U.S. anti-circumcision activist cheers Canadian's attack on practice

News  The Ottawa Citizen, Page A12. Saturday, 18 October 1997.

Sharon Kirkey

Marilyn Milos is convinced that the day will come when infant male circumcision will be looked upon as a shameful part of our medical history.

As founder and director of NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information and Resource Centres, Ms. Milos has dedicated the past 18 years of her life to ending routine, non-medical circumcision of baby boys.

A registered nurse who was fired from her job with a California hospital in 1985 for trying to give parents frank information about circumcision, Ms. Milos is convinced the practice is nothing short of genital mutilation: This is a violent act done to children.

I have three sons who were all circumcised in infancy, she said from her office in San Anselmo, California.

The doctor said it's cleaner and healthier and it doesn't hurt and it only takes a second and it will prevent all these terrible things that couldpossibly happen, Ms. Milos said.

This vague fear of something happening in future allowed me to subject my precious newborns to something that was worse. I had no idea what circumcision was.

The U.S. activist, buoyed yesterday by comments by one of Canada's leading medical ethicists, Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, said in an interview with the Citizen this week that non-medical infant male circumcision is technically criminal assault and that Canadian doctors should stop doing it.

She said it's time Canadian society challenged its laissez-faire attitude toward a practice described as bodily wounding on a tiny infant without his consent.

Society will say even though it's technically a criminal assault, which it is, we will treat it as though it's not contrary to public policy and allow it to happen, Ms. Somerville said.

What if we had some new group who, for their cultural reasons, said all children-and don't let's make this sex-discriminatory-all children in our community will have their left earlobe removed after birth. I think Canadians would go ballistic about that, and that's a less dangerous thing to do than a male circumcision.

Anti-circumcision activists hope Ms. Somerville's decision to publicly enter the debate will help society begin to challenge a North American custom that one Ottawa pediatrician describes as one of the most intensely painful events a child will experience.

Circumcision involves forcibly retracting the foreskin and cutting away the inner and outer layers. Despite the availability of inexpensive pain killers, from injections to creams that help deaden the pain, the majority of circumcisions today are performed without any anesthetic.

We really are dealing with something very deep and very heavy and it's no surprise it's it has taken so long, and the efforts are so difficult in bringing this to an end, Ms. Milos said.

Her life changed the day she witnessed a circumcision on a newborn baby as a nursing student in the early 1980s. The infant was strapped to a molded plastic board, his hips elevated and his arms tied down with velcro.

The baby was struggling against the restraints. Then the doctor started to cut into the baby's penis and the baby let out a scream I had never heard a human being make. I lost it.

The doctor looked into my face and said, `You know, there's no medical reason for doing this.' It was like a crack in my universe. My lifechanged.

She was later fired for after she tried to show parents a video she and acolleague made of a circumcision.

I believed when parents saw this they would never allow their children to suffer the trauma of circumcision. (The hospital) said it was too much for parents to see. I said that if it was too much for parents to see, then it was too much for the baby to have to go through.

Her non-profit organization now has 40 chapters across the United States, and offices in more than a dozen countries, including Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand.

Ms. Milos says non-religious circumcision was used in the 19th century as a means to curtail masturbation. The foreskin is the most nerve-rich, erogenous part of the penis.

The head of the penis, instead of being soft, moist mucous membrane, now becomes dried, hardened, and calloused.

Since the early part of this century, circumcision was considered a way to prevent urinary tract infection, sexually transmitted diseases, and a reduced risk of cancer of the penis. Doctors also believed it would help prevent foreskin problems that would require a later circumcision, such as infections or tightening-conditions that can now be treated with non-surgical interventions.

But last year, after an exhaustive review of the medical literature, a special committee of the Canadian Paediatric Society concluded that there is no valid medical reason to perform routine infant male circumcisions.

In the Jewish faith, circumcision is a religious ritual, and support for the custom in the Jewish community is widespread. (Most circumcisions performed in Canada, however, are for non-religious reasons, according to the Circumcision Information Resource Centre).

Local Jewish leaders were not available for comment yesterday because of a Jewish holiday. But some Jewish parents are reportedly questioning the decision to circumcise their sons

Despite the pressure to conform, an increasing number of Jewish parents are finding the courage to say no to circumcision, write Boston psychologist Ron Goldman in the Jewish Spectator, and independent international Jewish magazine.

Ms. Milos says infant male circumcision is an issue of human rights.


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