The debate over circumcision has spread to Colorado, where two lawmakers are seeking to reinstate Medicaid funding for the procedure after it was cut last year.
The proposal, which is snaking its way through the state legislature, has sparked a broader conversation about circumcision in Colorado and beyond, with Jews on both sides of the issue.
“From my perspective, it is a social justice issue,” said Democratic Denver Senator Joyce Foster, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Senator Irene Aguilar. Foster is married to Steve Foster, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emmanuel, Denver’s largest Reform synagogue. “We will be denying people who are on Medicaid the choice,” she continued. “If they want to have their sons circumcised, they should be able to.”
Colorado’s anti-circumcision activists, or “intactivists,” counter that the procedure is harmful and unnecessary. They say that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“Why should taxpayer money pay for something that is not a medical benefit?” said Miriam Pollack, a Boulder educator who is a member of the Colorado chapter of National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers.
“When we make a decision as taxpayers to offer this as if it were beneficial,” she added, “we need to say: ‘Here is what this part of the body does. Do you really want it removed?’”
California held a heated circumcision debate last fall, centering on efforts to ban the practice. In Colorado, a state known for its tight purse strings, the conversation has to do with public funding for circumcision. Pollack, for one, said she did not support an outright prohibition.
Colorado removed Medicaid funding for circumcision last summer in an effort to trim the state’s budget, making it the 17th state in the country to do so. According to Foster, the state saved $184,000 last year by not covering circumcisions. Since then, the share of male babies receiving the procedure has dropped very slightly, by about 1%.
Foster said she sees circumcision as a health issue, not a religious one.
“I happen to be Jewish. I happen to be committed to health issues for all people, and an opportunity for all people to receive the best care possible,” she said.
Colorado’s organized Jewish groups have not taken a position on the bill, viewing it as a matter of budget policy rather than religion.
Foster’s bill passed the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee in early February on a vote of 6–3. Because the bill has fiscal implications, it must pass out of the Senate Appropriations Committee before it goes to a vote on the Senate floor. If it succeeds, the Colorado House of Representatives will take it up.
On February 2, the Health and Human Services Committee hosted a lively session over the bill, with doctors and activists making their cases for and against the measure.
The back-and-forth was reminiscent of debates in California last fall, where anti-circumcision groups attempted to outlaw the procedure. In San Francisco, activists collected 12,000 signatures to put a measure on the ballot making circumcision of males younger than 18 years of age a misdemeanor. But the effort was blocked by a judge who said it infringed on religious freedom. A similar attempt in Santa Monica was dropped.
In October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill prohibiting local circumcision bans.
At the time, major Jewish groups came out against the anti-circumcision proposals. The Anti-Defamation League was a party in a suit to block the initiative.
Foster, the main backer of the Colorado bill, said she believes that cutting Medicaid coverage for circumcision sent a message of support to anti-circumcision activists who want see the procedure outlawed nationwide. She is determined to push back against that effort.
“Ultimately, I think when the anti-circumcision people begin to see so many states denying benefits,” Foster said, “it will be easier for them now to make their case that circumcision should be banned altogether.”
Pollack, who opposes circumcision, disagrees. “I think it wouldn’t work,” she said of a national ban.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.