COURIER-NEWS, Bridgewater, New Jersey, December 3, 2000

Trial Could Set Legal Precedent

Staff Writer

The case began as two divorcing parents battling over the circumcision of their 3-year-old son.

On Monday, the couple will appear in state Superior Court in Somerville for a hearing ordered by the state Supreme Court to determine whether the surgery should go forward.

The case, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, has drawn the attention of the nation's oldest medical society, an attorney from the landmark Baby M case and scores of observers from around the nation who have flooded the court with phone calls, letters and e-mails decrying the surgery.

At stake is either the civil rights or the health of a child, depending on which side is asked.

The boy's father, Jim Price of Raritan Borough, insists he's right when he calls the surgery -- unquestioned as a routine procedure by many people -- "sexual mutilation."

However, Matthew's mother, Jennifer Price of Clinton, maintains that the surgery is needed to correct recurring inflammations experienced by the child.

A third attorney, Edward J. O'Donnell, an attorney for the biological father in the Baby M surrogacy case, will argue for the boy's best interest as Matthew's court-appointed attorney. And while O'Donnell declined to comment on what his recommendations would be regarding the surgery, he has asked the court to close the proceeding to the public.

"Matthew has privacy interests that would override really any interest the public has to know about these details," O'Donnell said. "Matthew doesn't need to have the fact of whether he is circumcised or uncircumcised be a matter of public record for the rest of his life."

Superior Court Judge Paul Armstrong will hear arguments on closing the proceeding Monday, and attorneys for the Courier News and the Star Ledger will be present to oppose the motion. Mrs. Price's attorney, Ronald Heymann, has joined in O'Donnell's motion to close the courtroom.

O'Donnell will present testimony from Robert Pickens, a Princeton urologist named as the court's expert.

"There's only one issue: Matthew, and what is best for him, and whether either party or both parties have larger issues dealing with their philosophies has nothing to do with this case," O'Donnell said.

The case has practically taken on a life of its own since August, when Armstrong ruled that the circumcision could go forward despite Mr. Price's objections.

He based his ruling on two medical reports submitted by Matthew's pediatricians recommending that the surgery could alleviate an inflammation the child had twice experienced.

"Both of these physicians believe that a circumcision will alleviate Matthew's problem, and while (the) defendant's medical physician seems to suggest that circumcision may not be currently warranted, he does not refute the fact that the surgery is minor and will give Matthew the best chance to alleviate his problem," Armstrong wrote in his order.

The surgery was scheduled for Oct. 12, but the pediatric urologist scheduled to perform it, Dr. Joseph Barone, backed out under legal threats from the father. The parents were in court the next day with motions to award full custody to Mrs. Price and, on the other side, to hold a hearing on the surgery, both of which were denied.

Barone and Dr. Grace Calimlim, whose medical reports were those used by Armstrong in his decision, are expected to testify on Mrs. Price's behalf. Dr. Robert Van Howe, a Wisconsin doctor who has published numerous articles on circumcision, will be presented as an expert for Mr. Price.

Mr. Price has argued his case both in court and in the media, appearing on Howard Stern's radio show and an as-yet-unaired episode of Montel Williams' talk show.

He won a stay in the state Superior Court Appellate Division, but that court later ruled that the surgery could go forward. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which on Oct. 31 sent the case back to Armstrong for the hearing.

Mrs. Price's view has been bolstered by a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Medical Society of New Jersey -- the oldest medical society in the nation -- and the Urology Society of New Jersey, who argued that the court should follow the advice of Matthew Price's treating pediatricians.

"Is a court to involve itself in deciding whether a splinter should be removed with a needle or a tweezer?" the societies' brief states. "Should a court decide whether a patient receives penicillin or ampicillin? Obviously not. However, by inserting itself into this case to equally weight the competing views of two physicians, the Court, ipso facto becomes a `super doctor.'"

But the National Organization of Circumcision Resource Centers, which has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief that had not been accepted by the court as of Friday afternoon, says that the surgery can be both physically and psychologically dangerous.

"He (Matthew) would suffer irreparable physical, sexual and emotional injury if subjected to a penile surgery," the brief states. "Matthew has a right to bodily and genital integrity. No clear and convincing evidence has been produced or is likely to be produced to support an order for circumcision."

The group, based in California, has set up a defense fund on Mr. Price's behalf.

Armstrong is not expected to make an immediate ruling.

"The issue here now is larger than a circumcision," Heymann said. "The issue is that when you have separated or divorced parents, and one parent has the primary physical custody of that child, what type of medical decision is that parent entitled to make for the benefit and the best interest of the child without the consent of the other party, or at the very least without having to litigate in order to do it?"

For Mr. Price, however, what's at stake goes beyond who can make the decision.

"What's at stake here is his (Matthew's) right to be a whole person, his constitutional right to be whole and to bodily integrity," he said. "His right to choose is at stake here."

Mr. Price said he would appeal if Armstrong allows the surgery to go forward.

"They did it to me, and they're not getting him," he said. "I'm not letting them do it to him."

from the Courier News

Published on December 3, 2000.

Cite as:
(File prepared 05 December 2000)

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