Category Archives: Spring 1999 (5/18/99)

Male Genital Mutilation In The U.S. : Circumcision

We are justly outraged at female circumcision throughout the world, but how many people seriously consider male circumcision, almost universally performed in America? We think of ourselves today as sexually liberated — after all, we are a country that can openly talk of our President’s sexual liaisons, right? However, I doubt that among the identifying features of William Jefferson Clinton’s penis according to Paula Jones was the fact that he is uncircumcised. If it is, it certainly would be an identifying characteristic, because most American men are circumcised. Could it be a sign of our secret sexual repression that no one discusses the sexual mutilation of infant boys in a common procedure called male circumcision?

However, our attention is drawn to female circumcision. An estimated 70 to 90 percent of Egyptian women have had their genitals mutilated in the various practices known as female circumcision. Women in Egypt and other parts of Africa are mutilated “for cleanliness” and to control their sexuality. Mutilated girls and women live with the dire physical and psychological consequences. Bleeding, infection and even death can occur after the surgical procedures (sometimes performed on the street) in which the clitoris may be removed, or the clitoris along with the labia minora and or labia majora. Oftentimes, no anesthetic is given the female child during the procedure. The remaining skin around the vagina is often sewn up leaving only a small opening, and must be reopened in adulthood if the woman wishes to give birth. Barbaric, isn’t it?

In the United States, most baby boys are circumcised for the same frivolous reasons. According to some parents and doctors, it is “cleaner” not to have to worry about the foreskin, or a circumcised penis “is the way it’s supposed to look.” They “don’t want their boy to be different.” The father himself may say, “It was done to me, so it will be done to him.” Has anyone ever thought to ask the baby what he would like done?

One of Canada’s leading ethicists says that circumcision of baby boys is technically criminal assault and that doctors should stop circumcising babies. “It is a bodily wounding on a tiny infant that has given no consent itself, and it is not . . . medically necessary,” asserts Dr. Margaret Summerville, founding director of the McGill Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatricians decided in 1971 “There are no absolute indications for routine neonatal [newborn] circumcision.” Why are these surgical procedures still done then on mostly newborn boys?

John A. Erickson has a cynical response: “When you circumcise a baby, you are cutting off a part of his penis that you can cut off only because the person you’re cutting it off of can’t protect himself because he is a baby. Infant circumcision is foreskin amputation by force. No medical organization that subscribes to the ethic of ‘Do no Harm’ [one of the principals that doctors swear by can possibly support cutting off any part of anyone by force.”

Gloria Steinem connected male and female circumcision during a 1997 forum on female genital mutilation in New York: “I would like to remind us that we all share patriarchy, which is the pillar of almost every current political system, capitalist or socialist. And it has a rock bottom requirement, the control of women’s bodies as the most basic means of reproduction. . . These patriarchal controls limit men’s sexuality, too, but to a much, much lesser degree. That’s why men are asked symbolically to submit the sexual part of themselves and their sons to patriarchal authority, which seems to be the origin of male circumcision . . . speaking for myself, I stand with many brothers in eliminating that practice, too.”

However, evidence suggests that male circumcision is not such a small thing. The natural penis is a mucous membrane, like the female clitoris. In an uncircumcised penis, the foreskin shields the sensitive glans (tip) from irritation of any kind: against fabric and diapers, or possible infection from urine and faeces. The foreskin has specialized nerve endings that enhance sexual pleasure. It also secretes a substance that keeps the glans lubricated and protects the glans from trauma and injury. Without this covering the glans penis becomes dry, calloused and desensitized from exposure and chafing. Contrary to popular belief, the uncircumcised foreskin needs no special attention or cleaning in infancy. Later in childhood, the boy child may wash the penis and foreskin with soap and water just as easily as without a foreskin.

In circumcision the foreskin (prepuce), the natural sheath of skin which covers the penis is removed in a surgical procedure often done in the hospital within 24 hours after the baby is born, or in an outpatient operation shortly after birth. A cauterizing needle used to be used to remove the foreskin, and there were cases of infant penises being accidentally burned off in this procedure (see the Dec. 11 1997 issue of Rolling Stone for a harrowing case history, “The True Story of John/Joan,” by John Colapinto.) There are a few different procedures that are used today, one done with a Gomco clamp, another done with a plastibell instrument (the boy baby wears home a plastic thing on his penis).

Although current procedures are safer than cauterization, sometimes disfigurement, injury, and, in rare cases, death may result. Even a successful circumcision may be uncomfortable or dangerous to the baby short term. The raw, open wound where the foreskin was attached to the penis is subject to infection from exposure to urine and excrement while the cut heals. Hemorrhage (excessive bleeding) and pain, ulceration, urinary retention, swelling, skin loss, and deformities of the glans and urethral opening can also result from current methods.

Oftentimes anesthesia (pain medication) is not used on the baby, and if it is there can be complications from its use. The pain of the procedure and its aftereffects even if anesthesia is used may traumatize the baby. Painful erections may be a consequence of circumcision, and sometimes skin grafts may be necessary. And the long term effects of desensitization cannot be ignored. All this for a procedure that is not even medically necessary!

Although circumcision started as a Jewish ritual, it became adapted into the mainstream population in the Victorian age in the late 19th century as a way to discourage masturbation and to curb sexual promiscuity among males. In 1900 the editor of Medical News declared: “Finally, circumcision probably tends to increase the power of sexual control. The only physiological advantage which the prepuce can be supposed to confer is that of maintaining the penis in a condition susceptible to more acute sensation than would otherwise exist. It may increase the pleasure of intercourse and the impulse to it: but these are advantages which in the present state of society can well be spared. If in their loss increase in sexual control should result, one should be thankful.” (see the other quotes from the history of circumcision on the side bar).

Just because past generations of American men have been mutilated, let’s not keep this unnecessary practice up. If you ARE led to perform circumcision for a religious reason, could another ritual, like a blessing, be performed instead? Are we really more enlightened than those who practice or tolerate female circumcision in allowing male circumcision for sanitary or aesthetic reasons? Men who have already been circumcised may never know what they have lost in the way of sensation of the penis. Maybe this is why the mostly male sexual enhancing drug Viagra has achieved so much popularity in the U.S. The desensitized American penis needs artifical stimulus.

Circumcised men who are curious at what they may be missing need not despair totally, however. Dr. Jim Bigelow (Ph.D.) has written The Joy of Uncircumcising. For $19.95 ($2 shipping and handling and $1.45 CA tax) you may order it from UNCIRC, P.O. Box 52138, Pacific Grove CA 93950. You can also receive information about uncircumcising at this address, or to order by phone call 408-375-4326. There are ways of stretching the remaining skin on the penis to reconstruct a foreskin, according to Dr. Bigelow.

In addition to UNCIRC, there is NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information. Their address is P. O. Box 2512, San Anselmo CA 94979-2512 phone 415-488-9883 FAX 415-488-9660; www.nocirc.org Executive director is Marilyn Fayre Milos, R.N. Other WEB resources are listed in the box accompanying this article. You can receive a NOCIRC Resource Guide listing books, articles, pamphlets, picture sources, order information, and other organizations from NOCIRC. The book Say No to Circumcision! : 40 compelling reasons why you should respect his birthright and keep your son whole, published by Hourglass Books in 1996 by Thomas J. Ritter, MD, and George C. Denniston, MD, may be ordered from NOCIRC for $9.95 plus $3 shipping and handling, and offers a brief and cogent guide for those wishing information about the practice.

For parents who may perform a circumcision on their infant son, beware! An issue to be decided in the coming century is the extent of children’s rights. Child advocates, ethicists and lawyers agree that circumcision should be considered something that only an individual can decide for himself. In other words, one day a child may be able to sue his parents for performing a circumcision without the child’s consent. Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (ARC) is a new non-profit network of attorneys founded to address the legal issues behind genital mutilation. ARC has an office at 2961 Ashby Ave., in Berkeley, CA; phone is 510-848-4437. They seek to make provisions for male victims of botched circumcisions, especially those who were circumcised without their parents’ consent, parents whose sons were circumcised below the “standard of care,” and parents whose sons died as a result of circumcision. They wish to expand provisions already in place to prevent or punish female genital mutilation done to minor children in America to male minors. J. Steven Svoboda, Esq., founder and director, says, “The medical profession, which has perpetuated this tragic disfigurement of baby boys’ genitals, will be challenged by an organization of legal professionals whom they cannot afford to ignore.”

Tree Radio Berkeley Action a Success

On November 23, 1998, in response to the federal injunction that removed Free Radio Berkeley from the air, and in light of the heavy-handed seizure tactics used by the FCC against other microbroadcasters, free radio activists decided to reclaim their airwaves by taking their station literally out of the FCCs reach – 50 feet up a redwood tree in a Berkeley city park. Three platforms set by Earth First!ers held the battery-powered equipment, food, people, and gear. The activists accomplished 11 days of nearly 24-hour-a-day broadcasts before ending the project voluntarily. Two FCC agents visited the site but took no action other than leaving behind a letter. The action received considerable local news coverage in print, TV and radio media, and droves of community supporters visited the park bringing gifts of food and money, including a 10-year-old boy who donated his allowance and a family from across the street who shared their Thanksgiving dinner. Solar Powered Urban Radio Transmission (SPURT) of Berkeley/Oakland returned to the air in solidarity for one afternoon, setting their antenna in a neighboring tree. The interest and goodwill shown to us by the community at large was overwhelming. It clearly demonstrated the need for non-commercial community-based radio, and inspired us to continue in the struggle.

Plutonium Found in Livermore Park

In January, after years of public pressure from Tri-Valley CAREs and local residents on Livermore Lab demanding that the Lab determine how high levels of plutonium got to a park near its facility, Livermore Lab released additional sampling results from the park.

High levels of plutonium were found at numerous sites in the park, near (but not in) a creek which runs through the Lab, along the ball field and by a little grassy hill between the park and the sidewalk. Somewhat elevated levels of plutonium were also found behind an apartment complex between the Lab and the park. Most of the plutonium was found in the top two inches of dirt. The way the plutonium is distributed suggests that it may have traveled by air to the park, possibly released from the Lab during leaks or in the course of normal operations.

Plutonium is a man-made, radioactive metal used to create the atomic explosion that is at the core of a modern nuclear weapon. Plutonium 239, the bomb-grade isotope found in the park, has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years. The Lab has around 880 pounds of it on hand, enough for nearly 100 modern nuclear weapons. There is no safe level of plutonium exposure. A microscopic particle, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases.

Plutonium pollution was first discovered in Big Trees Park in 1995 when the EPA analyzed a single dirt sample there, one of 3 taken near the lab. The agency expected all three to be at “background,” (.001 to .01 picocuries of plutonium per gram of soil) and to use them as a comparison for known plutonium contamination at the Lab. All 3 samples came up dirty, (between 16 and 160 times “background”) and the one from Big Trees Park contained the highest level of plutonium. Big Trees is about one-half mile west of Livermore Lab. Since then, other test results turned up even higher levels of plutonium, including a finding of 1.02 picocuries per gram, up to 1,000 times higher than attributable to global fallout. Lab officials have rushed to assert that there is no harm to human health or the environment from the plutonium, and that no cleanup or follow up action is warranted.

Tri-Valley “CAREs is demanding that sampling should be done of other likely “hot spots,” including east of the Lab where plutonium has been found in off site air monitors. Samples should be analyzed for particle size to help determine the amounts of plutonium escaping through the filtering system. Livermore residents also demand that “Hot spots” should be cleaned up. There is no excuse for the Lab leaving elevated levels of plutonium in a park. The Lab should institute changes in its filter maintenance and operational procedures in the plutonium facility to help minimize further releases.

Finally, Tri-Valley CAREs recommends that the plutonium facility should rapidly be phased out of operation.

For more information, contact Tri-Valley CAREs at (925) 443-7148.

Article excerpted from Tri-Valley CAREs’ February 1999 newsletter, Citizen’s Watch

Action Calendar

MARCH

March 15-21
Protest the landing of the Marines in Oakland. Call 510 654-5628 for info.

March 21 noon-5 p.m.
People’s Park Community Garden spring planting day. West end of the Park, Haste above Telegraph, Berkeley. Call 510 658-9178 for info.

March 22
Youth Lobby Day: queer and ally youth gather and protest at State Capital for safety and acceptance in schools. Call Orin, 415 703-6150 x15 for info.

March 27 10 am – 6 pm
Anarchist Bookfair. San Francisco County Fair Building, 9th Ave. & Lincoln Way in Golden Gate Park. Free.

March 27-April
Holy Week peace walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site (65 miles) to protest the subcritical nuclear testing. For reservations call 510-658-7309.

APRIL

April 2-4
West Coast Food Not Bombs Gathering. Ventura, Calif. Call 805-541-3925 for info.

April 8 7 p.m.
Native American Film Festival. Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UCB. Free. Call 510-643-7648.

April 9 5:30 p.m.
East Bay Crticial Mass bike ride. Meet at Berkeley BART. Reclaim the Streets film showing & discussion of June 18

April 10 8:30 a.m.
Raising Peaceful Children, workshop to assist parents of pre-schoolers. 1035 Detroit Ave #200, Concord. $10. Preregister 925-939-7531.

April 11 4 p.m.
Slingshot new volunteer meeting. 3124 Shattuck, Berkeley.

April 12
Last day to file comments on the Federal Communications Commissions’ proposal to legalize some form of micro-powered radio. See page 15 for how to send comments.

April 15
War Tax Resistance Day. Protest at your local Post Office.

April 17
Empowering Women of Color Conference, with keynote by Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders. For more info call 510-642-2876 x5

April 17 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Berkeley Earth Day and eco-motion parade. Center & MLK.

April 24 10:30 a.m.
Millions for Mumia! Stop the execution. Western regional mass demonstration, San Francisco (with simultaneous demos in Philadelphia and elsewhere). Gather at Mission Delores Park ; march to Rally at Civic Center. Contact 415-821-0459 for info.

April 25 noon or so
Concert for 30th anniversary of People’s Park. Haste above Telegraph. Free.

MAY

May 1 11 a.m.
Reclaim May Day/International Workers’ Day. Dolores Park, SF. Call 415-339-7801. (See pg. 6.)

May 1 Noon
May Day is Jay Day Marijuana Demonstration. Stand up for legalization. Civic Center Plaza, SF. Call 415 971-3573.

May 7-10
Nevada Test Site demonstration to end nuclear weapons testing and reclaim Shoshone land. Call 760-852-4175 (see pg 2.)

May 9th
Celebration of John Brown’s birthday at his gravesite. See pg. 2. PO Box 24869, Oakland, CA 94623.

May 18
Article deadline for issue #65 of Slingshot. Send ‘em to 3124 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705.

May 21-23
Portland, OR Second Regional Conference to End Corporate Dominance. Portland State University. Free. Contact 503-428-2354 for info.