Voters in Two California Cities Asked to Ban Male Circumcision Based on Scientifically Inaccurate Claims


In my parents’ living room, there is a special section on the bookshelf that, were one to label it, might be called, “books by our family” or “books we wrote.”  It’s a small section; just three deep. It contains the children’s book my mother wrote in 1969 (Nicholas, a now-inappropriate tale of a young boy riding the subway alone and getting lost), Predictable Pairings (a psychological profile of marriages by my grandfather), and Preventing V.D. and Cancer by Circumcision, which was written by my great-grandfather, Abraham Ravich. Now I admit that while I felt some sort of family pride (and have always hoped to add my own tome to the shelf), I haven’t read them all. I can quote Nicholas, but I only got as far the dedication in my grandfather’s book (it is, in part, dedicated to my sister and me), and haven’t even cracked open the book on circumcision, so what I know about it is second or third hand.

My great-grandfather was a urologist in Brooklyn in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. To hear my family tell it, many of his patients were Jewish immigrants and he observed that they had a lower rate of what was then called V.D. (now I suppose STDs or STIs) and prostate cancer.  He theorized that circumcision played a role in these reduced rates.  I have to admit, it never struck me as particularly interesting and it never occurred to me that it would be quite controversial but as my mother says, you learn something new every day. Today, in writing this story, I learned that in some circles Poppy Abe (whose formal portrait now hangs in my downstairs bathroom) is considered a “zealot” who “invented” the claims of a cancer connection to advance the practice of male circumcision.

In fact, there is a growing movement against male circumcision which activists (who like to use the term “intactivists”) call “male genital mutilation.” Activists in California collected over 7,100 signatures in order to get a new initiative on the November ballot in San Francisco that would ban the practice of male circumcision within the city limits.  They argue that the procedure is medically unnecessary and say that they hope this initiative is the start of a wave of laws on this issue.  Matthew Hess, the author of the San Francisco measure and a similar measure slated for Santa Monica’s November 2012 ballot, explained: “The end goal for us is making cutting boys’ foreskin a federal crime.”

Jena Troutman is also advocating for the ballot initiative. Ms. Troutman, who is the mother of two boys, runs a website called wholebabyrevolution.com. She explains that through her activism she is just trying to “save little babies” from a procedure that “can do serious damage.”  Ms. Troutman apparently approaches pregnant women on the beach to warn them of the dangers of circumcision. 

In truth, there are few dangers in circumcision. A study conducted by SDI Health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010 found that there was very low rate of complications associated with newborn circumcisions, that most complications were considered mild, and that no babies died. The claims that male circumcision is akin to female genital mutilation are also refuted by many.  Dr. David Baron, a family physician, certified mohel (someone who performs Jewish ritual circumcision), and former chief of staff at Santa Monica-U.C.L.A., told the New York Times that that he viewed the effort to ban the procedure as “ridiculous and dishonest.” He added: “to say it is mutilation is wrong from the get-go.”

There is also new research that suggests my great-grandfather may not have been all that far off when he said that circumcision could prevent V.D. and cancer. Based on scientific evidence, male circumcision is now being promoted in Africa as one of the most important ways to prevent HIV. And, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on a new research study that suggested the male foreskin could be a reservoir for HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and is responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. 

That said, there is not enough evidence for medical experts to suggest routine circumcisions of male infants in this country. As the American Pediatric Association explains:

“Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. In circumstances in which there are potential benefits and risks, yet the procedure is not essential to the child’s current well-being, parents should determine what is in the best interest of the child.”  

If voters in San Francisco and elsewhere pass measures like this, however, parents will not have a choice. Moreover, these measures do not contain any religious exemptions despite the fact that to many—Jews and Muslims in particular—circumcision is a religious ritual of the utmost importance.  As Brad Greenberg of the godblog.org explains 

“This custom is as old as Judaism itself. Commanded by God to a 99-year-old Abraham, circumcision was to signify fidelity to the Lord. It has been a central part of Jewish tradition ever since, so much so that even Yom Kippur—the holiest of holidays—doesn’t delay the circumcision of an infant.” 

In fact, some have gone as far as to call the ballot measures themselves anti-Semitic and likened them to bans on circumcision that existed in Soviet-era Russia and Eastern Europe and in ancient Roman and Greek times.

Even without such bans, however, the “intactivists,” may be making more progress than we realize as rates of circumcision are dropping all over the United States.  While over 90 percent of infant males in the United States were circumcised in the 1970s this was down to 64 percent in 1995 and just 33 percent in 2009. 

I wonder what Poppy Abe would think?

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner

  • ahunt

    Jury’s locked. We left it to our sons, all those years ago. 3 of 3…with no feedback.

     

    There are some places…a mother shouldn’t go.

  • prochoiceferret

    What’s wrong with letting young men weigh the pros and cons of circumcision themselves, and choose to undergo it (or not) once they turn 18?

     

    Getting a tattoo is a heck of a lot more reversible than cutting off a highly-innervated part of the body, and yet we wouldn’t dream of doing that to a minor unable to give legally recognizable consent.

     

    Yeah, VDs, HPVs, and BLTs. I hear condoms work pretty well for those. And it’s not like there isn’t anything to say for the supposed sex-related benefits of keeping one’s foreskin.

     

    As for Judaism, the Reform branch is pretty progressive on a lot of stuff. I would think they’d see a value in having men choose the bris (and the faith) for themselves when they are man enough to do so.

     

    Am I the only one who sees the practice of this being done on newborn infants and defended with appeals to Parental Rights(tm) and Longstanding Tradition(tm) and debatable epidemiological benefits that aren’t even applicable prior to sexual debut (which is usually not that long before legal adulthood) to be one freaking holy hell of a huge ethical blind spot in an otherwise progressive reproductive-health community??

  • crowepps

    There is NO MEDICAL NECESSITY motivating this surgery.  In my personal opinion, considering the rare cases that occur in which complications of the circumcision end up mutilating the penis to the point where it has to be removed entirely, it is ridiculous to do this sort of cosmetic surgery on infants.  In the United States a minimum of 15 and perhaps as many as 117 infants die entirely unnecessarily from various rare complications of circumcision every year.  For comparision purposes, approximately 110 infants die of SIDS annually.

  • ahunt

    What’s wrong with letting young men weigh the pros and cons of circumcision themselves, and choose to undergo it (or not) once they turn 18?

     

    Nothing.

     

    There is NO MEDICAL NECESSITY motivating this surgery.

     

    We had no pressure from either side of the family, but you would be surprised how often the issue is a contentious matter in families. I’ve made it a point not to have a public opinion, but that should probably change.

     

     

  • beenthere72

    It’s a contentious issue in my family.  My parents were very upset that my brother-in-law was against having my nephew circumsized. 

  • crowepps

    I’m aware it’s a contentious issue.  I did not plan on having my son circumsized and my husband threw a huge flaming fit and insisted because, and I quote, “do you want all the other kids to think he’s some kind of weirdo?”  That was 40 years ago.  I still think it’s stupid.  Most people are literally risking their child’s life for no better reason than “everybody does it”.

  • prochoiceferret

    Good to see I’m not the only one.

     

    The laws being proposed do not even “ban circumcision” outright, only its practice on minors and “nonconsenting adults” when not medically necessary, in fact amending existing language concerning female genital mutilation. There is no argument whatsoever that I can see made against this proposal that doesn’t completely miss the point of consent.

     

    The only thing I can fault the “intactivists” on is failing to get like-minded Jewish figures and groups on board. There’s a lot of historical baggage attached to circumcision, obviously, and it’s a little bone-headed to go about a legal measure like this without some serious groundwork to address that.

     

    In any event, I think that in a few decades’ time, this sort of legalese will be the standard nationwide, and people will cringe at the idea that circumcision was ever a routine, “everybody does it” practice.

  • ahunt

    Lemme get this straight…you just had a baby and your husband threw a huge flaming fit?  AFTER you had just had a baby?

     

    Yah. 

     

    Possibly it is less of an issue in highly rural areas…and I’m not going into further detail…

     

     

  • crowepps

    My son was born in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  In 1971, you made the arrangements for the circumcision in advance, which enabled him to throw the fit in advance, while I was still pregnant.  That husband pretty much specialized in huge flaming fits full of whines about how he was entitled to have everyone around him ensure things were done his way, like a 30-year old toddler, which is why I later divorced him.

  • ahunt

    Big Surprise.

  • crowepps

    The Terminator of Sensibility?  Maybe I shouldn’t have quit smoking, apparently it’s making me cranky.

     

    Got to say, though, it changes the tone of the whole discussion if you open by saying, “You’ll probably be one of the lucky ones whose kid doesn’t die and ends up still having a penis afterwards.  The odds are in your favor!  And, hey, you can always have ANOTHER son if things go wrong.”

  • crowepps

    He was certainly astonished.  He told all his relatives I must be having a nervous breakdown.  More like a break OUT.  Snerk.

  • crowepps

    If you don’t mind me asking, who carried the day?  Your nephew’s father (and your nephew) or the grandparents?

  • beenthere72

    Nephew’s father.    They’re divorcing now because he’s a cheating bastard so no cheering for him. 

  • crowepps

    Huzzah for your nephew, though!

  • beenthere72

    Matthew Hess has made them out to be the bad guys:

     

    http://www.foreskinman.com/characters.htm  (loads very slowly)

     

    I found that here:  http://abovethelaw.com/2011/06/circumcision-anti-semitism-and-you/   (amusing!)

     

    Santa Monica just pulled it off the ballot, apparently:

     

    http://www.jewishjournal.com/bloggish/item/santa_monica_circumcision_ban_ballot_measure_withdrawn_20110606/

  • crowepps

    How come the Jews are supposed to be the bad guys?  About 75% of American men are circumcized.  Since only 2.5% of the population is Jewish, I don’t think everything can be blamed on them.

     

    Personal rant:  I am sure sick and tired of the meme that “the Jews are secretly controlling EVERYTHING — teh HORROR!”.  If 2.5% of the population actually was CAPABLE of secretly controlling everything, they would deserve to do so.

  • prochoiceferret

    Matthew Hess has made them out to be the bad guys:

     

    Someone get this guy a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Not Shooting Yourself in the Foot. Now in its third printing, with a foreword by Anthony Weiner!

     

    Oh, and a couple of links that he probably should have perused early in the game:

     

    http://www.beyondthebris.com/

    http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/

  • beenthere72

    I hear that rant often, sadly.    I wish I knew these particular Jews as I’d like a piece of the action.  

  • daisy

    The connection between circumcision and transmission of HIV and HPV is interesting to be sure, and I’ve been reading abstracts and ScienceDaily summaries as they come out. I’m still curious whether an adult can choose circumcision and enjoy the (possibly) lowered risks after their penis heals.

     

    Cosmetic procedures like this, done on a baby, make me ooky. The Bioethics Committee for the American Pediatrics Society says that non-essential surgeries on minors should be postponed until they can give consent. (1995.) Why does circumcision fall outside of this purview? Surely they won’t be in the position to need the protection until puberty! (On that note, why not install some reversible clips on their vas deferens while you’re down there? Then they couldn’t get anyone knocked up, either!) At least the HPV vaccine is recommended for people at the age to understand complete sentences and direct questions.

     

    As ProChoiceFerrett points out, this pro-infant-circumcision stance is quite out of place in a progressive reproductive health community that staunchly supports bodily autonomy. Right now, it sounds like you’re writing from a place of personal affront. I’m curious whether your opposition of the bills stems from pure scientific precedence, or familial nostalgia. If it’s both, then at least sit down and read your great-grandfather’s book.

  • progo35

    I’ll say what’s wrong with waiting for the child to make the decision on his or her own: circumcism is far more PAINFUL and TRAUMATIC for older people than it is for babies who are properly anesthetized and who don’t know anything different growing up. Moreover, Crowepps, you are okay with Baby Doe’s parents killing her by witholding a simple corrective surgery, because she had down syndrome, but you’re not okay with parents making the choice to remove a piece of skin from their son’s penis? Also, if the 117 deaths make a procedure ridiculous, esp. an unnecessary one, than I guess late term abortion is also ridiculous, since thousands of well developed fetuses are killed via such procedures every year.

  • anonymous99

    Martha,

     

    I haven’t seen anyone advocating the abolishment of circumcision.  The only question is should we allow men 18 and over to decide for themselves if they want to be circumcised.  Shouldn’t it be his choice?

     

    BTW modern mass circumcision of infants is a relatively new practice.  One of the proponents, Dr. Kellog believed it would prevent masturbation.  This is the true nature of the reasons behind modern male circumcision.  There is simply no medical benefit to the procedure and the risks ARE real.

     

    Sorry, but you’ve wildly missed the mark on this one.  When you’re on the same side as ancient religious customs like circumcision, stoning, marriage, sacrifices, etc. you might want to rethink your position.

  • anonymous99

    You are so right crowepps!

     

    Folks, mass circumcision of baby boys is a very recent phenomenon meant to stop masturbation and sexual urges.  It’s really a kooky procedure, established by kooks like Dr. Kellogg.

     

    From Wikipedia:

    “Kellogg worked on the rehabilitation of masturbators, often employing extreme measures, even mutilation, on both sexes. He was an advocate of circumcising young boys to curb masturbation and applying phenol (carbolic acid) to a young woman’s clitoris. In his Plain Facts for Old and Young,[7] he wrote

    A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. 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, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.

    and

    In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid [phenol] to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.

    He also recommended, to prevent children from this “solitary vice”, bandaging or tying their hands, covering their genitals with patented cages, sewing the foreskin shut and electrical shock.[7]

    In his Ladies’ Guide in Health and Disease, for nymphomania, he recommended

    Cool sitz baths; the cool enema; a spare diet; the application of blisters and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, the removal of the clitoris …
  • anonymous99

    “…one freaking holy hell of a huge ethical blind spot in an otherwise progressive reproductive-health community??”

     

    Yes.  Thank you.   On the whole, I think rhrc is a great site.  But there just might be some other “blind spots” here – be on the lookout. 

  • prochoiceferret

    I’ll say what’s wrong with waiting for the child to make the decision on his or her own: circumcism is far more PAINFUL and TRAUMATIC for older people than it is for babies who are properly anesthetized and who don’t know anything different growing up.

     

    Hey, I’m sure amputating a leg is a lot less painful and traumatic when the person is a baby and doesn’t know anything different growing up, too!

     

    Also, if the 117 deaths make a procedure ridiculous, esp. an unnecessary one, than I guess late term abortion is also ridiculous, since thousands of well developed fetuses are killed via such procedures every year.

     

    No, actually, it’s your equating of terminated pregnancies and medical-procedure deaths, and your use of the word “unnecessary” in close proximity with “late term abortion” that’s ridiculous. But then, we wouldn’t expect any differently from you.

  • progo35

    PCF, why do you begin your posts with “dook dook dook dook…”? Do you think it makes you sound intelligent? Because it sounds like an infant making burbling noises.

  • prochoiceferret

    PCF, why do you begin your posts with “dook dook dook dook…”? Do you think it makes you sound intelligent?

     

    No, it makes me sound like a ferret that’s having fun. And I am!

     

    Because it sounds like an infant making burbling noises.

     

    Infants are not very ferret-like.

  • hans18

    Why is this a thing done to a baby? The person can not even have a word to what is happening? He has to live with it and it is not reversible.  So let the person decide, that is not a decision for someone else.

  • lilithe-magdalene

    “Moreover, these measures do not contain any religious exemptions despite the fact that to many—Jews and Muslims in particular—circumcision is a religious ritual of the utmost importance. “

     

    Hey, guess what – religious explanation is what Muslim Africans have used for female genital mutilation – does that make it OK? Freedome of Religion has it’s limits when it comes to hurting beings. Especially such small and helpless ones.

  • lilithe-magdalene

    Moreover, these measures do not contain any religious exemptions despite the fact that to many—Jews and Muslims in particular—circumcision is a religious ritual of the utmost importance.”

    Hey, guess what – religious explanation is what Muslim Africans have used for female genital mutilation – does that make it OK? Freedom of Religion has it’s limits when it comes to hurting beings. Especially such small and helpless ones.