THE FORUM, Fargo, North Dakota,
22 February 2003.

Fight doesn't scare Baer: Circumcision battle latest for 'crusader of underdog'

By Jeff Baird

The Forum - 02/22/2003

Zenas Baer spent 500 hours, or about $75,000 in billable time, working on the circumcision lawsuit against Fargo's MeritCare Hospital and one of its doctors.

And, as he prepares to ask for a retrial of the suit, which ended Feb. 14, it's a tab that is going to grow.

So why circumcision? Why, of all the causes for Baer to take up, has he taken such a passionate interest in the most common medical procedure in the nation?

Publicity? Money? A bad circumcision experience?

None of the above, the Hawley, Minn., attorney said.

This issue is personal for Baer. He likens the struggle to stop infant circumcision to the civil rights battles of the 1960s, in that he is fighting against a mindset that is so engrained most people refuse to question its purpose.

"If people want to criticize this as grandstanding or making my mark, they can," the 51-year-old said. "But I'm not going to apologize for looking out for the best interest of 1-day-old babies."

People who know Baer best - know where he came from and where he has been - aren't at all surprised by his persistence.

"He is not one to shy away from something because it may be a difficult obstacle to overcome," said Amon Baer, one of Zenas' 10 brothers. "He also enjoys the challenge of breaking new legal ground."

Baer, who also has four sisters, spent the first seven years of his life in a Hutterite community near Grand Forks, N.D.

In 1958, his parents moved to Americus, Ga., to a commune that stressed racial integration.

"Whites and blacks were encouraged to work together as equals," Baer said.

It was a philosophy that wasn't widely embraced in the South at that time. The "colony" was shot at and firebombed in the year the family lived there.

Americus was also Baer's first experience at a public school.

He remembers riding on a bus with kids that didn't belong to the commune. He was bombarded with racial epithets.

"As an 8 year old, I didn't know what was going on," Baer said.

The family moved to another commune in Pennsylvania in 1959, an experience Baer calls the most bizarre of his childhood.

The group purported "following in the footsteps of Christ." The reality, however, was much different, Baer said.

"The whole purpose was to make you a sheep of the community," he said.

As their parents worked, the kids sat quietly in a large room with only molding clay to play with.

An adult watched to ensure silence.

The Baer's were kicked out of the commune for challenging the group's authority after his dad asked why the leaders weren't more involved in work chores.

"Within a weeks the leaders came to him and said they didn't think the 'spirit of God' was moving him in the right direction," Baer said.

The family of 15 was given $300, a station wagon and told to leave.

The Baer's returned to Grand Forks, greatly shaken by their experience.

"My mother and father never formally joined any church after Pennsylvania," Baer said.

Baer's dad took odd jobs before he borrowed enough money to buy a farm near Hawley and eventually started a successful chicken egg farm.

Baer graduated from Lake Park High School in 1969, as Vietnam raged.

He was allowed to sit out the war as a conscientious objector, working instead for three years at a Minneapolis hospital.

At night he went to school at the University of Minnesota where he graduated in 1976 with degrees in German literature and political science.

He entered law school hoping to pursue a career in politics, but later determined he could do more good in law.

In his 23 years as an attorney, Baer has never shied away from controversial court cases.

He has sued cities, counties, two states and the U.S. government.

He has been involved in murder trials, police brutality lawsuits and was recently hired by parents in the Barnesville School District to sue the school board for illegal meetings.

His case selection has earned him a reputation as a crusader for the underdog, and at times has put him at odds with another of his clients - the City of Hawley, longtime Hawley City Councilman John Young Jr., said.

"Although there where times it wasn't always the most comfortable for us, we came to the understanding that was his niche," Young said.

Baer became involved with circumcision in 1995.

In the case a mother and father were divided on whether their son should be circumcised, Baer said. The doctor circumcised the child.

At first, Baer, who is circumcised, thought "what's the big deal."

Then he began researching infant circumcision and concluded it is a procedure in which the medical risks greatly outweigh the benefits and is only perpetuated by the medical field because it is profitable.

At the same time, the North Dakota Legislature had just passed a law that made female circumcision illegal.

"When I became a lawyer, I had to take an oath I will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and Minnesota and North Dakota," Baer said. "I can't look the other way when I see constitutional violations just like those in the 1960s civil rights movement didn't. There were principled individuals who said this is wrong and society must change."

Baer brought the case forward, but a federal judge ruled it had no standing.

His latest circumcision lawsuit pitted Anita Flatt of Hawley against Fargo-based MeritCare Hospital and Dr. Sunita Kantak.

Flatt, an attorney at Baer's law firm, signed a circumcision consent form but claimed she and husband, James, weren't told complete and accurate information about removing the foreskin from their son's penis.

It took a Cass County jury about two hours to wade through two weeks of testimony and find Kantak's care not negligent.

East Central District Court Judge Cynthia Rothe-Seeger dismissed MeritCare

from the lawsuit.

Baer said he will ask Rothe-Seeger for a retrial based on her decisions not to allow him to show the jury videos showing circumcision, tools used in the procedure and pictures of an uncircumcised penis.

If the retrial is not allowed, Baer said he will appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

He has the support of his family.

"To me it is not quirky at all," said Baer's wife Julia. "It is something that I think is a very appropriate subject to bring up."

She said if parents knew more about the procedure, fewer people would have their children circumcised.

But hospitals aren't anxious to provide that information, said Dr. Christopher Cold, one of two expert witnesses to testify for Baer in the Flatt lawsuit.

"This is a $250 million a year industry," he said. "He is trying to expose that as a less than ethical endeavor."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535

(File prepared 23 February 2003)