Circumcision is against the Charter, group says

News  National Post (Toronto, Ontario). Monday, 12 February 2001.

Adrian Humphreys, Glenn Lowson

Dr. Arif Bhimji says parents should not translate religious beliefs into a surgical procedure on a non-consenting child.

A new Canadian group called the Association for Genital Integrity has applied for public funding to launch a court challenge aimed at banning the circumcision of baby boys.

The challenge relies on the  External link Charter of Rights and Freedoms to contest a section of the Criminal Code that prohibits female genital mutilation, a stance activists say discriminates against men by not providing equal protection under the law.

Every day in this country a quarter of the boys that are born are having this procedure performed on them without their consent and without any medical need. We don't see why half of our society should be protected by a law and not the other half, said Dr. Arif Bhimji, a Newmarket emergency room physician.

The intention [of the challenge] is to provide equal protection to all citizens, said Dr. Bhimji, who is a spokesman for the group.

The association has applied to the  External link Court Challenges Program, a federally funded agency that provides financial assistance for equality issues, for $46,639.50 to prepare the case.

The program is expected to assess applications next month.

Section 268 of the Criminal Code of Canada defines the offence of aggravated assault and specifically names only the components of the female genitalia in a subsection prohibiting genital excision.

The use of such gender-specific anatomical terms implies that males are not protected equally under the law. Males, no less than females, are subject to an unnecessary surgical intervention on the genitals – namely non-therapeutic circumcision, said Dr. Bhimji. Section 15 of the Charter guarantees equality before and under the law and equal protection and benefit of the law. The group also views the practice of infant circumcision as a violation of a child's right to security of the person, which is Section 7 of the Charter.

Circumcision remains the most common surgery in North America. Nobody wants to directly respond to the issue, said Dr. Bhimji.

The only way we can have the people in power to address this is by challenging in the one area that we know the government must listen, the courts.

Frank Dimant, a spokesman for  External link B'nai B'rith Canada, a Jewish advocacy organization, said such a move would be disastrous to the Jewish and Muslim communities that require male circumcision as part of their religious practice.

It would be a tremendous hardship. It is unbelievable that a law would be enacted in Canada that would preclude Jews from circumcising sons at the time of birth, Mr. Dimant said.

This is a religious prerequisite for us; one of the absolute critical tenets of our faith and we have complied with that commandment for thousands of years. Once this challenge to the charter moves forward, there will be many of us who will be in opposition.

Mr. Dimant said B'nai B'rith Canada, and likely many others, will seek intervenor status, allowing it to make arguments on the merits of the challenge to a judge, if the case makes it into court.

He would expect, in the least, an allowance for religious groups would be made in any new law.

Dr. Bhimji, a Muslim, said he expects the right of an individual to security to supercede the right of a parent to translate their religious belief into a surgical procedure on a non-consenting child.

The courts consistently state that you cannot cause harm in the name of religion, he said.

Mr. Dimant said opposition evidence would be based on medical as well as religious information. I think we will be able to call upon eminent individuals in the medical field that will certainly stand by the position we have held for thousands of years, Mr. Dimant said.

Circumcision was once routine in most North American hospitals, but a mounting body of medical evidence suggests the procedure is largely unnecessary and the practice is in decline.

In 1996, the Canadian Pediatric Society published an  External link extensive report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that concluded, as an official stance, that routine circumcision is not recommended.

The Association for Genital Integrity brings together a number of people and organizations opposed to the routine circumcision of infants, including the  External link Circumcision Information Resource Centre, a Montreal-based organization led by John Antonopoulos, and  External link Intact, led by Lawrence Barichello, which is organizing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Canadian men circumcised as infants.

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