Vriezen: San Francisco bill will protect newborns, allow men the freedom to choose

Claire Vriezen

I must begin with acknowledging that by nature of being female, I am not as qualified as some to be addressing this issue. But as a human being, concerned with human rights, I am indeed allowed to comment.

Citizens of San Francisco are working to pass a bill that would outlaw male circumcision until the child reaches the age of 18. The bill would allow for exceptions if the procedure was deemed medically relevant, and the person performing the circumcision must be a medical practitioner where the procedure is performed. No exceptions will be made for those that desire their child to undergo the operation as a matter of custom or tradition.

Although circumcision rates among male newborns has decreased in the past few years, 32 percent of male infants are still having bits of their anatomy snipped off after leaving the womb. It baffles me how widely accepted this practice still is, despite it’s similarity to female genital mutilation. In both cases, young children or newborns are subjected to a procedure that removes part of their sexual anatomy — half the time without anesthetic — because their parents judge it to be acceptable.

But isn’t it the job of the parents to know what is good for their children? Sure, for the most part. But when decisions result in the surgical removal of a normal, healthy part of anatomy, rationale must be called into question.

There’s a reason the American Medical Association, as well as most of the medical community, term male circumcision as “non-therapeutic.” In many other developed countries — Canada, the Netherlands and other European countries — medical societies strongly recommend against routine circumcision of males. There is no immediate reason for the majority of male newborns to be circumcised.

The main medically based argument for circumcision seems to be that it reduces the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Most commonly cited are studies that provide a positive correlation between higher HIV rates and lack of circumcision. The World Health Organization has decided the relevant research is compelling enough to recognize male circumcision as a way to reduce the risk of HIV infection, though others claim the studies conducted have exaggerated data and overlooked confounding factors.

Regardless, this still does not provide a basis for circumcising infants. Is an infant expected to participate in sexual behaviors that could result in HIV exposure? I should hope not. Is circumcision the only way to reduce HIV risks? No. Condoms remain an effective way to combat HIV exposure and safe-sex education and practices are much preferred options when seeking to reduce STI rates.

Perhaps an even more common defense of circumcision is the claim that it is a cultural or religious decision of the parents. This defense has even less basis than medically related evidence. To again make the comparison, female genital mutilation is a common cultural or religious practice in many African, Middle Eastern and Asian regions. Yet, we regard this act with disgust, and we pity the young girls forced to endure it.

Research on female genital mutilation has even resulted in some reports linking it to lower HIV rates, but this does nothing to quell our horror. Certain cultural practices that result in the genital mutilation of an infant — male or female — should most certainly be subject to scrutiny.

But what about those that desire to circumcise their child for religious reasons? The most obvious example is Judaism. Circumcision is required by Jewish law, so shouldn’t children born into Jewish families be circumcised? Freedom of religion allows people to practice what they want, right?

This is true, up until the point where religion crosses ethical lines. There have been court cases where the medical needs of the child violated the religious beliefs of the parents, and the courts tend to rule that the life and health of the child overrides the religious dictates of the parents.

Religious circumcisions should follow the same guidelines. In this case, medically irrelevant amputation of the foreskin on an infant crosses similar ethical boundaries. If treating a child for disease overrides the religion of the parents, shouldn’t preserving the child’s anatomy fall under the same protection?

I do not know whether the bill put forth in San Francisco will amount to anything, but I hope the decline of circumcision among newborn males continues. Infants need not be subjected to an undoubtedly painful procedure with dubious medical benefits. With only a third of the world’s male population circumcised, a good deal of men seem to be getting along just fine without the procedure.

To promote male circumcision is to promote the marring of a normal body and to promote needless pain for newborns. If young men reach 18 and find they are willing to undergo the operation and become circumcised for whatever reason they choose, that is their prerogative.  Whether they deem the alleged benefits valid or whether they have religious, cultural, or personal motivations, it should be their decision to remove a part of their body, and no one else’s.