“When is an adult who intentionally wounds and sucks the genitals of a child not met with criminal charges of molestation, rape, sexual battery, or mutilation?”
I’ve been trying to write this note for a few days, but I feel depleted. I don’t want to write it. I don’t want to have to write it. I’m tired of this happening over and over.
When I saw the news being shared on social media, I had a deja vu moment. I thought surely it wouldn’t be a new story. I had seen it, last year in April (before this blog started). But I had also seen it and written about another case in January of this year.
Two more babies contracted herpes this year as a consequence of metzitzah b’peh (MBP), part of the Jewish ultra orthodox way of performing circumcisions or bris milah, in which the mohel (circumciser) performs oral suction on the freshly circumcised penis of the baby.
These babies join a string of affected babies in New York, that has resulted in at least 2 deaths and 2 cases of permanent brain injury.
Speaking of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, do you readers know who works there? Dr. Susan Blank, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2012 Task Force on Circumcision.
The AAP 2012 statement on circumcision (coauthored by Dr. Blank) says: “there are social, cultural, religious, and familial benefits and harms to be considered as well. It is reasonable to take these nonmedical benefits and harms for an individual into consideration when making a decision about circumcision.” In Circwatch, we object to this. There are no other surgeries performed on babies for “social, cultural, religious and familial” reasons, which are not valid medical indications for surgery. The law against FGM/Female Genital Mutilation, for example does not condone cultural or religious reasons to perform genital surgery on female minors.
However, beyond that, the AAP Policy Statement did not take a strong stance on metzitzah b’ peh. This was their exact quote regarding this ritual:
“The Task Force advises against the practice of mouth-to-penis contact during circumcision, which is part of some religious practices, because it poses serious infectious risk to the child. ”
First, it is not part of SOME religious practices. It is specifically part of one religious practice, the one of circumcision by ultra orthodox jews, one practice that would not have been unknown to Dr. Andrew Freedman, also part of the AAP Task Force on Circumcision, and a man of Jewish ancestry.
But also, there is a strong difference between “advising against” and “strongly condemning”, and that is what the AAP should have done, they should have strongly condemned the practice of “orogenital suction”.
Due to the recurrent incidence of this problem, the NYC Department of Health in 2012 devised a “Consent to perform oral suction during circumcision” form. The NYC rabbis have resisted this consent form as an intrusion on their “religious freedom”.
This was one of the heated points during the recent NYC Mayor elections that led to Bill de Blasio’s election. De Blasio had promised to start over and remove the consent form requirement, something that so far he has not done, but also failing to do anything for the protection of the babies.
This consent form is on itself a travesty. Can parents consent in any other instances, to allow an adult person to perform oral suction on the genitals of their children? Is this the “wide latitude in terms of the decisions [parents] make on behalf of their children” that the AAP argues for?
Wouldn’t there be an outrage if parents consented to an adult man performing oral suction on the genitals of baby girls? Would the intention of the person even be a question, as it is in the case of metzitzah b’peh?
But even then, this form does nothing to protect the children. It only serves to put the responsibility on the hands of the parents.
The AAP says: “the law has respected those decisions except where they are clearly contrary to the best interests of the child or place the child’s health, well-being, or life at significant risk of serious harm“. Well, isn’t the risk of herpes transmission to babies “clearly contrary to the best interests of the child or [placing] the child’s health, well-being, or life at significant risk of serious harm”? Why is the law not acting strongly to prevent this?
Notice that the consent form does not even require the mohel’s signature. Not only that, but these consent forms are not enforceable.
From this page, we ask the American Academy of Pediatrics, we ask Dr. Susan Blank, we ask the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and we ask NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, how many cases of babies infected with herpes are necessary? What does it take to take a strong, assertive stance for the right of children to life and to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment? What does it take to include metzitzah b’peh among the list of Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Children? What does it take to recognize that adult persons sucking the freshly wounded genitals of babies amounts to ritual abuse of minors?
Katharina von Kellenbach is Professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. A native of West Germany, she studied Evangelical Theology in Berlin and Göttingen (1979-1982) and received her PhD in 1990 at Temple University. She became active in Jewish-Christian dialogue and Holocaust Studies while studying in Philadelphia and completed her dissertation on Anti‑Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings (Scholars Press, 1994). Her areas of expertise include feminist theology and Jewish-Christian relations, the ordination, life and work of the first female Rabbi Regina Jonas of Berlin (1902-1944), who was murdered in Auschwitz, as well as the theological, ethical, personal and political issues raised by the Holocaust.
On July 9th of 2014, Katharina von Kellenbach published an article on Feminist Studies on Religion, titled “What’s wrong with the movement for genital autonomy”. In this article, Katharina attributes the creation of the Genital Autonomy to the Cologne case of 2012 which led to temporary age restriction of circumcision in Germany. In this regard, Katharina is wrong, as the genital autonomy movement can be formally traced at least to 1970 in Florida (Van and Benjamin Lewis), although there are individual books and articles (mostly by physicians but also by humanists) prior to this time, mostly in the countries where secular circumcision had become a custom (United Kingdom – Gairdner, 1949, United States – AP Morgan Vance, 1900, and Joseph Lewis, 1949), some as old as 1894 (Elizabeth Blackwell).
Katharina uses double quotes when the descriptions do not match her ideal view of reality. For example in reference to the Cologne case, she uses double quotes when she writes the words “grievous bodily harm”. These were the words used by the local judge in Cologne to describe the condition of the Muslim child, who had to be put under general anesthesia and operated as a result of the injuries sustained during and as a consequence of his circumcision.
Von Kellenback’s article states that “By December 2012, German lawmakers passed a law defending the right of Jewish and Muslim religious communities to circumcise their sons—though not their daughters.”
The law however required a physician or trained practitioner to perform the surgery and limited the maximum age for the surgery (which could be a problem for some Muslim communities). The law allows non-physicians to perform the procedure until the 6th month (something definitively oriented to allow Jewish religious practitioners to perform the procedure). The Bundestag ignored the opinions of the German Academy for Child and Youth Medicine (DAKJ), the umbrella organization of all pediatric associations in Germany (German Society for Child and youth medicine DGKJ, Professional Association of the Child and Youth doctors, German Society for social pediatrics and youth medicine DGSPJ) and relied on the recently released statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in spite of the harsh critique by most European medical associations.
Von Kellenback then writes: “This spurred a movement across Europe that demanded the protection of boys’ bodily integrity in the name of gender equality. Their declarations and websites use gender-neutral language and declare “genital autonomy” a “fundamental right of each human being,” which includes “personal control of their own genital and reproductive organs; and protection from medically unnecessary genital modification and other irreversible reproductive interve.”
In this paragraph we can see again the use of double quotes around the words “genital autonomy” and “a fundamental right of each human being” which seems to denote her disagreement with those expressions.
Von Kellenbach extends her critique to “Somali anti-Muslim activist Ayan Hirsi Ali, never known to shy away from controversy“. Apparently the feminist branch of Von Kellenbach does not extend its compassion to women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation and death threats by religious extremists from patriarchal groups, if said women criticize male circumcision. (Shortly after posting the article online, the comments section was closed due to “continued ad hominem attacks” – this didn’t prevent Katharina from employing ad hominem attacks and generalizations throughout her article, most notably this one on Ayan Hirsi Ali).
While von Kellenbach initially quotes many scientific facts from intact positive websites, she then goes on a religious-politic tirade, neglecting to address rationally any of the facts she previously quoted.
In ironic terms, Von Kellenbach assumes that the Genital Autonomy movement “aims to outman the political battle against FGM” and seems to mock the movement by saying that “suddenly, men must be rescued from marginalization and traumatization“. In this she ignores that the Genital Autonomy movement aims to protect all children, not adult men (or women for the matter). The Genital Autonomy movement also aims to protect intersex children, often the victims of horrific medical experiments. In fact, in the United States, the Genital Autonomy movement represented in Intact America, was one of the first organizations to oppose the Policy Statement on Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2010, one statement that tried to argue for allowing American pediatricians to perform a ritual nick on the genitals of female minors to appease parents from regions where female genital mutilation is practiced.
Von Kellenbach commits a logical fallacy frequently repeated by critics of the Genital Autonomy movement, in misrepresenting that male circumcision is considered by intactivists to be biologically equivalent to female genital mutilation. The intactivist argument is explained to be on an ethical level: non-medically indicated procedures that remove part of the external genitalia of a minor who has no need for the procedure, did not consent to it and cannot remove himself or herself from the situation, performed mostly to appease the cultural or religious traditions of the parents, in spite of real existent risks and harms.
Von Kellenbach goes on to say that “The gender-neutral code of “genital autonomy” serves to conceal the “seamless garment” of coercive violence that aims to control women’s sexual and reproductive bodies.“. In this she ignores that historically secular circumcision and secular female genital mutilation were implemented in English speaking countries during the 19th century to punish children for touching their genitals (control of their sexual bodies) and that it was known, even to ancient Jewish philosophers and physicians, that circumcision “excised the superfluous pleasure” and “weakened the organ of generation”.
She then takes a skewed point of view in writing that “The religious reasons for men’s “mutilation” are fundamentally different from the arguments that drive the wounding of women. Women are cut for aesthetic reasons in order to purify and protect men from promiscuous female sexual pleasure. Women’s pleasure and agency is the target of the knife and it serves no religious signification. Men’s circumcision, on the other hand, does not aim at sensation and potency. On the contrary, men’s virility is enhanced by circumcision and loaded with religious meaning.”
First, groups which “circumcise” girls often give a religious meaning to the ritual. It may be the Western position to deny this (perhaps for political correctness), but Muslim women have argued that it is “an honor” and a “purification”, in other words, religious values denied by von Kellenbach.
In arguing that women are cut for aesthetic reasons, Von Kellenbach also ignores the globality of the debate. It is often heard from pro-circumcision women in the United States especially, that circumcised penises look “prettier”, that “uncircumcised” (intact) penises “look weird, gross, ugly, dirty, like an anteater, like an elefant trunk, are smelly”, etc, in other words, aesthetic reasons, and intact males are ostracized in some communities, i.e. considered children in Africa, called “supot” to ridicule them in Philippines, and supposedly made fun of in the locker room in the United States.
Katharina argues that “Men’s circumcision, [...] does not aim at sensation and potency. On the contrary, men’s virility is enhanced by circumcision“. In this she ignores not only the writings of Philo and Maimonides, but also scientific studies by John Taylor, Sorrells, Bronselaer and Frisch.
In stating that “God seals the covenant with Abraham promising him progeny, land, and everlasting life” von Kellenbach seems to ignore that not all the world ascribes to the Judeo Christian tradition and that babies are not aware of these dogmas when they are subjected to such “covenant”.
Von Kellenbach then compares “The sacrifice of (fore)skin” to “the pain and blood of breaking the hymen“, comparison that ignores that women have a right to choose if, when and with whom they will break their hymen, a right to genital autonomy not granted to baby boys who unwillingly undertake their “sacrifice“.
Strange for a feminist, von Kellenbach then writes that “Male circumcision and the penetration of women constitute the basis of the “covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.”“. In this statement women are sexually objectified and conceptualized as valuable only for their reproductive power.
In her opinion, “The movement to criminalize ritual circumcision is spearheaded by uncircumcised men who feel morally obliged to protect innocent boys from “ancient stone age rituals”“. This, of course, ignores the testimonials of men of all nationalities who were hurt physically and psychologically by their circumcision or simply oppose the idea of submitting babies to this painful and unnecessary procedure, and continue to push for the age restriction of the procedure, such as Richard Duncker of Men Do Complain (UK), Christian Bahls, president of Association of Children Victims Affected by Violence Against their Physical Integrity (MOGiS eV), Eran Sadeh Israeli founder of “Protect the Child” and many others.
Von Kellenbach goes on to say that “It is Christian men who want to prevent the medically unnecessary suffering of Muslim and Jewish boys” – Again, this is an attempt at creating a division that does not exist. There are Jewish, Muslim, African, Christian, American, Atheists, Pagans and men and women of all races, nationalities and faiths, expressing their opposition to circumcision. The attempt to re-frame and create this division is simply an attempt to frame the opposition to circumcision with anti-Semitism, something far from the truth.
Another common way to derail the discussion, used also by von Kellenbach, is to argue that the arguments against circumcision are simply emotional. This is simply countered by the opposition of medical associations, the existing studies showing the negative effects, not only the sexual effects, but also the traumatic effect of neonatal pain.
Von Kellenbach keeps trying to divide the readers by arguing that “Feminists, who work against sexual violence, such as FGM, are recruited into campaigns to outlaw gender-neutral ritual circumcisions“. In other words, feminists do not join the movement for genital integrity, they are recruited, they are deceived, with the purpose of “criminalizing Muslim and Jewish minorities” (and she still has the nerve to say that the arguments against circumcision are emotional!)
So basically, in von Kellenbach’s view, the genital integrity movement is created by European uncircumcised Christian men who recruit feminist women with the purpose of criminalizing Muslim and Jewish minorities. Perhaps Ms. von Kellenbach should visit the United States and speak with some of the intactivists here before writing about a movement that she evidently didn’t take the time to understand and learn about.
She concludes that “Feminists should insist on the fundamental difference between male and female circumcision and speak out against criminalizing male circumcision in countries where such bans serve to marginalize religious minorities.” So feminists should insist in denying the rights of male baby boys to their physical integrity.
It is sad when one has to argue for the physical integrity of children against political and religious entities and individuals who insist on being dense in ignoring the pain, trauma and vulnerability of babies. Of all babies, regardless of their gender.