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The Problem with a Religious Exemption to an Anti-Circumcision Ban

As I discussed in a previous post, events that occurred earlier this year in San Francisco made me question whether I would support a legal ban on the medically unnecessary circumcision of male infants and children. The answer is yes, though I think a great deal of public opinion-changing will need to occur before any legislative ban has a chance of passing.

The backlash against the ballot measure brought together an interesting coalition of doctors and religious rights organizations. The former claimed the measure would interfere with their right to practice medicine (actually, there was a state preemption issue which alone would have probably killed the municipal law). The latter claimed that the proposed bill was the equivalent of “hate speech,” driven by anti-Semitism, and so deeply divisive that to allow San Franciscans to vote on it would be “dangerous.” They also claimed that interfering with infant circumcision would interfere with the religious freedom of Muslims and Jews.

As a result of the backlash, some intactivists expressed the opinion that perhaps any future proposed legislation should contain a “religious exemption.” I could not disagree more.

For one thing, nobody arguing for their religious freedom to cut babies is saying that they would support a ban on medical circumcision of minors so long as it provided a religious exemption.

Additionally, there are practical considerations. Who, exactly, would be entitled to the religious exemption? Only Jews and Muslims? How “Jewish” would parents have to be?  Would they have to observe Jewish dietary laws? Attend synagogue regularly? Or just say – as a Jewish friend of mine, married to a Greek Orthodox man, did – “If I had a son, I would have to circumcise him, because otherwise my mother would freak out when she changed his diaper.” Would Christians also be allowed the religious exemption if they took the position, as I have heard often from callers when I do radio interviews, “It’s in the Bible”?

The real issue, dwarfing the practical and legal problems of defining and setting the boundaries of a religious exemption, is that we cannot bargain away the rights of a child – any child.  If we believe – as I do – that to circumcise a child is to violate his most fundamental personal right to autonomy and to an open future, if we believe that circumcision is an assault and battery when conducted on a person who did not and cannot consent, then how can “we” through legal means or a policy statement, grant an exemption allowing certain children to be assaulted?  How can we say, “Circumcision is a brutal violation on a child who cannot consent,” and then say, “but it’s ok to cut some babies, if their parents’ religion recommends it”?

For those who accuse intactivists of anti-Semitism, I have this to say. Roughly two percent of the U.S. population is Jewish, and the birth rate among American Jews is reportedly low. Increasing numbers of Jews are choosing not to circumcise, and among those who do, many have their sons circumcised by doctors in hospitals, a practice that carries no religious significance. So the number of ritual circumcisions carried out in this country is no more than a few thousand each year. Isn’t it rather absurd to suggest that an entire movement to protect children’s rights is based on the hatred of a religious group responsible for a fraction of one percent of the one million infant circumcisions performed in the United States each year? The intactivist movement has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with protecting children – all children –  from harm.

The real issue is, whose rights – to autonomy, to religious freedom, to bodily integrity, to safety and security of person – does child circumcision violate? The baby’s rights, of course.

Babies have no religious opinions, and to allow somebody else – parent, mohel, doctor – to remove part of their genitals, to mark their bodies with a permanent scar where that normal, natural body part used to be, precludes their own rights to make a choice in the future.

Georganne Chapin



    • dave bradt

      December 6, 2011 10:29 pm

      The US would not allow Utah to become a state as long the Mormons practiced Polygamy. We recognize limits on religious rights.

      • jimfromcalif

        December 7, 2011 6:56 pm

        White this may be true, it was an overstepping of national control over the state to impose such a ruling. The original intent was for the states to have sovereignty over most issues, including religiously held beliefs.

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:55 pm

      To a degree, you are correct. The US Constitution grants the states the rights to oversee religious practices. While contemporary court interpretations see the law differently from the original intent, practice in effect at the time of our countries founding did indeed include the regulation of religiously held beliefs in the practice of government. For example, many early states allowed only professed Christians to hold office. Reference was made to other beliefs, so it was not a matter of ignorance of them.

  • Gregory Tutko

    December 6, 2011 11:08 am

    I totally agree with your statements in this post. To use religious excuses ignores that no where in the Koran is circumcision imposed on Islam’s children. It is totally cultural with them. As for the Jewish community, the last burnt offering of bullocks on the altars was done away with 2000 years age and Judaism has not disapeared from the Earth, nor are people stoned for working on the sabbath. So the excuse that things Jewish are unchangeable because the Bible says so are totally false. Why continue a practice instituted among nomadic shepherds in the deserts of Africa several thousand years ago as being reasonable for the 21st century. Notice that Christians no longer burn heretics and witches at the stake as they once did. Religions change because change is universal law.

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:48 pm

      According to scripture, we no longer live under Jewish law. We are in the age of grace.

  • Artificial Truth

    December 6, 2011 11:28 am

    As an intact man, I know how important and integral the foreskin is to my sexual organ. More over, what I know and what other people know, people that have never had a prepuce or seen, touched or experimented with one is a whole different story. I asked my brother in law, whom is cut, and he responded that he’s fine and never had a problem. Thats why the circumcisers (poachers, as I call them) are so adamant about continuing this procedure on humans that can’t defend themselves, they can’t speak for themselves, they are completely dependent on the people to which they have been born in to. If these babies were given the freedom to choose (supposedly under the American Constitution every man has certain unalienable rights) this practice would disappear. So as it stands people don’t know what they don’t know and thats perfectly fine with the poachers because it allows the status quo to continue. They, who ever “they” is, have manufactured the consent of the general public. It’s absolutely insane that reasonable sane people will do more research about a flat screen television purchase than something as important as surgery on their babies’ organ.

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:46 pm

      You brotherinlaw is either lying or in deep denial. So far in life, he hasn’t suffered the worst effects of losing his foreskin, but odds are pretty much in favor that he will ultimately. There is no question that he is already suffereing some loss of sensitivity, but he isn’t in tune with those losses yet.

      Many men, when questioned about the subject, become enraged, indicative of deeply bedded scars. Some strongly defend the practice to the point of claiming absence of negative effects and demanding that sons be circumcised. This indicates a state of denial in which the pain is too severe to address.

      I have found that approximantely 50% of circumcised men would rather have been left intact.

  • Robin Rubin

    December 6, 2011 3:13 pm

    My husband was raised in a conservative Jewish home. I am not Jewish. When we were expecting our first child, a boy, of course the topic of circumcision came up. My husband was more concerned about the mainstream cultural implications of keeping him intact than the Jewish traditions. I told him I would leave the country with my newborn before I let anyone take a knife to him. When I was in my early 20’s I worked as a student nurse and then an RN on a maternity ward where I had to assist with this horrific procedure. That is when I became an intactivist.
    So now we have three intact boys and my husband is outspoken against circumcision. He still loves being Jewish although we joined a Unitarian church as well. My husband’s sister converted to Christianity when she was married and has a circumcised son. Ironic. But, like my husband points out and was mentioned in this blog, it is more the general population that circumcises, not just Jews. I think most Americans just have a general prejudice against boys, but that is a whole other topic!

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:39 pm

      I contend the practice has far more deeply rooted reasons than prejudice against boys even though it is. Parents don’t actually conscioustly believe that boys are inferior to girls, a belief which would be necessary to hold if that premise were true.

      What has taken place is that circumcision in America has become a religion of its own standing. Members of American society feel they must participate in the sacraments of the national religion of circumcision, so they do so blindly without a single concern for the baby whose has to endure it.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:53 pm

      Circumcision has become a meme, a virus of the mind, whose defenders are infected with the need to spread this illness, despite its irrationality.

  • wildwahinepaddler

    December 6, 2011 3:53 pm

    You are absolutely right. I am so tired of the “excuses” that are thrown into the mix to justify cutting a babies healthy genitals. These days we hear so much about “those other cultures” who do terrible things to their children, men and women…. and how horrid it is that they would circumcise their women. I had to make the point the other day to someone spouting this, to just think about how WE look to the rest of the world……condemning cultural practices of FGM and then continuing to do the exact same thing to our infant males! It certainly makes our country look ridiculous. There is NO excuse for genital cutting of any kind on a minor who cannot ever consent to it, period. It seems like it should be a no brainer, yet the backlash to try to outlaw circumcision of minors is so vigilant.

  • Marilyn Milos, RN

    December 6, 2011 3:56 pm

    To protect all boys from genital cutting except Muslim and Jewish boys would be anti-Semitic. Muslim and Jewish boys deserve the same rights as all other boys, including the wholeness of their own bodies and the fullness of their sexual experience. As James Spence of Newcastle upon Tyne (1964) wrote: “…Nature is a possessive mistress, and whatever mistakes she makes about the structure of the less essential organs such as the brain and stomach, in which she is not much interested, you can be sure that she knows best of the genital organs.” It is our responsibility and obligation to protect the bodily integrity of all infants and children until they are old enough to protect and defend themselves and to make personal decisions about their bodies and their religion for themselves.

    • Chris

      December 10, 2011 2:35 am

      Exactly, I want all children including Jews to be protected and that it because I care about them, not because I hate them.

  • cosmopolite

    December 7, 2011 12:08 am

    Without a religious exemption, many Jews will fight to the death to get a religious exemption added, and will work relentlessly to defeat legislators who support intactivist legislation. For this reason alone, I accept a religious exemption as a pragmatic political reality in North America. At the same time, I fully agree that it is impossible to come up with an operational definition of just who is a Jew deserving of a religious exemption.

    Unaffiliated North American Jews have been substituting hospital circumcision for mohel circumcision for maybe 100 years. The radical turn some North American Jewish families have taken of late is foregoing circumcision entirely.

    During 2011, rabbis and other Jewish spokespersons never understood that the issue was not banning circumcision outright, but only delaying it until after the 18th birthday. I find this misunderstanding very curious. Note that all dilemmas raised by religious exemptions vanish when circ is delayed into adulthood. The issue was not “all penises must look natural, religious affiliation be damned” but “a man’s penis cannot be altered solely because his parents wish it so. A man must be a party to this decision.”

    Delaying circumcision until adulthood would mean that even Jews who only dated fellow Jews would discover intact intercourse via premarital sex. (Judaism in practice is fairly tolerant of premarital sex between Jews.) Hence knowledge of what is lost via circumcision would spread gradually through the Jewish community. This knowledge would probably result in brit milah fading away among all but Orthodox families, with Orthodox young men who agreed to undergo the rite being ruefully aware of what they were losing. I suspect that rabbis silently dread this eventuality.

    • Bettie M.

      December 7, 2011 1:07 am

      Jews (rightly) cannot be expected to agree to delay circumcision until the 18th birthday. For circumcision to matter, it must be done in infancy, on the 8th day, at home or even in the hospital, but it must happen in infancy. Circumcision is not just a mark, a sort of ID. The Jewish people will not give up this critically important ritual in any great numbers.

      Who told me? A Jewish woman whose rabbi told her. By the way, she never had her boys done!

      • Bryan

        December 9, 2011 2:00 pm

        The Rabbi who spoke to this woman must be mistaken. Abraham wasn’t circumcised until he was about 99 years of age. His first son was circumcised at 13 or 14. The Israelite people, during the 40 years in the wilderness, didn’t circumcise anyone. They didn’t circumcise until they crossed over the Jordan River, by which time every male under the age of 41 was intact. Christ took circumcision from us at the cross. If a Jewish person believes in God all he or she has to do is accept Christ as their Saviour, then discontinue the barbaric practise of mutilating their sons. It’s as redundant now as sacrificing lambs, or having a high priest who has decended from Aaron.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:51 pm

      Circumcision does not define who is a Jew – only being born of a Jewish mother can do that. If Christian Scientists can be forced to provide medical treatment to sick children even though it violates their beliefs, Jews can be required to refrain from circumcision until their children are of a legal age to decide for themselves.

    • Scott

      January 14, 2012 11:12 pm

      “During 2011, rabbis and other Jewish spokespersons never understood that the issue was not banning circumcision outright, but only delaying it until after the 18th birthday”

      — in fact if ever any pro-circumcisionist makes a claim that we are trying to ban genital cutting of consenting adults, I believe it is reasonable to assume that in fact that person is consciously making an argument in bad faith, purposefully stereotyping our position so as to persuade the weak-minded into believing we are the extremists. In fact, it is those obsessed with cutting the healthy genitals of helpless infants who are the true extremists.

      I agree that delaying circumcision until (consenting) adulthood is the only allowable compromise; Mormons cannot force the underaged into polygamous marriages, Christian Scientists cannot withhold needed medical care from children, and snakehandlers cannot toss rattlesnakes into cribs, so why should any group get a “pass” that allows them a special right to mutilate babies, just because some book somewhere tells them they are the “chosen”?

  • Joseph4GI

    December 7, 2011 8:02 am

    There are some major problems that have happened recently in the democratic process in California, beginning with the fact that the San Francisco ballot initiative was stricken off the November ballot using a dubious statute in California that was created to prohibit local governments from regulating the “medical arts profession.” The statute was established namely to allow veterinarians to declaw cats, but the wording of “medical arts profession” allows circumcision advocates to apply the statute to the forced circumcision of healthy, non-consenting human children.

    The measure in and of itself is dubious, because it allows “healing arts professionals” to profit from a procedure that is considered to be “professionally recognized,” namely that “everybody’s doing it.” Enough veterinarians are reaping profit from declawing cats, therefore it is “professionally recognized medical practice,” therefore it cannot be regulated, and this goes for any other “professionally recognized medical practice” that many vets perform on animals, such as the debarking of dogs (some owners want their dogs to be quiet because they live in apartment buildings), possibly ear cropping and tail docking.

    Now, I’m an animal lover, and I think it’s bad enough that there is a law that allows vets basically to profit from doing whatever they want to animals unmitigated, requested by or solicited to pet owners, as long as it’s “acceptable practice.” That this statute can be directly translated to the practice of human medicine is simply horrifying. Just imagine if this statute was in place before 1996, before the ban of all female genital cutting was instituted. Yes, female genital cutting was “professionally recognized medical practice” before this ban, and it was performed on American girls, and paid for by American insurance companies in the past. If enough doctors got together they could have said that female circumcision was “professionally recognized medical practice.”

    It seems this law basically allows doctors to get away with quackery, if they can get enough people to call it “professionally recognized medical practice.” It’s bad enough for cats and dogs; I feel sorry for human children.

    Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the definition of “professionally recognized medical practice” was more concrete. Usually, as far as I was aware, “medical practice” refers the performance of procedures or the administration of drugs that are essential for curing or preventing disease. Medically, surgery should only be performed when it is necessary for the physical health of the person on whom it is performed because of a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need where other, less-destructive alternative treatment has failed.

    The first part of the statute used to block the San Francisco circumcision measure actually sounds rather reasonable:

    No city or county shall prohibit a person or group of
    persons, authorized by one of the agencies in the Department of
    Consumer Affairs by a license, certificate, or other such means to
    engage in a particular business, from engaging in that business,
    occupation, or profession or any portion thereof.

    Who wants to keep a doctor from doing his job, right? I fully agree! If a doctor has a disease to cure, a life to save, then why should any city or county prohibit him/her from practicing medicine?

    The problem is the foregone assumption that the circumcision of healthy infants (or the declawing of cats for that matter) is indeed essential to practice medicine. The danger is in having self-interested quacks and charlatans labeling a procedure “professionally recognized medical practice.”

    Another major problem with how this measure was handled was how opponents of the San Francisco measure consistently misrepresented it as a complete ban on all circumcision. Were this the case, then the ban would have actually been a hindrance to medical professionals. The wording of the circumcision bill was perfectly clear; it would not be a complete ban, but a restriction of non-therapeutic circumcision to adults 18 and above, with exception to those cases where a circumcision procedure is actually medically necessary. The ban would have been consistent with the statute raised against it, which states:

    This subdivision shall not be construed to prevent a city,
    county, or city and county from adopting or enforcing any local
    ordinance governing zoning, business licensing, or reasonable health
    and safety requirements for establishments or businesses of a healing
    arts professional licensed under Division 2

    The ban, had it passed, would have been akin to safety requirement. It would have not limited professionals from doing their jobs, rather, it would have held doctors to their own standards, and ensured that they were performing medically legit operations.

    How this ban was struck off the ballot, and the statute used against it are rather dubious. The ban seeks to ensure that human rights are respected, and that doctors act legitimately. The wording in the statute seems to allow greedy, self-interested tradesmen to reap profit from quackery and charlatanism at the expense of animal and human rights. It is a dubious statute that ought to be challenged.

    (Nevermind the fact that Judge Giorgi struck the ban from the ballot completely disregarding documents sent to her from Doctors Opposing Circumcision…)

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:33 pm

      There is a huge difference between animals and humans.

    • Petite Poulet

      December 7, 2011 10:20 pm

      If you look at the statutory definition of medical practice in California, infant male circumcision does not fit the definition. Consequently, the law they used to keep the ballot initiative off the ballot does not apply.

      An appeal should not be pursued. Bad judges make for bad precedents. No need for a bad precedent at this time.

    • HarryGuiremand

      January 14, 2012 6:30 pm

      One difference between animals and humans is that animals have a right to be protected from cruelty that is denied to male human infants.

  • Joseph4GI

    December 7, 2011 8:23 am

    It’s rather juvenile the way Jewish defenders of circumcision try to twist this into a “Jewish issue.” As if circumcision were exclusive to Judaism. As if circumcision were universal among Jews. As if we were targeting Jewish, and only Jewish circumcision.

    Up until today, Jewish advocates of circumcision have been able silence debate on the issue with a single flash of the “anti-Semite” card. One mention of the word “anti-Semite,” and those questioning the propriety of circumcision became worse than Hitler.

    Once again, it’s the 1% imposing their will on the 99%.

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:31 pm

      To exclude Jews from any legislation to outlaw circumcision would be the worst act of anti-semitism. Jewish babies are also citizens entiteled to equal protection under the law. All US citizens should fight for the rights of all other citizens. When we stop fighting, our rights will be the next to go. This is not a parental issue at all. It’s all about the babies.

    • Chris

      December 10, 2011 2:32 am

      Joseph4GI, you are right. Jews complain about Anti-Semetism but they are the ones who create it. I have nothing against Jews, but I am against circumcision. And if a Jew circumcises I will be against that. And if they call me an Anti-Semite then so be it, I will just tell them that by twisting the issue they are using Nazi tactics. I don’t see why we should tremble in fear about what 1% of the population thinks.

  • Joseph4GI

    December 7, 2011 8:24 am

    The Bottom Line
    The foreskin is not a birth defect. Neither is it a congenital deformity or genital anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. Neither is it a medical condition like a ruptured appendix or diseased gall bladder. Neither is it a dead part of the body, like the umbilical cord, hair, or fingernails. The foreskin is normal, natural, healthy tissue with which all boys are born.

    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, and a violation of the most basic of human rights.

    Doctors have absolutely no business performing surgery on healthy, non-consenting individuals, much less stoking a parent’s sense of entitlement.

    A doctor’s duty is to MEDICINE, not religion or “culture.”

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:29 pm

      You are absolutely correct. The foreskin is not only normal, it is essential to complete sexual satisfaction.

  • R. Grunke

    December 7, 2011 10:39 am

    I agree whole-heartedly with Georganne. I would, however, like to know the source of the statement that only 2% of the American population is Jewish.

  • Dr. Christopher Guest MD,FRCPC

    December 7, 2011 1:12 pm

    Ritualized male genital cutting is by no means exclusively an Abrahamic religious tradition. The first historical evidence of religious circumcision is from Ancient Egypt, in Saqqara, around 2400 BC. From Ancient Egypt, the practice likely spread to the Semitic tribes of the middle east, including Phoenicians, Assyrians and Israelites. There are also many African tribal cultures that still participate in ritualized genital cutting, such as the Xhosa nation in South Africa.

    Judaism and Islam are simply two religions from a long list of religious traditions that have engaged in this bizarre practice. Given the historical accounts of circumcision, and the likelihood of cultural transference of the practice from one religious tribe to another, it seems strange that religious groups actually believe in the divine significance of ritualized genital cutting.

    Every Jew or Muslim must ask themselves the following question: “Does the creator of the universe really want me to cut part of my child’s penis off, or are human beings simply imperfectly evolved primates, capable of cooking up some pretty creepy ideas every now and then?” Circumcision, like most religious commands, is obviously MAN-MADE. It has all the usual features of cruelty and aggression that one would expect from our species, which is only about half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee.

    Good luck trying to convince the parties of God that their “divine covenants and ancient traditions” are actually the irrational incantations of ancient goat herders – people who were scared to death of a world they knew nothing about and invented ways to appease the mighty Sky Gods. Good luck trying to convince the faithful to think for themselves about an ethical issue concerning human sexuality and the religious indoctrination of children. Ban it. Ban it by law, everywhere that humanism and reason have a political voice.

    PS: To my fellow colleagues, who perform circumcision at the religious requests of parents; it is medically unethical to perform this surgery. Your ethical obligation is to the CHILD, not to conspire with the religious wishes of the parents. You are not cultural brokers, you are physicians. As physicians, we must never violate the bodily integrity of a powerless infant without clear pathology or medical urgency. Please put down the scalpel. We must stop this disgraceful practice – before the courts stop it for us.

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:28 pm

      Your claims are stepping on the toes of Christians. Be careful in voicing such thoughts. In suggesting that God did not command Jews to circumcise, you are saying the Bible is not true. There is no evidence for your claim.

      As it is written, circumcision was commanded to be a only a sign of Jewish devotion to God. No others were commanded to do so. When Jesus came, He fulfilled the law, eliminating the need for Jews to continue the practice. However, they will need to embrace Him and His plan before they will understand the New Covenant.

      Paul wrote extensively on this subject in his several letters to the various churches if you wish references.

      • Harmed

        December 7, 2011 7:11 pm

        “circumcision was commanded to be a only a sign of Jewish devotion to God” Really…can you explain to me how devoted to God an 8 day old baby boy actually can be? And…is an 8 day old girl not expected to be as devoted?

        • Chris

          December 10, 2011 2:25 am

          Exactly, why do males have to go through a major sacrifice but females get a “get into heaven free card”. If we are all equal wouldn’t God require an equal amount of sacrifice from both genders?

      • Joseph4GI

        December 7, 2011 8:39 pm

        The first few versions of the Torah do not mention the “covenant of circumcision” in Genesis.

        The Bible? An edited, cut-and-paste book like any other? Oh-noes!

    • jimfromcalif

      December 20, 2011 5:59 pm

      Harmed, some things are explained in Scripture, while others are not. It is what it is. Jews certainly accept it as a valid covenant.

      Joseph, not sure where you get your information, but in oral tradition which was the means of keeping scripture at that time, it’s pretty much a given that more than one version exists. What is your source?

      • dave bradt

        December 20, 2011 10:17 pm

        I think we are going to ride the wave of change through out this land. Once in a while a people will in brace a change. The AAP will (probably) change its official statement to slightly favor RIC because of it’s proximity to the CDC and its stand on circ preventing AIDS. Our argument will be; “Babies are not at risk for AIDS. Ten years ago the AAP changed its mind on RIC and by the time your child is of age the AAP will change its mind back two more times.”
        Our goals are unwavering but outlawing religious circumcision (in this culture) is out of the question right now. But some day… We need to back some plan of action. Riding the wave of cultural change is also a plan and one that we have been successful at so far.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:47 pm

      From Harold Bloom’s “Book of J”, we learn that according to modern scholars, circumcision is not even mentioned in the earliest, “J”, version of Bereshith (“Genesis”) nor the next three rewrites by other authors. Most importantly, the story of Abram is there in its entirety, except the part about the Covenant being “sealed” with circumcision. The parallel Covenant story of “a smoking kiln and its blazing torch” passing between the halves of animals and birds sacrificed by Abram is in J. Many biblical scholars agree on this point, and it is in accord with the mitzvot against desecrating the body. Circumcision was added, I believe as a form of social control, at a later time.

    • Scott

      January 14, 2012 11:19 pm

      Personally, I do not object to stepping on anyone’s toes in defense of helpless babies; I would rather have adults with hurt feelings than babies with mutilated genitalia. Exactly why should I be more concerned about the tender feelings of butchers, than about the wounded bodies of the butchered?

  • Heidi M.

    December 7, 2011 4:20 pm

    The entire concept of allowing circumcision because of religious tradition, while it protects the freedom of religion clause of the Constitution, it creates a violation of the 14th amendment which provides for equal protection under the law. Female children are protected by the federal government against genital mutilation which is considered by fundamentalists as a cultural and religious rite of passage. Likewise, female children are protected from forced marriages to “church elders” in some fundamentalist cults. Yet, this practice is a basic tenet of their belief. I am not suggesting that these things should not be illegal or that female children should not be protected. I am stating that male children do not have the same protection under the law. There is NO law protecting them because of the outcry of “religious freedom and parental rights”. The government had no problem going against religious freedom and parental rights when it came to heinous practices against girls and rightly so. But why are male children not given the same rights?

    • jimfromcalif

      December 7, 2011 6:22 pm

      I believe the 14th amendment supercedes the religious freeom clause. The cases of FGM and anti-bigamy laws prove that.

      Male children are suffering from gender bias. It’s no more complex than that. Legislators just don’t have the guts to admit it.

      • Harmed

        December 7, 2011 10:14 pm

        Wouldn’t the religious freedom clause protect the baby’s religious freedom in this case anyway? It protects a persons right to chop up his own genitals in the name of religion, but not someone else’s.

        • Chris

          December 10, 2011 2:23 am

          Well said. Freedom of religion is a major reason why underage circumcision should be illegal. But the people who circumcise are thugs who use NAZI tactics and they twist logic around to try to confuse people.

  • dave bradt

    December 7, 2011 10:35 pm

    A law banning RIC will pass (with out religious exemption) when the vast majority of people view it as genital mutilation and are not circumcising their boys. People will change the law. The law will not change the people.

    In the interim, to speed things along, we could pass laws that the people might be ready for like banning circ in hospitals. When New Zeeland did that circ nearly went a way. Public reasoning would be: Babies are not strong enough to schedule surgery during his mothers’ maternity stay in the hospital. Hospital born infections are particularly dangerous concerning surgery on the new borne.

  • Erik Hawk

    December 9, 2011 2:29 am

    Thanks for this blog. Excellent discussion!

  • Michael Steane

    December 9, 2011 4:48 am

    I would argue that circumcising a child because of his parents’ religion is not only an abusive physical mutilation, but an infringement of his freedom of religion. My parents are methodists. I am an atheist. I do not choose to share their religious views and should not have to be mutilated because of them.

    • Gregory Tutko

      December 10, 2011 10:26 am

      @Chris and Michael S. Perfect point. There are lots of folks who reject the religion of their parents or even “convert” to satisfy a spouse or because of belief changes. To exempt a religious group or another category is to make the law meaningless. If all girls are protected from religious based mutilations then ALL boys must be protected as well. That’s the only true way to protect religious freedom, or freedom from religion. Put down the knife!

      • Harmed

        December 10, 2011 10:50 am

        The only problem with this argument is that no religion actually requires Female circumcision. It’s a purely cultural thing where it’s done. It is never mentioned in any islamic ritual texts. Many believe it’s commanded, but it’s not.

        • Georganne

          December 12, 2011 9:28 pm

          It is Intact America’s position that it doesn’t MATTER whether the Bible or the Koran, or any other formal or informal religious body of belief condones female or male circumcision. This is 2011. The genital cutting of children violates all accepted human rights principles, as well as accepted principles of bioethics. To start to argue which part of the Bible condones circumcision, and which doesn’t, to differentiate between pre-literate religious or cultural traditions and written religious documents, totally misses the point. Nobody has the the right to cut a body part off another person who has not (and cannot) consent.

          • Harmed

            December 12, 2011 10:00 pm

            Georgeanne, I completely agree with IA’s stance…I’m just pointing out the argument that I’ve gotten from Jewish colleagues when I point out that the ban on female genital mutilation has no religious exemption. Their comeback is always that no religion requires woman to be cut…Judaism requires boys to be cut.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:44 pm

      I believe, Harmed, that your position is incorrect; Islam is not monolithic but has many branches, some quite small and “tribal”; to them, female genital mutilation is part of their religion as well as their culture (it is a Western practice to put religion, culture, art, etc. into separate boxes). Further, there are African tribal groups whose female genital mutilation is directly woven into their religious practices. The Yoruba associate male and female circumcision with the natures of various deities, for example.

  • Chris

    December 10, 2011 2:41 am

    I would be furious if circumcision was illegal but my parents circumcised me anyway because they have the “right” to due to their religion. So the kid across the street gets protected but I don’t? That’s not fair at all. All people need to be protected from all forms of mutilation.

  • dave bradt

    December 11, 2011 2:55 am

    We are not anti-Semitic and we can prove it. Far more Christians are circumcised than Jews and we are against that and all circumcisions equally. The truth is, our motivation is love for all and hate for none. We can be accused of being misinformed, misguided or even delusional but not anti-anyone or anything except non therapeutic circumcision.

  • JM Hatch

    December 11, 2011 12:16 pm

    Thanks for fighting the good fight.


    The White House is now promoting circumcision as an anti-aids policy thanks in part to lobbying by Dorchadashu, who’s chairwoman profits from the sale of the circumcision kits. Please go to the above article or directly to The White House webpage and register your protest. If someone does not understand why this is a bad thing, then besides this page another good one is:


  • wildwahinepaddler

    December 13, 2011 7:31 pm

    I don’t believe that a religious exemption is right…. but I do wonder about it taking “steps” sometimes to get something done. IF that was all that was standing in the way of a Ban on Circumcision…..and it would make hospitals banned from performing them and all insurance and medicaid would drop coverage for it…. I honestly don’t know how I would feel. On the other hand, the arguments about if it’s banned it would be done in someone’s basement and we can’t let that happen, are also flawed. Child abuse is illegal, and if someone is caught abusing a child, they are prosecuted. I don’t see cutting off a healthy part of a babies sexual anatomy without a definitive medical indication, being any different.

    • Bettie

      December 16, 2011 8:34 pm

      Banning religious circumcision is not doable in North America. Maybe with the direct internvention of God himself, but otherwise, no. What do the intactivists know that I don’t? Why do you think that this can be accomplished? If it can’t be accomplished, why try for it? You are just irritating the Jews and Moslems.

    • Gregory Tutko

      December 17, 2011 2:47 am

      @Bettie : The concern for “irritating Jews and Moslims” is an odd consideration in the face of the millions more non-Jews/Moslims who are much worse than “irritated” by the circumcision industry. There are always alternatives for the diehard religionists to seek help outside nations that respect the integrity of their new-born. Sadly we will never get the full recognition of the right of EVERY infant to an intact body in nations where tradition is more powerful than reason. I would simply tell then that those who believe in God must also consider that the male version of God is also INTACT since “He” is supposed to have made humans in his own image. The ancient Greeks and Hindus understood this as they made all their statues of their male gods with foreskins intact.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:39 pm

      Telling yourself that your attempts at anything (including ending religious circumcision) is automatically doomed to failure is a loser strategy; if you do not fight for what you believe in, you can be certain you will never get it.

  • alberto batisa

    December 13, 2011 8:58 pm

    some here should write bono and time magizne as soon as possible.

  • JM Hatch

    December 15, 2011 5:34 am


    has some more information about how the study data in Africa that circumcision prevents AIDS may have been manipulated.

    Is a useful site to see the religious people who are pushing this business in Africa forward in expectation that it will speed the 2nd coming of the Messiah.

    and below in these posts, are the stories about the overseas partners of this belief system working to speed up the rates of circumcision in Africa.



    So the problem is not just exemption, but the forcing of circumcision by deceit, bribery, and trickery on innocents in the 3rd world who are under the naive expectation that circumcision will save them from HIV infection.

    • Gregory Tutko

      December 15, 2011 6:32 am

      It is also worth noting that if HIV were at all “prevented” by circumcision it would be absent in Isreal, where nearly 100% circumcision rates exist, as well in Muslim nations. Sadly, this is not the case. Of course the US HIV rate is another factor due to the nearly 90% rate among sexually active men during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.The great danger in even speaking of HIV prevention and circumcision in the same sentance is that it gives the false impression that once snipped, one no longer needs to worry about HIV transmission and therefore condoms are not used during penetrative sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The very idea that teams of Mohels (ritually trained circumcisors in the Jewish tradition) are “training” groups of questionably prepared medical staff to do literally millions of coerced, bribed circumcisions in Africa is suspect in the least. The funds would better be spent on HIV prevention education, condoms and drugs needed to control AIDS. It always amazes me how logic goes right out the window where circumcision is concerned.

  • Elliot

    December 15, 2011 1:11 pm

    Very interesting article, What’s your opinion about abortion?


      • Artificial Truth

        December 15, 2011 3:37 pm

        I don’t believe in MGM or FGM in any form for any reason. I think it is crazy!! On abortion, I am pro choice. I know it’s sounds hypocritical but there are profound reasons for believing this way.

  • Dan Bollinger

    December 19, 2011 9:12 pm

    In sociology, strategy decision-making is called game theory. In game theory, there is a concept called the “power of intransigence,” That is, standing firm. If you give in a little, if you begin to negotiate, you lose power. Pretty soon there is nothing left on the negotiating table worth having. That’s why this movement MUST stand firm. Either all boys are protected or none will be. We must unilaterally agree that we will brook no exceptions.

    • Gregory Tutko

      December 20, 2011 10:04 am

      I agree totally.

    • Bettie

      December 20, 2011 1:30 pm

      “Nothing” left on the negotiating table worth having? Nothing at all?

    • jimfromcalif

      December 20, 2011 5:54 pm

      You’re right!

    • Georganne

      December 21, 2011 10:12 pm

      I also have to say that nobody is even trying to negotiate with us. No religious group has said, “Hey, we’d support your proposal to ban medically unncessary circumcision carried out in hospitals, if you promise you won’t interfere with our religious tradition.” Intactivists who “compromised” by “offering” a religious exemption would be offering it to the wind – and we would look both foolish and weak.

      I believe that those who declare that circumcising baby boys is their right – under the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom – KNOW that this argument is problematic.They know that U.S. courts have on many occasions held that one person’s freedom or rights end when these begin to interfere with another person’s freedom or rights.

      Finally, those who consider child circumcision to be an issue of religious freedom know that as “medical” (i.e., carried out by doctors in health care facilities) circumcision declines, ritual/religious circumicision will seem increasingly odd, and will (continue to) decline also.

    • Bettie M.

      December 27, 2011 8:46 pm

      Georganne, ritual circumcision will never seem “increasingly odd” to people who have been doing it for about 200 generations and for whom it is the central aspect of their culture/religion. They don’t give a hoot what you and I think. They listen politely and then do what they have some irresistible internal compulsion to go ahead with.

      No, of course nobody’s negotiating with anyone. But I can hope for the day when some legislature, somewhere, bans nonreligious circumcision. I’ve two acquaintances who, on finding out I was opposed to circumcision to the point of speaking against it in public, said (out of nowhere, thinking it was mainly a Jewish thing) that “This is something the Jews have to do for themselves! You anticirc people aren’t going to have any effect in convincing them!” Indeed, Jews and Moslems who aren’t happy about the prospect of harming their sons in this way don’t come to nonsemites for help; they go to their own kind.

      • Georganne Chapin

        December 29, 2011 2:30 pm

        Well, I am a little more optimistic! I know there are people who will resist change. But the fact is that religious practices DO change over time.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:35 pm

      Those like Bettie M. who claim that Jews will never change (at least due to the arguments of intactivists) haven’t been paying attention. Try reading some of the wonderful articles at beyondthebris.com, or go to the Israeli anti-circumcision site (if you read Hebrew) http://kahal.org. Change is coming; it will take time, but this barbarity will end, including among Jews.

  • Michael N.

    January 6, 2012 8:58 pm

    Thanks to the blog owner for an excellent post. On the one hand, it is hard not to agree that we cannot bargain away the rights of a child. On the other hand, we should never downplay the importance of condemning hate speech.

    Writing from Norway, I am sorry to relate that, once again, I have come across an example of how Foreskin Man is used to demonize the entire intactivist movement. Mr. Øyvind Strømmen, an influential thinker in present-day Norway, is advocating the position that ritual circumcisions of Muslim boys living in Norway should be performed at public hospitals and paid for with Norwegian tax money. Mr. Strømmen writes:

    “Dei som måtte tvila på at det finst innslag av antisemittisme i den amerikanske omskjeringsdebatten, som den norske låner argument frå, bør undersøkja teikneserien med det fengjande namnet Foreskin Man, der ein påfallande arisk superhelt kjempar mot ein mohel (med sidekicks utstyrt med halvautomatiske skytevåpen) som kunne ha vore henta ut av nazistavisa Der Stürmer og mot ein skikkeleg skitstøvel av ein jødisk far, Jethro.”

    My translation: “Those who doubt that anti-Semitism is what drives the American circumcision debate, which has set the tone for the Norwegian circumcision debate, should take a close look at the comic book with the eye-catching title: Foreskin Man, in which a conspicuously Aryan-looking superhero is fighting against a mohel (whose companions are carrying semi-automatic weapons), presumably borrowed from the Nazi magazine, Der Stürmer, and against a Jewish father, Jethro, who happens to be a real asshole.”


    Unfortunately, Strømmen happens to be a professional expert on terrorism and racism; and Norwegian authorities are likely to listen to his arguments. There can be no doubt that the pro-circumcision movement in Norway owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Mr. Matthew Hess. Thanks to Foreskin Man, Norwegian opponents of ritual circumcision were successfully intimidated even before they opened their mouths.

    The devastating effects of Foreskin Man are seen in Germany as well. In July last year, Hannes Stein wrote an article titled “Das Zerrbild vom bösen Juden mit dem blutigen Messer” (The caricature of the evil Jew and his blood-stained knife) and had it published in the influential daily newspaper Die Welt. In Stein’s article, Foreskin Man is indirectly described as the “Bible” of the American anti-circumcision movement: “Im Zentrum der Bewegung steht ein gewisser Matthew Hess…” (At the centre of the movement we find a certain Matthew Hess…).


    Mr. Matthew Hess is not an intactivist. It is vital that this message is heard loud and clear. At least, this is what I, as a Norwegian citizen, born and circumcised in the US, expect to be told.

    • eshu21

      January 12, 2012 10:28 pm

      Clearly those who use Foreskin Man in an attempt to demonize the anti-circumcision movement are both showing their desperation to protect male genital mutilation and using the tired argument that every position they do not like is automatically driven by anti-Semitism. Did anyone protest that the equally grotesque portrayal of the doctor-villain in the first Foreskin Man was a bigoted caricature?

      From my own point of view as an unwillingly-circumcised Jew, I personally view those who mutilate children for any reason as monsters and think they should be presented in exactly that way. Note that none of the sterling “defenders” of Judaism you quote mention the comic’s brave Jewish mother, desperate to protect her child from a barbaric act; no, she has to be forgotten in order to protect their meme, that all opposition is anti-Semitism. People are, finally, waking up to the hollowness of that claim…

      • Georganne

        January 13, 2012 1:12 am

        This is a wonderful series of comments, adding tremendous depth to this discussion.

        Thank you Eshu21 for this:
        “Note that none of the sterling “defenders” of Judaism you quote mention the comic’s brave Jewish mother, desperate to protect her child from a barbaric act; no, she has to be forgotten in order to protect their meme, that all opposition is anti-Semitism. People are, finally, waking up to the hollowness of that claim.”

    • Michael W. N.

      January 13, 2012 10:35 am

      Eshu21 mentioned “the comic’s brave Jewish mother, desperate to protect her child…”

      This is a very helpful observation, which can be used whenever the Foreskin Man controversy resurfaces. Members of the pro-circumcision camp tend to ignore the role played by Jewish mothers and wives (e.g.,Miriam Pollack) in the critique of circumcision. According to Michael S. Kimmel (Tikkun, May/June 2001), women also played a role in the Jewish anti-circumcision movements of the nineteenth century.

      That said, I personally would have wished that Foreskin Man had been conceived as a more peaceful and less xenophobic character.

    • eshu21

      January 13, 2012 5:50 pm

      Thanks Georganne and Michael for your kind comments! The fact that ANYTHING could be considered a “bible of the anti-circumcision movement” or that two pro-mutilation cranks in Norway and Germany could express such distorted views (without, apparently, any knowledge of or contact with real intactivists, relying only on their own irrational pro-mutilation thinking as a source of “facts”), shows the desperation and corruption of logic necessary to support the international barbarities committed against babies. Hopefully, the people of Norway and Germany can recognize such arguments for what they truly are: smokescreens defending and disguising crimes exercised daily, every second, against the helpless bodies of children worldwide…

  • Matthew Hess

    January 8, 2012 1:21 pm

    I agree completely with Georganne’s post. Some principles should not be compromised, and I believe that we must legally protect boys from all forms of medically unnecessary genital cutting – including religiously motivated circumcision.

    Likewise, when I created Foreskin Man, I felt that the comic series had to take on not just medicalized and tribal cutting, but religious MGM as well. In my opinion, no group deserves a free pass if they are harming children. Medical and tribal cutters were drawn evil, and that meant that mohels would be drawn evil, too. Foreskin Man is not anti-doctor, anti-African, or anti-Semitic. He is pro-genital integrity.

    I’ve been an intactivist long enough to know that simply asking people to stop circumcising won’t work. Foreskin Man and the MGM Bill have forced the world to look at circumcision in a different way. It’s too early to say if this will make a difference in the long term, but the initial signs look promising. Why? Because now the world is debating circumcision more than ever, and that debate needs to play out before any significant progress is made.

  • Maria

    January 12, 2012 6:47 pm

    I think if Christians actually knew what was in the Bible, this wouldn’t even be an issue. The Bible strictly forbids circumcision (Galatians 5:2-4), but most Christians think circumcision is completely neutral, and it’s their choice. And since it’s their choice, they are going to cut their sons penis so it looks like Jesus’. (even though ancient circumcision in the Bible and modern foreskin amputation are nothing alike.)

    If the leaders in the Church would begin teaching the truth of the Bible to their congregations, we would have religious manpower protesting circumcision in the same way we see them out protesting abortion and gay rights.

  • eshu21

    January 13, 2012 5:57 pm

    Great article! I think we need to be aware, any time someone tries to paint the anti-circumcision movement as anti-semitic, that they are basically trying an old diversionary tactic; first, they want intactivists to be on the defensive (a weaker position), then they want us to spend all our time fighting an argument (our not being anti-semitic) that is impossible to prove, thus leaving no time to demonstrate the utter immorality of circumcision. In general, if the discussion is not a religious one at base, the best response to accusations of anti-semitism is: “No. We are not. And here is why circumcision is wrong, unethical and a crime against children…” Don’t let yourself be diverted, don’t fall into the trap.

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Marilyn Fayre Milos, multiple award winner for her humanitarian work to end routine infant circumcision in the United States and advocating for the rights of infants and children to genital autonomy, has written a warm and compelling memoir of her path to becoming “the founding mother of the intactivist movement.” Needing to support her family as a single mother in the early sixties, Milos taught banjo—having learned to play from Jerry Garcia (later of The Grateful Dead)—and worked as an assistant to comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce, typing out the content of his shows and transcribing court proceedings of his trials for obscenity. After Lenny’s death, she found her voice as an activist as part of the counterculture revolution, living in Haight Ashbury in San Francisco during the 1967 Summer of Love, and honed her organizational skills by creating an alternative education open classroom (still operating) in Marin County. 

After witnessing the pain and trauma of the circumcision of a newborn baby boy when she was a nursing student at Marin College, Milos learned everything she could about why infants were subjected to such brutal surgery. The more she read and discovered, the more convinced she became that circumcision had no medical benefits. As a nurse on the obstetrical unit at Marin General Hospital, she committed to making sure parents understood what circumcision entailed before signing a consent form. Considered an agitator and forced to resign in 1985, she co-founded NOCIRC (National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers) and began organizing international symposia on circumcision, genital autonomy, and human rights. Milos edited and published the proceedings from the above-mentioned symposia and has written numerous articles in her quest to end circumcision and protect children’s bodily integrity. She currently serves on the board of directors of Intact America.


Georganne Chapin is a healthcare expert, attorney, social justice advocate, and founding executive director of Intact America, the nation’s most influential organization opposing the U.S. medical industry’s penchant for surgically altering the genitals of male children (“circumcision”). Under her leadership, Intact America has definitively documented tactics used by U.S. doctors and healthcare facilities to pathologize the male foreskin, pressure parents into circumcising their sons, and forcibly retract the foreskins of intact boys, creating potentially lifelong, iatrogenic harm. 

Chapin holds a BA in Anthropology from Barnard College, and a Master’s degree in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University. For 25 years, she served as president and chief executive officer of Hudson Health Plan, a nonprofit Medicaid insurer in New York’s Hudson Valley. Mid-career, she enrolled in an evening law program, where she explored the legal and ethical issues underlying routine male circumcision, a subject that had interested her since witnessing the aftermath of the surgery conducted on her younger brother. She received her Juris Doctor degree from Pace University School of Law in 2003, and was subsequently admitted to the New York Bar. As an adjunct professor, she taught Bioethics and Medicaid and Disability Law at Pace, and Bioethics in Dominican College’s doctoral program for advanced practice nurses.

In 2004, Chapin founded the nonprofit Hudson Center for Health Equity and Quality, a company that designs software and provides consulting services designed to reduce administrative complexities, streamline and integrate data collection and reporting, and enhance access to care for those in need. In 2008, she co-founded Intact America.

Chapin has published many articles and op-ed essays, and has been interviewed on local, national and international television, radio and podcasts about ways the U.S. healthcare system prioritizes profits over people’s basic needs. She cites routine (nontherapeutic) infant circumcision as a prime example of a practice that wastes money and harms boys and the men they will become. This Penis Business: A Memoir is her first book.