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Circumcision is about consent, not just foreskin

When parents disagree on the procedure, the son should be able to make up his own mind when he comes of age

June 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

On May 22, anti-circumcision advocates across America lost their battle over a 4-year-old boy’s foreskin when a Florida judge ruled that his jailed mother, Heather Hironimus, would remain incarcerated unless she signed a medical consent form allowing her former partner, Dennis Nebus, to circumcise their son. Georganne Chapin, the executive director of Intact America, an anti-circumcision advocacy group, said of the move:

It was pure bullying. It was pure coercion, pure revolting misogyny on the part of this judge to give the choice between jail indefinitely or supposedly agreeing to sign a form allowing somebody to cut off a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy part of her child’s body.

Hironimus previously signed a parenting agreement in court with her ex-partner, consenting to the circumcision of their son, Chase. However, after much research, she changed her mind and entered into a lengthy litigation, during which she took her son to a battered women’s shelter in order to avoid the court-ordered circumcision.

This case is unique. While custody battles are fairly standard in marital breakdowns, never before had a child’s foreskin been the subject of such intense debate. Focusing as it does on issues of consent and autonomy, the outcome of this case has repercussions for future conflicts regarding a procedure that most of the Western world considers unnecessary and merely aesthetic.

It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I encountered a circumcised penis. From my entirely unscientific survey undertaken over the course of a decade, I can’t figure out why Americans are so intent on discarding foreskins rather than teaching boys about hygiene and safe sex. I am British and from a medical family, and when my son was born, my (circumcised, Catholic) husband and I were opposed to performing the procedure on him for cultural reasons. My husband saw no reason his son would want to “look like Daddy,” which appears to be a remarkably common rationale for circumcising infants. Being a woman, I admit I don’t know how much time little boys spend examining their father’s genitalia, but still, it strikes me as a specious reason for cutting off a piece of your child’s body. In contrast, I can understand why someone might want to circumcise their child for medical reasons: Circumcision decreases the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and herpes. (As for religious belief, Nebus didn’t cite it as a reason for wanting to circumcise his son, so let’s leave that off the table.)

My husband and I preferred to teach our son how to clean his penis and have safe, consensual sex using condoms when appropriate. We consider this a more reliable method of preserving his sexual health and those of his future partners without needing to resort to a painful mutilation. While there is some debate on how much pain circumcision causes, after viewing several performed with and without anesthetic, I agree with Dr. Steven Lerman, a genitourinary surgeon at University of California at Los Angeles’ medical center and a respected mohel, who believes that circumcision is an extremely painful procedure for infants and adults alike.

How can we ever teach our male children about consent when the legal system has explicitly stated that a child does not have autonomy over his own body?

As it turns out, we ended up circumcising our son — kind of. He was born with a congenital condition called hypospadias, which means his foreskin didn’t develop properly and his penis was attached to his scrotum. I was quite open about this with friends and was surprised how many tried to talk us into not performing the surgery and allowing him to make up his own mind about whether to have it done when he was an adult. Our son was lucky in that he had a relatively minor manifestation of the condition, but even so, he and any sexual partners would probably have found sex painful, and he would probably have had to urinate sitting down. In other words, without the procedure, our son would face difficulties that were not just aesthetic but would interfere with his life and probably his happiness. Cognizant that major surgery is easier at an early age, we decided to go ahead with the two-hour surgery when our son was 14 months old. The corrective procedure left his penis with the appearance of a rather brutal circumcision: tiny stitches surrounding the restructured area where normally the foreskin would have simply been sliced away. Surprisingly, after 24 hours, our son barely seemed to notice that there was anything wrong. The codeine we had been given at the hospital for him was unnecessary — though it proved useful a few weeks later when his molars came through.

My husband and I struggled with the idea that we were responsible for making a decision about our son’s body. What if we were wrong and he would have wanted to make this decision himself? In the end, we had to go with common sense and compassion. We did not want our son to suffer and knew he would have to undergo this surgery in order to have a normal life.

But this is not the same situation facing Chase and his parents.

The idea that a 4-year-old boy who — as he has expressed in court — vehemently does not want to be circumcised will now be forced into an unnecessary procedure that carries far more risks when undertaken past infancy is terrifying. How can we ever teach our male children about consent when the legal system has explicitly stated that a child does not have autonomy over his or her own body? Granted, Hironimus and the intactivists, as anti-circumcision advocates are called, have probably exaggerated the horrors of circumcision to Chase, but it remains an unpleasant, increasingly risky (when performed past infancy) and unwanted procedure that violates the sanctity of his body and mind.

Chase Hironimus’ circumcision is not about whether one is for or against circumcision but about whether one is for or against consent. If the parents could not agree, the only sensible legal action would be to allow the son to make up his own mind when he came of age, as we would have done with our son had we been unable to reach a decision.

Ruth Fowler is a British journalist and screenwriter living in the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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