Accord not to circumcise son still leaves heated legal debate

News  Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ). Thursday, 25 January 2001.

Kate Coscarelli

A divorcing couple who went to court over the circumcision of their 3-year-old son settled the dispute yesterday when the boy's mother withdrew a request to have the surgery performed.

The case, which attracted significant attention from medical groups, legal scholars and the media, was decided behind closed doors in the Somerville County Courthouse.

State Superior Court Judge Paul Armstrong signed the consent order yesterday morning, which said the request for surgery had been dropped and the issue resolved. No other terms of the settlement were disclosed. We are certain that our decision will promote Matthew's best interests and welfare, read a joint statement released by the boy's parents, James Price of Raritan and Jennifer Price of Clinton, who share custody.

James Price has previously maintained that if a judge—at any level— granted the circumcision, he would oppose it. We are going to do what's right for Matthew. We love him very much, the father said yesterday. The case, which went on for seven months, became a focal point in the debate over the need for circumcision. A California-based nonprofit group called the  External link National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, came to the aid of James Price, setting up a  External link website to raise funds for his legal battle, and filed  External link court papers to support his opposition. About 64 percent of the nation's boys are circumcised shortly after birth, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, but in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics stepped back from its position that the procedure should be done at birth.

The medical community also weighed in. A friend of the court brief was filed by the  External link Medical Society of New Jersey and the Urological Society of New Jersey opposing court-ordered treatments. The medical community says those decisions should be made by doctors and parents.

Legal scholars said the case had the potential to set an explosive precedent that could have sent divorced or separated parents back to court to settle routine health matters normally decided by the custodial parent. As the case made headlines, James Price appeared on the Howard Stern radio show and on the Montel Williams TV talk show.

While yesterday's settlement might have resolved the issue of a circumcision in Matthew's immediate future, it has not resolved the debate over the case's legal impact.

Edward O'Donnell, the attorney appointed to act as quardian in the case, said the decision reaffirms the familial autonomy accorded health care decisions, even in the context of divorce litigation.

Another family law professor says the case could have a different precedential value. Even custodial parents' viewpoints of medical treatments can only be sustained if they can prove that treatment is medically necessary, said  External link Claudette St. Romaine at Seton Hall University  External link Law School in Newark.

But  External link Norman Cantor, a professor at  External link Rutgers University Law School in Newark, said it's hard to tell what long-term effects the case may have. If a private settlement is reached in a case and there is not a real authoritative ruling then there is no...impact, said Cantor.

Jennifer Price, 32, filed for divorce last spring. When the boy suffered through two cases of foreskin inflammation, doctors suggested a circumcision to help alleviate the possibility of recurring infections.

But James Price objected, citing personal trauma from penile surgeries he had as a child and the possiblity that Matthew might have diminished sexual pleasure in the future.

As is often the case with divorcing couples, the Prices turned to the courts to intervene. In August, Armstrong ordered the procedure. However, the doctor involved backed out after James Price, 40, threatened legal action against him. The parties returned to court and Armstrong stuck to his initial decision.

An appellate court agreed.

Then, in October, the state  External link Supreme Court sent the matter back to Somerville for a full hearing to determine if the procedure was medically necessary. Yesterday's order brought the case to an end.

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