Working to Outlaw Infant and Child Circumcision – A Wise Strategy, or Not?

As an intactivist, I have always described my goal as putting an end to the genital cutting of babies and children who cannot consent. I see this work as incremental, consisting of advocacy, persuasion, education, reason, and – yes – confrontation, such as Intact America’s recent Put Down The Knife! campaign aimed at physicians.

Events that occurred earlier this year in San Francisco, however,  made me think seriously about whether I believed “circumcision should be outlawed” – in other words, whether I would support a legislative ban on “routine” (medically unnecessary) circumcision of male infants and children. While most Americans abhor the very thought of female genital mutilation, many simply don’t know that there is a federal law that already prohibits even the most minor cutting of the genitals of a girl under the age of 18. The proposed San Francisco ban was modeled exactly on that “anti-FGM” legislation.

Intact America has not advocated for a legislative ban on circumcision – yet.  I believe that before we can reasonably expect routine infant male circumcision to be outlawed, we need greater social and political consensus that it is harmful, and the political power to overcome interest groups who promote their right to carry out the procedure. In the meantime, Intact America and the intactivist movement in general are moving public opinion and parents’ awareness, in the direction of more and more boys being left intact. As this occurs, and as knowledge of the harms of circumcision spreads, we will come closer to the conditions needed to achieve a gender-neutral approach to the genital cutting of children.

However, this doesn’t mean that I wasn’t really impressed and really excited when Lloyd Schofield and others gathered enough signatures in San Francisco to get a limited circumcision ban onto the ballot in that city.  Predictable media comments on “those kooky San Franciscans” aside, I thought it was awesome that this local initiative raised the visibility of the circumcision problem to national – and actually international – prominence.

Was there backlash? Of course!  And some intactivists have said that the opposition by physicians and religious groups, which ultimately resulted in the measure being stricken from the ballot, means that the initiative was “premature” or – worse – a setback to the progress we have made in recent years.

But I see it differently. I think the backlash is a mark of our progress. The other side is afraid, because they know we are winning, and that their professed right to cut the genitals of babies is being challenged as never before.

Abolitionists didn’t wait for the slaveholders’ permission to call for an end to slavery. Suffragists didn’t wait for women to be recognized as men’s equals before advocating for the right to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t ask if it was ok for him to have a dream of racial equality.

Intactivists do not need anybody’s permission to talk about the American promise of equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, and why permitting the genital cutting of boys belies that promise.

In a future post, I will talk about challenges that arise in crafting a ban on male child circumcision – in particular, the charge that such a ban would conflict with another American principle: the right to religious freedom.

Stay tuned!

Georganne Chapin