By Elizabeth Reis
What frustrates me about the circumcision debate is that both sides exaggerate their claims. Maybe this happens with most controversies, but I am particularly attuned to this one because I have been researching the history of circumcision in the United States. A recent article by Brian J. Morris and others in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings overstates the health benefits of circumcision and downplays the risks. They argue that the public health benefits (i.e. reducing sexually transmitted diseases) are so great that circumcision should be mandatory. Mandatory?
By Elizabeth Reis
The previously obscure ultra-Orthodox Jewish rite of metzitzah b’peh (oral suction) has burst into the news lately and raised critical questions about genital surgery, consent, First Amendment rights, tradition, and the representation of Jews.
I would guess that most Americans, even Jewish-Americans, had never heard of metzitzah b’peh (oral suction) until the recent controversy between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It refers to a custom performed after a circumcision in which a mohel (ritual circumciser) orally sucks the blood away from the baby boy’s penis. To insure the requirement that blood be shed and then hygienically removed (sucking was deemed the best means of achieving this hygiene anciently), metzitzah b’peh became part of circumcisions in the 2ndcentury, according to scholars. Most Jews, even observant Modern Orthodox Jews, have abandoned the practice. But a small minority adheres to and defends it, based on the First Amendment – somewhat surprisingly now on free speech grounds in addition to its religious liberty provisions.
This is a guest post by Elizabeth Reis, professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon. Professor Reis is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). This year (2012-2103) she is a visiting scholar in the History of Science Department at Harvard University.
The American Academy of Pediatricians recently released a statement saying that the health benefits of circumcision outweighed the risks. This pronouncement contradicts the Academy’s earlier ruling, just thirteen years ago in 1999, which stated unequivocally that the health benefits of the procedure were slim. The 1999 statement reversed a previous one made in 1989 that said there were good medical reasons for it; but a few years earlier, in 1971, the Academy had officially concluded that it was not a medical necessity. Clearly, circumcision is one of those surgeries about which opinion shifts back and forth over the years.