ROANOKE TIMES, Roanoke, Virginia, Saturday, 23 April 2005.
By Joe Kennedy
THE ROANOKE TIMES
In the fast-paced world of column writing, it's a luxury to sit down and interview someone more than once before beginning to tell his or her story.
On Monday, I interviewed William Stowell of Fincastle. Once was plenty.
Stowell, 23, has become a poster child for the anti-circumcision movement.
Wednesday night, he is scheduled to appear on Showtime's "Penn & Teller: Bulls-t!" He will help to debunk the belief that the practice of circumcision has any social, sexual, medical or other value. In fact, he says, it does harm.
It won't be his first brush with the big time.
In recent years, Stowell and/or his personal-injury lawyer have appeared on "Good Morning America," MSNBC and other outlets. They and their cause have turned up in The New York Times, Penthouse and Playboy.
Stowell became attractive to producers and editors in 2003 after a Long Island hospital and doctor settled his lawsuit against them. The suit questioned the legality of his mother's consent for his circumcision the day after he was born.
It said Linda Stowell was weakened by a Caesarean section and groggy from painkillers when a nurse obtained her permission for the procedure.
It also questioned the legal and ethical aspects of removing healthy tissue from a nonconsenting minor for "non-therapeutic" reasons.
The terms of the settlement are private. There was no admission of liability, but that didn't stop Stowell's lawyer, David Llewellyn of Atlanta, from commenting afterward.
A new niche
"Never again can someone say that a young man who is dissatisfied with his circumcision as an infant is being frivolous when he objects to his mutilation and brings suit to obtain justice," Llewellyn said. "I would expect that this is just the first of many cases that will be brought by angry circumcised young men against their circumcisers."
It is important to note that Stowell's circumcision was not botched. The "mutilation" described by his lawyer applies to any circumcision, botched or not.
For more than a year Stowell and, he says, a retired Alleghany County urologist, have paid for a billboard in Roanoke. Formerly at Franklin Road and McClanahan Street Southwest, the message now is on Brandon Avenue near Deyerle Road.
It faces west, toward Salem. It says, "Today's babies are born perfect. Parents say NO to circumcision."
On Monday, I met with Stowell at the billboard.
It was the first time I've ever sat with a guy - in his grandmother's Caprice, yet - and talked at length about penises.
To put it bluntly, Stowell believes doctors should keep their circumcising gadgets away from babies. Circumcision, he says, is the mutilation of an innocent victim for no compelling health reason.
The decision should be left to the child, not the parents, he says. Which means, unless there's some obvious medical benefit, there should be no more infant circumcisions.
The American Academy of Pediatrics determined in 1999 that the potential medical benefits of circumcision are not sufficient for it to be part of routine neonatal care. The academy also acknowledged that the procedure causes pain to infants and recommended the use of painkillers.
The AAP did not call for a ban on circumcisions. Parents choose them for several reasons, including religious and cultural traditions.
America leads the world in male circumcision rates, Stowell says, but in recent decades the U.S. rate has dropped to just over 50 percent of newborns, and lower in some areas. Partly, this is because of increased births among ethnic groups that do not choose to have their newborns circumcised.
Eric Earnhart, spokesman for Carilion Health System, said veteran nurses in the birthing unit at Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital have seen little or no change in circumcision rates for several years.
"Their gut feeling ... is that it's going on at about the same percentage" as it has for some time.
While Earnhart could not give a figure, he said the majority of infants born at the hospital get circumcised.
If you'd like to delve into the subject further, you can e-mail Stowell at NoCircVA@aol.com.
Or you can go online to numerous anti-circumcision Web sites.
A compelling question
Stowell is 23, married and the father of a 2-year-old daughter. He receives disability payments for a back injury he suffered while serving in the Air Force, he says.
He attends Dabney Lancaster Community College, where he works as an audiovisual technician. He also drives a sweeper truck that cleans commercial parking lots.
His interest in circumcisions began during summer camp when, at age 15, he noticed the foreskin of an uncircumcised boy in a communal shower.
The foreskin is the loose fold of skin that covers the glans of the penis.
"It got me to thinking, 'Where was mine?'" he said.
In time, he found Internet sites that address the subject. He learned the history of the practice and asked his parents why they permitted him to be circumcised.
"I found out they didn't want to have it done," he said. "They did it anyway, virtually without my mother's consent."
He sued and won separate settlements from the doctor and the hospital, or, rather, their insurers.
And that is how he became somewhat well-known.
Regaining lost ground
Circumcision is "not a parent's choice," Stowell says. The decision belongs to the person with the penis.
He speaks so authoritatively that I felt a need to ask if he were a good student in high school.
"I was a degenerate," he said. "I was always getting suspended for something."
Stowell and others believe that uncircumcised males get and give better orgasms than circumcised males do.
"Full-bodied orgasms - and often, too," he told me.
They believe their circumcisions rob them of their rightful portion of sexual pleasure, because the foreskin contains many important nerves. Once they're gone, pleasure is permanently reduced, they say. Some men employ nonsurgical techniques to restore their foreskins, at least partially. There is equipment that does this.
Stowell is trying to restore his. When we spoke, he was three weeks into the process. He and his wife already had noticed an improvement, he said.
The issue of parents' choice prompted me to ask Stowell how he felt about parental notification laws in cases where minors seek abortions.
"I don't take a public opinion on that issue," he said. "I don't want to alienate one group of my supporters by taking a public stand about that."
Anti-circumcisionists come from many backgrounds, he said. Circumcision is all that some of them agree on.
I pressed him. He said abortion and circumcision were two different things.
I said there is a parallel in that both involve parents in children's medical decisions.
Abortion, he said, is "a complete extermination of a being." Circumcision is a "mutilation."
"I don't think one is worse than the other, though," he said. "Both are crimes against humanity."
Circumcision opponents are lobbying state legislatures to restrict circumcision or remove Medicaid money for the procedure, as some states already have done.
The debate has an ugly side. Some Web sites list the names of doctors and rabbis who perform circumcisions and label them "the baby mutilators."
Stowell said his Roanoke Valley group has perhaps 22 loosely defined members, most of whom would prefer to remain anonymous.
He finds it "hard to talk to people around here" about the subject, but that does not deter him.
"Not a day goes by that I don't mention something to somebody," he said.
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