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Should San Francisco ban infant circumcision?

June 9, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Voters in San Francisco will be asked in November to decide whether to ban circumcision for boys under age 18.

Proponents of a ban argue that it is medically unnecessary, carries some risk of harm and diminished sensitivity, and that it is simply not appropriate to permanently alter a child's body without his consent. They often point out that most states have banned the far more drastic surgery called female circumcision or female genital mutilation, a tribal and cultural custom often performed on little girls in African and Arabic countries.

Not surprisingly, there is vociferous opposition to the proposed ban on male circumcision for minors coming from all directions. Jewish organizations object because the "brit milah" or covenant of circumcision is an important religious ceremony for Jews that must be performed on all healthy males at the age of 8 days. Muslims also routinely circumcise sons, though sometimes later in childhood. Other religious leaders have chimed in, claiming a ban is anti-Semitic and would be an assault on freedom of religion and parental rights.

I wrote a few stories on the issue when I was covering medical issues back in the mid 1990s and talked with people who are adamantly opposed. At the time I read many horror stories about babies circumcised without anesthetic and botched circumcisions. I also recall a 2004 lawsuit in the state alleging that doctors were negligent when they circumcised a boy at a Fargo hospital because they failed to inform his parents of all the risks of circumcision. That lawsuit failed, as have efforts to have circumcision banned in other locales.

I found that a lot of the people who are most adamantly opposed to circumcision tend to be "crunchy mothers," the women who also believe in co-sleeping, cloth diapers, long-term breast feeding and attachment parenting and other practices. They believe in "gentle" methods of parenting and are against permanently altering a child's body or allowing a baby boy to undergo such a medical procedure within days of his birth, sometimes without adequate anesthetic.

People who favor circumcision for non-religious reasons seem to do so because they want father and son to look alike or because they believe there are health benefits. When the child is given adequate pain medication and the operation is done in infancy, they say there is little to no pain and a boy will suffer no ill effects.

For cultural and religious reasons, more American boys are circumcised than elsewhere in the western world. In Europe it has become fairly uncommon. Last year a Netherlands medical association took the position that circumcision could be considered an assault on a boy's bodily integrilty and that there is some reason for it to be outlawed.

American medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and American Association of Pediatrics take a more measured approach. Both say the benefits of the procedure are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision of newborn boys, though they recognize the religious and cultural significance of it for American parents. Essentially, the American doctors say it is a decision parents should make in consultation with their doctors, after hearing the arguments for and against.

Even in liberal San Francisco, I don't think there are many people who would vote in favor of a circumcision ban, but the debate gives plenty of food for thought.


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