Circumcision, Religion and the Rights of the Child

By Christina Love

What follows is my contribution to a conversation on Facebook about circumcision (specifically metzitzah b' peh - a rare part of Jewish circumcision.)

I will say that I am not Jewish or religious (spiritual, yes), but I am a Genital Integrity Educator. The subject of intact genitalia, namely foreskin (an organ al mammals have), and circumcision are topics I cannot resist, so I'm weighing in here.

When it comes to circumcision, one must consider their own bias. In many cases, the countless psychological issues it is infused with prevail over logic and research. Circumcision is practiced by many tribes and religions around the world. However, 85% of the world's men are intact. Among Muslims, it is cultural and the age of the boy being circumcised varies. Circumcision is not specified or required by the Qur'an. Among Jews, it is said to be a Covenant and required on the 8th day of life. However, a child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, regardless. Hygienic justifications for genital cutting arose out of the many claims used to justify the practice of circumcision that began in Western English-speaking countries in the late 1800s. Circumcision was purported to cure masturbation, which at the time, was thought to cause all sorts of other maladies (i.e. epilepsy, blindness, paralysis, etc.). See:

Currently, the circumcision rate in the United States is approximately 50%, the majority of which are infant sons of non-Jewish, non-Muslim, Americans. The most popular reasons cited by these American parents are to 'look like dad' ('He'll wonder why he's different,' aesthetic, social conformity, etc.), for 'hygiene' and to 'prevent infection' - namely urinary tract infections (UTIs) and HIV/AIDS.

We are social creatures with a need to belong, but if logic and research prevailed, non-religious circumcision would be abandoned overnight. Although the state of one's sex organs evoke ego in a way that appears absent from having or missing one's tonsils, consider our history with routine tonsillectomy. Once we became aware of the tonsils' functions, removing them for preventative measures became obsolete. Now this surgery is a last resort: Today, we simply do not accept amputating body parts for prevention of disease (i.e. removal of breast buds in girls to preclude the high probability - 1 in 8 - of breast cancer later in life; removal of diabetics' feet to avert infection and amputation; etc).

Many religious texts refer to stoning people, killing, and having slaves. I'm no expert in this area, but we've clearly discarded these things as inhumane and cruel. And no one, at least in this country, would be able to plead innocence from the above on the grounds of their religion.

If we were talking about cutting girls' genitals, would it suffice to justify the practice because of a religious or cultural mandate? Should we allow it for the sake of tolerance? Since 1997, it has been a felony in the U.S. to cut a minor-aged girl's genitals in any way (even a nick) regardless of culture, custom, religion, or parental preference: Globally, female genital cutting is less common than male genital cutting, and more of the world is ready to abandon it via laws that prohibit it. While I was in Washington, D.C. demonstrating for Genital Integrity Awareness Week, two Sudanese fathers with their families proudly explained that cutting girls is now illegal in their country. One of the women had been cut as a child, but their young daughter was kept intact. I asked about the sons; the boys had been circumcised and both fathers defended their reasons for doing so.

How can we cling to the notion that one sex has rights that the other does not? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the equal rights of men and women without distinction of any kind, including religion, and declares in Article 3 that everyone has the right to security of person:

Today we hold in high regard the tolerance of different religions, various cultures, and countless human belief systems - 'can't we all just get along and create peace on earth?' But some things have been rejected as unacceptable behavior in today's world (i.e. bloodletting, animal sacrifice, tattooing children, etc.). How can we uphold the human rights of infants while making exception only for those born of one sex and to parents who practice particular religious acts? That's the crux! We've outlawed female genital cutting of minors, regardless of parents' religion, but ignored male genital cutting of minors because it's too hot to touch with two major religions involved (as witnessed with the June court ruling in Cologne, Germany). The German court concluded that circumcision was not in the interest of the child and should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent. After condemnation by both Jewish and Muslim leaders, German lawmakers approved a bill in December that explicitly permits male infant circumcision, thereby allowing a parent's right to proxy consent to trump a child's right to bodily autonomy. &

Religious freedom of one person ends where another person's body begins when it comes to cutting off healthy, functioning parts or marking the flesh permanently. Additionally, all American boys would truly be served by the American Academy of Pediatrics (which claims dedication to the health of all children) if they retracted their most recent position statement on circumcision and fully disclosed all of the research and risks, including a thorough analysis of the functions of foreskin. According to an article in Pediatrics, "[pediatric health care providers] have legal and ethical duties to their child patients to render competent medical care based on what the patient needs, not what someone else expresses. ...the pediatrician's responsibilities to his or her patient exist independent of parental desires or proxy consent."

All children have a right to their bodily integrity being protected. Unfortunately we have not yet fully awakened to the human rights violation of permanently altering and amputating the most sensitive part of a non-consenting minor-aged boy's genitals. All movements take time. Slavery in the U.S. did not end overnight. This, too, will one day be a thing of the past.

Here are intelligent, insightful and thorough related resources:

~Functions of the Foreskin: Purposes of the Prepuce

~Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities

~Global Survey of Circumcision Harm

~Questioning Circumcision

~The Other Side of the Circumcision Debate

~Jewish Circumcision Resource Center

~Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power
I remember when I first learned about the phenomenon of female genital cutting. I was appalled. ... "It's who we are, who we've been for thousands of years." "No one will marry us if we're not cut." "Intact genitalia are ugly." "They are unhygienic." Then, I realized... we say the same things. ... Holding a child down and forcibly removing genitalia is sexual abuse. We would not hesitate to use that label for an individual or culture that countenanced sexual fondling of children. Why do we think slicing off genitals is acceptable? ... Neither in biblical texts nor in the Talmud has brit milah been commanded for hygienic reasons. ... The truth is that the whole baby is pure, body and soul, including his tender genitals, and it is both a mitzvah and our most sacred duty to protect him. -Miriam Pollack
~Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective "Challenging circumcision can be an attack on Jewish identity only if Jewish women don't count, for Jewish women have survived and kept their identities intact for millennia without any need of altering their bodies." -Miriam Pollack

~Miriam Pollack on Jewish Circumcision (two videos)

Using a Catheter Without Retraction: My Nurse Did It and So Can Yours!

By Samantha Jones

My baby boy was admitted to the hospital this evening after several hours of vomiting and becoming weak and lethargic. He could barely open his eyes when we arrived. An IV was started and hospital staff wanted a urine sample and decided to use a catheter for collection. I am well aware of proper intact care and catheter insertion, so holding my baby, I looked this nurse dead in the eye and said clearly, "DO NOT RETRACT HIM."

She replied, "Not even a little...?"

I clarified, "No. Not even a little. Not at all."

And with that, this Indiana ER nurse began her first catheter insertion on an intact baby boy without so much as a hint of retraction. In the middle of the process she said, "I don't know how to do it like this..." But she figured it out, as nurses the world over do each day, and the catheter was inserted quickly and simply.

No retraction took place.

Unfortunately, no urine came out with the catheter due to dehydration. When the nurse came back into the room later I thanked her for not retracting my son. We had a nice discussion about circumcision and she mentioned that the word around the hospital is that Indiana Medicaid is going to stop covering routine infant circumcision! This was good news to me - but not so much to her. She continued on about 'parents not cleaning' and 'gunk getting in there.' I corrected the myths I've heard so many times before, but I'm not sure she believed me. There is still so much work to be done in our state. It brought me to tears all over again.

Standing up to medical professionals can make me nervous - especially when my baby boy's wellbeing is at stake. I was in a state of panic - so concerned for him, and having to defend and protect him from forced retraction at the same time. Parents of intact boys should not have to face such things when they enter hospitals today.

Once this nurse realized she had no choice but to insert this catheter without retraction, it took her all of 30 seconds to complete the task. That is how easy it really is! I am sharing this first hand experience with other parents so you know that catheterization can be done without retracting at all - even if a nurse has absolutely no prior experience in using a catheter with intact boys, and has no knowledge of proper intact care. Even in the midst of a very circumcision-happy hospital, in the heart of a pro-cutting state, it can easily be done. It is my hope that this gives others more confidence in your quick decision making and ability to stand up on behalf of your own sons.

Please see: Urine Samples and Catheter Insertion for Intact Boys and the comments that follow.

Care reminder stickers for use on diaper tabs during doctor visits, nursery time or at daycare.

Physicians' Don't Retract Packs
with pediatric organization statements

Not 'Normal'

By Jenny M. © 2013

I never questioned it.

Well, I did bring it up once before you were born, "Are we going to circumcise...?" It really was a rhetorical question. Duh, of course we are. So you 'look like Daddy,' so you're 'normal' in the locker room, and because we're not hippies.

Fast forward to two days after you were born. You are perfect. We drive to the pediatrician's office. I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach -- an uncomfortable feeling. You are perfect and I don't want to hurt you. But I do it anyway. It's the right thing... the normal thing to do. And I am normal.

All the doctors are waiting. Daddy is waiting. Other patients are waiting. It's not a big deal, therefore this must be right.

They won't let me come with you and I cry while I'm waiting for you to come back. "Clearly, an emotional postpartum mother" they say.

I hate this. Why are we doing this? 

And you're back. I am nursing you the best I can to comfort you. You are so tiny - just two days old.

Then, suddenly, there is blood oozing out of your tiny diaper!

Apparently I ruptured the clot while holding you. "Oh, God, I am so sorry!"

The doctor just warns us to be careful next time. This must be normal.

Fast forward a couple weeks. I am bringing you back to the doctor's office because I know something's not right. You cry so much when I have to push back the remaining foreskin and, though I'm not an expert on penises, I think the ridge of the head of your penis should be more pronounced. Doctor says, naturally, "It's reattaching. Sometimes it tries to heal itself."

This is normal? 

The doctor then tells me to hold you down while he grips your penis and pushes back on the foreskin. Hard. You scream! I cry. You bleed. This is abhorrent.

"Yes, this is normal. This is how it's done."

Fast forward two weeks later. Your penis is trying to adhere again. This time I know. I also know you need anesthetic. Why didn't they give it to you the last time? So I ask, and he seems surprised, but he gives me a tube and sends us home, only to come back the next day after I've kept the numbing cream on you for a couple hours. The doctor would have actually cut into you again without anesthetic?!

This is not right.

This is not normal! 

Back again. The doctor uses an instrument similar to a scalpel to cut your adhering foreskin. You cry, it still hurts you, and you bleed.

I am crushed.
I am defeated.
I made the wrong choice.

I never meant to hurt you, over and over. I am the one who is supposed to protect you. I am the one who is supposed to make the right choices for you. I am your Mother. I am so sorry, my beautiful, perfect angel.

I didn't know.
I was ignorant.
I am sickened.

This marked the beginnings of changes in my many parenting perceptions and beliefs I had before you were born. I needed to write this in hopes of being able to forgive myself. You may not remember your circumcision, but I cannot forget it.

I love you so much.

❤ Mama

Note:  My son is now 21 months old and, I am proud to say his 1 month old brother is intact. I fought long, and I fought hard, to convince Daddy to keep our second baby whole. I just couldn't ignore my intuition and, after learning so much more, I couldn't ignore my conscience. Both my sons are perfect; but I worry more about my eldest son asking me why I did it than my youngest asking why I didn't.

Related Reading, Resources and Groups:

I Circumcised My Son: Healing From Regret

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