Once Upon a Foreskin

Two men have been in the news this week for identical reasons. The two men are Matthew Hess who lives in San Diego, California and King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu who lives in the eastern South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. They are both interested in circumcision-Mr. Hess wants the practice to stop and the King wants it to expand. The King is concerned about the health of his subjects. Mr. Hess is an officious intermeddler or, more likely, a con artist.

The World Health Organization reports that “there is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%. According to WHO, two-thirds of the world’s HIV positive people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and in response to that there has been an increasing emphasis on the importance of circumcision. According to a report on National Public Radio, 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have started circumcision programs and South Africa hopes to have 5.6 million men circumcised by 2015. The King issued a directive in 2010 urging males of all ages to be circumcised. In 2010, South African president, Jacob Zuma announced that he had been circumcised and encouraged his sons to follow in his footsteps. South Africa has embarked on a program designed to circumcise millions of African males in order to slow the spread of AIDs. Meanwhile, up North. . . .

In May, seven thousand one hundred signatures were obtained in San Francisco in support of an initiative that will now appear on the San Francisco ballot in the November election. It was sponsored by Matthew Hess who apparently thought his initiative would have more resonance in San Francisco than in his home town. If adopted by San Franciscans, the initiative will become Article 50 of the San Francisco Police Code.

The ordinance makes it unlawful to “circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.” The ordinance makes an exception if the circumcision is “necessary to the physical health of the person on whom it is performed because of a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need with no less destructive alternative treatment available, and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner.”

Although many anti-abortion statutes contain exceptions to the prohibition against abortion, if, among other things, the mother’s health is at risk, it is hard to figure out under what circumstances there would be a “clear, compelling, and immediate medical need” to circumcise a baby. What is easy to discern is that this is someone wanting to join the ranks of those who like to impose their notions of right and wrong on all the rest of us. The ordinance states that in its application “no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that or any other person that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.” Violation of the proposed ordinance is a misdemeanor.

The King is encouraging his subjects to be circumcised. He is influenced by the scientific evidence that says circumcision can improve the health of his people. Matthew Hess, on the other hand, does not care about the health benefits of circumcision but says his bill is trying to create consistency between how boys and girls are treated. He says circumcision is a form of genital mutilation equivalent to what is done to young girls in some societies.

Of course there is a slight difference between the two procedures. Whereas the female genital mutilation reportedly has a variety of serious adverse effects on young girls that can affect them for the rest of their lives, circumcision has none on boys.

Matt has not limited his efforts to trying to get laws passed outlawing circumcision. He has invented something that kind of undoes the circumcision. It can be seen on line and is called a “foreskin restoration device.” The photos of Matthew that can also be seen on line show him holding and admiring the device although none that this writer has found show the device actually being applied nor is it clear under what circumstances its use is appropriate. Matthew is not content with his invention of the “foreskin restoration device.”

The Foreskin Restoration Device is not his only accomplishment. He has also started an online comic book featuring as the hero someone known as “Foreskin Man” whose role is to prevent newborn males from being circumcised.

Muslims and Jews are concerned about Matt’s efforts. Circumcision is part of their religious ritual going back thousands of years. They think he is some kind of a bigot. Others think he is some kind of a nut. Both are probably right.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.


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