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Editorial

Circumcision decisions

Attempts to ban the procedure intrude on parents' ability to decide what's best for children.

May 27, 2011
  • Rabbi Gil Leeds discusses a San Francisco ballot initiative that would ban circumcision shortly after performing a Jewish circumcision ceremony in that city.
Rabbi Gil Leeds discusses a San Francisco ballot initiative that would… (Noah Berger / Associated…)

Despite the overwrought claims made by its opponents, male circumcision is not remotely tantamount to mutilation. Complications are rare and generally minor and short term. And circumcision has been linked to various health benefits.

Nevertheless, a measure to ban male circumcision in children has obtained the required 12,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot in San Francisco — and an anti-circumcision group is now targeting Santa Monica for a similar ballot proposal. These are attempts to intrude on parents' ability to make private medical decisions for their children. And by that, we don't just mean for Jewish and many Muslim parents for whom circumcision is part of religious tradition, but for any family.

Religion is not the main reason to reject this movement. Female genital mutilation is part of the cultural or faith traditions of some groups, yet it is rightly illegal because it is a form of child abuse. According to the World Health Organization, it bestows no health benefits and carries terrible long-term consequences, among them higher rates of maternal and newborn mortality, repeated pelvic and urinary tract infections, fistulas and difficulty urinating. Our society accords religious traditions strong legal protection, but it rarely allows the personal beliefs of parents to take precedence over serious health and safety concerns.

Male circumcision is different, and the experts say the decision should be left with parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, notes that "scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision" but that the evidence is not robust enough at this point for a recommendation for routine circumcision. Those potential benefits, according to the Mayo Clinic, include lower risk of urinary tract infection and penile cancer, reduced rates of cervical cancer in the female partners of circumcised men, and possibly lower risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. But families who choose circumcision don't need to prove any health benefits because, in the absence of any evidence that they are harming their sons, they have the right to make medical decisions for them.

If the ballot measure coming up in San Francisco proves anything, it is not that the city by the bay is too weird for prime time (unless the ban actually passes) or that opponents of circumcision have a legitimate point. It's that the initiative process gives many a lunatic idea a chance to flourish.

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