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Toronto Sun

Debate continues over circumcision

Activists call for end to procedure

Toronto Sun, BY MARILYN LINTON, July 6, 1998

Non-religious male circumcision is a useless procedure that's an invasion of a child's rights, say people in the controversial anti-circumcision movement that is growing in North America.

While Canada's circumcision rate is much lower than in the U.S. -- where a baby boy is circumcised every 30 seconds -- circumcision here is still an issue, says Montreal's John Antonopoulos, president of The Circumcision Information Resource Centre (which can be reached at 514-844-CIRC or via their Web site at www.infocirc.org ).

In Canada, almost half of all male infants were circumcised 25 years ago. Today, says Antonopoulos, the rate is more like 23%.

"The trend towards fewer circumcisions is noteworthy," he says. "But 23% is still an issue. There is a lot more education that has to be done."

Dr. Roland Beaulieu, chair of the Ontario Medical Association's Section of Paediatrics, says The Canadian Paediatric Society's position is there are no valid medical reasons to justify a universal practice.

Although either an injected or topical anaesthetic is now recommended for the procedure, it's Beaulieu's view that there is no painless method short of general anaesthetic. "And that would be far too risky for a newborn to undergo."

He says the operation -- now delisted and costing parents from $80 to $180 depending on whether it's done in a doctor's office or a hospital -- is not something most physicians advocate. But in cities such as Montreal or Toronto, where there are different cultural and religious groups who believe in routine circumcision, physicians often support parents in their decisions, Beaulieu says.

'Sexual mutilation'

Miriam Pollack, a California activist who considers herself a committed Jew, came out against circumcision after having her two sons circumcised 16 and 20 years ago. She says she switched from being pro-circumcision to anti when her second child "screamed as if he were being slaughtered." She now feels so strongly about the subject that she calls circumcision "sexual mutilation."

According to Pollack, the contention that the procedure is no more harrowing than an inoculation is not true. And she does not empathize with parents who say they support circumcision because they want their male children's penises to look the same as their father's.

"Do we chop off a baby's finger so he looks like the father who is missing a finger?" she asks.

But John Antonopoulos doesn't address the issue of religious circumcision. He says 90% of circumcisions are not religious-based. He believes parents are basing their decision on old information, that assumed circumcised males have fewer urinary tract infections, less penile cancers, and protect their female partners from cervical cancers and themselves from prostate cancers.

"Most of the information propagated was inaccurate," says Dr. Robert Van Howe, a Wisconsin paediatrician who was asked by the American Academy of Paediatrics to research the issue. (The American Medical Association is expected to release its circumcision report later this year.)

"Although doctors say it's up to the parent to make the decision, modern ethics say the parent should make the decision in their child's best interest," says Dr. George Denniston, president of the U.S.- based Doctors Opposing Circumcision. "We don't oppose circumcision done at an age where the person is giving his full informed consent."

Reader feedback

The largest anti-circumcision Web site is found at www.cirp.org/CIRP where the Circumcision Information and Resource Pages include a medical and historical library, statistics, information on children's rights, a guide to the anatomy of the penis, reader feedback and a section on foreskin restoration -- a method employed by some circumcised men in an effort to stretch the skin of the penis so it eventually grows to cover the tip of the penis.

Men such as Norm Cohen, director of Michigan's No Circ network of anti-circumcision activists, says his organization distributes pamphlets to health-care providers, advertises at baby fairs and sends men out to speak on the issue. Like many anti-circ crusaders he believes circumcision makes the penis less sensitive because foreskin is erogenous tissue.

Cohen, originally circumcised, calls circumcision "medical quackery. It has no basis for medicine at all. If you look at it that way it's easy to say that we just don't need it any more."

But John Antonopoulos, whose Web site includes information for parents on how to care for a foreskin, says it's time everybody examined the issue a little more closely.

"The notion of circumcision being a good thing is founded on the notion of the foreskin being a vile thing." Not true, Antonopoulos says, explaining that the foreskin is protective and sensorial: "The penis, mechanically speaking, is a feat of engineering."