Parental Responsibility and the Rhetoric Against Circumcision

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New York City's regulation of a Jewish tradition does little more than add to a growing aura of hostility and ignorance surrounding a health decision.

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Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

In 2011, San Francisco placed a proposal to ban circumcision on its November ballot. In June 2012, a court in Germany issued an order banning circumcision. And this September, the New York City Health Department voted to regulate a practice called "metzizah b'peh," practiced by many Jews of Eastern European origin, in which the blood from the incision is removed by direct oral suction.

Normally this last, which mandates a consent form outlining the possible (albeit disputed) risks of oral suction, might be seen as a fairly harmless move -- little more than an expression of Mayor Bloomberg's general fondness for regulation. However, in the atmosphere created by the previous two attempted bans, it will do little more than add to a growing aura of hostility toward circumcision. In the minds of many, it will be lumped together with the previous two proposed bans as a direct attack on religious practice.

Nor will anyone's concerns be assuaged if they are brave enough to read the comments to any of the articles on the subject, which always include a slew of opinions calling circumcision "child abuse" and suggesting that its practitioners should be thrown into prison. To select one relatively mild comment on a New York Times article, which was at one point the top "readers pick" comment: "Should the authority of parents over the life of their child extend to making permanent and unnecessary changes to their child's anatomy based solely on their own whims (even if those whims are based in religious beliefs?)"

As a parent, it seems to me that most of these outraged people are unaware of the actual extent of "the authority of parents over the life of their child," including the authority and responsibility to make life-changing decisions for them.

An example: When my daughter was two years old, she developed what is called a pyogenic granuloma -- a benign red skin growth -- in the middle of her forehead. The growth can be removed by laser under general anesthesia, which is what my pediatrician as well as the two specialists I consulted recommended. Despite my discomfort with putting a two-year-old under, my husband and I opted to have the operation performed.

We did not consult our daughter about the matter, nor did we wait until she was old enough to decide for herself. Granulomas often grow and shrink over time, stretching the skin in a way that surgery can not correct. We opted to perform the procedure at the age of two rather than take that risk. We made that choice for our daughter, and every single doctor we spoke to not only thought we had that right but urged us to make that decision.

You could argue that circumcision is different because it involves removing a natural body part, not a growth. But unlike circumcision, which has undisputed health benefits, there was never any indication that the granuloma was anything other than a purely cosmetic procedure. Because facial blemishes are considered unattractive by general society, the surgery was considered not just a legitimate parenting decision but a responsible one.

Let's take another example: piercing babies' ears. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against it. Unlike circumcision, there are no health benefits to counteract the slight risk of infection, nor is there any downside to delaying the procedure until adulthood (as opposed to circumcision of older children and adults, which is far more invasive, risky, and painful than infant circumcision). Nevertheless, it is a very common practice, and no one is attempting to ban it.

The health benefits of circumcision are clear. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a 2012 position paper, highlighted the role of circumcision in reducing the spread of STDs and decreasing the risk of urinary tract infections and penile cancer, and determined that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. Claims that circumcision affect sexual sensitivity, they added, have not been borne out by scientific studies.

As parents, we make choices for our children. We make medical choices for them. We make cosmetic choices for them. We make cultural and religious choices for them as well, many of which can never be undone. And circumcision -- which has been a cornerstone of the Jewish faith for thousands of years -- is different from many of the hundreds of choices parents make for their children after weighing the risks and rewards on their own personal calculus. Circumcision is medically beneficial, but more importantly, it is an essential part of Jewish identity. As a Jew, I cannot help but view those who would remove my right to circumcise my son as trying to take away my cultural identity -- or prevent me from passing it on, which is the same thing.

While I certainly don't believe the ill-timed decision of the Board of Health was motivated by anti-Semitism, I find it hard to say the same about attempts to ban the practice entirely, or about the excessive rhetoric and wide-ranging ignorance that seems to surround this issue. I wish people would consider the history they are becoming part of when they add their voices to the movement to denigrate an essential Jewish and Muslim practice. I wish they would recognize the harm they are doing by sweeping any parental choices they personally disagree with into the category of abuse. And I wish they would remember that extreme rhetoric and threats of coercion create an atmosphere in which even an otherwise reasonable regulation will inevitably be viewed with well-founded distrust.

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Leah Cypess is a writer based in Boston. She is a retired attorney and author of the novels Mistwood and Nightspell.

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