Circumcision story with Style

stbasilgreatcircumcision600So the ever snarky team at the Washington Post Style section decides to do a feature story about male circumcision.

(Cue: rim shot and cymbal splash)

It does sound like the start of one of those jokes: “So a priest, a rabbi and a televangelist walk into a hospital …” There are just so many bad puns that can be used in this circumstance, starting in the headline: “Rallying in the Name of the Unkindest Cut? Sharp Rhetoric Abounds In Circumcision Debate.”

I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?

The good news is that reporter Dan Zak knew that there was more to this story than laugh lines. Thus, we have this excellent summary of what’s going on, as he covers a protest rally by “intactivists” at the White House:

How intactivists define circumcision: a cruel, traumatic and unnecessary surgery (the American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits are not sufficient enough to recommend the procedure) that causes enduring sexual and psychological injury to a helpless infant who can’t give his consent.

How much of the medical community defines circumcision: a simple, nearly painless operation that removes an obsolete part of the body that can increase a man’s susceptibility to infections and sexually transmitted diseases (circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by 60 percent, studies show).

How religion defines circumcision: as a covenant with God, as conveyed to Abraham.

It’s a lopsided fight, but each side has doctors and lawyers. Each side has data. Each accuses the other of denial. One side is labeled as a bunch of baby-cutting sex criminals. The other is labeled as sex-obsessed, fanatical loonies who are duping the public.

Now for that bad news: if you are looking for serious content about the circumcision wars, other than about matters linked to the sexual revolution (and medical issues linked to it), then this is not the story for you. If you want puns and painful sidewalk exchanges between demonstrators and people yelling at them, then you’re in the right place.

There does seem to be an awareness that the sexual issues themselves have taken on a pseudo-religious dimension. Take this passage, which seems to jump out of nowhere, near the end of the feature:

There is, of course, a serious, disturbing side to this. Leading the pack are two 21-year-olds, Jason Siegel and Zachary Levi Balakoff, who are on Day 3 of a hunger strike. They say they won’t eat until genital mutilation is exposed. Go ahead, ask them why. They’ll tell you, for many minutes, about the “entire realms of exquisite feeling” they are missing by not having foreskins and the corresponding nerves. The “giant monstrosity” of circumcision “envelops” their entire lives.

“If we have to die, then that’s what’s necessary,” Balakoff says. They say they’ll sit in front of the Capitol until they starve.

Clearly, religion plays a major role in this culture, when it comes to mothers and fathers making decisions on this issue. Would it help to know what several major faiths — other than, obviously, Judaism — teach on this issue? Then again, it would be good to ask what Reform Judaism teaches on the subject. As you might expect, that’s a complicated question.

What are the trend lines today among Catholics? Evangelical Protestants? Mormons? The few liberal mainline Protestants who have children? How about the Muslim rites? The opposition among Buddhists and Hindus?

This is a case where the Post did dedicate quite a bit of dead tree pulp and ink to a complicated, emotional story. The reporter and the editors had enough space and could have covered the serious content, along with a few of the laugh lines. Why mention the religion angle, acknowledge its power, and then ignore the relevant facts?

Then again, if sex is a religion for many modern Americans, then the story is fine and no cuts or surgery is required.

Illustration: The icon of the feast of the circumcision of Jesus.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    It takes stunning hubris to declare any part of the human body “obsolete.” Surgeons used to take this kind of attitude toward the vermiform appendix, the tonsils and the adenoids. I had understood that this attitude had receded in the current generation; I guess I was wrong. Whichever side one is on in the circumcision debate, we can agree that we do not have omniscient knowledge about the human body and cannot confidently declare even its humblest part redundant.

  • Mark Lyndon

    Yeah, that was a dreadful article, mainly designed to portray people against circumcision as crazies. Outside the USA, most of the west doesn’t circumcise (and less than 5% of Christians worldwide).

    Canadian Paediatric Society
    “Recommendation: Circumcision of newborns should not be routinely performed.”
    “Circumcision is a ‘non-therapeutic’ procedure, which means it is not medically necessary.”
    “After reviewing the scientific evidence for and against circumcision, the CPS does not recommend routine circumcision for newborn boys. Many paediatricians no longer perform circumcisions.”

    Royal Australasian College of Physicians
    “After extensive review of the literature the Royal Australasian College of Physicians reaffirms that there is no medical indication for routine neonatal circumcision.”
    (those last nine words are in bold on their website, and almost all the men responsible for this statement will be circumcised themselves, as the male circumcision rate in Australia in 1950 was about 90%. “Routine” circumcision is now *banned* in public hospitals in Australia in all states except one.)

    British Medical Association,circumcision#Circumcisionformedicalpurposes
    “to circumcise for therapeutic reasons where medical research has shown other techniques to be at least as effective and less invasive would be unethical and inappropriate.”

    Canadian Children’s Rights Council
    “It is the position of the Canadian Children’s Rights Council that ‘circumcision’ of male or female children is genital mutilation of children.”

    drops in male circumcision:
    USA: from 90% to 57%
    Canada: from 47% to 9.2%
    UK: from 35% to about 5% (less than 1% among non-Muslims)
    Australia: 90% to 12.6% (“routine” circumcision has recently been *banned* in public hospitals in all states except one, so the rate will now be a lot lower)
    New Zealand: 95% to below 3% (mostly Samoans and Tongans)
    South America and Europe: never above 5%

  • danr

    “(circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by 60 percent, studies show)”

    Medical/epidemological studies have been all over the map in terms of correlation between circumcision and HIV risk. The author could’ve at least cited which specific study he was referring to, and why he considers conflicting studies less credible.

    For many Reformed Jewish families like the one I grew up in, circumcision is somewhat analogous to being Bar Mitzvahed. You do it because it’s traditionally done, not (necessarily) because you ascribe any spiritual significance to it.

    I must admit, though I don’t agree with them, “intactivist” is a brilliantly memorable play on words. ;-)

  • Julia

    Then there’s the issue of whether male circumcision lowers the risk of a female partner developing cervical cancer. There are studies that show it does.

    Complication: how does this affect many conservative Christian parents’ opposition to their daughters getting the vaccine to counter-act the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.? Will they or will they not be more likely to circumscize their sons, knowing it could prevent cancer in the sons’ future wives?

    Both the decision to circumcize the male and to vaccinate the female must be made while the child is too young to consent to either procedure.

  • Chris B

    Are we entirely sure that this isn’t an April Fools story?
    A HUNGER STRIKE? Please.

  • Martha

    I would like to know why American hospitals began the practice of circumcising male babies (yes, over here in Ireland, it’s not routinely done at all.)

    What was the rationale for it? When did it become a national policy?

  • tmatt

    People, people….

    Back to the media coverage and not the issue itself. You’re going way past what even the best of reporters could have done in the Style section.

  • MattK

    The story barely touched on the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.

  • bullmoosegal

    On a happy note, if the Balakoff and Siegel do starve, they’ll be candidates for the Darwin Awards, since they obviously don’t understand their own biology. There are no nerve endings directly in the prepuce (the portion formed by the ‘foreskin’). A properly conducted circumcision will result in neither pain, nor loss of sensation. I don’t have any particular feelings about it one way or another, but the arguments are ludicrous, and they demean the real problem of female genital mutilation. That procedure is done under dirty circumstances, is painful, and permanently removes the major organ of sexual sensation and stimulation in the female.

  • Julia

    hmmm Seems like the public starvation part of the story would be good fodder for an April Fool’s joke.

  • Dave

    Martha (#6), I heard once from an anti-circ activist that it was originally an anti-masturbation measure.

  • Franklin Jennings

    Well, Dave, let me say that it is ineffective if so…

  • tioedong

    I can settle the debate with one word: “Balanitis.

    It’s a matter of cleanliness.

    That’s why Catholic boys in the Philippines and pagan Kikuyu boys in Africa get circumcized, but Europeans who have running water and soap don’t have to.

  • FrGregACCA

    A religious ghost: my understanding is that contemporary medical circumcision is, uh, more THOROUGH than traditional Jewish circumcision, the latter removing only perhaps half of the foreskin. Perhaps a Jewish commenter can clarify this.

  • MichaelV

    I never understood why news people (and advertisers!) feel so compelled to use puns to begin with. A good groan every once in a while is fine ( does a real good job with this), but there are so many predictable ones. I have to bite down on a rag in order to get through a paper in late October. “Spooktacular?” Give me a break.

  • Caroline Warren

    Regarding the religious angle, Christians have never been required to circumcise. The New Testament teaches that “circumcision of the heart” is what matters and that we are saved by faith and faith alone.

    Regarding Judaism, many Jews are having a ceremony called a Bris Shalom for male and female children that includes the naming and recitation of prayers, but forgoes any body cutting

    Regarding Islam, info is limited, but not everyone circumcised there either

    Hindus do not practice it, and I don’t know about Buddists.

  • MattK

    Caroline, all I was saying is that the article didn’t do a very good job reporting on the issue of parental rights involved in the circumcision debate. I wasn’t and am not taking sides in the debate.

    Consider this: In California, with parental consent breast augmentation, ear piercing, and circumcision of minors is allowed. The latter two can even be done without consent of the child. But tattooing of minors is not allowed even if the child wants it and the parent consents.

    It seems to me that the laws on these four elective body alterations would be similar, but they are not. What is the background of the current laws? Why do they seem to be inconsistent? How are the rights of the parents understood in all four of these cases? Why does it seem that the will of the parents have different weight in the different cases? All of that should have been explained in the story. The story could have been a lot better than it was.

  • Hugh7

    Just every story about circumcision could be better than it is. This one at least had the simple message “The other marchers just want people to keep the clamps and knives away from infants. They just want society to respect the bodies of everyone, with no disrespect to any religion. They just want men to know what they’re missing, so maybe they won’t choose to do the same to their sons.”

    Medical claims for circumcision are prone to use big relative reduction percentages (60% reduction in HIV, etc). You get a better idea of the procedure’s (lack of) value from the number needed to prevent one case. In the US for HIV, it’s in the hundreds, for penile cancer, over 1000. That’s a lot of babies at risk of serious damage with no gain. Don’t just circumcise a baby “to reduce the risk” of some disease.

    Correcton MattK: circumcision of male minors is allowed. The law doesn’t just protect girls from the kind of savage and unhygienic things they do in Africa, it makes it illegal to so much as pinprick a girl’s genitals (absent pressing medical need), and with religion and culture specifically disallowed as excuses. Now there’s a double standard for you. I agree that the laws should be similar – all should be the informed choice of the person most concerned, and no-one else.

    As for what Christianity teaches, it used to be crystal clear: “If you have yourselves circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” Gal. 5:2 and many other messages from Paul in similar vein. (Jesus is only reported to have mentioned it once in a throwaway line where he contrasts it with healing.) But once it becomes customary, people will always find excuses to go on doing it.

  • tmatt

    I have started killing comments that are strictly about the issue itself, from partisans in the wars, and in no way related to the subject of the post — with is the news story and the religion angle.

    Back on topic, folks.

  • dalea

    The story seems to show somewhat juvenial snickering attitude that seems to be a throwback to years past. It used to be that all stories on sex were given a giggly ‘arn’t we being naughty’ tone, all the while avoiding a clinical approach. Judith Chicago’s art project on dinner plates and vaginas received the same treatment years ago. Very odd.

    What is missing is context, when did the movement start and why are people so upset. From memory, about 35 years ago gay men began to discuss the problems with involuntary circumcision. Both Gore Vidal and porn star Al Parker were active in the movement. I’ve been hearing this for over half my adult life.

    If the article had gone into the background, it might have made a bit more sense to ask why is this only now coming into open protest. Instead, we get this seventh grade snickering.

  • Hugh7

    “…it is reasonably safe to say that whenever circumcision is discussed in literature addressed to a general audience, the defining motif is uneasiness.”
    - Leonard Glick, “Marked in your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America” p 241

    And (at risk of being killed) well it might be. The reason is simple. Most of the articles are written by circumcised men who would die rather than acknowledge that their genitalia are less than they might be.

  • Avram Grumer

    They say they won’t eat until genital mutilation is exposed.

    I think “exposed” was an unfortunate word choice in this context.

  • Greg Hartley

    Freedom of religion also includes freedom “from” religion. Since an infant cannot have any religious beliefs, why is it legal to impose an irreversible surgical alteration on him in the name of religion? A recent survey published in USA Today showed that approximately 40% of Americans change their religion during their lifetime.

  • Fred Rhodes

    Historically a simular situation happened about 2000 years ago. A bunch of rebel anti circumcisers got together and started a movement to replace the ritual covenant law of infant sexual cutting with a ritual cleansing. A renegade band of Jews known as Jesus and the 12 Apostles forced the Pharisees to pay off the Romans to crucify Jesus to crush the rebellion against the ritualized covenant law of infant sexual trauma. Little did the Jews know that by doing so they also fulfilled the covanent law with one of their own prophecies. Jesus and the Apostles intentions were nobel and to this day have a following known as the Christians. The Christians have one of their own prophecies that is being fulfilled. It is in Revelations, and paraphrazed, basically says that since circumcision is anti christ, the issue causes a schism in society, Christians will rise up against Christians, Jews against Jews, children will start killing their parents for performing the curse of the Apocalypse upon them, increased levels of terrorism including suicide/murder, total social breakdown… Enjoy!

  • Dave

    Forty years ago I heard a theologian say that every generation re-invents its own Jesus. I had no idea what he meant. I’m beginning to get the picture…