Letter to the Editor

Medical advantages and religious rights of circumcision

The unkindest cut,” Liliane Maury Pasquier’s Dec. 26 op-ed on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) recognition of “children’s rights to physical integrity,” demonstrated the fallibility of mixing social and medical indications for physically invasive procedures.

First, it is misleading for any group to conflate acts such as female mutilation, even to condemn it, with circumcision, which removes tissue that has little functional value. It is incorrect to call removing the clitoris circumcision, as it is comparable to penectomy.

Second, when circumcision was introduced several millenniums ago, most likely as a tribal mark, it was unlikely that there was any appreciation for any medical value. However, over the past century medical advantages have been demonstrated. Penile cancer in males circumcised at birth is virtually nonexistent. Urinary tract infections, an illness that can be serious in the very young, occurs one-tenth as frequently in boys under one year of age who were circumcised in the first days of life as compared with those uncircumcised. Sexually transmitted disease, particularly HIV, has been shown to be reduced in the circumcised male.

I strongly agree that all procedures should be done in a safe and hygienic manner, and I applaud PACE’s efforts in this direction. But let us not confuse procedures that have health advantages with those that do not.

A. Barry Belman, Washington

The writer is chairman emeritus of the Division of Urology at Children’s National Health System (formerly Children’s National Medical Center).

Liliane Maury Pasquier seemed to have already decided where the “debate” about circumcision should end when she concluded, “Religious practices deserve the most profound respect — but not when they result in irreversible harm to children.” Whether circumcision causes significant harm does not seem to be up for debate — only whether ancient religious traditions should be allowed in Europe. Jews have done just fine with circumcision for thousands of years, thank you very much.

As a rabbi, I’m all for ensuring that all circumcisions, ritual and otherwise, are done under safe conditions. But Ms. Pasquier did not note that this so-called debate is taking place in Europe, a continent with a history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, which have led to genocide and violence (along with more “genteel” forms of discrimination) against Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities. So you’ll pardon my skepticism about how real this “debate” about religious rights (and rites) would truly be.

Jacob Blumenthal, Gaithersburg

I have witnessed ritual circumcisions conducted by a Jewish mohel and in a hospital setting, performed by medical professionals. In the former, the baby suffered for roughly five seconds, and his crying effectively stopped when the mohel let the infant suck on a wine-coated finger. In the hospital, it involved about 10 minutes of torture, worsened by the fact that the medical team had to pause periodically to allow prayer.

It is not surprising that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, following European tradition, does not believe in “a ‘right’ to circumcise young boys” any more than we’d be surprised that Europe opposed any other Jewish religious practice, but it is astounding that the assembly is surprised that anyone would call its anti-Semitic policy anti-Semitic. Fear not, Europe. Your historical record is secure.

Paul H. Blackman, Arlington

 
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