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The Third International Symposium on Circumcision was held from May 22-25, 1994, at the University of Maryland, College Park, Washington DC. I was invited to the symposium to speak of the attitudes of Muslims regarding male and female circumcision 193. The following report on the symposium gives an idea about the problem of male circumcision in the United States.
The symposium was organized by NOCIRC 194, and was attended by a hundred or so people belonging to the three great monotheistic religions (Christians, Jews and Muslims), coming from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, England, France, Switzerland, Somalia and Egypt.
About forty of the symposium attendees delivered speeches, which were followed by open debates. We also viewed two films, one on male circumcision in the United States, and the other on female circumcision in Somalia.
Every aspect of circumcision was considered: medical, psychological, economic, religious and legal. My own speech concerned circumcision within Islamic law. It was preceded and followed by speeches on circumcision within Christianity and Judaism.
An exposition of photographs and art work was arranged in a room where one could also purchase or receive gratis numerous materials and publications produced primarily by the conference attendees and other groups that attended the symposium.
The symposium concluded on May 25th with a banquet during which
awards were presented to individuals who had contributed to the fight against
male and female circumcision. On May 26th there was a demonstration in
Washington DC against circumcision (see below).
As its title indicates, this symposium was the third of its kind. Although female circumcision was discussed, this symposium principally dealt with male circumcision, which demonstrates in itself that this form of circumcision is a real problem, especially in the United States. What is the nature of this problem?
Infant circumcision in the United States began not for medical or religious reasons, but for social reasons. It began in the 1870s as a Victorian attempt to prevent or cure masturbation, which at the time was believed to cause bedwetting, alcoholism, insanity, curvature of the spine and other physical and mental disorders. The practice spread from England concurrently to other English-speaking countries (Canada, Australia and the United States).
When the masturbation theory was dispelled and declared false in 1948 by the British National Health Service, the rate of circumcision was reduced to less than 0.5% in England. The rate of circumcision in Canada and in Australia also was lowered, but remains still around 20%.
In the United States, with the development of hospitalized births, male infant circumcision remains a common practice. The American medical community has tried to find "medical" justifications for the continuation of circumcision. Even today, the United States remains the only country on earth where the majority of male infants are circumcised for non-religious reasons. This rate is today 60% with differences from one region to another. Approximately 3'300 babies each day are submitted to circumcision in American hospitals. This represents more than 1'25 million children circumcised each year. Several babies die as a consequence of the operation, which is performed without anaesthesia, and which results in numerous medical complications. Circumcision is considered today as one of the reasons for the violence which rages in American society, where the crime rate is six times larger than that in Europe: That which society does to its children, its children do to society. In effect, circumcision injures the brain of the child. It also impairs the normal functioning of the adult sexuality. On average one forth of the skin of the baby's penis is amputated. This has forced many Americans to seek restoration of their foreskin (see below). Many authorities estimate that the violence done to the infant during circumcision plays a role in the fatal conflicts in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews, two groups that practice circumcision.
In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics has adopted
a neutral position towards male circumcision, leaving the decision to parents.
One cannot say, however, that they are properly informed of the implication
of their decision. Circumcision takes place in hospitals in the first days
of life. Doctors rarely give information on the benefits or risks of the
surgery. They even exert psychological pressure by expressing disapproval
when parents refuse to consent to the operation. The operation has become
a sort of routine, notably in the lower and middle classes. It is performed
in a barbarous (this word is not too strong) manner by doctors with clear
financial motivations, at the request of ignorant parents, and in any case,
it is forced upon infants who cannot express their wishes in the matter.
Certainly, in rare instances, circumcision can be useful in the treatment
of certain diseases like phimosis (but even in this case, there are medical
means of treatment without resorting to circumcision). But the real practice
of male circumcision in the United States, like everywhere else in the
world, denotes a trivialization responsible for a contemptuous regard for
the physical integrity of the child.
During the symposium, the participants tried to see how one could put an end to male circumcision. In order to do this, it is necessary to consider the roles of those responsible for the practice of circumcision.
1. The doctors
Doctors form an imposing body that is very difficult to confront. The participants of the symposium expressed little confidence in them. One participant indicated that it was pointless to try to convince doctors, for like all lobbies, they are against society. Doctors profit by the operation of circumcision and one can hardly expect them to willingly reduce their income. Circumcision and the commerce of the foreskin constitutes a lucrative industry in the United States, amounting to several hundred million dollars a year. Despite this, some doctors have been converted and have become opponents of circumcision, especially those at the end of their careers who have less to loose. Some came to bring their testimony and to argue against circumcision. One of these gave to NOCIRC the Circumstraint tray 195 on which he used to perform circumcisions and delivered an address entitled, "Leave it alone!".
2. The nurses
Nurses also participate in circumcision. These nurses can be easily mobilized against circumcision by reason of the atrocious suffering they have witnessed during the circumcision of babies. Circumcision is performed without anaesthesia. We viewed a film of the operation and heard repeatedly the screams of the infant being operated upon. It was truly unbearable. It is not an accident that circumcision is always performed behind closed doors, the parents not being permitted to watch. The baby is strapped by its hands and feet and immobilized on a molded plastic tray which conforms to its body. The foreskin is pulled to its maximum length and crushed by a metal clamp before it is sliced off with a scalpel. We saw one of these plastic trays: a veritable instrument of torture.
Nurses, however, fear that they will be relieved of their duties and dismissed if as conscientious objectors they refuse to participate in the operation. The founder of NOCIRC, for example, was a nurse. She lost her job because of her opposition to circumcision. Actually, it would seem that opposition is now becoming easier to assert. A dozen nurses from St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico (of which several were Jewish) 196, were present at the symposium and gave us their reasons for taking their decision. These reasons are:
3. The insurance companies
Insurance companies could play an important role in the abolition of male circumcision. In Canada, where insurance companies refuse to pay the cost of circumcision, the rate of circumcision is falling dramatically. This is also the case in certain American states. The organizers and participants of the symposium would like to convince the insurance companies to cease covering the expense of male circumcision.
4. The religions
Male circumcision is practiced by the adherents of the three monotheistic religions: Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Concerning Jews, the mandate for male circumcision comes from the Bible. There one reads:
Muslims systematically practice male circumcision. However, the Koran makes no mention of circumcision. On the contrary, one can find verses which can be interpreted as being against circumcision:
The practice of male circumcision among Muslims derives from the practice of the Jews: Each Muslim must be circumcised like Abraham, who is considered a model man. One invokes also the recitations attributed to Mohammed. These recitations, however, were collected 200 years after the death of Mohammed.
Concerning Christians, Saint Paul advocates circumcision of the heart instead of circumcision of the flesh (Epistle to the Romans 2:29). Despite this, there is a trend among evangelical Christians in the United States, who follow the Bible to the letter and who believe that this book contains principles of medical science which the believer must follow, such as circumcision. According to them, "what is good enough for the Chosen People, is good enough for all mankind". Mormons too practice circumcision even though their holy book considers the dictates of the Bible concerning circumcision to be obsolete.
5. International organizations
International organizations refuse to involve themselves in this issue. They are afraid of being considered anti-Semitic. This is the case notably with the World Health Organization, The Population Council of the UN, the Inter-African Committee, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. These organizations, responsible for overseeing the respect of human rights, are always ready to criticize -correctly so - female circumcision, but have become accomplices in the violation of the rights of male infants to an intact body. The fear of anti-Semitism paralyzes them.
6. National legislature: Towards a criminalization of Male circumcision
Is it necessary to pass a law criminalizing male circumcision? This was the question that arose frequently at the symposium. Although numerous Jews who are opposed to circumcision attended the symposium, they were generally against the adoption of such a law. The majority of participants, however, were of the opinion that a law should be enacted which criminalizes male circumcision along with female circumcision. There is no reason to distinguish between the two forms of circumcision: both are mutilations of healthy sexual organs of non-consenting children. There is no justification for such mutilations. If the foreskin were useless, Nature would not have make it. It is imperative in any case to leave the child intact until the age of 18 when he will have the freedom to decide for himself whether he wants to be circumcised or not. He is then even free to have his ears amputated if he chooses, but one does not have the right for forcibly remove his body parts when he is a baby.
I was the only lawyer present at the symposium. I requested that next time the organizers should invite other lawyers and professors of law in order to be able to begin a law project with the aim of condemning male and female circumcision. I also proposed:
Certainly, the adoption of a law criminalizing male circumcision would provoke the anger and opposition of the Jews. But if a law were adopted, the United States would be the first to be able to do so because of its unconditional support of Israel. This is the only country which need have no fear of being considered anti-Semitic, and it is in this country that opposition to circumcision is the best organized.
This title may cause laughter. It is actually a technique known in the past, notably in the Hellenistic Period (323-30 B.C.) and the Roman Empire (27 B.C. to 140 A.D.). It is being revived in the United States.
This technique starts with the viewpoint that male circumcision is an affront to the physical integrity and an impairment of the normal functioning of the male organ, especially when a large part of the foreskin is amputated. This technique consists in stretching the skin of the penis in order to compensate for the parts removed in circumcision. One must pull the skin of the penis and tape it in place in the first stage before suspending metallic objects of a certain fixed weight using surgical tape. The process takes about 15 months before the skin of the penis returns to the length it would have had had it not been circumcised.
This technique was used by Jim Bigelow on himself and on others 197. Jim Bigelow is not a physician, but a psychologist. He earned his doctorate in psychology at Claremont Graduate School and served as a Professor of Psychology at Whittier College. He also pastored several Evangelical churches. He has explained this technique in a book 198. I bought this book, which is full of observations not only about restoration of the foreskin, but also about circumcision in general, notably as it is practised in the United States. It is a scientific publication, 239 pages long, very serious and heavily documented. It is probably the most vibrant attack on male circumcision ever written.
Jim Bigelow is a charming man, full of humor. He was present at the symposium. He delivered a speech using many slides. He did not hesitate to mention his history of success and confessed to me at the end that he wrote the book in the spirit of Christian charity. The restoration of the foreskin using his method was successfully achieved by hundreds of circumcised men, not only Christians, but also Jews (a fact which has not failed to provoke the anger of Rabbis). Received at first with skepticism by the medical community, his publication and his technique has ended by being recognized. Several Europeans have tried it. Two doctors even came to the symposium from Australia. Testimony from numerous Christians and Jews in the auditorium offered support to Jim Bigelow, and confessed that they experienced an enormous increase in sexual pleasure after restoration. Furthermore, many support groups for circumcised men wishing to restore their foreskin exist all over the United States, and even in Europe with the mission of providing free advice and moral support 199.
V. DEMONSTRATION IN WASHINGTON
On the 26 of May the organizers of the symposium and the participants made a demonstration in Washington in front of the Physicians Committee for responsible medicine (P.O.Box 6322, Washington DC 20015). Many participants brought with them copies of their birth certificates, signed by the doctor who circumcised them. In front of this organization they burned their birth certificates along with copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which does not protect the rights of children against sexual mutilation. As this organization is situated across the street from a national television station, several photographers and cameramen were present at the demonstration.
The director of the organization (Mr. Neal Barnard, M. D.) asked that the demonstrators form a committee to meet him. The president of NOCIRC, the president of NOHARMM 200, two other members of NOCIRC, a Jewish nurse, who is a conscientious objector who refuses to participate in circumcision, and myself (a Christian of Palestinian origin) were selected. The discussion lasted about 45 minutes.
The director was very nice and allowed each a chance to speak. I introduced myself as a Swiss Lawyer, a Christian of Palestinian origin, and the nurse introduced herself as an American Jew, proud to be in my company as a Palestinian. This served to relax the director. He said that there were so many medical problems to regulate in the United States that he could not take up the problem of circumcision without ignoring some other problem. He also mentioned the budget problem, to which we replied, that by beginning with respect for the child, he would have less to bother with and at the same time would save a lot of money. As for our goals, we told him that it was necessary to educate parents and to make a law forbidding male as well as female circumcision. The child does not give his consent, and in the case of circumcision the parents cannot give such consent. In any case, in order for the parents to give valid consent, it is necessary that they be informed, which is never the case in the United States. I expressed my indignation at the high and unjustified rate of circumcision performed in the United States; a practice which violates the same human rights which the United States pretend to defend.
After leaving the meeting with the director, the Jewish nurse and I declared before the cameras that this marked the very first time in human history that a Jew and a Palestinian stood united to protect each others children instead of killing them as in the Middle East. We were very proud indeed.
This feeling of pride was shared by all the participants of the symposium. All had the sense of being pioneers and that taking this position had historic significance. It is the first time in history that a group has decided to fight to put an end to a practice unanimously considered to be barbaric and degrading.
The various speeches of the symposium are being published. I fervently
hope that the European medical community will take an interest in this
research and will take a position against both male and female circumcision.
I especially hope that European nurses will follow the example of the courageous
Santa Fe nurses and will refuse to assist in any more circumcisions.
That is why there is no valid justification of the distinction made between male and female circumcision. Doctor Zwang goes further: "Female circumcision will never stop as long as male circumcision is going on. How do you expect to convince an African father to leave his daughter uncircumcised as long as you let him do it to his son?" 201 There is no alternative but to condemn the attitude of international and non-governmental organizations which dissociate one type of circumcision from the other, giving legitimacy to male circumcision in the process.
Religion has been a means of justifying both male and female circumcision. It is time to expose the irrationality behind this thinking and reveal the harmful influence of some religious circles which are in favour of it or refuse to denounce it.
That is the goal of this study which, I hope, will contribute to the respect of the rights of all children.
193 The title of my speech: "To mutilate in the name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female circumcision".
194 National organization of circumcision information resource centers, P.O.Box 2512, San Anselmo, CA 94979-2512, USA, tel. (415) 488-9883, fax (415) 488-9883. This is the most important organization in the fight against male and female circumcision. It was founded and is presided over by Marilyn Fayre Milos, a nurse who was fired for her views on this subject.
195 The tray on which an infant is strained while a doctor performs a circumcision on him.
196 Contact: Nurses of St. Vincent Hospital, c/o Ann Lown, R.N., P.O.Box 8824, Santa Fe, NM 87504, USA.
197 Address: Mr. Jim Bigelow, P.O.Box 52138, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, USA. Tel/Fax (408) 315-4326.
198 Jim Bigelow: The Joy of Uncircumcising, restore your birthright and maximize sexual pleasure, published by Hourglass, Book publishing, P.O.Box 171, Aptos, CA 95001, USA.
199 Address: Mr. R. Wayne Griffiths, RECAP - UNCIRC, 3205 Northwood Drive, Suite 209, Concord, CA 94520-4506, USA. Tel. (510) 827-4077, Fax (510) 827-4119.
200 National organization to halt the abuse and routine mutilation of males (NOHARMM), P.O.Box 460795, San Francisco, CA 94146-0795, USA, Tel/Fax 415-826-9351. This organization was found and is presided over by Mr. Tim Hammond.
201 Conversation by phone on January 7, 1993.