warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Should Circumcisions On Babies Be A Crime?

Kelsey Borresen |
December 18, 2010 | 10:26 p.m. PST


Some say circumcisions hurt babies and really shouldn't be up to parents to control. One San Francisco group is leading a charge to ban them in their city.
Some say circumcisions hurt babies and really shouldn't be up to parents to control. One San Francisco group is leading a charge to ban them in their city.
First it was French fries and now it’s foreskin.

In San Francisco, there always seems to be a new hot-button issue.   

This past November, it was Happy Meals when the Board of Supervisors banned toys from being included in meals that don’t meet certain nutritional requirements. 

On next November's ballot, San Francisco residents may get a chance to impose penalties--a maximum $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail--on parents who circumcise newborn boys if Lloyd Schofield’s proposal garners the 7,168 signatures necessary to get it on the 2011 municipal ballot. 

Schofield says the organization Male Genital Mutilation Bill, a group working in all 50 states on all legislative levels to protect boys from circumcision, approached him to be the signator on the proposed ordinance in San Francisco. 

He declined to answer any questions regarding his personal reasons for involvement in the cause. But he did say he was “pretty confident” in the success of the proposal based on the “very positive response from a tremendously broad array of people.” However, he says that there have also been some challenges. 

“The local media has been quite defensive and dismissive of this story, especially the print media so we’re just trying to get a good discussion here and get people to open up and talk about the situation," he said. "I think anybody who does some serious research into this will certainly agree that this is a harmful and permanently damaging surgery. A child’s body belongs to him and the man he will become.”

The ballot initiative reads: “proposed measure would amend the San Francisco Police Code to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who is not at least 18 years old.”

Exceptions would be made in cases of medical necessity, but the bill does not grant exemptions for religious or cultural reasons. 

“We looked at it from the perspective that it would be discrimination to not protect Jewish or Muslim boys from this,” Schofield said.  “Our total focus is that it’s for the rights of the child.”

Circumcision: A Foundation Of Judaism

Both a licensed physician and a mohel (a Jew who is trained to perform circumcisions), Dr. Fred Kogen has worked extensively throughout California performing roughly 7,000 ritual and non-ritual circumcisions since 1985.  While he says he does not believe circumcision is right for every family, he does believe it is one of the foundations of the Jewish faith.

“No matter where you sit on the Judaism scale culturally or religiously, you’ve had a bris―you’ve been circumcised," he said. "From the pragmatic point of view, the ceremony itself can be an extraordinarily powerful experience. Many non-Jews will say that to me even though it’s not part of their culture.

“You have everything that comes into play with a newborn child―The emotions that come with that and then several days later, having this ritual with all of your friends and family gathered and having his Jewish name given to him after someone important
and loved,” he said. 

How Many People Are Circumcised?

A 1999 CDC circumcision study found that roughly 65 percent of American newborn males were circumcised, but have not released any reports since. More recent estimates from this summer’s International AIDS Conference show that that number may have dropped as low as 33 percent in 2009. 

Some Say Circumcisions Are Inhumane And Should Not Be Parents' Choice

Georganne Chapin is the executive director of Intact America, a group of so-called “intactivists” who work to protect babies from circumcision and other types of medically unnecessary genital alteration.  She says she believes that the procedure is inhumane and likens it to female genital cutting procedures practiced predominantly in places such as Sub-Saharan Africa. 

“We’re talking about strapping a newborn baby down, restraining him and stripping back the foreskin just like stripping back your nail from the nail bed―it’s essentially the same kind of connective tissue," she said. "It is torture and mutilation and there can’t be an upside to that. There is nothing to justify doing that to a baby any more than you would cut off his eyelids or his finger or his finger nails,” she said. 

But according to Kogen, a situation like Chapin described is more of a worst-case scenario.  In fact, many of today’s at-home circumcisions are far less traumatic provided that the person performing the procedure is well trained and uses an anesthetic, he says.

Kogen practices the mogen clamp method, which he says is not widely used by doctors.  The procedure lasts about 30 seconds start to finish and does not require that the baby be strapped down. 

He and other proponents of the procedure say they believe circumcision is a decision best left up to the parents.

“You are forcing something on someone who has no voice," he said. "[The babies] can’t say, ‘Don’t do this to me.’ That’s true―I can’t argue that. But on the other hand, as parents you make decisions for your kids. You choose what religion they’re going to be, what school they go to, the clothes they wear, the language they use around their friends and family and the food they eat. Whether you do the right thing or the wrong thing, you never really know but you do the best you can,” Kogen said.  

The intactivists, on the other hand, support the right of the child to make the decision for himself once he turns 18. 

“The point is that it should not be the parents’ choice. It is the parents’ choice now, but it’s not their body,” Chapin said.  “The point is you make things illegal if you can’t trust people to do the right thing.  We make underage drinking illegal. We don’t leave that up to the parents.”

Are Circumcisions Healthier?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, while there is scientific evidence that demonstrates the potential medical benefits of the procedure, the data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.

Some studies have found that circumcision may reduce a man’s risk of contracting HIV and other STIs. 

But even if Schofield’s ballot measure passes in 2011, Kogen questions how the ordinance would be enforced, short of walking into someone’s home and demanding to inspect their baby’s genitalia.

“The owner of the penis would have legal recourse,” Schofield wrote in an email.  “I don't think this is going to spawn the circumcision police squad.”

Reach contributor Kelsey Borresen here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.