By Steven Philp
San Francisco prides itself on its progressive politics. Yet a proposal to ban circumcision, which city election officials confirmed had gathered enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, has put its local legislature in the center of a national debate concerning what has traditionally been considered the purview of individual families. According to an article on the Huffington Post, the proposed ban was approved with 7,700 valid signatures from San Francisco residents; to qualify an initiative must have at least 7,168 signatories. If the measure is approved by voters, circumcision would be prohibited for all male children under the age of 18; violation of the ban would be considered a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $1000 or up to one year in jail. The proposal includes no exemptions for religious communities.
The ban has been championed by self-described “inactivist” Lloyd Schofield, a longtime San Francisco resident. Speaking to the Huffington Post he argued that circumcision is an unnecessary procedure comparable to genital mutilation; it can be painful and cause permanent damage to the male anatomy. “Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what’s in the best interest of the child,” he explained. “It’s his body. It’s his choice.” Schofield’s convictions are not without precedent. With good hygiene the norm in developed nations like the United States, cleanliness is less of a concern for uncircumcised men. As detailed in a study published by the Journal of Urology, it is accepted knowledge that the procedure – by removing sensitive nerve endings found in the foreskin – can reduce penile sensitivity for circumcised men.
Yet creating a parallel with female genital mutilation is misleading; where male circumcision can reduce sensation through the removal of the foreskin, the vast majority of circumcised men are able to have fulfilling sex lives. Female genital cutting, on the other hand, entails the complete or partial excision of the clitoris, inner labia and/or outer labia, often preventing pleasure from sexual intercourse and introducing complications during childbirth. According to information posted by the World Health Organization, this procedure severely impairs the function of the female anatomy and can cause a number of severe health risks for the victim. Furthermore, female genital mutilation is not derived from any known religious scripts, although it is a common misconception that it is an accepted faith-based procedure.
It has been claimed that circumcision may have some benefits, including the reduction of penile cancer and the prevention of certain sexual transmitted diseases and infections. According to an article posted by HIV Plus Magazine, clinical trials in Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda showed circumcision reduced HIV infections between heterosexual partners by 60%. However, a San Francisco study conducted in 2008 found that circumcision had little to no effect on transmission rates between men who had sex with other men; it is unclear whether this shows no correlation between circumcision and HIV infection, or is more reflective of growing infection rates and poor safe sex practices among certain communities of sexually active men.
Opponents of the ban claim that the initiative violates religious freedom as guaranteed by the American Constitution. “For a city that’s renowned for being progressive and open-minded, to even have to consider such an intolerant proposition … it sets a dangerous precedent for all cities and states,” explained Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds to the Huffington Post. Based in Berkeley, Leeds serves as a mohel for the Bay Area Jewish community. He mentioned receiving numerous phone calls from concerned Jews, although he is confident that the measure would not survive judicial scrutiny.
Drawing from injunctions in Genesis 17:10-14 and Leviticus 12:3, circumcision has been considered a visible and permanent sign of the covenant between Jews and G-d. It is generally performed eight days after the birth of a male child, accompanied by a series of blessings and the bestowal of his Hebrew name. As one of the distinctive traditions of the Jewish community, the brit milah is widely practiced among Jews. Only recently have some communities experimented with different naming ceremonies, such as the brit shalom – or covenant of peace – proposed in an article by the organization Jews Against Circumcision. Although the ban may stimulate an interest in alternative practices, it does raise concerns for traditionally observant Jews across sectarian divides; how do we accommodate changing opinions within secular society, while also maintaining our religious integrity?
Speaking to the Huffington Post, the chief of pediatric urology at the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital Dr. Laurence Baskin explains that he remains “neutral on the subject of circumcision.” However for people who do want to have the procedure performed, there are ways to minimize pain. “It has what I would say would be a minimal amount of pain if done properly, so my recommendation is to use anesthesia,” he said. For the Jewish community, such a recommendation may present a way to accommodate concerns about trauma while also allowing for the practice of circumcision. What is clear is that Bay Area Jews may need to reconsider their faith commitments, or be prepared to outsource their circumcisions outside San Francisco.