It was gratifying on June 23 to be among a selected group of “pioneers” honored at the University of Colorado in Boulder for sustained years of working to end the forced circumcision of boys and girls.

During a “Meet the Pioneers” event, to kick off a three-day gathering on genital autonomy. I was among dozens — living and deceased –who were recognized and remembered. We were largely selected by Marilyn Milos, R.N., of San Anselmo, Calif., founder of the National Organization of Circumcision Information and Resource Centers (NOCIRC). She has led the effort for more than 35 years after taking part in a circumcision as a nurse and being repulsed. Her activism fostered an entire movement that has helped spur a sharp drop of circumcisions in the U.S., the most circumcising of industrialized nations.

Following our introductions with brief PowerPoint recaps of our work, we were given a moment to say why we continue our quest to awaken parents and the medical community to the insanity, torture and unethical practice of cutting foreskins and genitalia of helpless children who would never choose to have their healthy body parts amputated. I was cited for my extensive writings — newspaper columns, blogs, letter-writing and talks — over the decades.

I was the fifth to be recognized. After noting that I was standing before an audience of giants and mentors in the movement, I said this, “I support many worthy causes, but ending the cruel and torturous indignity of genital cutting of helpless, defenseless males is a noble and no-brainer undertaking that first requires awakening the clueless who don’t even recognize circumcision is a human rights issue. Ending the repulsive violation of young males requires our fierce work, legal actions, drawing especially from women’s innate compassion and relentlessly shaming those who perpetuate such hideous attacks on our precious babies, especially for financial gain.”

Some 150 of us from across the world gathered for the 13th International Symposium on Genital Autonomy and Children’s Rights — on the theme, “Whole Bodies, Whole Selves — Activating Social Change.” I had attended the 9th Symposium in Seattle in 2006. There I fostered friendships that were renewed and strengthened in Boulder. A good many are Facebook friends, and seemingly all have outlets to educate, research and rage against the cutting of a body part from a restrained, screaming child feeling betrayed and experiencing his first violence on earth.

I trace my work to 1971 while a graduate student at Northwestern University. I purchased Gore Vidal’s novel, “Myra Breckinridge.” Reading along, I came to chapter 22, a mere five paragraphs. It was an epiphany moment. Here are the first three sentences, “Just as I suspected, seventy-two percent of the male students are circumcised. At Clem’s party, I had been reminded of the promiscuous way in which American doctors circumcise males in childhood, a practice I highly disapprove of, agreeing with that publisher who is forever advertising in the New York Times Book Review a work which proves that circumcision is necessary for only a very few men. For the rest, it constitutes, in the advertiser’s phrase, ‘a rape of the penis.”

Then it goes on, “….Until the Forties , only the upper or educated classes were circumcised in America. The real people were spared this humiliation. But during the affluent postwar years, the operation became standard procedure, making money for doctors as well as allowing the American mother to mutilate her son in order that he might never forget her early power over him. … Myron never forgave Gertrude for her circumcision of him …. What is truly sinister is the fact that with the foreskin’s removal, up to fifty per cent of sensation in the glans penis is reduced … a condition no doubt as pleasing to the puritan Jewish doctor who delights in being able to mutilate the goyim in the same vivid way that his religion (and mother) mutilated him.”

That opened my eyes, but those pre-Internet years offered few sources for further research. Medical books were sparing, so matter-of-fact, so clinical, so uncaring. Each diagram of male genitalia typically showed the glans without a foreskin, as if that was “normal.” Books on circumcision were not to be found in those years. Thankfully, my instincts ensured that when I married and had a son in 1975, he was left intact through my insistence with the doctor and with some rolled eyes from family members. I still remember the heartfelt joy that came from the triumph of defying a mindless, makes-no-sense tradition.

As can be the case in many emerging social movements, I felt relatively alone. Did anyone else care? When I was managing editor of the Tempe (Ariz.) Daily News in 1986, I wrote a column titled “World must be better 100 years from now.” I noted that “though the march of history, we somehow escape from some of the shackles of ignorance, prejudice and foolishness. It often takes whole generations to be dead and buried to rid our world of so much nonsense.” What followed was a bulleted list of things I predicted would be gone. The second was this: “For, in non-religious applications, mutilating baby boys by practicing the primitive child abuse act of circumcision, something long abandoned, if every adopted, in more civilized nations of the Earth.”

In hindsight, I realize I made an exception for religious circumcision, something I cannot condone nearly 30 years later, given the deleterious impact of circumcision on Jews, Muslims and others. My Jewish brothers are leaders in the intactivist movement, and many Jewish families across the world have chosen for genital integrity and wholeness over an ancient tradition. Jewish representation at the symposium was inordinately high.

The movement picked up great steam in the 1980s, with the picketing of hospitals and clinics. NOCIRC chapters were started in many states. The 1st International Symposium on Circumcision was held in Anaheim, Calif., in March 1989 with development and endorsement of a “Declaration,” which opened with the statement, “We recognize the inherent right of all human beings to an intact body. Without religious or racial prejudice, we affirm this basic human right.” Among other statements within it: “Parents and/or guardians do not have the right to consent to the surgical removal or modification of their children’s normal genitalia. … Physicians and other health-care providers have a responsibility to refuse to remove or mutilate normal body parts….”

Those were heady days. Tim Hammond in San Francisco founded the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutiliation of Males (NOHARMM). R. Wayne Griffiths formed the National Organization of Restoring Men to teach cut males techniques to stretch their foreskin remnant into semblance of what was taken away. Nurses for the Rights of the Child formed in Santa Fe, N.M., after nurses at a hospital declared conscientious objection to participating in foreskin cutting and balked at being a party to circumcision. (In 1987, I interviewed one of those nurses in Mesa, Ariz., for a newspaper column, but one of my superiors “spiked” or killed the column, saying the issue was not relevant.) Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC) was launched in Seattle by Dr. George Denniston.

In 1996,  the late John A. Erickson in Biloxi, Miss., produced a 150-page booklet, “Deeper Into Circumcision: An Invitation to Awareness” in which he swept through the media and literature on circumcision and pulled things together for a timely resource guide. We corresponded, he gave me a copy of his book and spurred me to go further in my work.

In 1949, Joseph Lewis wrote “In the Name of Humanity: Speaking Out Against Circumcision.” Edward Wallerstein’s 1980 book, “Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy” was especially important in giving momentum to the movement. .

It was followed by book after book debunking circumcision:   Jim Bigelow’s “The Joy of Uncircumcising!,” Rosemary Romberg’s “Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma,” Dr. Ron Goldman’s “Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma” and “Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective,” Dr. Thomas Ritter and Dr. Denniston’s “Say No to Circumcision: 40 Compelling Reason,” Billy Ray Boyd’s two books, “Circumcision: What It Does” and “Circumcision Exposed: Rethinking A Medical and Cultural Tradition,”   Kristen O’Hara’s “Sex As Nature Intended It” (which contrasts the sexual experience for men and women when the male is intact or circumcised.”)   Leonard Glick’s exhaustively researched “Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America,” which revealed how inconsistent Jews have been at adhering to the ritual through the centuries. Highly respected pediatrician Dr. Paul Fleiss, along with Frederick Hodges, delivered the consummate book in 2002, “What Your Doctor May NOT Tell You About Circumcision: Untold Facts on America’s Most Widely Performed — and Most Unnecessary — Surgery.” (Dr. Fleiss died in late July).   The only notable novel on circumcision was “The Measure of His Grief” by Lisa Braver Moss, who spoke at the symposium. Bernhard Schlink’s 2001 novel, “Flights of Love” contains a lengthy, poignant story called the “The Circumcision” in which a German male, an exchange student to the U.S., submits to the pain of adult circumcision for his Jewish girlfriend only to find her oblivious about it.

I just finished reading one of the newest books, “Unspeakable Mutilations — Circumcised Men Speak Out” by New Zealand researcher Lindsay Watson. Fifty men from nine countries individually and candidly tell how their circumcisions were botched or left them with skin tags or left indelible damage to their neural wiring and destroyed their sexual wholeness. They can’t forgive parents, loathe doctors and hospitals and live with distrust. Such independent analysis of their own regrets of being circumcised speak volumes for other males who are bitter or yet unwilling to self-address what was done to them.

The Internet, along with Facebook, has allowed for a vast proliferation of activism to bring an end to circumcision, primarily through education. A multitude of people in their 20s and 30s have taken to Facebook and picket lines to denounce the cutting. Intactamerica.org and Attorney for the Rights of the Child (arclaw.org) are at the forefront of important work.

For three days in Boulder, there were 45 speaking sessions as attorneys, doctors, ethicists, nurses, educators, activists and other professionals from about 15 countries who gave updates on their work. Some predicted circumcision’s end in the nation is in sight. It is helped by the growing European momentum to outlaw circumcision, along with some strategic U.S. lawsuits, better education and younger parents who just get it and choose to end the madness of circumcision.

The cause to end circumcision is wide and deep. Males, like females, deserve the right to their genital autonomy, all the God-given structures that come with life itself.

 

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