Congressman Brad Sherman Is Wrong On Circumcision

This is why I don’t like the political process for ending non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors.

Congressman Brad Sherman announced today that he will be introducing the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011, a bill to prevent San Francisco and other municipalities from banning the circumcision of males under the age of 18.

Sherman’s new bill is in reaction to a measure that has qualified for the November 2011 ballot in San Francisco that would make the performance of circumcisions on males under 18 a misdemeanor—with a possible $1,000 fine and one-year prison term.

He’s framing the problem incorrectly, which allows him to protect a “right” that doesn’t exist and ignore a right that does. The proposed bill in San Francisco would prohibit non-therapeutic circumcisions on males under 18. Healthy children do not need surgery, even if the parents’ god says so. California law already restricts the rights of parents to cut the healthy genitals of their daughters for any reason, including religious claims. Is that an infringement? Of course not. Likewise, there is no First Amendment right to inflict permanent harm on one’s children sons (only).

Sherman expressed concern over the motivation of the provision. “To infringe the religious rights of so many Americans, San Francisco should have some compelling medical reason; however, the medical literature actually shows clear benefits of male circumcision.”

The provision, shown by its generally-applicable wording, would protect the right of all healthy males to keep their normal body intact and free from the objective harm of non-therapeutic surgery to which they do not consent. It’s the same right U.S. and California law protects for their sisters. That right is being violated. It must stop. This is a way to achieve that, even if it may not be the best way.

But if we incorrectly assume this infringes a legitimate religious right, San Francisco (and every other locality) has a compelling medical reason to prohibit non-therapeutic male child circumcision: it’s non-therapeutic genital cutting imposed on a non-consenting individual. The healthy child does not need circumcision any more than he needs an appendectomy. If he has an appendectomy, he will never get appendicitis. That is a potential benefit. Should we therefore allow parents to have a surgeon cut their healthy children sons (only) to remove his potentially harm-producing appendix? In the name of parental rights? No, because that would be stupid. The ability to chase some possible benefit can’t be an ethical justification to perform an invasive, unnecessary surgical intervention on a healthy child.

Congressman Sherman added:

“Congress has a legitimate interest in making sure that a practice that appears to reduce disease and health care costs remains available to parents,” Sherman said. “And, nothing in my bill prohibits statewide law ensuring that male circumcision occurs in a hygienic manner.”

To the extent that Congress has a legitimate interest¹ here, it’s in protecting the individual rights of every citizen, including male children. It already protected female children with the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996. That prohibits non-therapeutic genital cutting on non-consenting female minors for any reason, including religious claims by the parents. Does that infringe on parental religious rights? Are we illegitimately denying religious rights by not permitting other acts by parents sanctioned by various religious texts? Are the healthy genitals of male minors beneath the equal protection of the Fourteenth Amendment?

“Congress has historically legislated to protect the free exercise of religious rights from state and local intrusions,” Sherman said. “In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, designed to protect religious institutions from unduly burdensome local zoning laws.”

The logic of the law Congressman Sherman cites favorably requires the conclusion that his proposed bill is flawed. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act establishes that the government may not impose a burden

…unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution–
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

(A) Protecting children from unnecessary, objective harm is a compelling governmental interest. Circumcision, as surgery, inflicts objective harm in every instance. When there is no offsetting medical need, the harm is the only guaranteed result. Preventing that is the premise behind prohibiting all female genital cutting on healthy female minors, even genital cutting that is less severe, damaging, or permanent than a typical male circumcision. The government recognizes that girls are individuals with rights that deserve to be protected. Infringing on a non-existent parental right to cut the healthy genitals of their daughters children is a legitimate state action.

(B) The least restrictive means would be for parents to understand that non-therapeutic genital cutting on healthy children is ethically and medically wrong and, thus, refrain from imposing it on their sons. Yet, religious and non-religious parents alike cut the healthy genitals of their sons. How else is the state supposed to stop it without exercising its legitimate police power?

Congressman Sherman should withdraw the Religious and Parental Rights Defense Act of 2011 immediately. He should also introduce a bill to remove the gender bias from the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 to create the Anti-Genital Mutilation Act of 2011, if he’s serious about using the powers of Congress correctly to protect the rights of all American citizens.

Update: More from Congressman Sherman:

Sherman said he did not consult the text of the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 in composing the bill he will put forth in Congress.

“I think people who make that analogy are so wrong that their thinking does not color my thinking,” Sherman said.

Since he’s working with a closed mind, I’ll simplify: non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting person is wrong. The extent of the damage is irrelevant. The reason cited is irrelevant. The gender of the victim is irrelevant. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong.

¹ I want to be proved wrong on this, but Sherman’s statement is further evidence of my prediction that ceding power to the government on health care would lead to arguments that child circumcision provided fiscal benefits to the nation. It wouldn’t change the ethical violation involved, but Congressman Sherman doesn’t provide a cost-benefit analysis for his claim. Only in Congress can spending money always mean saving money.

7 thoughts on “Congressman Brad Sherman Is Wrong On Circumcision”

  1. Bravo! I applaud the author of the above piece outlining the insanity of Congressman Sherman. Sherman’s comments are bizarre, unintelligent and misleading. Why would religion and medical benefit be mixed up together? Jews do not circumcise for medical reasons, and neither do most Americans. They do it to conform, or because they mistakenly believe it is required, or they think the boy should look like his father, or because Grandma said to do it, or they think it is “cleaner” (it actually is not). Rarely have I ever heard a parent tell me that it has medical benefits and that is why they want it done. Sherman incorrectly states that there are “clear benefits”. The only thing circumcision prevents is a normal sex life. That is it. Circumcision does not decrease STD’s, penile cancer, HIV, HPV, and maybe not even UTI’s (Denmark, Japan, and other first world intact nations have a lower rate of all the above.) His selective review of the medical literature shows how biased and uninformed he truly is. Circumcision actually INCREASES health care costs, and adversely impacts health. (see Van Howe cost utility analysis) The government has an obligation to protect its citizens (baby boys are human beings and citizens last time I checked) from assault, abuse, torture, mutilation, etc. It is a basic human right to be protected from bodily intrusion. Why the Jews/Muslims cannot see the harm in perpetuating this pagan ritual is beyond my comprehension except that clearly it would mean facing up to years of harm, both collectively and individually. It is NOT mandatory to be circumcised to be Jewish, nor is circumcision even mentioned in the Koran. These are blood rituals that predate modern religions. We no longer stone adulterers (at least not in the U.S.), own slaves, or perform animal/human sacrifices (although circumcision is believed by some to represent a substitute form of human sacrifice). It is time for the Jews and all “religions” to have a rational discussion about this. Their response recently is making them look rabid and foolish. Adult males can agree to circumcision to be part of a group; leave infants out of it. If Sherman pushes this bill through, then watch out for all the wacky things a parent can then do to their child in the name of religion with government protection.
    The San Francisco bill is really not needed as laws already exist to protect our children from sexual abuse, assault and battery, etc. They just have been preferentially enforced or not enforced. It is high time boys were protected and physicians/mohels were held accountable for this barbaric cultural ritual.

  2. Sherman, and the Minnesota Congressman who is the only Moslem in Congress, introduced this law to flatter Jewish and Moslem campaign contributors.
    If the SF ballot initiative passes, it will be overturned in Federal court on First Amendment grounds. The American legal and political establishment feel that it is a duty to bend over backwards not to offend Jews. To some extent, Islam has begun to benefit from such feelings, despite 9/11. It would have been much much wiser and pragmatic had the language of the ballot initiative included a religious exemption. Jewish intactivists would have been free to argue later for an abolition of the religious exemption.
    The ballot initiative will not so much reduce the number of circumcisions, as change where they take place from the city to bay area suburbs.
    The proper entity to regulate circumcision is the California state legislature, which also has the power to overrule any municipal ordinance in California. To use an act of Congress to overturn the ban is overkill. To introduce such legislation many months before the November 2011 election is to jump the starting gun.
    The real issue here is a clash between two American communities that are both well-off and well-educated, but that were historically persecuted: Jews and gay men.
    Most statements deploring the SF ballot initiative as an infringement on Jewish parental prerogatives have claimed that circumcised men are healthier, in particular, have a lower risk of contracting HIV. This is part of the harm done by the African clinical trials carried out a half decade ago. Those trials are dishonest and a scientific scandal. Even if that was not the case, the outcomes of those trials tell us nothing about whether it is advisable to circumcise a baby boy born in San Francisco (or anywhere else in North America) today.
    At the same time, the harm of male circumcision, especially over the very long run, has been grossly under-researched. This is why Sherman can think that male circ and FGM have nothing in common.
    “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act establishes that the government may not impose a burden
    …unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution–
    (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
    (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
    I submit that the RLUIPA is pious handwringing devoid of operational content. I had never heard of that law before, and agree that it constitutes Federal overreach. I submit that it is a deplorable precedent.
    The fundamental problem here is that circumcision is not subject to a narrow window of opportunity that begins at birth. Doing it in the maternity ward or on the 8th day is not a now or never thing. A male can be circumcised at any time in his life. Circumcision is safer after the penis has completed its puberty growth spurt. A larger organ is easier to operate on, the foreskin has naturally detached from the glans, and the risk of cutting off too much skin is lessened. Hence circumcision can be delayed until adulthood. At any rate, I see no compelling reason why parents should determine how a man’s penis will look and function, when the man himself is quite capable of making that decision when he is of age.
    @Mimi: you are so right. The main reason Americans parents have their boys circumcised is because they fear that an intact boy will be bullied and ridiculed in the locker room, and will be rejected by young women when he tries to begin his sex life. Millions of Americans find the natural penis weird and disgusting, having never seen one in their lives. In many walks of American life, men having all their factory-installed moving parts are a despised and misunderstood sexual minority.

  3. Circumcision has certainly ruined my sex-life. I always found it more difficult to masturbate than my intact contemporaries, and gradually my penis has become less sensitive, to the point where I can no longer orgasm.

  4. So much for “freedom of belief” when you’re imposing your beliefs onto a child’s body with a knife.

  5. “I think people who make that analogy are so wrong that their thinking does not color my thinking…”
    When your beliefs conflict with the facts, dismiss the facts. Never let your thinking be colored by the facts. ‘Tis the creed of every religious zealot.
    “We don’t need to look through your telescope Mr. Galileo, everybody knows that there are only 5 heavenly bodies…”

  6. No. 2, “Male circumcision is an important part of many world religions, including Judaism and Islam, and observers have safely embraced its practice for generations.” – poses a problem.
    According to the 1st amendment:
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
    Next on Sherman’s bill:
    No State or political subdivision of a State may adopt or continue in force a law, regulation, or order that prohibits or regulates the circumcision of males who have not attained the age of 18 years and whose parent or guardian has consented to the circumcision
    Huh? So a parent can forced you to get circumcised up until you’re 18? Really?
    Then there’s also the challenge nobody wants to hear:
    Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, can doctors be performing surgery on healthy, non-consenting individuals, much less be handing parents any kind of a “choice” to “consent” on the matter?
    In asking parents to “consent” to a medically unnecessary procedure, aren’t doctors committing medical fraud, not to mention professional abuse of parental naivete and ultimately, the patient himself?
    …unless such law, regulation, or order–
    (1) applies to all such circumcisions performed in the State

    (2) is limited to ensuring that all such circumcisions are performed in a hygienic manner.
    How about ensuring that all circumcisions are performed due to medical and/or clinical necessity?
    Sherman: “To infringe the religious rights of so many Americans, San Francisco should have some compelling medical reason; however, the medical literature actually shows clear benefits of male circumcision.”
    This is the most absolute backwards line of thinking I have ever seen in my life. Don’t you need a compelling medical reason -IN ORDER- to perform a surgery?
    Since when are surgeries performed because there are no medical reasons AGAINST it? Sherman’s smoking crack. Somebody in congress better reprehend this self-serving religious zealot.

  7. I can speak about RIC (Routine Infant Circumcision) and say it SHOULD be banned. As a 55 year old male, I have very little ability to achieve and maintain an erection. I have emotional issues, which are possibly attributed to the pain and suffering relatd to the circumcision which was performed without anesthesia in the mid-50’s. I admit there’s insufficient data on this correlation, but it makes me wonder. I ask, HAVE YOU WATCHED A CIRCUMCISION VIDEO??? If not, I suggest you do. After which, you will undoubtedly agree that this is a totally unnecessary procedure unless and until there is sufficient medical reason and urgency due to jeopardy of the infant’s life. Until the child is of legal age/majority in which he may make an informed and legal agreement in favor of having this done, then it SHOULD NEVER BE DONE ROUTINELY! NEVER!!
    One major cause of my failed marriage recently was loss of intimacy between my wife and myself. I couldn’t function, ueert she said it shouldn’t cause me to stop satisfying her. Well, while that may be true, I’m not able to fully perform sexually in a normal way and certainly not encouraged to initiate sexual intimacy due to my erectile dysfunction. Pills are not reliablty effective and I hadn’t much feeling from sexual activity, UNTIL I BEGAN FORESKIN RESTORATION. Thankfully the internet has made this information much more accessible and encourages young, and older, males to the methods available to regain as much of the anatomy which was “stolen” at birth, or any age below which they may give legal consent. I’ve said enough for the moment. If you want to see or learn more about restoration and a forum where you will have support from other males in this process, go to and read about it, and then do this for yourself to become whole, as much as ppossible, again and find your sexual satisfaction again and that of your partner as well.

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