Circumcision debate heats up

The National Post, Thursday, October 21, 1999, pp. B1, B3

Coming soon to a theatre near you
The circumcision debate heats up with an explicit new video

Adrian Humphreys
National Post

In a world of shocking images, it seems strange that an unedited video of
the most common surgical procedure in North America would be taboo. However,
when a 14-minute visual and audio recording of a baby boy's circumcision is
splashed across a Toronto theatre's 27-foot-wide screen next week, it will
represent the year-long efforts of an anti-circumcision activist to find a
doctor willing to allow the procedure to be filmed.

Lawrence Barichello said he contacted hundreds of doctors in Canada who
perform the procedure before finding one who would consent to letting him
come into the office with a camera.

"I mailed letters to a couple of hundred doctors ... followed them up,
phoned around, phoned around, phoned around. The doctors were saying, 'No,
no, no, jeez, you can't take a picture of this,' " said Barichello. "Finally
I found a doctor who said yes."

The doctor performed the surgery in his own office. The parents consented to
the camera being there for the three circumcisions videoed. The children are
not identified. The end result is not pretty. Obviously, it is not meant to
be. The video shows an infant being strapped to the board, called a
Circumstraint, used to restrain the baby for the procedure, and then the
baby's foreskin being cut and removed from the penis. "There are no special
effects, no actors involved, it's just the baby being worked on," said

Barichello used a tripod when videoing, he says, because of his reaction to
what he was seeing and hearing. "It took every ounce of my willpower to stop
myself from jumping out from behind that camera and grabbing him and saying,
'Don't do this, this baby doesn't want it.' "

The lobbying technique of raising awareness through trying to tell it like
it is – often called shock or scare tactics – is one that has been
controversial, and also successful, for some other groups in the past.
Anti-abortion groups have been using still photographs of aborted foetuses
and films of the procedure to show people the potential horrors of abortion.
And animal rights activists have used gory photographs of animals caught in
leghold traps and scenes of the baby seal hunt as a successful public
relations tool.

Barichello, however, said his inspiration came from more mainstream images.
"I watch a lot of nature shows on TV, all during prime time, and I have seen
knee surgery, brain surgery, eye surgery, reconstructive cosmetic surgery on
someone who lost the bones in their face during a car accident. I have seen
all this stuff on TV.

"If circumcision is surgery just like any other surgery, how come you can't
see it? What is the secret? Why is it that people are not allowed to see
this? Doctors lock the door, they often keep the parents out. It seems you
are not allowed to question it and not allowed to see what is really

(Barichello distinguishes between surgical circumcision and the various
religious practices that involve cutting the penis; he does not involve
himself in the religious end of the debate.)

The issue of infant circumcision has been heating up in recent years. Once
standard practice, for decades opponents have been debunking the perceived
medical benefits of the surgery. In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics
took a stand against the routine circumcision of newborns. In 1975, the
Canadian Paediatric Society reached the same conclusion.

These early studies were recently followed up. In 1996, the Canadian society
published an extensive report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal
recommending against it. This year, the American academy reiterated its

The trend is changing the look of men's locker rooms across the country. And
yet, according to a handful of activists, such as Barichello – who calls
himself a human-rights activist for his role – much remains to be done.

A multimedia presentation, of which the graphic video is a part, on Tuesday
at 7 p.m. at Toronto's Bloor Cinema, also marks the launch of Barichello's
organization, cunningly called Intact, to bring about an end to the
practice. The presentation will include anatomy slides, photos of botched
circumcisions, a video clip of "heterosexual pornography that demonstrates
the mechanical differences, for both partners, between the circumcised and
the intact penis," and a short live drama.

The National Post, Friday, October 22, 1999, page A1, A9

Adrian Humphreys
National Post

The leader of an anti-circumcision lobby group called "Intact" is organizing
a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Canadian men who were circumcised as

Lawrence Barichello, of Toronto, is urging men who have been circumcised to
start documenting emotional injuries that have arisen as a result of their

"No detail is too small. If someone taunts you in the locker room about your
penis, write down what they said and how you felt about it," he says on his
Internet site.

Named in the suit, believed to be the first of its kind, will be doctors who
performed the surgery, the nurses and staff who assisted, hospital
administrators, the manufacturers of the specialized equipment used, and the
participants' parents, said Mr. Barichello, executive director of Intact.

Mr. Barichello plans to launch the suit once suitable candidates and a
lawyer or legal team are finalized. Participants must be men circumcised in
Canada as an infant by a doctor for non-religious reasons.

The statute of limitations is problematic, meaning most candidates would
have to be 17 or 18.

Although initiated by Mr. Barichello, he will not be among the plaintiffs.
He would not say whether he was circumcised or not.

"When you read that people are winning damages for forced sterilization, for
botched surgeries and unwanted treatments, and see how the courts treat
these things, you realize there is a good avenue here for a lawsuit. You are
getting a part of your body cut off that is very sexually important and it
is done for no reason. It is malpractice, quite frankly," said Mr.

Dr. Christine Harrison, chairwoman of the Canadian Paediatric Society's
bioethics committee and director of bioethics at Toronto's Hospital for Sick
Children, said the lawsuit plans raise perplexing questions about the nature
of consent and the changing norms within society.

A lawsuit might be a few years before its time. Dr. Harrison suggested that
in 18 years, those circumcised today might be in a better position to prove
the surgery was not necessary.

"We are talking about circumcision as it was performed between 17 and 20
years ago. At the time, it was a normal, acceptable, minor surgical
procedure that was commonly done. It was such a normal thing for people to
do, it probably would have been a highly unusual thing for a parent to
decide to not circumcise their son."

Circumcision was once routine in most North American hospitals – it was
believed to reduce the incidence of infection – but the medical benefits of
the procedure have come into question and the practice is in decline. A
mounting body of medical evidence suggests the procedure, which remains the
most common surgery in North America, is largely unnecessary.

The American Academy of Paediatrics first took a stand against the routine
circumcision of newborns in 1971 and the Canadian Paediatric Society reached
the same conclusion in 1975.

In 1996, the Canadian society published an extensive report in the Canadian
Medical Association Journal that concluded, as an official stance, that
routine circumcision was not recommended. Last March, the American academy
also revisited the issue, concluding any benefit is not great enough for the
academy to recommend it.

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