Rabbi Gil Leeds discusses a San Francisco ballot initiative that would… (Noah Berger / Associated…)
Performing a circumcision on a boy under age 18 — even for religious reasons — would be illegal under a measure that a San Diego group hopes to place on Santa Monica's November 2012 ballot.
A similar initiative this month from the anti-circumcision group known as MGM Bill garnered enough signatures in San Francisco to place it on that city's November ballot. MGM stands for "male genital mutilation."
Matthew Hess, the group's founder and president, said that California law prohibits female genital mutilation and that boys should get the same protection. Circumcision, he said, removes "thousands of nerve endings" and is a painful and unnecessary procedure. He equated it to the practice in some countries of removing all or part of a female's genitals.
Circumcision of male infants is a religious requirement in Judaism and a cleanliness-related custom in many Islamic communities. As a result, the effort by MGM Bill to put forth the initiative is raising concern among religious organizations, which contend that a ban would violate the 1st Amendment prohibition against government interference with a person's practice of religion.
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An earlier online version of this article described Jena Troutman as a teacher of breastfeeding classes. She is an anti-circumcision activist.
The measure would make it a misdemeanor to circumcise a boy in Santa Monica before he turned 18. The maximum penalty would be a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Circumcisions would be permitted only for medical reasons, with no religious exemptions.
"Jews don't circumcise for medical reasons; it's for traditional reasons," said Andrew Shpall, a Woodland Hills urologist and mohel. A mohel (pronounced moy-el) is a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah, or the covenant of circumcision. Shpall added that there was some disagreement in the medical community about whether all male babies should be circumcised.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said that, although existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision, "these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision." In a statement on its website, the group says parents should be given "accurate and unbiased information" so that they can make an informed choice.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has spent years attempting to develop recommendations. "It is important to recognize that many options are still being considered in this process, including simply recommending that health care providers educate people about the potential benefits and risks," CDC spokesman Scott Bryan said in an e-mail. Ultimately, he said, "the decision would rest solely with individuals and parents."
If approved, the MGM Bill ballot measure would eliminate the ability of parents to decide, at least within the boundaries of San Francisco and Santa Monica.
Santa Monica City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie said the city clerk had forwarded the notice from MGM Bill that it intended to circulate a petition to gather signatures to validate the proposed initiative. The city attorney's office is charged with giving the ballot a title and providing an impartial summary. Once that is done, MGM Bill may begin collecting signatures. It would have to collect about 6,000 signatures to put it on the ballot.
Jena Troutman, an anti-circumcision activist in Santa Monica, said concerns about poor hygiene and transmission of sexual diseases in uncircumcised males could be managed through education. "If you raise your child to be smart and practice safe sex," circumcision is unnecessary, she said. "If you're raising a dumb kid who won't use a condom, then go ahead and cut off two-thirds of his nerve endings and one-half of his penile skin."
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the measure might pass a 1st Amendment challenge. "If there is some support [among medical doctors or psychologists] for the idea that circumcision hurts children, the government could do this," he said.
Whether the measure gets placed on the Santa Monica ballot or not, the campaign has already sparked heated debate.
"Quite frankly, I find it absurd and insulting," said David Lehrer, a Jewish leader. "It takes the notion of the Mommy State to a ridiculous extreme. It probably touches upon being anti-Semitic." He added that it was "idiotic" to compare circumcision to female genital mutilation.