Bloomberg News

San Francisco Circumcision Referendum Stirs Anti-Semitism Debate

June 16, 2011

June 16 (Bloomberg) -- Matthew Hess says he decided to wage a crusade against circumcision after he noticed a decline in sexual sensation in his late 20s and concluded that the removal of his foreskin as an infant might be responsible.

“It’s damaged my sexuality and it’s changed my life,” Hess, 42, said in an interview. “I’ve dedicated my life to bringing an end to this practice where I might otherwise be doing something else. It also robbed me of what nature intended as far as my sexual experiences.”

Hess is behind a referendum in San Francisco that would make it illegal to circumcise boys under the age of 18. The November ballot, coming in a city that has previously outlawed plastic shopping bags and free toys in McDonald’s Corp.’s Happy Meals, worries some Jews and Muslims, who circumcise boys as a religious rite, and some physicians who point to health benefits of the procedure.

Acrimony grew when Hess created a comic called “Foreskin Man,” where a blond, square-jawed, caped superhero confronts Monster Mohel, a grinning, sinister Jew holding scissors over a baby boy. That changed the debate over the initiative, state Senator Mark Leno said in an interview.

“The images are blatantly anti-Semitic,” Leno, who is Jewish and represents part of San Francisco, said June 10. “They are literally pulled from Nazi literature.”

Hess said that in a different issue of the comic, a doctor trying to perform a circumcision transforms into a monster. No anti-Semitism is intended, he said.

“Anyone who circumcises children will not be drawn favorably in ‘Foreskin Man’ comic books,” Hess said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re Jewish or what they are.”

‘Clear, Compelling, Immediate’

Under Hess’s proposal, circumcisions performed for other than a “clear, compelling and immediate” medical need would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of as much as $1,000 and up to a year in jail.

The penalty would give a circumcised man “more legal standing to complain and file suit after the fact,” said Lloyd Schofield, 59, who is spearheading the effort in San Francisco.

The goal is to extend state and federal laws shielding girls from genital mutilation to boys, Hess said. “I feel that boys should be protected from forced genital cutting the same way that girls are,” he said.

Opponents have formed a coalition called the Committee for Parental Choice & Religious Freedom, whose members include religious groups, doctors and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the equivalent of the city council.

The pro-circumcision group is raising money and planning to get its message to voters, said Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, in a June 9 telephone interview.

Religious Freedom

“We think the ballot measure, in addition to being illegal, if passed would deal a significant blow to parental choice and religious freedom,” Porth said. “The Jewish community has practiced circumcisions for thousands of years. It is integral and fundamental to our faith.”

The San Francisco Elections Department certified the proposal as qualifying for a vote on May 17 after supporters gathered 12,271 signatures, about 5,100 more than needed, said Rachel Gosiengfiao, the department’s campaign services manager.

“In San Francisco, you can get 12,000 signatures attesting the world is flat,” said opponent Edgar Schoen, a clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco.

Schoen questioned Hess’s comparison of male circumcision to female genital mutilation, saying that procedure requires removing the clitoris and part of the labia, and sewing the labia together.

“If you were to do the equivalent operation on a man, you’d have to cut off the whole penis and part of the scrotum,” Schoen said in a June 10 telephone interview.

Fewer Newborns

While 79 percent of adult males in the U.S. report being circumcised, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent analysis shows newborn circumcision at 55 percent in 2005, Scott Bryan, a CDC spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Research has shown that male circumcision “significantly reduces” the risk of HIV acquisition by men, the agency said.

Hess, whose group has waged unsuccessful efforts to advance his proposal in the Massachusetts Legislature and in Santa Monica, California, said that HIV prevention isn’t enough justification for circumcision. A similar argument could be made for amputating the breast tissue of infant girls to prevent breast cancer, he said.

“If you cut any healthy body part off of someone, that body part is no longer subject to disease,” he said.

Brian McBeth, a mohel, the term for a person who performs Jewish circumcisions, said the practice is significant to Jews.

‘Connection to God’

“It represents a connection to God and a commitment that God has made to the Jewish people,” said McBeth, an emergency- room physician from Saratoga, California, who performs circumcisions in San Francisco. “If it were to pass, you would find Jews moving outside the city limits to do this procedure.”

Schofield, who said he met Hess last July at the 11th International Symposium on Circumcision, Genital Integrity and Human Rights at the University of California, Berkeley, said religious arguments are beside the point.

“Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t make it moral, ethical or even legal,” he said in a June 13 telephone interview. “We didn’t come at this from a religious angle whatsoever. We came at this from the angle it’s the right of the child and human being to have intact genitals.”

--Editors: Pete Young, Jerry Hart

To contact the reporter on this story: Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at avekshin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net


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