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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The big flap over foreskins Add to ...

Is infant circumcision a violation of human rights? More and more people seem to think so. "The foreskin is there for a reason," Lloyd Schofield likes to say. "It's not a birth defect. It serves an important function in a man's life, and nobody has a right to perform unnecessary surgery on another human being."

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San Franciscans will now have a chance to vote on that. Mr. Schofield has collected enough signatures to add a referendum question to November's ballot that would ban infant circumcision within city limits, even for religious reasons. It's loopy, but he has more support than you might think.

"How would you feel if you grew up and found out that a very intimate part of your body had been removed, 'for your own good'?" protested a reader on the Mother Jones website. Another fumed: "Practically no Americans would even dream of defending the right - for religious reasons or otherwise - to take a knife to their daughters' vaginas."

The intactivists, as they call themselves, argue that circumcision is excruciatingly painful and sexually harmful. Like the anti-choice activists, their arguments border on the hysterical. Here's Marilyn Milos, a California nurse who founded an anti-circumcision group called NOCIRC: "Only by denying the existence of excruciating pain, perinatal encoding of the brain with violence, interruption of maternal-infant bonding, betrayal of infant trust, the risks and effects of permanently altering normal genitalia, the right of human beings to sexually intact and functional bodies, and the right to individual religious freedoms can human beings continue this practice." Ms. Milos has won several prestigious nursing awards.

I think these folks are batty. There's no comparison between male and female circumcision (which, for girls, can involve the removal of much of the external sex organs). Nor do circumcised men - who include the majority of men my age - strike me as traumatized, betrayed or sexually deprived. As for the religious question, circumcision is a serious matter. For both Jews and Muslims, it's a covenant with God.

Which brings us to the delicate question: Is the anti-circumcision movement anti-Semitic?

"It probably touches upon being anti-Semitic," David Lehrer, a Jewish leader, told the Los Angeles Times.

Anti-circumcisers have dismissed the anti-Semitism issue as a slur. But now the issue has exploded, thanks to Matthew Hess. Mr. Hess, a prominent intactivist, doubles as a comic-book creator. Last week, he published a jolly little graphic novel called Foreskin Man. In it, a blond, blue-eyed Aryan-looking superhero comes to the rescue of an innocent baby who's about to be attacked by a scissors-wielding villain named Monster Mohel. (A "mohel" is a person trained to perform ritual circumcision according to Jewish law.) The villain is depicted as a hook-nosed, black-hatted Jew straight from the Nazi propaganda heyday of the 1930s.

Mr. Hess denies his work is anti-Semitic. "We're trying to be pro-human rights," he said. But as a work of satire, it's a flop. And his offensive little tract has turned the debate ugly. It has occurred to me that Mr. Hess is too young and ignorant to understand what he's doing. But that doesn't let him off the hook.

These days, circumcision is on the wane. Like bottle-feeding, it used to be the thing to do if you were a modern, educated parent. Now it's increasingly thought to be unnatural and harmful (like bottle-feeding). In Canada, only a third of infant boys are circumcised any more. Personally, I can't see that it matters one way or another. But that won't end the culture war.

 

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