A controversial new measure could make it onto the ballot in San Francisco in November: city resident Lloyd Schofield says that he’s “on track” to gain enough signatures for his proposed measure, which would make it illegal to perform circumcision on men below the age of 18. The act would be a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine. Schofield is claiming that this is a human rights issue, in part because the city has already made female circumcision illegal, but needless to say, it has angered some San Francisco residents.
The Anti-Defamation League, the local Jewish Community Relations Council, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and the American Jewish Committee condemned the measure, saying that they were “deeply troubled by this initiative, which would interfere with the rights of parents to make religious decisions for their own families.”
Jewish groups are objecting to the fact that ritual circumcision of men under the age of 18 would be made illegal, despite the fact that it is, in the words of these San Francisco-area Jewish organizations, “of fundamental importance in the Jewish tradition.” Male circumcision is also an important practice in Islam, although it is not compulsory.
Schofield doesn’t accept the argument that religious or cultural significance should change how circumcision is viewed. “People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body,” Schofield said. “His body doesn’t belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents. It’s his decision.”
If nothing else, this is an interesting moment for Americans to consider how foreign attempts to ban or limit female circumcision (or female genital mutilation, as it is also referred to) may be received in cultures where these practices have similar signifiance. This doesn’t mean that the two kinds of circumcision should be compared, though; while male circumcision arguably reduces sexual sensation, female circumcision in its more extreme instances can cause death or severe health problems. Male circumcision has actually been associated with some health benefits, including reducing the risk of HIV acquisition by men during vaginal intercourse, but this is not an accepted conclusion.
Male circumcision was severely limited in Sweden about ten years ago, after a Muslim boy died while being circumcised. Now Swedes who want their sons to be circumcised must either have the circumcision performed under anesthetic, with a doctor or nurse present, or leave the country to have the ritual performed. The law left the country’s Jewish minority, according to the BBC, feeling “isolated and vulnerable.”
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and whether Schofield is able to get the 7,138 signatures that he needs by April 26, but it does seem like an insensitive and problematic move on his part, and one that I hope the voters of San Francisco don’t have to decide on. Although the discussion about the cultural merits versus the health risks of both female and male circumcision is one that we should be having, male circumcision carries far too much religious (and social) weight for this reaction to be anything but offensive.
Photo from Flickr.