the same sympathy for the boy being circumcised not too far away?

In Indonesia, an infant girl undergoes circumcision to fulfill religious and cultural tradition.

Not too far away, an infant boy undergoes circumcision for precisely the same reasons. (Notice the mother: "Shh! Quiet!")

It is only through sexist double-think that we allow ourselves to feel disgust for only one of these pictures.

American readers may yet dilute themselves saying "babies who are circumcised as newborn boys, like we do here in the US, can't remember a thing." But does "not remembering" really make the act any more justifiable?

For readers who stomach it, I encourage you to visit these blogs. Here, parents in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore discuss their baby daughter's "sunat" pretty much the same way American parents talk about their son's circumcisions online. Here too, the subjects of permanent genital modification will also "not remember" what has happened to them.  But does this fact justify the act here? What is the list of things that you can do to a child because "s/he can't remember?" And isn't this, the taking advantage of the defenseless, the very definition of abuse?

Blog links here. CAUTION - Not for the squeamish:

Male circumcision has health benefits
When the undeniable equality of the situation begins to become unmistakably obvious, when "religious freedom" and "parental choice" begin to fail as alibis for permanent genital modification, the conversation inevitably has to be directed to all the potential “medical benefits,” however dubious they may be. Circumcision advocates start to talk about how “studies show” a circumcision “helps prevent” this or that disease. They will not talk about the controversies surrounding the studies, or the fact that even if they were without controversy, the “benefits” that circumcision affords are already easily attainable by means that don’t involve radical genital surgery.

Advocates are careful to mention that circumcision “reduces the risk of UTI,” but not that UTI is already more rare in boys than in girls, and it is easily treatable with antibiotics. They’ll mention that “studies show” that “circumcision reduces the risk of penile cancer,” but not that the rate is already 1 in 100,000 men that smoke and don’t practice good hygiene. (1 in 6 men will get prostate cancer; by this logic removing our children’s prostates is more urgent.)

Right now, the biggest anti-foreskin canard is the claim that circumcision “reduces the risk of HIV by 60%.” Circumcision activists parade the latest trials in Africa as circumcision’s ultimate vindication. They’ll never mention, however, the real world evidence. In other African countries, HIV was found to be more prevalent among circumcised men.

In the following African countries, HIV was found to be more prevalent among the circumcised:

Cameroon  table 16.9, p17 (4.1% v 1.1%)
Ghana table 13.9 (1.6% v 1.4%)
Lesotho table 12.9 (22.8% v 15.2%)
Malawi table 12.6, p257 (13.2% v 9.5%)
Rwanda  , table 15.11 (3.5% v 2.1%)
Swaziland  table 14.10 (21.8% v 19.5%)

According to USAID, "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 it is higher."

See also:
"Conclusions: We find a protective effect of circumcision in only one of the eight countries for which there are nationally-representative HIV seroprevalence data. The results are important in considering the development of circumcision-focused interventions within AIDS prevention programs."

"Results: ...No consistent relationship between male circumcision and HIV risk was observed in most countries."

According to Malaysian AIDS Council vice-president Datuk Zaman Khan, more than 70% of the 87,710 HIV/AIDS sufferers in the country are Muslims. In Malaysia the majority of the males in the Muslim population are circumcised, whereas circumcision is uncommon in the non-Muslim community. This means that HIV is spreading in the community where most men are circumcised at an even faster rate, than in the community where most men are intact.

In the 2010 Global AIDS report released by UNAIDS in late November, the Philippines was one of seven nations in the world which reported over 25 percent in new HIV infections between 2001 and 2009, whereas other countries have either stabilized or shown significant declines in the rate of new infections. Among all countries in Asia, only the Philippines and Bangladesh are reporting increases in HIV cases, with others either stable or decreasing.

Despite circumcision being near-universal, it hasn't stopped HIV transmission in Israel.

And circumcision advocates will conveniently forget to talk about the fact that circumcision hasn't stopped HIV in our own country.

And, it hasn't stopped other STDs either.

In America, the majority of the male population is circumcised, approximately 80%, while in most countries in Europe, circumcision is uncommon. Despite these facts, our country does poorly.

But here's the kicker: What if there were "studies" that said the kind of circumcision performed in say, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, "reduced" the likelihood of some disease? What if “studies showed” that female circumcision “reduced the risk of HIV transmission?” Would that make female circumcision in baby girls OK? Because there are few studies that show precisely this:

"Female circumcision results in a reduction of infections resulting from microbes gathering under the hood of the clitoris"
"Attacks of herpes and genital ulcers are less severe and less harmful with women who have been circumcised"


On the surface, circumcision advocates care about a myriad of "health benefits." Doctors that pretend to be on the fence often step back and say "circumcision has pros and cons, and it's up to parents to weigh them." But would they ever consider the "health benefits" of circumcising baby girls? Would doctors allow parents to "weigh the pros and cons" of female circumcision? And if parents felt that it was medically advantageous to have their daughter's labia and/or clitoral hood removed, would they be legally obliged to perform labiaplasties/unroofing in baby girls? Incidentally, apart from male infant circumcision, for what other non-theraputic surgery do doctors allow parents to make their own diagnosis and assessment?

WOULD we ever consider the "health benefits" of female circumcision? Would we ever be supportive of further "research" into the matter? WHY is it we're so interested in "studies" and "medical benefits" when it comes to male infant circumcision only?

Well what about abortion?
It seems circumcision advocates think they're very clever when bringing up the abortion debate. "You're so pro-choice, and you don't want the state telling you what to do with your body, yet you support government intervention when it comes to a parent's choice to circumcision?" - they ask, oblivious to the crux of the argument; banning male infant circumcision IS about choice, and it IS about the right to a person's body.

I've already talked about the limitations of "parental choice." The abortion debate is a red herring. The fact of the matter is neither side of the abortion debate can consistently argue in favor of circumcision. It is hypocritical to be for a child's "right to life," but not for the right to his genitals. It is inconsistent to be against chopping up a child in his mother's womb, but in favor of chopping him up as soon as he comes out. It is also hypocritical to apply "my body, my choice" to just the mother. Circumcision, is a personal choice, and at such, it belongs to the person in question. Healthy infant boys never "choose" this for themselves.

Well what about ear piercing?
What about it? I’m against the piercing of baby girls’ ears too, though I don't think piercing a child's ears can compare to cutting the ear off. If doctors were giving baby boys prince alberts, even without cutting off the foreskin, I'd still be against it. And if doctors were performing ear piercing and using "medical benefits" as a pretext, you can bet that I'd be at the front of that line.

Let’s talk about a similar cosmetic procedure that adults get, but that they have gotten in trouble for imposing them on children; in the recent past, parents have gone to court for tattooing their children. In one case in Fresno, CA, a father was taken to court for tattooing his street gang symbol onto his child’s abdomen. Infant circumcision was actually brought up as a parallel. If parents have the “right” to circumcise their (male) children, and the right to pierce their daughters’ ears, then doesn’t it follow that they should be allowed to tattoo their children?

No, said the courts.

It’s a non-issue!
Circumcision is a very touchy taboo subject. It’s sexual, dirty and vulgar, and bringing it up rouses people’s passions and emotions on either side. When it is brought up, people do what is within their power to put an end to the conversation and change the subject quickly. If male infant circumcision is this "non-issue" and "not a big deal," then why does it anger people so much to bring it up in conversation? The tension, passion and emotion that the mere mention of this subject arouses in people is manifest of what people actually think about the subject.

What I find amusing is how people try to minimize the situation. If people could "care less," then what's the big deal with ending the practice? In places where girls and women are circumcised, they don't think it's "such a big deal either." Just as men in this country say "I was circumcised, and I'm fine," so do the women in countries where female circumcision is practiced.

 A still from Bondo: A journey into Kono womanhood, a documentary by Sunju Ahmadu. Following an assertion by a Freetown-based Nigerin doctor and anti-FGM activist, that African women do not understand ‘wellness’ and think that sexual intercourse is only for reproduction, two young Kono girlfriends, one excised and one not, discuss their personal experiences and beliefs about whether excision affects sexual pleasure. The excised woman expresses confidence in her ability to experience complete and even greater sexual fulfilment than her unexcised friend, and reaffirms her pride in being a bondo initiate.

So men who are circumcised in child hood are "confident" in themselves. They feel they weren't violated, and can feel sex as good as the next guy, if not even "better." But if you go to countries where women are circumcised, so do the women. The sexist double-standard is that this "confidence" in having "gotten over" forced genital modification that happened such a long time ago, the minimizing of it into something that's "not such a big deal" can only be used to justify it in boys; only when it is done to girls is it considered "female genital mutilation," and this is not legitimized by adult women's sour grape attitude after the fact.

For better or for worse, female circumcision is also an important "rite of passage," and a "religious rite." Parents in countries where baby girls are circumcised say that it's "a little snip," and some even say that male circumcision is worse. But in this country, one parent's "freedom" is another parent's crime. The federal ban on FGM also infringes on "religious freedom" and "parental choice." Many decry the latest proposal in San Francisco as an "infringement on parental rights and religious freedoms." But how much do we care about those really?

Determined to justify their own religious practice and traditions, and blinded by their own cultural bias, circumcision advocates jump the "religious freedom and parental choice" ship, to the "medical benefits" life raft. But upon closer analysis we realize that that boat don't float either. "Studies show" that female circumcision might also have "medical benefits," but we don't seem to be interested in such "research." "Studies," it seems, only matter as far as justifying male circumcision goes.

Circumcision is a loaded topic, and under most other circumstances, the conversation gets shut down. Though it is a "non-issue" and most people are "over it," for whatever reason people would rather not talk about it. And this, I believe, is the true value of this proposed ban. The mere proposition of putting a ban on circumcision on the ballot has gotten this country buzzing. News outlets all over the nation are picking it up, and perhaps for the first time in history, the people of this country are being forced to question their own cultural values.

I do not delude myself; I know that  this ban will never pass, not the way things stand now. But at the very least, it is forcing this country to confront a double-standard that they have been ignoring for so long.

Bottom line
The foreskin is not a birth defect. Nor is it a congenital deformity or a genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. The foreskin is normal, healthy tissue found in all males at birth.

Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of healthy, non-consenting individuals is a deliberate wound; it is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue, the permanent disfigurement of normal, healthy organs, and by very definition, infant genital mutilation.

Doctors have absolutely no business performing surgery in healthy, non-consenting individuals, much less giving their parents any kind of "choice."

1 comment:

  1. Well said! I would just like to point out that "San Francisco Circumcision Ban" is a bit of a misnomer. The proposed bill would forbid forced genital cutting. There would be no ban on an adult choosing circumcision for himself.