[Thomas Roche] The State of the Circumcision Ban

Circumcision of Isaac, RegensburgFrom guerrilla gay marriages on the steps of City Hall to being the first city to ban plastic shopping bags and happy meals, my beloved San Francisco loves to push the envelope when it comes to progressive ordinances (including, by the way, banning ordnance).

But not all San Franciscans are so cheery about living in the lower-48’s leftmost city. In today’s SF Weekly, Joe Eskenazi rails against the attempt to gather signatures for an initiative banning infant circumcisions in San Francisco. This is all, of course, fantastically premature, since the initiative requires 7,000 signatures and nobody knows how many it has so far. But that hasn’t stopped Eskenazi from making fun of it.

The effort to put the circumcision ban on the November, 2011 ballot in San Francisco is the brainchild of a man named Lloyd Schofeld, who feels circumcision is medically unnecessary, cruel, and traumatizing to young male-bodied persons. The campaign  recently got some national press, though far less than it got when it first broke nationally last November.

Eskenazi’s article is entitled “S.F. Circumcision Ban Is a Bad Idea But It Could Still Become Law,” and it’s sufficiently dismissive of the arguments against circumcision that it doesn’t even discuss them. The only thing Eskenazi is interested in, at least in this article, is whether the law potentially abridges individual rights under the Constitution:

“Would it be constitutional? Almost certainly,” says Ashutosh Bhagwat of UC Hastings. Adds Jesse Choper of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, “Under the federal Constitution, unless you could show that the purpose of this was to disadvantage Jews generally, and since it’s a neutral law and applies to everyone, it’s not a violation of the free exercise clause.”

Occasionally, foreskin-phobes invent cultural or faux-medical reasons for circumcision that aren’t related to religion. But if this measure acquires the necessary signatures, makes it to the ballot, and passes, then it will sure as hell get tied up in the courts, and religious circumcision will be the defining legal issue. Bhagwat’s and Choper’s quotes above are just two legal opinions, from two law professors, and they’re newspaper quotes, not formal legal opinions.

If the law passes and is challenged all the way to the Supremes, there are going to be a hell of a lot more than two lawyers weighing in. In fact, maybe one of them could even be the law professor Eskenazi himself quoted in the Weekly in November,  giving exactly the opposite opinion, which Eskenazi now re-quotes in today’s article. In the November piece, Eskenazi quotes a part of the measure’s text:

No account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that or any other person that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.

I’m just a caveman, but it looks to me like that kinda spells out that the proposal is intentionally designed to abridge religious freedom, which looks like a first-amendment problem no matter what you think of circumcision from a medical or humanist standpoint. So that’s the text. But when it comes to sexuality, especially the sexuality of young people, there’s always a subtext. What’s the subtext here?

The answer, of course, is contained in Eskenazi’s underlying tone of ridicule toward the very debate. It’s a little hard to take Eskenazi seriously — and a little hard not to take it personally — when he says stuff like:

This means the ban’s proponents would have to argue a compelling “state interest” to outlaw circumcision, an ancient practice exacted upon the penises of an estimated 79 percent of American men — many of whom, we’re told, live productive lives.

Hell, yes, circumcized men live productive lives. So do the Lost Boys of Sudan. Does that mean the government can legally slaughter my family and make me walk to Las Vegas barefoot? Do those two things have anything to do with each other? Yeah, about as much as whether men who are circumcised “live productive lives” and whether it was right, wrong, or a matter of perspective to have circumcised them in the first place. They are irrelevant to each other.

What the hell does it matter if (presumably) Eskenazi and (presumably) most of his biologically male friends managed to make it to adulthood as princes among men “even though” they were circumcised? Why does that engender the ridicule of someone objecting to the procedure as a procedure? Is Eskenazi terrified that someone will hand him his foreskin back?

Don’t worry, Joe, your foreskin and mine were long ago sold to some shady Burroughsian flesh-lab where they’ve been grown into face cream, movie stars’ lips, skin grafts for burn victims, and more, to the tune of a couple hundred grand between us — profits, of course, going to a mysterious investor (probably) not named Dr. Benway. If they handed mine back to me, I probably wouldn’t recognize it.

Eskenazi’s sarcasm strikes me as a pretty obvious dick-shaming technique. “Concerned about your genitals? Well, buddy. I think you’re a little too concerned about your genitals, if you know what I mean.”

It’s dickphobia, like tagging an article about infant circumcision with a sarcastic 14-year-old Beavis & Butthead gross-out tag like “Foreskin McNugget.”

You wanna have a gross-out contest, Joe? You haven’t got the foggiest idea who you’re messing with.

What’s more embarrassing, having to talk about dicks — or being so terrified of talking about dicks that you can’t stop giggling?

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  • kathleen

    I’m not from the Us, or from a religion that supports this practice so I know I’m overlooking the religious significance of circumcision. The whole topic just seams plain odd to me, not silly but strange and contradictory.
    In the majority of western societies people are clearly against FGM (female genital mutilation) we campaign against it vigorously. Denounce it as monstrous and abuse of civil liberties. Hell school teachers are suppose to report any concerns it if they even suspect it might happen to a child (which I agree with)……..

    So why is it acceptable to carry out ritualised mutilation on a boy child, I thought we were suppose to be reaching for equality? Both sexes should be given legal protection to grow up whole and healthy.
    Just a thought though.
    If the ban did go through, leaving aside the issues of religious freedom: wouldn’t that criminalise the act it and potentially drive it underground.
    While I don’t support circumcision it is it not better to have it placed in a medical sphere where the proceedure is safer. I like the previous posters ideas of putting an age restriction the practice so the children/adults themselves can have a say .

  • Passerby

    This whole thing makes me laugh. I mean, is this really an argument? Are people going to have political commercials about their genitals? Folks on both sides are just sounding like gigantic jerks. Especially the people in this thread who seem to support the ban because it, as they seem to see it, attacks religion. As an Atheist, I do want to mention something: Jumping on the anti-religion banwagon makes you just as much of a gigantic asshole as the pro-religion people who want to get rid of us.

    I’m no dick-chopper-ologist, but I’ve not heard of people dying in droves because they had their foreskin chopped. With all surgeries like that sure there’s a chance for infection, but it’s not like there’s ninja dinosaurs hiding somewhere to eat people JUST because they get a bit of skin off. I’ll totally be keeping an eye out if this makes it to the polls. I’d love to see political commercials about dicks. Actual ones, not ones running for president.

  • First of all, what is typically called female circumcision is either a clitorectomy or a complete removal of the external female genitals. Removal of the clitoral hood is almost unheard of, outside of western tattooing/piercing parlors. So comparing female genital cutting to male circumcision is a false comparison. Male circumcision does not remove the glans penis.
    I did a fast search on google scholar of ‘circumcision HIV transmission’, and got 8,990 hits. I linked the first one, which found significant decrease in HIV transmission among men who had been circumcised pre-puberty (not as effective with post-puberty circumcision). There is also a decrease in the rate of cancer of the penis with male circumcision, which is caused by the same versions of the herpes virus as causes cervical cancer.

  • Routine infant circumcision (RIC) should be banned in the US. RIC has no proven benefits. RIC is not recommended by any medical association in the world. RIC violates the child’s most basic human right to a whole body. RIC furthermore violates the 1st and 14th Amendments. Doctors performing RIC are violating their Hippocratic oath. Ric is an archaic cultural custom that is painful, dangerous, unnecessary and has lifelong damaging affects.

  • This proposed law does not take away an individual’s rights and choices, it PROTECTS them.

    I don’t understand why it is so difficult for people to realize that one’s parent’s religious views are not the same as the child’s religious views. Circumcision is painful, but most of all.. it is a permanent removal of healthy, sensitive, functional, erogenous genital tissue.

    When you circumcise a baby, you circumcise him forever.. he’s circumcised as a teenager, as an adult, and as a senior citizen. So, to say that he should have no say in the matter is a little shortsighted.

    If a man understands the risks and losses of circumcision, I completely support his right to make choices for his body, especially if he feels he needs to do so for his personal convictions (including religious beliefs). But, I don’t even follow the religion of my parents, and I certainly don’t share their taste in fashion and aesthetics. Why should the government afford them the right to make such a decision without MY consent, when female genitals are completely protected by law, as are all of our other healthy, sensitive, normal body parts.

    This law is not about making the foreskin an exception under the law.. it’s about finally including the foreskin with every other body part in it’s class – to give baby boys the same protection already afforded to girls (which, is a protection we greatly celebrate in our culture).

    If you don’t believe in individual rights.. then you’ve got to throw out the entire Constitution.

  • Martin

    As a man who was circumcised at birth, I feel cheated out of the opportunity to experience my body intact, as evolution intended it to function. I’m left to wonder whether or not sex would be *more* fulfilling (sure, it’s great now – but would it be better if I was uncut?) had I been given the opportunity to decide for myself whether or not I’d like to be circumcised. I think that’s a choice every man should be able to make for himself. If he rejects the religion of his parents (as I’ve done), then circumcision is just something that was done to him at birth for a cause he doesn’t believe in. If someone chooses to practice a religion that promotes the practice, let him make that choice for himself once he’s old enough to be aware that he has options.

  • @Whatever — In response to your claim that:

    >Also, your comparison to slaughtering people is ludicrous and makes you sound >more like Glen Beck than like someone I should pay attention to.

    Perhaps you should read my statement more carefully: “Do those two things have anything to do with each other? Yeah, about as much as whether men who are circumcised “live productive lives” and whether it was right, wrong, or a matter of perspective to have circumcised them in the first place. They are irrelevant to each other.”

    Eskenazi opened the door; I merely waltzed through it.

  • Gus

    what a child feels while birth to what is felt during circumcision does not compare. A child body is designed to squeeze though the birth canal, it is not however meant to have a piece of it cut off after birth. Religious wishes aside, we do not perform, as standard practice, unnecessary medical procedures on ourselves. We do not remove the appendix while young, even though it has a higher chance of being a medical issue than a foreskin. We do not remove the breast of our women even though breast cancer eventually kills many. For feeding? babies can easily survive without breast milk making having breasts basically a health hazard. While ridiculous, this is the logic being used to support circumcision.
    I don’t believe government, state or otherwise, should be so involved in our lives as to ban circumcision, but I am against the procedure and more information should be made available, by the government or a anyone really, to allow the public to make its own informed decision, and that decision should be made with the childs best interest at heart and not the personal wish to have the childs penis resemble his fathers.
    I am not circumcised, however my wife wants any boys we have to be circumcised, this of course makes us have some rather intense arguments about it.

  • wolfstar

    as a woman, i think its barbaric. my hubby is uncut, and when we have a son we wont be getting him cut.
    why is it considered ok to mutilate a baby boys penis, but its horrendous to perform female circumcision on a baby girl? same shit different bucket people. its not much good having double standards for the sexes.
    and, i can tell you for a fact an uncircumsised mans penis is far more sensitive than a circumsised one. any make up pro’s for circumsision dont even compare to the cons. ie higher risk of trauma o the glans, reduced sensation. thats just the initial 2 that come to mind. there is no higher risk of infection, as long as you teach your little boy how to keep himself clean.

    btw it was normally done in places that were sandy and had limited access to running water (like israrel etc, and australia) as sand caught under the foreskin would cause insane swelling and long term, ery painful problems. in our modern days of showers, baths and general good hygiene, its now drastically outdated.
    time to put this antiquated practice where it belongs, in the history books :/

  • Clinton Hammond

    I favor a total ban on every, non-medically necessary, circumcision.

    it is a brutal, archaic, unnecessary practice… I don’t care what your supposed invisible-man-in-the-sky says.

  • criolle johnny

    Harold does bring up an interesting point. At what point does some else’s religious freedom infringe on other’s rights? The right to avoid vaccinations? Can you send your child to public school with a case of measles?
    bl mentioned a botched circumcision.
    “Abraham circumcised himself before the Lord”. OUCH! He was at least 80 years old and used a BRONZE knife?! Bronze won’t slice, you have to saw, back-and-forth with it.
    Next time someone says “gimme that ole time religion … “, hand him a knife and tell him to have at it!

  • henry

    It’s an ancient practice with zero or close-to-zero health benefits [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_analysis_of_circumcision#Costs_and_benefits] as well as complications (estimates of which vary from 0.06% to 55%). There really is no justification for it when the costs, monetary and physical, are considered. It needs to be stopped.

    More evidence for its cost-ineffectiveness is that the UK National Health Service stopped paying for routine circumcisions more than fifty years ago, believing the procedure to be a waste of time.

    Why is the road to eliminating it through education? Is that the road to stopping child scarification or ritual genital mutilation? We legislate against those things. Education is important too, but these things unquestionably ought to be illegal.

    Before anyone says it: it’s nothing like vaccination, which is a vital medical practice and has saved millions of lives worldwide. That cost-benefit analysis stands up to scrutiny.

  • @Harold, interestingly – in this episode of UK medical program doctors discuss the medical benefits of circumcision, something I’ve never seen from an American point of view:


    Dr. Christian Jessen (and Dr. Pixie McKenna) explained the antibacterial enzymes that remain intact within the foreskin of uncircumcised males and how this helps protect against STIs. I would like to see more educating about this in America, where as seen in the Weekly article, there is a lot of shame and phobia around even talking about what might be healthy about uncut cocks.

  • bl

    I am not a fan of circumcision as mine done at birth was botched. That said I don’t think an outright ban is needed. It should be an educated decision made by the parents.

  • Harold

    The religious argument might hold up, but we do have some cases where secular law overrides religion. The Mormons didn’t get exceptions for their polygamous marriages, nor the Christian Scientists for cases where children died due to lack of real medical treatment. I could slippery-slope this, but support for circumcision really comes down to “it’s a (religious) tradition; that makes it OK”. Even if you back a religious exemption, though, I don’t see a defense for doing this to a baby. Why shouldn’t they wait until the child becomes “of age”?

    From a secular standpoint, I don’t like permanently modifying a child’s body without a good medical reason. It should probably follow the same rules as tattooing and body piercing, which most states restrict for people under age 18.

    I haven’t done enough reading to dismiss the medical argument. It looks like some studies support claims of lower risk of STIs and some do not. Does anybody have information on flaws in the pro-circumcision studies?

  • h4nd

    I fully support religious freedom, and any male who wishes to be circumcised for such a reason should be allowed. How does one get informed consent for such, from an infant?

  • R

    I’m not a fan of infant circumcision myself (adults, of course, may do what they please with their own bodies) but banning it is dumb and almost certainly illegal.

    I would like to see a lot fewer infant circumcisions being done for bullshit “health” or “hygiene” reasons, but the road to that place is education, not law.

    I speak as a happily enforeskinned man.

  • criolle johnny

    “Would it be constitutional? Almost certainly,” says Ashutosh Bhagwat of UC Hastings.
    Uh, NO … stupid ass. “prohibiting the free practice therof;” means that you have to show an overwhelming state necessity.
    “since it’s a neutral law and applies to everyone” I believe the precedent was established by the 18th Amendment when Catholic churches were allowed to maintain communion wines.
    The burden of proof is on the state to prove the need, not upon the people to prove their rights.
    I hate the idea of someone circumcising me without permission as an infant. I hate the idea of the government interfering with my rights, or other peoples rights (religious and other) even more.
    Keep your government hands out of my kitchen, out of my checkbook, out of my trousers and out of any church.

  • Whatever

    The law is a stupid idea. Most people I know who are cut don’t seem to mind and I think the argument that it harms the child is fairly silly: most of these kids were just squeezed through a 6cm tunnel where their head was squished into the shape of a cone. I don’t think a cut made with the specialized device used for circumcision is traumatic compared to that.

    Is taking away a foreskin harming the development of the kid? I don’t think so. I manage to have frequent and enjoyable sex, both alone and with others, without a foreskin. I’ve also read that circumcised men are less likely to contract some STIs including HIV. I think that’s a nice feature.

    Also, your comparison to slaughtering people is ludicrous and makes you sound more like Glen Beck than like someone I should pay attention to.