Appeal unlikely for S.F. circumcision ban ballot measure

Time appears to have run out for the proponents of a San Francisco ballot measure that would have banned circumcision of any boy under 18 in the city.

The measure’s backers reportedly had been considering appealing the July 28 ruling by Superior Court Judge Loretta Giorgi that struck the proposition from the ballot. But with a key step in the process of producing San Francisco’s ballots now complete, there appears to be little chance that the measure will be put to voters on Nov. 8.

San Francisco’s Ballot Simplification Committee, the governmental body tasked with producing short digests of measures for the city’s ballots, held its first open meeting on Aug. 1. The committee approved digests for eight ballot measures in the course of its meetings, the last one on Aug. 10. No digest was produced for the measure aiming to ban circumcision.

“The court ordered this measure not to go on the ballot; we’re following that order,” said John Arntz, elections director at San Francisco’s Department of Elections. “I haven’t heard of anything that would potentially change the status of this measure.”

Lloyd Schofield, the proponent of the measure, could not be reached last week for comment. In an e-mail on Aug. 3, before the committee had completed its work, Schofield said he was unable to comment specifically on any future legal or legislative actions aimed at advancing the effort to prohibit male infant circumcision.

“Our objective is to protect the choice of ALL men, we are looking at every option,” Schofield wrote. “We are in this for the long run and will ultimately do what we think is best to achieve that goal.”

Opinion: The realities of the circumcision debate

There is nothing esthetically appealing about a Brit Milah, the circumcision procedure performed on an 8 day old Jewish baby boy.  To witness a barely one week old child strapped down with Velcro to a “Circ Board” in sight of everyone gathered is visually unappealing, if not spiritually uninspiring.  If that were not enough, some officiants still engage in Metzitzah—the oral suction of blood from the circumcision. If not done by mouth directly, a pipette is used.

To make matters worse, some ceremonies are complete with crude, unholy behavior and locker room jokes. I can’t repeat what one officiant said as he un-swaddled his grandson in preparation of the baby’s Brit Milah.

Is there any wonder why Jewish parents are slowly opting out of the ancient ritual of circumcision performed on their newborn sons independent of the ongoing medical debate as to whether or not the procedure’s even warranted?  Is there any wonder why circumcision is currently under attack with the possibility of it being outlawed in the destination city of Santa Monica, should it be put to a vote this September?

But leaving aside all the issues that may or may not compel one to circumcise their son, the decision is for the family to ultimately decide, not the government—or even one’s religion for that matter.

As a congregational rabbi, I can only make the case to my congregants for having their son’s circumcised in accordance with Jewish law and tradition.  I can actively recommend to them officiants who conduct ceremonies with the utmost professionalism, skill and compassion.

I can tell them the ceremonies to which these hand-selected officiants preside are warm, offering meaningful words and explanations.  They welcome the child into the covenant of God and the Jewish people making clear that our hopes for this young life—once grown—consist of “Torah, marriage and acts of goodness.”

I can teach them the overarching purpose of a Brit Milah is not biological, but rather theological. It is a physical reminder intentionally made on the male organ of progeny.  It states before God and community the male drive, be it sexual or otherwise, is a good and healthy force. But left unchecked and without limits can become destructive and all consuming.

I can inform them that the current debate among doctors and researchers regarding circumcision is mixed.  I can tell them that while science is an indispensable discipline to the enrichment of life—it is far from exact and constantly changing.

It seems that over a 7 to 10 year period, conventional “state-of-the-art” medical wisdom is turned on its head and re-evaluated.  I recently took a CPR course that contradicted and rewrote what was taught to me just 4 years earlier.  Today circumcision is under scrutiny.  Even though all over Africa where AIDS kills scores of people, billboards exhort men to get circumcised, since circumcision prevents AIDS in many cases. Years ago it was recommended without hesitation. I suspect 7 to 10 years hence doctors and researchers will again offer a different and new perspective on the subject.

In the meantime the wisdom of a 3,500-year-old Jewish tradition continues to advocate circumcision on religious grounds.  Parents who choose to have their 8-day-old son circumcised are not mutilating his genitalia, anymore than piercing a little girl’s ears is mutilation.  Furthermore, it is un-provable that a child who is circumcised, as a baby will grow up having less sexual satisfaction as an adult.

True, no religion is above the law. No one who is found guilty of a legal or moral trespass should be able to hide under the protection of his or her faith.  The Biblical days when someone guilty of a crime could find safe haven within the confines—“the horns”—of the priestly altar are thankfully long past.  According to age-old rabbinic law, the law of the land is the law.

But those who advocate outlawing circumcision to anyone 18 years or younger equating it with a clitoridectomy are deeply misguided.  One is genital mutilation, denying a woman sexual pleasure, the other—male circumcision—is not.  I can’t help but think underlying the anti-circumcision movement is a disdain for religious expression cloaked in a concern for a child’s well being.

The American Jewish Committee calls the movement to prohibit circumcision as “making a direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the U.S.”  That may be true.  What is truer still, we have far more substantive issues to fill our ballots with come this September and November, banning circumcision performed on children at the request of their parents and caretakers is not one of them.

In foreskin fight, even terminology is being disputed

According to the proponent of a ballot initiative to prohibit the act of surgically removing a male baby’s foreskin, the term “circumcision” is nothing but a euphemism.

“Having your foreskin amputated is probably more like it,” said Jena Troutman, a doula and mother of two sons, who initiated the process of petitioning Santa Monica to include the initiative on a future ballot.

On May 19, Troutman filed a “Notice of Intent to Circulate Petition” with the Santa Monica City Clerk aimed to prohibit what she called “medically unnecessary genital cutting of male minors.”

That language is being rejected by city officials. The official title, which was prepared by Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, is “An Initiative Measure Amending the Municipal Code to Prohibit Circumcising a Male Under the Age of 18 Except in a Medical Emergency.”

To get the initiative onto the November 2012 ballot in Santa Monica, backers will need about 6,000 registered voters to sign a petition that includes that language. More than 12,000 people in San Francisco signed a petition that successfully put a measure aimed at prohibiting “male circumcision” on the November 2011 ballot.

The term “circumcision” was used on the San Francisco petition and will be included on the Santa Monica petition, in spite of each measure’s backers having initially referred to their initiatives as measures prohibiting “genital cutting of male minors.”

Already the language of the self-described “intactivists” has provoked strong reactions from Jewish community leaders. A coalition led by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council is working to defeat that city’s proposition at the ballot box. Because the measure has not yet qualified for inclusion on the Santa Monica ballot, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have been less vocal so far. At press time, a joint statement opposing the proposed measure was expected to be released in the coming days.

Jewish groups primarily are fighting the ballot measure on the basis that it infringes upon freedom of religion, however many are also accusing the measure’s backers of using misleading language.

“These people went out with a false approach, and they got this on the ballot by convincing people that they were signing something against genital mutilation, not something against religious circumcision,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, the national liaison from Chabad Lubavitch to Jewish Federations of North America.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gil Leeds, a rabbi and certified mohel (ritual circumciser), called the language of mutilation used by the proposal’s backers toxic and deceptive. “The Hebrew word for ritual circumcision, bris, literally means ‘a covenant,’ ” Leeds wrote. “It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago.”

The language of the San Francisco proposition and the proposed Santa Monica ballot measure originates with a San Diego-based group,, which was initially intent on pursuing federal legislation prohibiting what it calls “male genital mutilation.” The language is based upon a similarly worded federal law, passed in 1997, that prohibits female genital mutilation.

Election law experts said that the actual language of the propositions that appear on each ballot could be contested. In both Santa Monica and San Francisco, city officials have to give “an objective title and summary” to the proposition, Colleen McAndrews, an election law attorney in Santa Monica, said.

“If they don’t like it, they have an opportunity to litigate it,” McAndrews said. “If the court deems it ‘false and misleading,’ the court can strike the words or rewrite them.”

It appears likely that the ballots, like the petitions, will use the word “circumcision” and not “genital mutilation” or “genital cutting.”

“American society has always regarded male and female circumcision very differently,” Howard Friedman, professor of law emeritus at University of Toledo and author of the Religion Clause blog, wrote in an e-mail. “It has generally been felt that government has a compelling interest in outlawing female circumcision because of the physical, psychological and health effects on girls. On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of male circumcision in the U.S. is not seen as giving the government a compelling interest in outlawing it,” Friedman wrote.

The medical benefits of circumcision — which are cited by opponents of a ban and disputed by backers — are sure to have an impact on the debate as it progresses.

The language used by each side is not likely to change anytime soon, however.

“There’s a baby male, and that baby male — either for medical ritual or religious ritual — is having its foreskin removed,” Suzanne Wertheim, a visiting lecturer at UCLA, said, illustrating what a neutral description of the act in question might look like.

But no matter what the courts or the voters decide, Wertheim, a linguistic anthropologist, said that people on each side of the argument are unlikely to start speaking neutrally.

“There are people who say that abortion should not be legal and should not be an option for women, and there are people who say that abortion should be legal and should be an option for women,” Wertheim said. “That is a neutral phrasing of those stances. But no one ever discusses abortion that way.”

S.F. archbishop raps proposed circumcision ban

San Francisco’s Catholic archbishop expressed his opposition to a city ballot initiative that would ban circumcision for minors.

Archbishop George Niederauer condemned the initiative in a May 23 letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, his archdiocese’s newspaper reported.

“Although the issue does not concern Christians directly, as a religious leader I can only view with alarm the prospect that this misguided initiative would make it illegal for Jews and Muslims who practice their religion to live in San Francisco—for that is what the passage of such a law would mean,” he wrote.

“Apart from the religious aspect, the citizens of San Francisco should be outraged at the prospect of city government dictating to parents in such a sensitive matter regarding the health and hygiene of their children.”

The initiative garnered enough petition signatures to appear on the city’s Nov. 8 ballot. Jewish groups have condemned the proposed ban and have been joined in their opposition by the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

Snip Judgment

If you were circumcised as an adult and have experienced sexual relations both before and afterward, then Emily Bazelon wants to know about it. Why that concerns me — and may concern you — takes a little explaining.

Bazelon, a writer for the online magazine Slate, commented in her column on a study conducted in South Africa that showed that circumcised men are less likely by some roughly 70 percent to contract the HIV virus from an infected female partner. That report has generated tremendous interest and a degree of controversy among international AIDS researchers, especially as regards Africa, where the disease is often transmitted via heterosexual partners.

As Bazelon notes, the study adds new fuel to an old debate: Does male circumcision (assuming it is done in a sanitary and correct manner) offer any health benefits? Or conversely, does it have adverse effects? For most Jews, of course, that debate is essentially beside the point. Circumcision is not carried out as a health measure, but as a divine commandment stressed several times in the Bible (“Every male among you shall be circumcised/and ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of a covenant between Me and you” — Genesis 17:11-12).

It is unquestionably the most widely practiced religious ritual among Jews, and also most likely the oldest. Considerable evidence has been found to prove that circumcision was a common practice among other peoples in this region long before the rise of the ancient Israelites.

But even if health concerns are not the reason that Jews practice circumcision, it doesn’t mean that (just like with kashrut) Jewish sources haven’t tried to also credit it with physically beneficial properties. A long line of Jewish thinkers equally versed in medical matters, beginning with the first-century C.E. philosopher Philo, continuing on to Maimonides and to such present-day experts as Dr. Mordechai Halperin, have argued that penises without foreskins are more hygienic and less prone to infection.

For decades, that was also the prevailing medical opinion in the United States (but not Europe); as a result, circumcision was a commonplace medical procedure until the past decade. Although its use in the U.S. general population has declined after studies in recent years failed to conclusively prove its health benefits, circumcision is still carried out on more than half of all newborn American boys.

Although its positive properties are widely debated, the same isn’t true regarding any possible drawbacks. Only small fringe groups with little medical credibility have argued that circumcision is detrimental. One such group, the Society Against the Genital Mutilation of Infants, actually petitioned (unsuccessfully) Israel’s High Court of Justice about a decade ago, claiming that brit mila violated the basic law: human dignity and freedom.

These opponents of “male genital mutilation” usually base their opposition to infant circumcision (as a religious practice) on the claim that it is a traumatic experience with lasting psychological consequences for the newborn.

Speaking from personal experience, I can’t agree. On a more objective note, it’s hard to imagine how circumcision can seem quite so traumatic to a newborn boy who just a week earlier was so rudely ejected from the comfort of his mother’s womb into the wide, cold world.

There is although another possible downside to circumcision cited by its opponents — that losing a foreskin reduces a man’s capacity for sexual pleasure. As Bazelon notes, that idea has long existed in traditional Jewish sources, including Maimonides, who wrote that brit milah helped “to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse” by “diminishing lust beyond what is needed” for procreation.

That prospect has her, the Jewish mother of two circumcised boys, asking: “What about my kids’ future sex lives — have they been deprived of the capacity for optimal pleasure? With no definitive scientific literature on the question, here’s the best way I can think to find out.

“I propose a highly unscientific Slate study of men who have experienced sex as both circumcised and uncircumcised — in other words, who changed their status as adults. If you fit that description and would be willing to discuss it (tastefully, of course), write to”

Well, even if I can’t contribute to Bazelon’s survey, perhaps I can steer her in the right direction. In 1998, then-Jerusalem Post writer Esther Hecht, in a comprehensive article on the circumcision debate, noted that “Israel, with its sizable population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were circumcised as adults, would seem to offer a unique opportunity to test the claim that the operation dampens men’s sexuality.

“Gynecologist Avraham Teper, who also heads the Women’s Health Center at the Ben-Gurion Clinic in Upper Nazareth, concluded from reports of 138 men who had been in the country at least a year and had been sexually active prior to their circumcisions, that, once they had healed, they had intercourse less often and enjoyed it less.”

Uh-oh. Are the Bazelon boys, myself and almost all Jewish men missing out on some pretty good times? Not quite.

Hecht adds that “a study like Teper’s could be colored by, among other subjective factors, the respondents’ attitudes toward their own circumcisions, according to Jerusalem-based sexologist Uri Wernik. If a man had himself circumcised because of his religious convictions, he might perceive sex as more pleasurable afterward, Wernik says. But if the operation resulted from social pressure and was fraught with anxiety, that might reduce subsequent pleasure.”

That certainly makes sense to me. While I hate to throw cold water on Bazelon’s proposed survey, I can’t possibly see how the experience of undergoing circumcision in adulthood can be compared to that of infants. Let me also suggest that it strains credibility to think that such a large percentage of the world’s male population (Jewish and otherwise) would over the millennia willingly submit (or submit their sons) to any procedure that would diminish their own capacity for sexual pleasure (alas, it is conversely all too easy to believe that so many would do just that to the opposite sex in those societies that still maintain the horrific practice of female genital mutilation).

Put another way, as tastefully as I can, I find it hard to believe from a personal perspective that sex gets better than it already is — and if it does, I’m not sure I even want to know about it.

Then again, as the father only of two daughters, perhaps I’m being a little complacent about the issue. The same could be said of Israel as a whole. In a society where almost every Jewish custom is a matter of debate, circumcision is a consensual issue — no doubt, in part, because there is no law making it compulsory, unlike, say, Shabbat restrictions.

Outside this country, though, complacency about circumcision’s acceptance may no longer be a wise position. Responding to Bazelon’s piece, the widely read Gay-Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote: “My own view is that circumcision should be a decision made by an adult male on health grounds alone — and the data on HIV should make many men consider it. But the involuntary genital mutilation of newborns remains an outrage.”

As a “victim” of “male genital mutilation,” I certainly don’t share that outrage. Quite the opposite; I proudly wear my circumcision (privately) as a badge of honor in the oldest continuing men’s club in the world. As no less than Philip Roth (surely the last man on Earth who would support a practice that inhibited male sexuality) once wrote in defense of brit milah: “Circumcision confirms that there is an us.”