FORWARD Volume C no. 31,101 Published at New York, NY 10016 http://www.forward.com October 11, 1996 CIRP note: Forward was founded in 1897 by Abraham Cahan. Published originally in Yiddish, Forward once had a circulation of 250,000. The English language edition was launched in 1990, and a Russian language edition was started in 1995. Forward has a distinguished literary tradition, having published the works of Nobel prize winners, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Weisel. In recent years Forward has published the works of distinguished Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth and Joseph Heller. Today Forward is published weekly and reaches a nationwide audience. ACTIVISTS DECLARE WAR ON CIRCUMCISION Claim Practice Violates `Human Rights' By E. J. Kessler, Forward staff NEW YORK - Encouraged by the growing uproar over female genital mutilation in Africa, anti-circumcision activists, many of them Jewish, are mounting a major drive aimed at curtailing, if not outlawing, circumcision - including bris milah - in the United States. The latest sally in what is emerging as an extended battle took place last week in Cambridge, Mass., at a Harvard University conference on health and human rights., where one anti- circumcision activist delivered a presentation on the "human rights implications" of routine circumcision of male minors. The activist, Tim Hammond, is the producer of an anti-circumcision documentary, "Whose Body, Whose Rights?" that actually argues that children who have been circumcised have standing to sue their parents or doctors. Later in the conference at the posh Inn at Harvard, Mr. Hammond, director of the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males, or NOHARMM, screened the 56-minute video. The documentary calls circumcision mutilation, promotes the idea that circumcision causes psychological trauma and loss of sexual feeling and tries, albeit obliquely, to connect circumcision with genital mutilation. It makes the connection by quoting an expert on female genital mutilation talking about human responses to the loss of sexual sensitivity. The documentary was broadcast last June on KQED, the San Francisco public television station. Mr. Hammond told the Forward by telephone that "although the issue [of circumcision] encompasses alleged medical prophylaxis, religious ritual and tribal custom," his Harvard presentation focused on how to end the procedure as part of "American medical practice." He did not call for banning the procedure outright, he said because religious and tribal circumcision "have to be approached in different ways that do not denigrate" communities that practice it; rather, he hopes that a "cultural shift will happen where we recognize and respect the right of all children to bodily integrity." Mr. Hammond did propose, however, that both circumcision and female genital mutilation raise "the same human rights concerns - the rights of vulnerable children to physical integrity, self-determination and security of person. If you're raising it for the girl child, a reasonable, rational person will probably be able to see the connection with what happens to males." The attention to female genital mutilation in Africa is "already having a ripple effect" on his own issue, he said, adding that "I'm encouraged by the discussion we're having in this culture." Others however use less equivocal language than does Mr. Hammond. NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, states in its literature that it opposes "the performance of a single additional unnecessary additional foreskin, clitoral or labial amputation procedure" and that the only person who may consent to medically unnecessary procedures on themselves are the individuals who have reached the age of consent." The dimensions of the anti-circumcision drive, according to its advocates, are international. The Harvard events comes on the heels of the Fourth International Symposium on Circumcision, held last month in Lausanne, Switzerland, where representatives of anti-circumcision organizations from several continents, African women's groups, the World Health Organization and Amnesty International discussed the genital cutting of both females and males, according to Marilyn Milos, director of NOCIRC. Ms. Milos, who convened the Lausanne conference, noted that "the denial of genital mutilation by the victims is parallel." The conference's proceedings will be published next year by Plenum, she said. `Psychological Effects' Another book "Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma," by psychologist Ronald Goldman, was recently issued by Vanguard Publications; it talks about the "longterm psychological effects of circumcision" of "this important source of early pain" according to an advertising flier. Recently, a documentary by Victor Shonfeld, "It's a Boy," which likens the brit milah ceremony to death and illness was shown on Britain's channel 4 television, according to Ms. Milos; the film will soon air in Canada. The American anti-circumcision forces have a powerful ally in the mainstream press. Dr. Dean Edell, a California Jew who is the medical authority for 400 West Coast ABC affliates, regularly speaks out against this procedure and once even featured a so-called alternative bris - a "covenant ceremony" without the circumcision on his show. Anti-circumcision activists have for years tried to lay a legal basis for their assault on the practice, using "human rights" as a cudgel to chip away at what most American Jews consider a constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. The goal, at the very least, is to establish precedents for lawsuits against doctors and mohels who perform the procedure if not to ban it outright. (One such suit was attempted in California but it foundered on appeal.) For example, a 1985 Journal of Family Law article, "Circumcision as Child Abuse: The Legal and Constitutional Issues," by William Brigman, then an assistant professor at the University of Houston, argues that if circumcision is shown to be child abuse it will not be protected by the First Amendment. "Does the importance of circumcision in Orthodox [sic] Judaism constitutionally necessitate an exception to a general anti-circumcision statute? The answer is no'" Mr. Brigman writes because "under the Constitution, Courts may not determine the legitimacy of religious beliefs." He goes on to argue that the most obvious way to proceed with enforcement of circumcision is through criminal prosecution under existing state laws prohibiting assault and battery and conspiracy to assault and batter. Every state has laws that can be used for this purpose." However he concludes, "it will be extremely hard to get a conviction, since circumcision is not generally acknowledged as child abuse at the present time. Additionally in some jurisdictions it may be difficult to establish the requisite criminal intent." Given these obstacles, he advises, "suits for damages against surgeons, hospitals and, conceivably parents are possible" but the most promising approach would be a civil rights class action against hospitals ... since competent surgeons are aware that routine circumcision is not good medical practice." `No Harm Done' Jewish groups dismiss the possibility that such approaches will be successful. According to Mark Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress, "in view of the fact that there's no real harm done, and that circumcision has been practiced by so many religions for so long, courts are not going to find against what is an essential religious freedom for both parent and child." Anti-circumcision activists, however, feel fairly confident that civil remedies are not long in coming. "What's going to happen is a leading legal decision underscoring the culpability of the perpetrators of circumcision, namely the M.D.'s who go along with this barbarity without any scientific justification and the mohels who inflict this mutilation on newborns in the name of godliness," said Ralph Ginzburg, the founder of Outlaw Unnecessary Circumcision in Hospitals, know as OUCH. "Eventually you'll have one legal finding and the insurance companies will run like termites. That's all we need. It will almost totally expunge this ghastly procedure from American life."
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