Circumcising baby boys 'criminal assault', Ethicist says society must consider banOTTAWA CITIZEN, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada,
Friday 17 October 1997
Circumcising baby boys 'criminal assault'
Ethicist says society must consider ban
The Ottawa Citizen
One of the country's leading medical ethicists says circumcision of baby boys is criminal assault and that doctors should stop doing it.
'It's a bodily wounding on a tiny infant that has given no consent itself, and it is not a medically necessary (procedure),' Dr. Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, said in an interview yesterday.
And in a lead letter published in a recent issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Somerville and Montreal physician David Alwin say it's time the 'cloak of medicine' surrounding male circumcision was removed.
She said the medical profession must decide whether non-medical circumcision and research surrounding it should even be carried out.
In an interview, Dr. Somerville went further and said society should start questioning whether there is any rationale for cutting away a newborn baby boy's healthy foreskin.
'We as a society have to decide' whether to stop circumcisions, Dr. Somerville said.
The Montreal ethicist has decided, 'gradually and with some reluctance,' to enter the intensifying debate over routine, non-medical male circumcision.
'We have to start from the basic presumption of the utmost respect for people's religious beliefs and traditions and rituals. I think we've had far too little respect for a lot of those,' Dr. Somerville said.
'But there's a point at which we also have the utmost duties to protect those unable to protect themselves. And sometimes that means that we have to trespass on those other things.'
Dr. Somerville says non-medical infant male circumcision is technically criminal assault.
'It's a wounding, it's clearly a serious wounding -- some kids die from this -- and the person hasn't given any consent themselves.'
A recent study by researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto found that circumcising a newborn without first administering any painkillers -- which is normal practice in hospitals across Canada, including Ottawa-Carleton -- creates a lasting pain reflex in children. Infants who were circumcised showed significantly more pain when they received their childhood vaccinations.
'And should doctors be doing it? Is this an ethical practice of medicine? I don't think they should do it. I've reluctantly come to that conclusion.'
The procedure involves cutting away the inner and outer layers of the foreskin. Minor complications, such as bleeding and infection, occur in between five to 10 per cent of cases; in extremely rare cases, the procedure can result in damage to the penis, ranging from lacerations to permanent deformity or, in even rarer cases, amputation.
Circumcision takes just minutes, 'but there's no question it's painful, in case anyone thinks otherwise,' says Dr. Robin Walker, chief of neonatology at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
He is a member of a special committee of the Canadian Pediatric Society that last year issued a statement saying there is no valid medical reason to justify routine infant male circumcision.
'Certainly don't ask me to defend it. I don't do them. I will not do them. I don't do procedures that I don't consider to be medically indicated.'
Dr. Walker said many pediatricians try to discourage circumcision when they talk to parents. But he said it's not unethical for doctors to perform what he says is considered, in non-religious cases, a cosmetic procedure.
But anti-circumcision advocates say doctors have no right to remove normal tissue from a healthy individual without their consent.
'The people who are the most responsible and who are the least accountable are doctors because they know better,' says John Antonopoulos, president of the Circumcision Information Resource Centre, a non-profit group in Montreal.
He says the foreskin is a 'normal, functional, healthy, helpful and erogenous' part of the penis that helps maintain the surface, texture and sensitivity of the glans.
More and more men who were circumcised as infants are 'feeling a sense of resentment that their right to their normal body, given that nothing was diseased, nothing needed to be removed, was violated, and permanently,' he said.
He said the debate isn't just a men's issue, or one of 'men boo-hoo-hooing over their penises.'
In fact, one of the key people behind the anti-circumcision movement in the U.S. is a former nurse who was fired when she started giving parents candid, up-to-date information on circumcisions. Debate is also building within the Jewish community and has started to surface in mainstream Jewish publications.
Dr. Somerville says Canadians should re-examine male circumcisions with the same 'open eyes' that the nation used to assess female genital mutilation, a practice that is now banned in Canada.
'Maybe we have to have some sort of consultation to decide that this is not on,' she said.
Sharon Kirkey. Circumcising baby boys 'criminal assault:' Ethicist says society must consider ban, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 17 October 1997.
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