After months of debate and campaigning to collect signatures, Lloyd Schofield and other “intactivists” have finally succeeded in their goal to get a ban on male circumcision onto the ballot in San Francisco. On Wednesday, city officials confirmed that 7,700 signatures were collected in support of a male circumcision ban. The initiative would restrict males under the age of 18 from being circumcised, and violators would be fined $1,000 and receive up to a year in prison.
Schofield, the leading sponsor of the initiative, sees this as a children’s rights issue, viewing the removal of foreskin from the penis as a procedure that’s more dangerous or painful than it’s worth. The Washington Post reported that he said:
Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what’s in the best interest of the child. It’s his body. It’s his choice.
Although male circumcision was the norm in the 1960s, in the past few years the prevalence of the practice has declined, and, according to The New York Times, an estimated 32.5 percent of boys in 2008 underwent the procedure. That’s a steep decline from 56 percent in 2006, and an even steeper decline from the over 80 percent a few decades before.
The facts about circumcision with regard to health benefits are all very murky—some people argue that there are very few differences in the health of circumcised and uncircumcised boys, while others cite studies that indicate greater risk of HIV/AIDS and other diseases in uncircumcised men.
But for members of some Jewish and Muslim communities, circumcision is an essential part of their religion—for Jewish males, in fact, it’s the defining symbol of man’s covenant with God. The initiative in San Francisco, in theory, would violate First Amendment freedom of religion rights in the city.
A piece in The Economist makes a good point about balancing and prioritizing the rights of children over religious freedoms. The article says:
Supreme Court precedent is mixed. Many religious practices (such as polygamy, once practised by Mormons) are clearly illegal. In a 1944 case concerning a Jehovah’s Witness who had custody over a 9-year-old girl, the court stipulated that “parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free … to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion.” Yet in a case in 1972 the court upheld the rights of Amish parents to refuse, on religious grounds, to send their children to school beyond 8th grade.
Some Jewish people in some sects of the religion have also taken issue with male circumcision in recent years. Jewish critics of the practice have argued that the removal of the foreskin is not a necessary symbol and that something simpler, such as a naming ceremony where the child is bestowed a traditional Jewish name, suffices as an introduction to the Jewish community.
Many news organizations have predicted that regardless of whether the ballot initiative passes in November, it will almost immediately come under fire from legal challenges supporting freedom of religion. Despite this near-certitude, the fact that the initiative has gained this much traction, enough to get it on the ballot, is an important sign that public views on circumcision are shifting, and that perhaps the “intactivists” may come out on top after all.