Anti-circumcision campaign cut short

Male circumcision dates back to a deal that Abraham made with God, as far as I know; most Jewish and Muslim parents still circumcise their sons to show that they’re keeping their end of the bargain.  Of course, in many rich countries, lots of other people circumcise sons.  There’s some scientific evidence of some health benefits, particularly reduced transmission of AIDS, and some vigorous debate about adverse consequences.  Meanwhile, the percentage of newborns circumsized has declined over the past couple of decades.

But the cut itself is provocative, particularly when you think about it absent religious context.  In Santa Monica, Jena Troutman (above), a lactatation consultant, launched a campaign to ban circumcision in her town, making the cutting of foreskins a crime.  She started to collect signatures to get a proposition on the ballot for the November election, following a similar effort in San Francisco–where voters will address the question in November.

Initiatives and referenda are good tools for campaigns that can generate broad soft support, and good places for majorities to restrict what minorities can do.  (Witness the repeated referenda campaigns on same sex marriage.)  The populist legacy of voters making policy directly requires even more dramatic oversimplification of issues than regular politics.  Hyperbole and polemic are required elements of such campaigns, and the ballot initiative is a blunt instrument for making policy.

And activists against circumcision (“inactivists” is their preferred term) have a variety of reasons for their campaigns.  Ms. Troutman says that she’s just trying to save babies from harm, and explains her ideas, with music, on her website.  Baby boys, the argument goes, are born perfect, and the cut is cruelty.  By analogy, ritual circumcision of boys is very much like female circumcision, now almost universally called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and recognized as cruel, dangerous, and misogynistic.

But there’s a longer history of campaigns to ban circumcision, and it’s less about protecting babies than protecting society—from Jews.  Over hundreds of years, some states have banned the practice intending to isolate, stigmatize, and ultimately eliminate Judaism.   Jewish leaders were ready to see the referendum as a continuance of this anti-Semitic tradition, despite Ms. Troutman’s protestations:

For me, this was never about religion. It was about protecting babies from their parents not knowing that circumcision was started in America to end masturbation (Fox News report).

But Troutman was not alone in her campaign, and in movement politics, as elsewhere, you are judged by the company you keep.  Troutman’s ally, Matthew Hess, wrote the bill she was pushing, as well as the measure in San Francisco.  Hess is committed to the issue, and his comic book series that advances his position, Foreskin Man.
We expect movements to sharpen their arguments, often at the expense of complexity, and the comic book form isn’t the most suitable for nuance, but:  Hess’s books are filled with images that push obvious anti-Semitic buttons.    On the left, see Hess’s villain, Monster Mohel, sporting stylized beard, hat, and prayer shawl.  The heroes look conspicuously Aryanized.
The images, rhetoric, and Hess himself made the charge of anti-Semitism very credible.
So Jena Troutman backed off, abbreviating her campaign.  She and her allies will look for new opportunities to advance their claim without the encumbrance of Matthew Hess’s apparently broader agenda.
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Written by David S. Meyer

June 9, 2011 at 5:53 pm

17 Responses

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  1. Volokh Conspiracy on the comics.

    Haven’t bothered to actually read his comics, but it’s apparently a follow up to a previous comic with secular doctors as the villains. So maybe his agenda really is circumcision.

    My personal view is that family matters are nobody else’s business, but that would entail scrapping a lot of current law. A diverse, pluralistic society naturally tends toward something like the Ottoman millet system. Too many of our prior political conceptions are rooted in an outdated experience of cultural homogeneity.

    Wonks Anonymous

    June 9, 2011 at 8:56 pm

  2. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878), was a Supreme Court of the United States case that held that religious duty was not a suitable defense to a criminal indictment. George Reynolds was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, charged with bigamy after marrying Amelia Jane Schofield while still married to Mary Ann Tuddenham in the Utah Territory.
    The court argued that if we allowed polygamy, how long before someone argued that human sacrifice was a necessary part of their religion …

    Ruling in its entirety at

    Michael E. Marotta

    June 10, 2011 at 12:19 am

  3. I’d bet $20 that she is also a dedicated opponent of vaccines.


    June 10, 2011 at 4:21 am

  4. If you have been following the “female circumcision” debate closely, you will think that opposing male circumcision seems like a logical extension of the absolutist standpoint that no concessions on child welfare should be granted on religious grounds. Per Lisa Wade’s research, opponents of “female circumcision” objected even to the suggestion of allowing a symbolic nick of the clitoris drawing a single drop of blood done by a physician in the hospital as a way of meeting cultural standards without actually harming the child. (What I learned from Lisa’s research is the very wide range of practices that have been lumped together under the one label,some of them of course quite harmful to a girl or woman’s well-being.)


    June 10, 2011 at 6:13 am

  5. @wonks anonymous’s notion that family matters should stay private sounds great. We’d all agree–in principle–but the execution is something different. There’s all kinds of family abuse that we don’t allow, even if justified by some religious doctrine–like child marriage and polygamy. Certainly if any of the anti-circumcision measures pass, the issue will end up in the courts. The legal question is whether male circumcision is more like FGM or more like saluting the flag.

    David S. Meyer

    June 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

  6. Dear readers and my colleagues who are campigning againt MALE CIRCUMCISION. lets campaign about matters which are open and affecting billions of life and threatening this world , like divorces, STIs, drug abuse, family violence esp partner violence, prostitution, alcoholism which cause depression, anxieties, poor academic performances and suicides among our young genertion. Circumcision is a choice for the parents at a time when the baby cannot decide and give concent for the procedure. Lets dont ignore that by this procedure the rate of STI is much much less among populations who are following the practice. Lets accept and attain healthy, beneficial practices and say no to those which affect badly our present and future. Lets think other than financial gains and think about future generations. Those people who have nothing to do and just to appear in front of cameras for cheap popularity and to get medias attention should choose one another toxic issue from above list and help this world, in that case they will be heros and millions will follow them.


    June 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm

  7. “Of course, in many rich countries, lots of other people circumcise sons.”
    Just not so. Of the developed world, Only the USA ciircumcises a majority of its babies non-reliegiously. Most of the rest of the developed world has never done it, and the rest of the English-speaking world tried it (Australia and New Zealand just as enthusiastically as the USA in the 1950s), found it did no good, and has virtually given it up. In New Zealand, it’s hard to find a doctor willing to do it. And there have been no outbreaks of any of the ailments it was supposed to be good against.

    The medical claims for circumcision are bogus or exaggerated – slight reductions in rare ailments of late onset that are better treated by other means – and the HIV claim only applies to female-to-male transmission, and is still dubious when in 10 countries of 18 for which USAID has figures, more of the circumcised men have HIV than the non-circumcised.


    June 11, 2011 at 1:34 am

  8. It’s ridiculous to think that circumcision could be justified in public health terms in a world where it didn’t already exist as an entrenched religious practice. I mean honestly—imagine the reaction if some Department of Health official announced that this was now the way to possibly bring about some modest STI reductions fifteen to twenty years in the future.


    June 11, 2011 at 11:18 am

  9. @Hugh7: Let me acknowledge that “lots of” is a pretty vague term. A cursory search on the web turns up rates of male infant circumcision in rich countries ranging from 20-50+ percent. I can stand by “lots of.”
    @Kieran: The pre-existence of male circumcision may be the only way that we’d get health administrators touting beneficial effects and promoting the practice–but the WHO, which would seem to have no religious stake in the matter, does promote the practice for reducing STD transmission, citing several scientific studies. The WHO is targeting Africa, where the practice is not widespread. I’m not aware of a large public outcry–but I’m sure orgtheory readers know more on this matter than I do. (My interest is in the politics of the campaign, not a particular political outcome.)
    The CDC cites similar evidence.

    David S. Meyer

    June 11, 2011 at 5:40 pm

  10. Hmm… I wonder if Ed Laumann and I are the only sociologists who have actually done some research in this fun area. When I was in grad school, I helped Ed with some research in this area, some of which ended up in a 1997 article (with Dr. Christopher Masi) in JAMA ( Unfortunately, they made us cut the most interesting parts, which had to do with the historical trends that somehow led to the strange situation where the majority of American boys, and especially white boys born in hospitals outside the South, were given major surgery as newborns. This situation was especially surprising given the fact that the surgery leaves an irreversible sign that had always been associated in Western society with an outcaste minority (us Jews), and it’s not like this minority was well-integrated into the larger society in the period when circumcision rates rose. We didn’t have an answer for this mystery, though some of the evidence is consistent with a (funny Victorian) version of what Mary Douglas called “medical materialism” (the story about masturbation)— i.e., the facile functionalist interpretation that a practice must have some medical benefits for it to be required in Jewish and other cultures. (FWIW, Jewish tradition has nothing to say about the possibility of medical benefits; it is regarded purely a sign of the covenant, with no further explanation needed).

    The most interesting historical note that is relevant to this debate is that British and US circumcision rates were about the same through WWII (if I recall, they were in the high 40s by then), but followed very different trajectories afterwards. (If I recall, circumcision rates in other anglo countries were comparable; and circumcision rates in non-anglo Western countries have always been negligible) Why? Well, there were two studies that came out after the War, one in a US medical journal and one in a British journal. The US one suggested that circumcision had some benefits (if I recall, it was lower cervical cancer rates in spouses of circumcised men) and the British one showed no benefit with respect to some other medical outcome. Doctors in the US were then trained to think that circumcision had some benefits, parents didn’t question medical authority in those days [same period when birth in hospitals became nearly universal-- it has been the minority before the War], and insurance companies decided to pay for it; and so we got mass circumcision. In the UK, the National Health Service (established in 1948) decided not to pay for it, and circumcision in the UK (and other Commonwealth countries) disappeared. My sense is that this divergence is characteristic of the history of this debate. The criteria that one might use to decide whether the medical benefits outweigh the surgical risks have never been clear, the research is (or at least, was) all over the map, and there is a tremendous amount of path-dependence in the system (the news that circumcision rates have recently dropped in the US is very interesting bc I recall research showing that parents tend to want the son to look like his father, and so this kept US circumcision rates high even as the general trend has been away from recommending the procedure [though also not recommending against it]). As Kieran writes, it is very hard to believe that if it weren’t already the case that circumcision was widely practiced (in the US) that it could get any serious traction. Based on my reading of the medical literature in 1997, I thought circumcision was a mistake for anyone who did not have a religious or other non-medical reason for doing it. That said, it is strange to me why anyone would want to enact legislation to ban the practice unless they don’t want Jews or Muslims around (I can’t speak for Muslims; but for the vast majority of Jews, it is simply unthinkable not to circumcise our sons). If people think circumcision is a mistake, focus on educating the public, doctors, insurance companies.


    June 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm

  11. Pardon the pun in my second sentence! :-)


    June 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm

  12. David S. Meyer: a “cursory search on the internet” would lead you to sites like, the work of a molecular biologist who never saw a reason for circumcising he didn’t like, and who grossly exaggerates the rates. We know that circumcision has never been widespead outside the Muslim world, the English-speaking world, the Philippines, South Korea, the Phiippines, tribal Africa, Israel, parts of Melanesia and Polynesia and aboriginal Australia. That leaves the whole of Europe and Scandinavia, South and Central America, much of Asia and South East Asia. It has gone out of fashion in Britain and the Commonwealth. In Canada and Australia it varies widely by province and state, but nowhere in Australia is the rate over 20%.

    Indeed the WHO has no religious stake in the matter, but they appear to have been hijacked by circumcision enthusiasts. The same small handful of names (Ronald Gray, Daniel Halperin, Robert Bailey, Stefan Bailis, Godfrey Kigozi, Stephen Moses, Malcolm Potts, Thomas Quinn, Maria Wawer, Helen Weiss, Jeffrey Klausner, Brian Morris, Edgar Schoen, Thomas Wiswell) appear on much of the pro-circumcision literature. The WHO’s policy was set at a by-invitation meeting in Montreax, Swizerland in April 2007, whose membership has never been disclosed. Before the three randomised controlled trials (by Bertrand Auvert,, Bailey and Gray) a Cochrane review found insufficient evidence that circumcision was effective against HIV. A second Cochrane review, looking only at those trials, found there was.sufficient evidence, but with reservations. (The trials were not double-blinded or placebo-controlled, they were cut short early, the experimental subjects were given safe-sex advice around their operations, and the drop-out rate was several times the infection rate. The whole claim of HIV prevention hinges on 73 of the 5,400 circumcised men who didn’t contract HIV in less than two years, while 64 did , and the assumption that all HIV was contracted heterosexually, while we know that iatrogentic and nosocomial transmission is widespread in Africa. One of the trials was in Uganda, which is considering the death penalty for homosexual acts – not an environment in which men would willingly disclose them. The WHO seem to have gone from clinical trials to recommendation without any field testing. Finally their recommendation is for voluntary adult circumcision, and is therefore of no relevance to the current debate – but infant circumcision has slipped into the campaigns in Africa.

    In 10 of 18 countries for which USAID has data, more of the circumcised men have HIV than the non-circumcised. In Malaysia, 60% of the population is Muslim (the only circumcised people in that country) but 72% of HIV cases are Muslim.

    Tribal adolescent circumcision is widespread in Africa with scores of deaths each year in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. (Nowhere else seems to keep or publicise statistics.)

    Thanks to ezrazuckerman for that insight into the Laumann studies, which were widely reported as claiming that circumcised men used a greater variety of sexual practices than non-circumcised. (“Enjoyed sex more” according to its supporters, “were desperate for variety to achieve satisfaction” according to its opponents.) In fact the studies only found that diffeernce by quite small margins in certain demographics, and not at all for certain practices.

    One of the most colourful of “medical circumcision” proponents was respiratory specialist Peter Remondino, who singlehandedly invented the meme that “the foreskin was useful protection when we ran naked through the brambles, but has served its purpose.” – which is still going strong. One of his ideas that is mercifully no longer so popular – but which sadly, may once have been influential – is that it reduces Black men’s propensity to rape white women. See for his exact words.

    The claim is now widespread that Jewish circumcision conferred health benefits to the earlyIsrealites, and even began for that reason, but in fact, in the conditions in which it began, with stone tools and no asepsis, it would have caused many more problems than it ever prevented.


    June 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

  13. “The claim is now widespread…”– as I said, this is classic medical materialism and there is no reason to believe it (there are no classic rabbinic sources for this, just as there are no rabbinic sources that ascribe health benefits to Biblical dietary laws [cf., Douglas in Purity & Danger]. All conjecture that such practices had health benefits are just conjecture based on the patronizing, functionalist idea that widespread cultural practices involving the body *must* have health benefits; else, why do they persist?). And I tend to agree that the risks probably outweigh the benefits for newborns. That said, I’m sure that Hugh7 is wrong that circumcision among Jews caused widespread health problems. While problems crop up, mohelim generally know what they are doing, and tend to do so many procedures that they are as expert in the procedure as any surgeon is experty in his area of surgery. Also, I don’t know why Hugh7 thinks they used stone tools (this was the Bronze Age, and the story in Exodus 4:25 is about an ‘in extremis’ situation).

    With regard to the findings of our study, it is interesting/amusing to hear how they have been interpreted. It is worth noting that we did not expect to find such differences in both sexual practices and sexual desire; they are quite clear in the data though (which are in the public domain; We had absolutely no idea what causes such differences, and we said so in that article.

    Hugh7: you seem to have strong views on this subject, and there is the distinct whiff of conspiracy in your account of the WHO policy. I’m curious what motive you think this closed group might have for pushing circumcision. And I can’t help but wonder whether you think there should be legislation banning circumcision.


    June 12, 2011 at 4:18 am

  14. Ezra, enjoyed and agree with your comments. My two boys were circumcised in a religious ceremony and I cannot imagine making claims of health benefits and see no compelling reason for Jews or anyone else to circumcise their boys absent a religious ceremony.

    I also have a daughter (Bat Mitzvah last weekend!) who had here ears pierced when she was 10 years old at her request. Relative to circumcision, it seemed to cause slightly more discomfort (over several weeks) and required similar daily care. Now, of course, there is no pain or discomfort and she enjoys the cosmetic benefits frequently. In this sense, it seems clear to me that these two practices are comparable from a medical standpoint — neither are really justifiable on those grounds.

    I note that many families pierce their infant girl’s ears (noses and other piercings as well). Here again, there is no medical or even religious reason to “mutilate” girls and yet is it considered acceptable behavior. There are no protests that I am aware of — though I’m sure some parents, like myself, wonder why other parents would force that choice on their girls.

    To me, this lends some credence to the idea that the inactivist movement has antisemitic roots whether they admit it or not…


    June 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm

  15. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

    There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.
    - :) The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1
    - :) The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2
    - :) Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors


  16. LOL on “ranges from Orthodox”

    And even if true, so what? There have always been fringe movements among Jews who express beliefs (eg., Messianic Jews, who accept Jesus as their Messiah) or engage in practices (e.g., “high” Reform congregations that hold Shabbat services on Sunday) that are sharply opposed to Jewish tradition. Some of these movements (e.g., Karaism) have even been around a very long time, and are accepted as full-fledged Jews. But the vast majority of tiny fringe movements never become more than tiny fringe movements, and there is every reason to think that yours will remain insignificant. It is absurd to think that a meaningful number of Jews who are committed to continuing the tradition (where such commitment is recognized by others, not just in their own minds) might give up on infant circumcision. Rather, most Jews would regard the dropping of infant circumcision as clear evidence that one is not committed to the tradition. But good luck trying to convince us wrong!


    August 5, 2011 at 2:40 pm

  17. ”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””” Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision – A Film by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
    Jews for the Rights of the Child
    Circumcision and the Brain
    Alternative Jewish Rituals
    Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is the Circumcision?

    Jewish Intactivist

    August 9, 2011 at 3:47 am

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