BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL, Volume 311, Number 7008: Pages 816-817,
Sept 23, 1995.

A rite to drop

There are no medical reasons for excising a normal foreskin. Paediatricians and paediatric surgeons have been preaching this message for decades, and the population of boys being circumcised in the United Kingdom has now fallen to less than 10%. The practice of so called female circumcision has recently received considerable adverse publicity, but ritual male circumcision has been relatively unchallenged. The Jewish journalist Victor Schonfeld's programme for Channel 4's War Cries series went a long way to redress the balance.

It seemed inconceivable to the supporters of the practice interviewed that any Jewish, Moslem, or African male should not have his foreskin removed. Dr Morris Sifman, medical officer of the Initiation Society, was the staunchest advocate of this opinion and was convinced that circumcision did no harm. He also invoked blind faith: "A commandment from God is a good commandment." Ranged against these traditionalists was the eloquent Dr Jenny Goodman. Her speculation that the practice is a symbolic vestige of child sacrifice seemed far fetched, but her underlying thesis that religious ritual changes with time and that circumcision could easily be dropped seemed quite sound --especially by the end of the programme.

Rabbi David Singer was filmed circumcising 8 day old Joshua Hawksworth, and it all went horribly wrong. Three days later Joshua was in intensive care being treated for severe septicsemia. It could be argued that Schonfeld struck lucky in filming this particular boy, but perhaps it was cause and effect. For the patient's sake any surgery is best conducted under ideal conditions. Introducing a film crew can make even the most experienced surgeon nervous and affect performance. Rabbi Singer certainly seemed nervous and clumsy, both performing the surgery and when adjusting the dressing at which point he requested the filming to be stopped. Schonfeld continued in secret. Where he did strike lucky is in the fact that Joshua's father is not Jewish and didn't attend the ceremony. The subsequent scenes of him watching the video and berating himself and his in laws for allowing it to happen are gripping stuff. What the experience has done for family dynamics doesn't bear contemplation. The myth that circumcision is just a "quick snip" and that newborns don't feel pain anyway were comprehensively demolished by the evidence in this generally well balanced documentary. Leela Kapila of Nottingham also provided graphic illustrations of the myriad complications which can follow this supposedly easy operation. The most moving moments, however, were the testimonies of previous sufferers: the Moslem man recalling a childhood trip to the hairdressers which resulted in him being suddenly forced on to a table and circumcised; and especially the African mother describing through slow tears the death of her baby boy.

One film will not change centuries of custom overnight, and who knows how many parents of the circumcising faiths will be persuaded not to subject their male offspring to a procedure which, viewed from outside the faith, could reasonably be described as ritualised child abuse.

Perhaps the most we can hope for is that the debate will continue.

--LAURIE RANGECROFT, consultant paediatric surgeon/urologist, Royal Victoria Infirmary, New-castle upon Tyne

(File revised 6 May 2008)