Circumcision: A Human Rights Issue
By Anna Olson
On the subject of circumcision, I admit to a bias: I am opposed to the routine circumcision of baby boys.
I didn't always feel this way. Twenty-seven years ago, I gave permission for my son to be circumcised because his father had been, and my obstetrician said it was best done for hygiene reasons.
Then, a few years ago, when I was editor of The New Age Connection, an ad crossed my desk from ETHIC (End the Horror of Circumcision). Horror? What horror? My son didn't suffer -- did he? As I looked into the matter, I grew increasingly appalled that I had unthinkingly sacrificed my son to tradition and medical dogma. As a result of my research, I wrote "Circumcision: Why fool with Mother Nature?" which appeared in NAC in the spring of 1990. Now, as editor of The Aquarian I again hope to present convincing arguments to persuade parents to leave their baby boys intact.
"My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone." Benjamin Spock, M.D. (All inserted quotes are from the book Say No to Circumcision by Thomas J. Ritter, M.D.)
As a reluctant celebrity, Dr. John Taylor was drawn into the anti-circumcision limelight by my first article. His rise to fame began when I reported on his anatomical study of the oft cut up and thrown away foreskin. When anti-circumcision conference organizers in the United States read the article, they knew Dr. Taylor was their man. He has now presented his study to two conferences and expects to be asked to do more.
When I met with Dr. Taylor recently, he joked with me about his unsought-for notoriety. "It's unusual for a pathologist to do an anatomical study on healthy tissue," he said. "I get teased with 'here comes the penis doctor' comments at the hospital." Taylor did this study in his spare time, not through his job as heart pathologist at the Health Sciences Centre. But he's willing to bear the teasing. "Circumcision is a most unnecessary operation," he says. "I now see it as a human rights issue." He has even appeared on the Peter Warren radio show twice to try to convince Winnipeg parents and doctors of the value of an intact foreskin.
If there had been anatomical studies on the foreskin (or "prepuce" in proper medical terms), Dr. Taylor wouldn't have ventured into this delicate area. The problem for him arose when his pregnant daughter and her husband were discussing the possibility of circumcision if the baby were a boy. Coming from a family of four "intact" boys, Dr. Taylor had an emotional preference to leave nature alone. He searched the medical literature, but couldn't find scientific material to support his opinion.
Hence the study, "The Prepuce: Organ of Touch." In it, Dr. Taylor and a colleague studied the prepuces of fifteen male cadavers. They detailed the type of skin, blood supply, mucosa and nerve endings present in the prepuce. Because of the specialized nerve endings which become exposed to the source of friction when the penis is erect, Dr. Taylor concluded that the prepuce was more than just a little flap of skin to be thoughtlessly discarded. In fact, he came to regard the glans (the bulbous end of the penis), which most people feel is the more sensitive part of the penis, as a relatively "dumb" organ in contrast to the prepuce. Dr. Taylor suggests that when it comes to the senses of light touch, heat, cold and pin prick -- the prepuce, with its elaborate nerve supply, is as sensitive as the glans, if not more so. As well, specialized nerves in the prepuce may help men to achieve orgasm, Dr. Taylor adds.
Dr. Taylor's study settled the matter for his daughter and son-in-law. Their intact son is now ten years old and doing fine.
"Circumcision removes a piece of skin almost equivalent to a 3 x 5 inch index card." Dr. Thomas J. Ritter
Bettie Malofie, another Winnipegger profiled in the first article, wasn't concerned about the damage to male sexuality when she founded the Winnipeg Chapter of ETHIC in 1989. Her concern was the extreme pain a baby boy suffers when the foreskin is cut, clamped, crushed and removed. The day after her son was born in a Winnipeg hospital, Malofie heard unusual screaming in a room down the hall. She asked a nurse what was wrong and was told, "That's just a baby boy being circumcised." Months went by and even though her own boy was intact and developing normally, the memory of the other baby's screams haunted her. She read all she could on circumcision and decided this was a barbaric practice she wanted to help end.
Today, Bettie Malofie is still mailing out anti-circumcision information at her own expense to anyone who request it. "That first article in The New Age Connection got the ball rolling," she told me. "ETHIC got about 100 requests for information in the ten months after it was printed." And Malofie's not ready to give up yet. "Approximately 3000 baby boys are circumcised each year in Manitoba," she says. "That's about 30 percent of the male newborn population."
When I asked Malofie if she approves of circumcision when it's medically necessary, she was reluctant to give wholehearted approval. "In my opinion, circumcision for medical reasons should be performed on an unconsenting child only as a last resort," she said. "If a pediatrician, urologist, homeopath, acupuncturist and naturopath all are convinced that surgery is the only method of treating balanitis (inflammation of the glans), phimosis (narrowness of the opening of the prepuce), recurrent urinary tract infections or any other problem, only then is the surgery truly indicated."
Ironically, medical problems of the penis are often caused by parents, doctors or other caregivers mistakenly trying to retract the foreskin before it's ready. "Just leave it alone," says Malofie. "Wash the outside of the penis, but don't try to pull the foreskin back." The foreskin, apparently, is fused to the glans in infancy and it gradually loosens so that the boy can pull it back without causing himself pain by 10 to 12 years of age.
"Complications of 'routine' newborn circumcisions are grossly underreported. The medical literature does report the major mutilations, the major hemorrhages, and the major infections. However, many males who are left with a deformed gland or a meatus (opening) too small or an insensitive glans have never been counted."
Paul M. Fleiss, M.D., M.P.H.
Men who feel violated by circumcision are banding together in increasing numbers to try to halt what they see as child sexual abuse. In the U.S., NOHARMM (National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males) founder Tim Hammond issued the following warning at a rally: "We are tired of seeing parents misled by doctors. We men are tired of being lied to and ignored by doctors on this issue. As men who were circumcised as infants and who live with the long term physical and psychological consequences of a surgery we did not choose, we have a right and responsibility to speak up about a practice we know has harmed and continues to harm others. Men will no longer be silent!"
Picketing medical conventions, irate men carry placards with messages such as: No medical excuse for genital mutilation. Our bodies, our rights, our choice! Circumcision is where sex and violence meet for the first time. Circumcision is infant sexual abuse! Would you circumcise your dog?
Some of the men speaking out have been circumcised as adults and know the difference between sex with and without a foreskin. Dr. Thomas Ritter quotes such a man in his book, Say No to Circumcision! "J.T." was in the army and developed a skin disorder on his penis for which his doctor recommended a small operation. When the patient awoke from the anesthetic, he found he had been circumcised. After he recovered, J.T. discovered he had lost more than "just a piece of skin."
"Slowly the area (glans) lost its sensitivity," J.T. writes, "and as it did, I realized I had lost something rather vital. Stimuli that had previously aroused ecstasy had relatively little effect. The acute sensitivity never returned: something rather precious to a sensual hedonist had been lost forever. Circumcision destroys a very joyful aspect of the human experience for both males and females."
"Ironically, the historic record demonstrates that the original circumcision practised by the Jews was quite moderate compared to either modern Jewish or "medical" circumcision." Thomas J. Ritter, M.D.
For most Jews, circumcision is a religious rights issue for adults, not a human rights issue for babies. The Jewish religion states that by fulfilling the commandment of circumcision, every person has an opportunity to bring a sacrifice to the Almighty. The Brith Milah (bris) is an extremely sacred religious ceremony.
But even this fortress of Jewish tradition is being attacked by Jews who value the rights of the baby over the religious rights of the parents. Edward Wallerstein was initially pleased that so many gentiles were adopting the Jewish practice of circumcision. But when he looked into the subject, he changed his mind. The book that resulted -- Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy -- is now a classic in the anti-circumcision literature.
Moshe Rothenberg is another Jew who is speaking out against circumcision. A social worker for the New York City Board of Education, Rothenberg presented his arguments at an International Symposia on Circumcision in favour of revising the Jewish ritual of circumcision. "Circumcision is child abuse. It is medically unnecessary," he wrote in the conference program. "It is a poor way to introduce a newborn male into the world and into the Jewish community. It completely excludes females from participation in a sacred ritual (thank God), but the result is a lessening of respect."
Rothenberg is among many Jews who are replacing circumcision with a baby-naming ceremony of the eighth day for both boys and girls. The rabbi, family and friends are present, but no knife is wielded!
In the United States, Jewish parents wishing to keep their baby boys intact have banded together to form the Alternative Bris Support Group (P.O. Box 1305, Capitola, CA 95010-1305). Helen Bryce, the contact person for this volunteer group, writes: "Based on our understanding of Judaism and the history of circumcision, we feel we have valid Jewish reasons to reject circumcision." The info packet she sends out deals with issues of pain to the baby, altered sexual response of the circumcised adult, children's versus parent's rights, and also information from the Encyclopedia Judaica and the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The best part may be examples of the baby-naming ceremonies so that parents can fulfill the emotional and religious aspect provided by the Brith Milah.
"Often the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it." Mark Twain
Female circumcision: now that's bad. When federal justice minister Allan Rock bristled at African immigrants for wanting to circumcise their girl children, he probably had the support of most Canadians. He informed the immigrants that female circumcision was illegal.
I picture the interchange going something like this:
Rock: Female circumcision is a form of sexual mutilation and Canada as a civilized country can't allow that.
Immigrants: But you allow male circumcision for religious and hygenic reasons. We just want equal rights. Circumcision is part of our religion and we feel women are cleaner when circumcised.
Rock: But your kind of circumcision is extreme. You cut out the clitoris, remove the outer genitalia and stitch the child up so she has to remain a virgin until she marries. In Canada, we just allow the male foreskin to be removed.
Immigrants: Yes, but our women are happy. Often it is older women who perform the circumcision. And the men like it this way too. In Canada, fathers want their sons to look like them, and men who are circumcised become doctors who circumcise other males. Besides, it doesn't seem to bother you that some groups are describing infant male circumcision as genital mutilation. It is still quite legal. We want the same rights.
Rock: Uh, well, mmmmm.....never mind. You can't circumcise your daughters and that's that!
"Even an uncircumcised man with a bad technique is more satisfying to me than the best circumcised lover. You get that double motion action with an uncircumcised man. It's the best." Woman caller on a radio talk show
In the adult male's penis, the foreskin represents close to 36 percent of the total amount of the skin surface. Is there any justification for its removal in infancy?
Advocates of circumcision claim fewer urinary tract infections in young boys and a reduced risk of penile cancer and AIDS in adults. These are not conclusive findings and arguments can be made about the flawed nature of some of the studies. My feeling is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." A newborn male's foreskin is a healthy, natural part of him -- in fact, a baby boy born without a foreskin is labelled as having a birth defect!
I believe cleanliness, good diet and safe sex can go further towards preventing the above illnesses than circumcision can.
And when you consider the physical and mental suffering imposed on the baby though circumcision, I agree with Dr. Spock when he says, "I would leave the little penis alone."
Anna Olson is a freelance writer and editor living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Reprint requests welcome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.