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Cutting Out Science

The activists from California to Norway who are working to approve ballot initiatives and legislation to ban circumcision probably don’t realize it, but they share something in common with the faith healers currently on trial in Oregon. What ties these disparate stories together is a deep-seated ignorance about and mistrust of medical science.

The hottest and most potent of these examples is an initiative on the November ballot in San Francisco to outlaw any attempt to “circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis” of anyone under 18, punishable with a fine of $1,000 and up to one year in jail. Santa Monica is also trying to get into the act with its own proposal; thanks to California’s ridiculous system of ballot initiatives, it’s possible other cities will follow suit.

Proponents of the ban argue that circumcision is akin to mutilation, an unjustified disfigurement performed on an infant’s body without his consent. Their contentions are wrapped in ethical concerns, and don’t (they claim) have to do with the two religions that have traditionally performed circumcision, Judaism and Islam.

This is, frankly, hard to believe, but let’s give the activists the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If circumcision was, indeed, a form of brutal mutilation, if it posed health dangers or significantly altered the quality of life, if unsuspecting infants were subjected to a harmful ritual just for the sake of religious piety — if all those things were true, then the government would have not just a right, but an obligation to overrule parents and protect the child. (See below: faith healers.)

But that’s simply not the case. Medical studies have shown a very low rate of complications associated with newborn circumcision; most of those complications were considered mild and not life-threatening. There are, however, well-documented health benefits to the practice, enough to prompt the World Health Organization in 2007 to endorse it as “an important intervention to reduce the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV.” The Mayo Clinic has also noted lower risk of urinary tract infections and penile cancer in circumcised men.

These benefits were not strong enough to persuade the American Academy of Pediatrics to endorse newborn circumcision for all male babies. (Our continent, unlike Africa, is not ravaged by heterosexually transmitted HIV/AIDS.) But the AAP didn’t move to ban it, either, and instead said that parents should be able to decide.

Activists seeking to ban male circumcision try to play the gender card, arguing that if female genital mutilation is outlawed — and it is in this country — then so should it be for boys. But the analogy defies medical science because the procedures are not the same. Female genital mutilation bestows no health benefits and carries terrible long-term health consequences, which is why both the AAP and the WHO firmly oppose it, calling it medically abusive and a violation of human rights.

Government does have an interest in maintaining the health and well-being of children unable to care for themselves. The state of Oregon learned this the hard way: A married couple in Oregon City is now standing trial on first-degree criminal mistreatment charges, accused of treating their baby daughter’s head tumor with useless faith healing techniques and refusing verified medical procedures. The trial comes as the state legislature voted almost unanimously to repeal the last remnants of a 1995 law that gave legal protection to parents who, for religious reasons, refused to seek medical care for their children.

Oregon has a long history of leaving faith healers alone, but repeated examples of children who died or were severely ill because of parental behavior pierced official consciences and prompted the repeal. The balance between protecting the public welfare and protecting faith practices was all wrong.

So the anti-circumcision activists are right to question whether faith deserves special protection, but they fail to acknowledge that their battle isn’t really with faith. It’s with science. And the science is neutral enough to allow parents to choose, a choice that some Jewish and Muslim parents have made for centuries, a choice that any parent should be allowed to make without interference from a misguided reading of scientific experience.

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