Canada Debates Validity of Male CircumcisionBy Julie Remy
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian anti-circumcision crusaders are challenging a law protecting women against genital mutilation as a way to draw attention to much more common male circumcision.
The court challenge led by Dr. Arif Bhimji has sparked a heated debate that pits subscribers to modern human rights tenets against followers of age-old religious traditions.
"We are saying that this section is discriminatory because it provides protection to females but it does not provide the same protection to males," said Bhimji, an emergency-room physician and a Muslim who heads the anti-circumcision Association for Genital Integrity.
He argues that the section of the criminal code concerning aggravated assault violates the Canadian Charter on Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality between the sexes.
Male circumcision is common in North America and elsewhere for religious and cultural reasons and to help prevent urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and penile cancer. In the minor surgical operation, the foreskin is removed to prevent bacteria from developing under the fold of skin.
Yet more is at risk than most people think, said John Antonopoulos of the Montreal-based Information Center on Circumcision. "It is not a small, useless piece of skin. There is a whole world of sensations in the foreskin," he said, citing sensitive nerve connections at the end of the penis.
A mandatory practice in Islam and Judaism, circumcision was introduced to Anglo-Saxon countries at the turn of the 19th century and expanded in the 1950s as a way to improve hygiene. Experts say it was also seen as a way to control sexual urges and reduce masturbation, believed to cause mental illness.
Since the 1970s there has been an ongoing debate over its merits and the Canadian Pediatric Society, like several medical associations in the United States, Britain and Australia, said in 1996 that newborns should not be routinely circumsized.
"There are potential complications and it's not medically necessary," said Dr. Debra Davis, a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society. In 2 to 10 percent of circumcisions minor complications such as bleeding, infection and inflammation can occur and, more rarely, damage to the penis can lead to amputation, she said.
Given those concerns, she said there was a "real push" from the medical community in the mid-1980s to decrease the rate of circumcision, which fell to 60 percent from almost 90 percent in the United States and to 20 percent from 50 per cent in Canada.
Davis said no new medical evidence has arisen that would justify recommending a return to circumcision.
DIVINE COMMANDMENT OR CRUEL TREATMENT?
Bhimji said medical associations failed to educate professionals on this delicate matter. "As a physician, I had an obligation to make sure that we are protecting the most vulnerable in our society," he said.
"I am a Muslim, so this is something I didn't take lightly, but I came to the conclusion that just because it is a religious requirement it doesn't give us an unfettered right to cause harm to our children."
The view of most human rights, children's aid and religious groups is that, unlike female genital mutilation (FGM), male circumcision is not a deliberate attempt to injure the child.
"Male circumcision does have recognized medical benefits ... FGM in contrast was never medically accepted and all colleges (of physicians and surgeons) have banned the practice," said Carole Morency of Justice Canada.
Male circumcision cannot be compared to female genital mutilation -- often mistakenly called female circumcision -- which generally involves the complete removal of female genitalia and poses serious health risks, Morency said.
"We amended the code in 1997 to avoid any uncertainty that the criminal law in Canada does clearly prohibit the practice of FGM," she said, rejecting Bhimji's argument that the section violates the Charter's requirement of equality of treatment.
The Canadian Jewish Congress immediately said it would oppose any court challenge to the law.
"Circumcision is a divine commandment. It's not an optional kind of thing and it doesn't depend on logic," CJC communications director Rubin Friedman said. If a child is not healthy, the only exception would be delaying the rite, usually performed on the eighth day following birth, he said.
If the court challenge were accepted, he said, "I think it would be a huge issue."
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