Anti-Semitism creeps into ‘Natural Childbirth’ movement

It’s the special treatment reserved for Jews that earns the anti-circumcision “intact-ivism” movement the label “anti-Jew.” And it’s the large space created for intactivist representation within the natural childbirth movement which unfortunately poisons this otherwise effective and necessary maternal health community. 

As a childbirth doula (labor coach) in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am honored to support women of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds and to work on the cutting edge of patient rights and women’s health along with a growing movement of informed practitioners who are advocating for birth options and evidence-based practices. I am privileged to serve clients of all backgrounds along with the other Jewish women health practitioners in the “Imeinu Doulas and Birth Collective” which I founded in 2008. Just as “Shalom Bayit” a 22-year old Jewish domestic violence organization in the Bay Area is a model of a culturally-based women’s rights initiative who works locally but is internationally known and networked, Imeinu is a younger, established and growing culturally-based women’s health and advocacy model but in the field of childbirth with service providers networked internationally.

As a Jewish woman who literally wears my Jewish heritage as I ally with other natural birth professionals, I become a quick target for anti-circumcision rationale, a quick opportunity for intactivists practicing talking points that are developed especially for Jews. Let’s back up here and understand the difference between the way birth workers usually provide information and how intactivists, whose work is primarily carried out through layers of public relations campaigns, promote their cause.

Birth Workers are different from Intactivists

When we birth professionals are educating new parents about procedures like epidurals, delayed umbilical chord clamping, skin-to-skin, or breastfeeding – all of which can have life-changing impact on the vitality of the child, we do not aggressively assert that parents are hurting their child or putting themselves at risk if they go along with what are the medical trends. We encourage parents to do their own research and inform themselves about the approaches of their care providers so that they can be aware of risks and options and exercise their rights as patients and human beings.

Birth workers partly get our work done by staying up-to-date and providing information, and the impact of natural birth advocacy is seen in the statistics. Examples of the successes of birth workers can be seen in the emerging government-funded doula programs in several countries, bringing more trained labor coaches to provide continuous care to mothers in labor because of the improved health outcomes associated with the presence of a doula. Birth workers’ objections to inducing pre-term labor or pre-term elective cesareans helped focus research on these issues which eventually led to policy changes in hospitals across the United States, so we know our approach works. More hospitals are instituting new protocols for delayed umbilical chord clamping, and skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby immediately following delivery – two campaigns that the natural birth movement has been conducting through its attention to evidence-based research in the field and in published studies.

Intactivism is carried out through public relations campaigns that range from reaching expectant parents through tabling at childbirth fairs to pushing for legislation to outlaw circumcision. Books, websites, blogs and social media sites share science, stories, and resources on why circumcision is wrong. These venues commonly devote a portion of their pages to cultural circumcision which inevitably focuses on mostly misunderstood and inaccurately framed summaries on Jewish culture. And for those of us who have inherited circumcision in our religious practice, there are even some Jewish-run groups who offer guidance to holding alternative ceremonies sans the cut, and support groups. But it doesn’t stop there. 

Special Treatment for Jews

Enter a conversation with intactivists and let them know you are a Jew, almost every time the conversation topic will change from the focus of circumcision being medically unnecessary to, “Did you know another baby died in New York from herpes after the mohel sucked…” No matter whether you appear religiously observant, no consideration or interest in whether you circumcised your own son at 8 days, just because they learn you are Jewish intactivists will bombard you with talking points that range from new information about your ancestral tradition, to Jewish celebrities’ involvement with intactivism, to films about Jewish men and their decisions about circumcision for their sons, to names of organizations that can help you. If you’re lucky, the intactivist will remember to compliment your people, “Well Jews wait till 8 days so the Jewish boys getting circumcised are the lucky ones if you’re going to have it done…”

Intactivists are blind to the fact that the same arguments they are promoting outside the Jewish community, based on research to advocate their cause, would be the only ones appropriate to share with Jews. Intactivists treat Jews different from other people and within their culture have developed an entirely separate agenda for Jewish ears. Even though less than 2% of the American population is Jewish while majority of Americans circumcise, much of the intactivist propaganda – from memes to comic books to films – involves imagery of and alludes to Jewish men. So intactivism is involved with targeting Jews in personal interactions, and representing Jews as child-abusers in the public sphere.

Intactivists have failed in the cultural sensitivity arena. In the Bay Area and other parts of the world, the Jewish and Muslim communities have come together to defend their religious practice from proposed anti-circumcision legislation, so I believe we can all thank the intactivists for catalyzing some unity

Birth Workers Need to Realign with Dignified Advocacy Practice

Speaking as a birth worker, cultural sensitivity is part of our job. We serve families who speak all languages, in all circumstances, with all sorts of beliefs during this sacred time as they welcome new life into the world. Many of us natural birth doulas serve parents in homes, birth centers, and hospital settings. Regardless of our personal choices and opinions, our purpose is to support our clients whatever their decisions may be while upholding the utmost respect and cooperative relationships with the medical professionals who are responsible for the childbirth procedures and outcomes.

The natural birth movement’s imperative is to handle circumcision with the same professionalism as they do all other debated procedures related to maternity, childbirth, and babies. We cannot allow the intactivist movement’s impassioned bigotry which condemns and even criminalizes our clients who choose circumcision while also targeting Jews, to run us off course from our successful movement to improve maternity care.

In fact, natural birth professionals are already anti-racism activists. We have to take into account that horrendous disparities are at play when we support our mothers in labor. For example, a black woman is five times more likely to die during childbirth than other women in the United States, regardless of her economic or other status. Similarly, racism is evident in our professional field as the vast majority of birth and maternity care workers as well as the natural birth events are light-skinned women. Reproductive justice advocates are addressing the ways that institutional and societal racism impact childbirth and women’s health as well as the professional field. We shouldn’t have to be adding anti-semitism to the mix, with Jewish birth pros and Jewish moms feeling alienated from our good work.

If we as childbirth professionals, and the natural maternity organizations we are part of, choose to address circumcision within our scope of information, we can give the issue the same consideration and air-time as we do to the many other physically and spiritually invasive procedures that we witness regularly. Resources about circumcision options are about as appropriate for birth workers’ clients as resources about vaccination as long as the information is evidence-based, but the intactivist movement’s degrading tactics and banners should have no place in our online or virtual forums, nor at our events.

Wendy Kenin is a childbirth doula and mother of five in Berkeley, California. Creator of eco-feminist judaica and founder of Imeinu Doulas and Childbirth Collective, Wendy is a member of the editorial board of Jewcology – the online home of the Jewish environmental movement, and serves on the leadership circle of the Torah-guided environmental organization Canfei Nesharim. She is also a social media consultant, co-chair of the Green Party’s national newspaper Green Pages, and a member of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. Wendy blogs and tweets as @greendoula.


Coalition sues to keep circumcision ban off S.F. ballot

The Jewish-led coalition working to defeat a San Francisco ballot measure, which would ban circumcision for boys 18 and under, filed a lawsuit there on Wednesday morning asking the city to remove the proposition from the ballot entirely.

The ballot measure, which would make circumcision for any reason—including religious belief—a misdemeanor, was formally approved for inclusion on the November 2011 ballot by the San Francisco Department of Elections last month.

The suit was filed in California Superior Court on June 22 by a group of plaintiffs that included two Jewish community organizations, three local Jewish families, one Muslim family and two doctors. It is just the latest salvo in a multifront battle to defeat a ballot measure that many in the Jewish community say would interfere with their religious practice and their autonomy as parents.

“It’s taking away our rights to decide privately all the things we want for our children, whether it’s medically or religiously,” plaintiff Jenny Benjamin said in an interview.

Benjamin, a resident of San Francisco and mother of two young children, and her husband, Jeremy, both of whom are Jewish, were recruited by the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom to stand as plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit. That coalition, which is being led by Abby Michelson Porth of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, also arranged a press conference on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall at 11 a.m. on Wednesday to announce the filing.

The lawsuit cites a state law that denies California cities the power to “prohibit a healing arts professional licensed within the state … from engaging in any act or performing any procedure that falls within the professionally recognized scope of practice of that licensee.”

That law, together with a 1991 appellate court decision that affirmed a city’s right to deny initiatives a place on the ballot if the resulting laws cannot be enacted, forms the basis for plaintiffs’ lawsuit.

Michael Jacobs, a partner at the law firm Morrison and Foerster, is leading the case. “The law is clear,” Jacobs said in a statement released by the coalition. “It is misleading to San Francisco’s electorate to put an initiative on the ballot where they lack the power to enact it.

“By prevailing in this lawsuit,” Jacobs continued, “we will protect doctors against being charged with a misdemeanor for carrying out a routine and beneficial medical procedure. We will also protect parents’ choice to make medical decisions for their children. And we will protect faith communities against efforts to restrict religious freedom.”

Jacobs, the other plaintiffs and many opponents of the ballot measure speak frequently about the ways a citywide ban on circumcision would infringe upon religious freedom, but the legal precedent cited by Wednesday’s lawsuit comes from a section of the California Business and Professions Code having nothing to do with religion. Subsection 460 (b) was enacted by a 2009 law sponsored by the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) to stop cities from banning the declawing of cats.

The Paw Project, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit educational organization, inspired the City of West Hollywood to ban feline declawing in 2003.

When other California cities began considering legislation similar to West Hollywood’s in 2009, the CVMA made its legislative push, culminating in the passage of a law that stops cities from interfering with the work of any “healing arts professional licensed within the state.”

That language is broad enough to include veterinarians and doctors, said Sarah R. Wolk, a partner at the Glendale-based law firm WLF Lawyers. For Jewish ritual circumcisers, known as mohelim, the situation is less clear.

“Circumcisions performed by doctors or those licensed and regulated by Division 2 of the Business and Professions Code could probably not be banned,” Wolk wrote in an e-mail. “But, a ‘healing arts professional’ would not include circumcisions performed by non-professionals or professionals licensed by other private governing bodies, and would therefore not prohibit restrictions on such individuals.”

This new legal move is only the latest action in the widening fight to defeat the San Francisco ban. Last week, Rep. Brad Sherman and California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto announced plans to introduce legislation in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento that would prohibit cities from banning male circumcision nationwide and in California, respectively.

The goal of all of these efforts is to have the ballot initiative thrown out before it ever reaches the citizens of San Francisco. But David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc., said it wasn’t clear that such maneuvers were the way to go.

“It’s not clear what the most effective strategy is,” he said. “Dealing with it through legislation could be counterproductive—more discussion and debate over what should be a nonissue. It’s probably a very close call, assuming the legislation is effective.”

As of press time, neither piece of legislation had been formally introduced.

More discussion and debate is exactly what anti-circumcision activist—or “intactivist”—Jews are hoping for. Ronald Goldman, the founder of the Boston-based Jewish Circumcision Resource Center and the author of “Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective,” said he was frustrated that the media’s coverage of the progress of the ban in San Francisco did not say more about the medical claims in favor and against circumcision.

“The issue becomes should we have a law, or what should be done to stop a law,” Goldman said. “Where’s the discussion of the harm circumcision causes?”

Intactivists like Goldman contend that circumcision is “physically, sexually and psychologically harmful,” and they believe that Americans, Jews and the members of the American medical establishment are simply in denial about the damage circumcision can cause.

In the hopes of redirecting the conversation, Goldman and eight other Jewish intactivists from around the country released “A Message to Jewish Americans on Circumcision” on June 20.

Circumcision is widespread among Jews and is traditionally performed on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life; Goldman and his cosigners say that “a growing number of Jews in the U.S., South America, Europe, and Israel are making the decision not to circumcise their infants,” the statement read.

The statement also included a remark indirectly disavowing “Foreskin Man,” the comic book created one of the backers of San Francisco’s ballot initiative, Matthew Hess, which was roundly critiqued as anti-Semitic.

“Unfortunately, there may be statements and tactics by individuals opposed to circumcision that are insensitive and even offensive to many Jews,” the statement read. “We regret this and absolutely reject all statements or actions, often based on ignorance, that are disrespectful of any religion or ethnic group.”

When asked, Goldman said that remark was not just a rejection of “Foreskin Man,” but also of the entire effort to ban circumcision in San Francisco.

“The statement is intended to refer to any and everything that is insensitive or offensive to the Jewish community,” Goldman said.

Members of the coalition fighting against the San Francisco ballot measure regularly dispute intactivist claims that circumcision causes harm. Indeed, they attribute numerous health benefits to the practice.

“Circumcision is a medically safe practice,” plaintiff Brian McBeth, a doctor in the department of emergency medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, said in the statement released today. Circumcision is, McBeth continued, “endorsed by the World Health Organization and other major medical and public health institutions because of the scientifically proven health benefits, including the reduction of transmission of HIV, penile cancer, and urinary tract infections, as well as cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised.”

Winning the fight over the medical benefits that some attribute to circumcision will be vital to the success of the coalition’s lawsuit, in part because legal experts doubt the ballot measure could be challenged under the First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion.

“I think it’s an outrageous infringement on religious freedom, but I think it would be very hard to challenge under the First Amendment,” said Erwin Chemerinksy, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

This apparent paradox, Chemerinsky said, can be traced back to a 1990 Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which allowed states to restrict certain religious practices, provided that the laws they drafted were applicable to everyone and not motivated by the desire to interfere with religion.

Chemerinsky said the proposed ban on circumcision met both of those criteria.

“It would be hard to argue that the circumcision ban is motivated by the desire to interfere with religion,” Chemerinsky said. “That is clearly the effect, but it’s not its purpose. And it’s clearly of general applicability as well. It prohibits all parents—not just Jewish parents—from circumcising their sons.”