Though infant male circumcision is left to the discretion of parents, female circumcision performed on a minor is completely banned in the United States. This strange kind of sexism was the topic of debate at a Harvard Law School panel discussion today.
Male circumcision has long claimed to be the lesser of the two evils— safer, and with potential health benefits. Unfortunately, those potential health benefits are for people facing an AIDS epidemic, not Americans, and every medical procedure has risks.
“I don’t like seeing the poor little penises bleeding,” said panelist Dr. Nawal Nour, an obstetrician/gynecologist who founded the African Women’s Health Center in Boston. She stopped performing the procedure. Another panelist, Law Professor Sarah Waldeck, said that as a middle-age white woman from the midwest she couldn’t be objective on the issue— in her demographic, circumcision is the norm.
Waldeck’s perspective on male circumcision spoke to her early point about female circumcision— that the cultural aspects have to be taken into account when determining laws if they are going to be effective. Because the people the ban is aimed at view female circumcision as normal, she argued, the law is more likely to provoke backlash than lasting change.
“Getting people to stop circumcising their daughters is as difficult as trying to convince Jewish people to stop circumcising their sons,” Waldeck said. Dr. Nour pointed out that in a traditional Jewish bris, the circumcision is not performed in a hospital, or even by a medical professional.
Instead of an outright ban, Waldeck proposed gradual nudging, likening it to the success of the anti-smoking campaigns versus the failures of alcohol prohibition.
At the same time, Dr. Nour, who works directly with patients facing this issue, said she believed that the ban was working because it gave them a way to opt out. Suddenly, all the arguments of tradition and future marriages could be outweighed by the procedures illegality.
“The law is a way out of the old tradition,” Dr. Nour said.
Which begs the question, how many Jewish parents are looking for a way out of hosting a bris?