U.S. anti-circumcision activist cheers Canadian's attack on practice

By Sharon Kirkey
The Ottawa citizen
Saturday, October 18, 1997
Page A12

Marilyn Milos is convinced that the day will come when infant male
circumcision will be looked upon as a shameful part of our medical

As founder and director of NOCIRC, the National Organization of
Circumcision Information and Resource Centres, Ms. Milos has dedicated
the past 18 years of her life to ending routine, non-medical
circumcision of baby boys.

A registered nurse who was fired from her job with a California
hospital in 1985 for trying to give parents frank information about
circumcision, Ms. Milos is convinced the practice is nothing short of
genital mutilation: "This is a violent act done to children."

"I have three sons who were all circumcised in infancy," she said from
her office in San Anselmo, California.

"The doctor said it's cleaner and healthier and it doesn't hurt and it
only takes a second and it will prevent all these terrible things that
could possibly happen," Ms. Milos said.

"This vague fear of something happening in future allowed me to
subject my precious newborns to something that was worse. I had no
idea what circumcision was."

The U.S. activist, buoyed yesterday by comments by one of Canada's
leading medical ethicists, Margaret Somerville, founding director of
the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, said in an interview
with the Citizen this week that non-medical infant male circumcision
is technically criminal assault and that Canadian doctors should stop
doing it.

She said it's time Canadian society challenged its "laissez-faire"
attitude toward a practice described as "bodily wounding on a tiny
infant" without his consent.

Society "will say even though it's technically a criminal assault,
which it is, we will treat it as though it's not contrary to public
policy and allow it to happen," Ms. Somerville said.

"What if we had some new group who, for their cultural reasons, said
all children-and don't let's make this sex-discriminatory-all children
in our community will have their left earlobe removed after birth. I
think Canadians would go ballistic about that, and that's a less
dangerous thing to do than a male circumcision."

Anti-circumcision activists hope Ms. Somerville's decision to publicly
enter the debate will help society begin to challenge a North American
custom that one Ottawa pediatrician describes as one of the most
"intensely painful" events a child will experience.

Circumcision involves forcibly retracting the foreskin and cutting
away the inner and outer layers. Despite the availability of
inexpensive pain killers, from injections to creams that help deaden
the pain, the majority of circumcisions today are performed without
any anesthetic.

"We really are dealing with something very deep and very heavy and
it's no surprise it's it has taken so long, and the efforts are so
difficult in bringing this to an end," Ms. Milos said.

Her life changed the day she witnessed a circumcision on a newborn
baby as a nursing student in the early 1980s. The infant was strapped
to a molded plastic board, his hips elevated and his arms tied down
with velcro.

"The baby was struggling against the restraints. Then the doctor
started to cut into the baby's penis and the baby let out a scream I
had never heard a human being make. I lost it.

"The doctor looked into my face and said, `You know, there's no
medical reason for doing this.' It was like a crack in my universe. My
life changed."

She was later fired for after she tried to show parents a video she
and a colleague made of a circumcision.

"I believed when parents saw this they would never allow their
children to suffer the trauma of circumcision. (The hospital) said it
was too much for parents to see. I said that if it was too much for
parents to see, then it was too much for the baby to have to go

Her non-profit organization now has 40 chapters across the United
States, and offices in more than a dozen countries, including Canada,
South Africa, and New Zealand.

Ms. Milos says non-religious circumcision was used in the 19th century
as a means to curtail masturbation. The foreskin is the most
nerve-rich, erogenous part of the penis.

"The head of the penis, instead of being soft, moist mucous membrane,
now becomes dried, hardened, and calloused."

Since the early part of this century, circumcision was considered a
way to prevent urinary tract infection, sexually transmitted diseases,
and a reduced risk of cancer of the penis. Doctors also believed it
would help prevent foreskin problems that would require a later
circumcision, such as infections or tightening-conditions that can now
be treated with non-surgical interventions.

But last year, after an exhaustive review of the medical literature, a
special committee of the Canadian Paediatric Society concluded that
there is no valid medical reason to perform routine infant male

In the Jewish faith, circumcision is a religious ritual, and support
for the custom in the Jewish community is widespread. (Most
circumcisions performed in Canada, however, are for non-religious
reasons, according to the Circumcision Information Resource Centre).  

Local Jewish leaders were not available for comment yesterday because
of a Jewish holiday. But some Jewish parents are reportedly
questioning the decision to circumcise their sons.

"Despite the pressure to conform, an increasing number of Jewish
parents are finding the courage to say no to circumcision," write
Boston psychologist Ron Goldman in the Jewish Spectator, and
independent international Jewish magazine.

Ms. Milos says infant male circumcision is an issue of human rights.