Revising Tactics

Posted: May 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Logic, Mission | No Comments »

This excellent post on activism by Freddie deBoer captures what I’ve been thinking lately. The context is different, and I largely disagree with his politics, but the larger theme remains activism and convincing people of ideas. If you only have time to read Mr. deBoer’s post or what’s below, click that link.

I’ve been frustrated about the direction of activism for genital integrity rights for a longer time than I’m willing to accept. I’m not going anywhere. I haven’t changed my mind. But it’s difficult to expend the effort when so many are fighting those who agree on the goal and demonizing those who we need to convince. Maybe there’s a cause where a punch in the nose is the right activism. This isn’t it. Doing so only makes the process harder and further pushes out the day we achieve full protection for all children, male, female, or intersex.

I remember many political fights over the last decade-plus that I was sure would turn out a specific way. The most recent example is the general election in the United Kingdom last week. I was convinced Labour were going to win. “Go Labour” was all I saw on Twitter. The Rise of Ed Milliband was everywhere in my news feeds. And then the election happened. David Cameron remains Prime Minister, but with an actual majority instead of a coalition government. The exact opposite of the expected result occurred.

British Politics Twitter melted down from the moment the first exit poll leaked. “How could this be? Impossible! We’re doomed!” And so on. I reacted this way in years past, and I felt justified in doing so. I’m right, after all. Except when this happens enough times, it’s wise to step back to figure out why expectation and result don’t match. We need to examine that chasm for genital integrity rights.

I believe the explanation for this experience is the same for politics and genital integrity. The Internet is not society. The Internet is a specific, motivated subset of society. It will change the world, probably. But this change will occur only if we realize that most of the people we need to convince don’t care about our obvious intellectual win in a long-running feud with oppositional trolls.

It isn’t that a large percentage of society is being obstinate, refusing to change. For most people the issues important to activists aren’t merely unimportant. They aren’t real. How many times have we heard, “I don’t know any men who miss their foreskins/regret being circumcised”? The answer is always, accurately, “Yes, you do. You don’t know who they are because it isn’t safe to say such a thing in most company.” Consider the immediate reaction in the UK election: “Why were Tories so afraid to tell pre-election pollsters that they’re conservatives?” It’s more reasonable to recognize that some people will not tell another their truth if they believe it will be dismissed or ridiculed.

That’s the crux. People aren’t evil. They’re unaware. It’s ignorance in the purest definitional reality. Perhaps there is a better way for them. We can show them. Will we show them?

With politics, we all believe that our views are correct. Maybe. With genital integrity, the truth is clear rather than subjective. Society should already be where we are on this issue. Of course. But it would be foolish to use that to inform our activism. We must educate. Antagonizing only keeps us out of the experience of those we need to convince. As I’m sure I’ve written before, would we rather be right or victorious?

It would be wonderful if we could explain ourselves to a sufficient number of judges and legislators. Boom, everything changes. That isn’t how change happens. Courts and legislatures lag society. Justice derives from those who refuse to participate in injustice any longer, not those who would command us not to participate. This is true even though providing legal protection for the inherent right to genital integrity to all citizens is the only ethical stance. The burden of proof shouldn’t be on us. The burden of proof is on us.

Where do we go from here? I wish I had the magic words that would fix this. However, if you read Mr. deBoer’s post, magic words are the opposite of what we need. We have too many magic words now. Cutter. Circumfetishist. Rape. Sexual crime. And so on, even to mutilation in many contexts. Using these words signals to a preferred segment of activists that only we understand how truly awful circumcision is. Perhaps. And it feels so good, right, so it doesn’t matter what the cutters and circumfetishists think, except what the people called cutters and circumfetishits think is all that matters. They have all the power to stop circumcision. We need to stop aiming to convince those who are already convinced.

How do we educate the people who need to be convinced?

Unsettling the settled

Posted: February 11th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Politics, Public Health, Science | 1 Comment »

This has no direct connection to circumcision or genital integrity. But it has pertinent implications right now.

The nation’s top nutrition advisory panel has decided to drop its caution about eating cholesterol-laden food, a move that could undo almost 40 years of government warnings about its consumption.

The group’s finding that cholesterol in the diet need no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern” stands in contrast to the committee’s findings five years ago, the last time it convened. During those proceedings, as in previous years, the panel deemed the issue of “excess dietary cholesterol” a public health concern.

The new view on cholesterol in the diet does not reverse warnings about high levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood, which have been linked to heart disease. Moreover, some experts warned that people with particular health problems, such as diabetes, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets.

After decades of one recommendation, the U.S. government discovers that settled science isn’t quite as settled as it led citizens to believe. This lesson arrives in the lull between the comment period and issuance of the CDC’s circumcision recommendation. The ethics of genital integrity dictate against its proposal. Of course. But looking forward, how much of the “settled” science of circumcision rests on speculation and guesswork? What might change over the next few years and decades? What will the CDC (or AAP or WHO or…) say if, in 2035, something unsettles¹ the science so many (almost exclusively American) authorities eagerly endorse today? Will the boys born today accept an “Ooops” for what is being forced on (i.e. taken from) them today if something unsettles the science tomorrow?

¹ The ethics of non-therapeutic genital cutting without the individual’s consent “unsettles” it now by making the application of the science in that manner inherently wrong. The availability of more effective, less invasive preventions and treatments for maladies involving the foreskin already unsettles the science, as well.

Activism is always about marketing

Posted: February 4th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FGM, Mission | No Comments »

I like this post by Jonathan Friedman:

Friday, February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). There is a lot of positive momentum in the UK and around the world for education and prosecuting those who practice or aid FGM. This is a day for us to learn more about FGM, to listen to the victims and to learn how FGM is being eradicated. Many of us know very little about it and have never even met victims of FGM.

That’s correct. It’s too easy to forget that children are violated, not just boys, because of what is most familiar. It’s also critical to remember this reality:

Unfortunately, there’s also a great deal of sexism within the discourses on FGM, especially coming from cultures practicing male genital mutilation (MGM). Great care is taken to state that MGM and FGM aren’t comparable, while intersex genital mutilation (IGM) is virtually ignored. MGM has recognized health benefits, FGM does not, they point out. MGM is a religious requirement, FGM is a cultural practice. And so on.

Many women’s organizations recognize MGM for what it is and speak out. On December 12, 2012, I attended my first Bloodstained Men & Their Friends demonstration in Berlin, Germany, the day the German Parliament passed a new law enshrining MGM as a religious right. The event was co-organized by Terre Des Femme, a women’s rights organization. I can’t express how comforted I felt getting up there on stage in a bloodstained suit with a group that included a woman.

People are complicated. I trust that anyone opposed to FGM is – or can be – receptive to the truth that boys have the same rights as girls. We should challenge mistaken beliefs where possible. But we can’t make enemies of potential allies because it feels good to launch these wide, careless attacks. Everyone involved is justifiably angry to some extent. Some are angry, and others are more angry. It’s natural. We can’t allow that anger to become so righteous that we lose control. Don’t be an accelerant:

So to them I say: don’t be an accelerant. Be a passionate advocate when necessary. Speak truth to power when you feel it’s right. But train your powerful tools of criticism of others on yourselves, and be ruthless when it comes to your own good intentions. Ask yourself: when I intensify this conflict, when I beat my chest and declare someone evil, when I throw fuel on the fire, am I really helping the people of color and women I claim to speak for? When I go for the jugular again and again, am I actually helping to solve injustice? Is this kind of engagement from me an instrument of political progress? If not, why am I doing it? How am I contributing to this cause?

The context is different, but the same. It never helps protect children when someone spews hatred at a group of people united only by the attacker’s presumption of the group’s hatred of boys. Pick a group targeted for vitriol, whether it’s women as in the tweet linked above, or Jews, or doctors, or any group, really. When did smearing someone achieve a single helpful thing? Lazy accusations of misandry don’t help. How many times do any of us need to see images from issue two of Foreskin Man in news stories and blog posts to understand how damaging that vileness is? You think you’re making the point that circumcision is awful and how dare you not understand that circumcision is awful. You’re making the point that you’re unhinged and scary and best ignored.

Back to Mr. Friedman’s post, in this paragraph he states exactly what activism should be:

When space is created for talking about FGM, we need to respect the intentionality of that space. When that space is used to defend MGM or IGM, we must raise our voices as appropriately as possible. We have been accused of minimizing FGM by comparing it to MGM and taking resources away from FGM, as if we’re all in competition. Whether or not these allegations are true, people perceive these as being true (on the whole I think they’re false, but I can’t speak for everyone).

It’s correct for discussions of FGM. The concepts of appropriateness and respect are broadly applicable. That willingness to consider others and to understand that we need to explain our position will achieve more than “Shut up” ever could. Do we want to feel superior or do we want to protect children?

Flawed Circumcision Defense: Children’s Urology, Austin

Posted: February 3rd, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, Media Marketing, Parenting, Surgery | 1 Comment »

Hey, a press release (Links omitted):

New Austin parents wishing to heed the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recent guidance on circumcision, which endorse the procedure because of resulting health benefits, have access to a new in-office resource dedicated to circumcision — the Newborn Circumcision Clinic at Children’s Urology.

The CDC’s draft proposal aimed at medical providers has not been formalized as a recommendation. It says so in the public notice (emphasis added):

“… The draft recommendations include information about the health benefits and risks of elective male circumcision performed by health care providers.”

Even though the press release acknowledges the draft status of the proposed recommendations, Children’s Urology uses the draft proposal to sell non-therapeutic circumcision. That’s odd.

It’s odder still because the CDC’s draft proposal ignores the direct physical costs of circumcision to the patient. The CDC’s draft proposal stumbles on the ethical analysis of applying the potential benefits to healthy children. The CDC’s draft proposal fails to mention or evaluate many options for prevention and treatment of maladies that are less invasive and more effective than circumcision, such as the HPV vaccine. The CDC’s draft proposal is half-baked. Half-baked is a poor basis for eliciting any level of informed consent.

There’s a reason this next paragraph closes the Notice document:

In addition to obtaining public comment on the draft Recommendations, CDC considers this document to be important information as defined by the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 2004 Information Quality Bulletin for Peer Review and, therefore, subject to peer review. CDC will share the summary of public comments with external experts who conduct a peer review of the evidence on this topic. Their review will include an evaluation of completeness, accuracy, interpretation, and generalizability of the evidence to the United States and whether the evidence is sufficient to support the draft counseling recommendations.

No worries, though. The Newborn Circumcision Clinic at Children’s Urology is ready to sell new Austin parents surgery for their healthy sons. It says so in their press release. Jillian Moser, PA-C, or someone on the circumcision provider team, will circumcise the healthy baby if he’s six weeks old or younger, weighs 10 pounds or less, and has normal appearing anatomy. The circumcision provider team does not require a boy to need any form of intervention before they’ll perform surgery. One might be inclined to think that a strange requirement to dismiss. However, lest healthy newborn boys worry they might not be in good hands, Children’s Urology knows what healthy newborn boys care about most for their genitalia: the comfort of their parents.

“Our Newborn Circumcision Clinic offers a comfortable, in-office experience for families interested in following the recommendations and pursuing circumcision for their son,” said Leslie McQuiston, MD, pediatric urologist at Children’s Urology.

Of course, it’s curious that Leslie McQuiston, MD, believes the CDC’s draft proposal a) targeted parents and b) recommends circumcision of newborns. Either of those beliefs suggests that Dr. McQuiston hasn’t read the CDC’s draft proposal (or the longer document that supports the draft proposal). The claimed link to the CDC’s draft proposal in her clinic’s press release loads a PDF announcing the draft proposal for public comment. Since Children’s Urology doesn’t seem to know where the actual draft proposal is located, it’s possible they haven’t read the draft proposal, which would be understandable. Who has time for reading dense material when so much science needs urgent applying to healthy children? Healthy children can’t possibly wait for the draft proposal to be finalized, much less wait until they might have a need for the most radical intervention. The science of newborn male genital anatomy isn’t scientific without a scalpel, after all. Duh. Everybody knows that.

Maybe the confidence of new Austin parents wouldn’t be so high after considering the totality of evidence from Children’s Urology’s press release. Trust them, though. Right in the press release, it says their clinic is “the premier pediatric urology practice in Central Texas,” and that it “specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of genitourinary conditions from birth through adolescence.” That’s great, and probably true, but we’re all now thinking the same thing. Okay, maybe the folks at Children’s Urology aren’t thinking this, but most of us not selling surgery on healthy children to parents using a flawed draft proposal are thinking it. Circumcision isn’t a genitourinary condition. I know, right? It seems obvious. But, on the contrary, we’re all wrong. It says so right on Children’s Urology’s site, under Conditions We Treat.


  • Ambiguous Genitalia¹ (DSD)
  • Chordee
  • Circumcision
  • Concealed / Hidden Penis
  • Epispadias
  • Hypospadias
  • Labial Adhesions
  • Meatal Stenosis²
  • Micropenis
  • Phimosis

I know, I know. It’s weird that circumcision is offered to treat the genital condition, “circumcision”. It’s weirder, I guess, because Children’s Urology convinced me we agree. Parents, doctors, activists, the AAP, the CDC, and Children’s Urology all need to work together to eradicate this awful scourge, circumcision, that somehow persists for healthy boys in modern society.

¹ I’ll refrain from speculating on this item because I do not know what Children’s Urology recommends for these children.

² It’s worth remembering that meatal stenosis and adhesions are possible complication from circumcision (i.e. the treatment for the condition, “circumcision”).

Not every male would have foreskin anxiety

Posted: January 31st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, Hygiene, Locker Room, Logic, Parenting, Regret | No Comments »

It’s rare that I read something providing both confirmation and frustration. Such is the case with this interview with Aaron Calloway, a man who chose circumcision for himself as an adult. Some of Mr. Calloway’s thinking precedes the Q&A in the interview:

“I have been in a couple of social circles where people would be talking and say, ‘Ugh, yeah. He was uncut,’ and I, like, didn’t want that,’” Calloway told me, when we spoke a second time about his circumcision. “And I’m sitting there with an uncut penis. People don’t really assume you may not be [cut]. They just assume that you’re cut and if you’re not, it’s kind of like this abomination.”

I’ll assume everyone is familiar with this because it certainly matches my experience. Americans generally assume every male is – and should be – circumcised. It’s what we do. It’s “good”. I take a different view on what to do with society’s perception. Of course I don’t have the same experience Mr. Calloway does. Mine is people assuming I’m happy with being circumcised, because why wouldn’t I be? It’s strange, and annoying because I don’t care what other people think about my preference. I’d rather have my normal body, which I had until my parents made my choice.

Early in the interview, Jenny Kutner, asks a question that expands on this:

How would you say it’s perceived to be uncircumcised [sic]?

It’s strange because it really depends on being asked. If you are someone who prefers a cut penis, or to be circumcised, it’s weird because the preference — they automatically associate it with cleanliness. It’s considered a more proper penis and uncircumcised is like, weird. But it makes me think, it’s weird to actually be born and have your penis hacked at. I am glad that I made the decision on my own to do it. There’s something empowering about that.

I’m glad Mr. Calloway had his choice, even though I don’t (emotionally) understand – and wouldn’t make – the choice he made. He’s correct that it’s weird to be born and have your (healthy) penis hacked at. That weirdness is why I dreaded this excellent, necessary question:

Since you found it empowering to decide yourself, what do you think you would do for your son if you had one?

I would probably get him circumcised, only because I wouldn’t want him to deal with the social embarrassment of [not being circumcised], because it can come off that way. I’ve been in situations where if I let myself, I could’ve felt embarrassed, but I chose to own it. I think I had enough resilience where it didn’t get to me, but I think that some people in that situation, it does get to them.

I wanted to turn off my monitor, unplug it, and throw it in the garbage when I read this, just so I’d never be able to read that answer again. Because the obvious question is obvious: What if that hypothetical son wouldn’t be embarrassed by social pressure to be circumcised? Or, what if the social pressure is no longer the same 15+ years after that hypothetical son is born in the future? And, I still remember, “I am glad that I made the decision on my own to do it” from the previous question. Is there a reason to assume a hypothetical son wouldn’t want his choice, too?

My frustration with Mr. Calloway’s answer grew later in the interview when the question turned to Mr. Calloway’s results:

Aside from not being able to ejaculate for a while, were there any other negative side effects?

Besides the desensitization –

So you do have less sensation now?

Yes, and that is something that I’m a little bit sour about. I used to have very intense orgasms–my legs would curl and my head would go back. It was cool. I was very into it. Now, I’ll cum or whatever, and it’s just more calm. It’ll feel good, but it’s not as dramatic as before, which was nice, because it felt sexual and passionate, and now it’s just like, get out.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth it? I would say, in my situation, and my experiences, yes, it is to me, because I just personally feel better about it. I was with some friends who were talking about the word “smegma” and making jokes about it, and now I don’t have to feel uncomfortable in that situation, and that’s really nice. I think for me and my personal psyche, it is worth it. I’m not saying that when I cum I don’t feel anything. No. That’s not the situation either. I still get horny. I want to have sex. It still feels great and I still have an orgasm. Is it to a lesser degree? Yes. Is it an orgasm nonetheless? Definitely.

It’s consistent to say “I’m a little bit sour about” it and “in my situation, and my experiences, yes, it is [worth it] to me.” All preferences are unique to the individual. Mr. Calloway values the aesthetic and social benefits more than the healing process and diminished sensitivity. Given that I only advocate for each person to make his own choice, not that no one be circumcised, I’d be a hypocrite to criticize his conclusion. I criticize his current thinking that he would circumcise a future son. There’s also time for him to see the error in his thinking there.

To the possible objection with this interview, of course Mr. Calloway’s claim is subjective and anecdotal. This does not prove that adult or infant circumcision leads to desensitization. I think the inference is logical, given how circumcision changes the normal penis. Still. No, this isn’t proof.

It does support my focus on individuals rather than groups. We must remember how critical this is when reading generalized garbage such as what the CDC offers on page 26 of a detailed supporting document for its proposed recommendations to teens, adults, and parents of newborns.

… However, in one survey of 123 men following medical circumcision in the United States, men reported no change in sexual activity and improved sexual satisfaction, despite decreased erectile function and penile sensation. [Abstract and study]…

From the results section of the study’s abstract:

A total of 123 men were circumcised as adults. Indications for circumcision included phimosis in 64% of cases, balanitis in 17%, condyloma in 10%, redundant foreskin in 9% and elective in 7%. The response rate was 44% among potential responders. Mean age of responders was 42 years at circumcision and 46 years at survey. Adult circumcision appears to result in worsened erectile function (p = 0.01), decreased penile sensitivity (p = 0.08), no change in sexual activity (p = 0.22) and improved satisfaction (p = 0.04). Of the men 50% reported benefits and 38% reported harm. Overall, 62% of men were satisfied with having been circumcised.

As the study concluded, and the CDC’s use failed to understand, “adult circumcision appears to result in worsened erectile function, decreased penile sensitivity and improved satisfaction.” Again, those don’t have to be inconsistent for an individual. But it’s indefensible to assume infant circumcision results in a different outcome, or that results one and two ethically coexist with result three for healthy children.

Even in this study supposedly supporting the CDC’s recommendation, only 62% of men were satisfied. The other 38% matter, too. In the absence of need, the only relevant issue is always individual choice. And looking at the math, the results show that far fewer than 100% of men circumcised for (probable) need were satisfied. Remember this every time someone implies every male should¹ be satisfied with non-therapeutic circumcision because some males are satisfied with therapeutic circumcision.

I appreciate what Mr. Calloway has done with his interview. His honesty is informative in both its insights and its flaw. We need more honest, focused discussion like that. I don’t assume all men circumcised as adults would report reduced sensitivity. I know there are enough that it might help break through the societal barriers we maintain against ethical protections for the normal bodies of male children.

¹ Consider Mr. Calloway’s results in the context of a recent silly lifestyle trend piece. It concludes with a man from Staten Island named Boris who had himself circumcised at 33. Okay, fine, good for him. Even though he said that “[t]he next six months weren’t normal,” everything is apparently okay with circumcision because now “[w]e’re expecting a baby next month — everything works just fine!” Clap, clap, except no one is making the argument that circumcision prevents ejaculation or climax (Except in those rare cases of death where it prevents that). “Sex still feels good” is the most persistent and most pernicious straw man in the circumcision debate.

Read this response instead.

Swedish, Danish medical groups call for respecting rights of children

Posted: January 30th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Law, Religion | No Comments »

1/31/15 Edit: This news is from last January. I first saw it in this story posted this week. I looked for other news articles and used the one in this post because the quote from Mr. Ullenhag was more complete. I noticed the date of January 26th, but missed that it was from last year, unlike the link above. My analysis is the same, obviously, but the mistake is mine.

Interesting news:

Large medical associations in Sweden and Denmark recommended banning non-medical circumcision of boys.

In Sweden, the recommendation came in a resolution that was unanimously adopted last week by the ethics council of the Sweden Medical Association — a union whose members constitute 85 percent of the country’s physicians, the Svenska Dagbladet daily reported on Saturday.

It recommended setting 12 as the minimum age for the procedure and the boy’s consent. Jewish ritual circumcision, or brit milah, is performed eight days after birth. Muslims typically circumcise boys before they turn 10.

In Denmark, the Danish College of General Practitioners — a group with 3,000 members — said in statement that non-medical circumcision of boys amounted to abuse and mutilation, the Danish BT tabloid reported Sunday.

I don’t know that 12 is the right minimum age, but I’ve long been willing to accept an age below that of majority as long as the boy can offer his informed consent. I have concerns about how informed it could be at earlier ages, but I’m willing to leave the option for consideration.

The resolution is non-binding, which is still fine for this process. Less change is needed in Scandinavia than in the United States, but change is still needed. This is a step in demonstrating that even well-intentioned non-therapeutic circumcision constitutes harm, and the boy himself has the sole right to request or reject non-therapeutic circumcision for himself.

Any effort at respecting ethics in this area always brings some variation of this quote, with little variation:

“I have never met any adult man who experienced circumcision as an assault,” [Sweden’s minister for integration, Erik] Ullenhag said. “The procedure is not very intensive and parents have the right to raise their children according to their faith and tradition. If we prohibit it, we must also address the issue of the Christian ritual of baptism.”

Mr. Ullenhag has apparently done little research on the issues of circumcision and ethics. He is ignorant of what many adult men think of their parents making this choice. He does not understand the principle against direct physical harm involved that distinguishes circumcision from baptism or virtually any other ritual of any religion in which parents may want their children to participate. His approach implies no limits on parental authority. Surely he does not believe that is valid.

These recommendations are progress. These medical authorities, unlike American medical authorities, grasp the issues involved for the child. They are taking a principled stand. It is a positive and, more importantly, necessary step in the process to achieving proper protection for the rights and bodies of all children.

“Voluntary” Never Means “Voluntary”, Part Who Can Keep Count?

Posted: January 30th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: "Voluntary", Control, Ethics | No Comments »

Zimbabwe has a plan, because public health officials just know.

THE ministry of health has launched an ambitious US$100 million male circumcision programme that is expected to see at least 80 percent of the male population being voluntarily circumcised.

Some 400 235 males have been circumcised since 2009 with ministry managing to introduce the non-surgical method of circumcision at some sites and launch preliminary studies on infant male circumcision.

If the infants aren’t volunteered, they might not volunteer. So, as always, when public health officials propose voluntary, adult male circumcision, they never mean voluntary or adult. (e.g. EIMC) Bonus points to Zimbabwe’s health minister, I guess, because he didn’t pretend the plan was only aimed at adults. But, as I wrote in the PEPFAR-EIMC post, I suspect that means officials know they no longer need to pretend to care about ethics. That isn’t progress.

Rhetoric and Purpose

Posted: January 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Mission | No Comments »

I’ve written about how dreadful Lindy West’s thinking has been on male circumcision. But it’s possible she’ll understand the ethics involved and how it requires a slight-but-critical shift in her approach to the issue. There is a much better chance that will happen by challenging her mistaken idea rather than attacking her. In an interesting episode of This American Life where Ms. West tells of interacting with “her meanest troll”, she explains why this approach makes sense.

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

Humans can be reached. I have proof. Empathy, boldness, kindness, those are things I learned from my dad, though he never knew how much I’d need them. Or maybe he did.

I’d rather reach people, including Ms. West.

The same sentiment is in this post by economist David Henderson at EconLog. He discussed how his mother stood up for a student suspended for growing his hair long. She did so anonymously, and to the principle. When she had a chance to attack a man whose life contradicted his own defense of the suspension, this:

“Come on, Mum” (we used the British rather than the American version), I said, “Make it more direct. Say something like ‘others with our choices of scarves.'”

“No,” she said.

“How come?” I said, disappointed that she wouldn’t stick in the knife.

“Two reasons,” she said. “First, that’s mean. And that’s enough of a reason. Second, I want to convince not just the other readers but the person who will read this most closely: Harry. If I embarrass him, he’s less likely to reconsider his views.”

That is the activism in which I strive to engage.

NPR link via The Stag Blog, where Lucy Steigerwald writes, “Obviously I have major problems with Jezebel, and sometimes with Lindy West in particular, but I enjoyed her This American Life segment on talking to her meanest troll. Humans are humans! Just imagine!”

President’s Endless Plan for Avoiding Rights

Posted: January 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: "Voluntary", Ethics, HIV, Politics, Public Health | 1 Comment »

PEPFAR held an event today, described as:

Join global health experts in PEPFAR’s sixth VMMC Webinar to consider the pros and cons of offering early infant male circumcision (EIMC) as part of routine Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) care.

The title of the event was, “Scaling Up Routine Early Infant Male Circumcision within Maternal, Newborn and Child Health”. I wonder what the outcome of considering the pros and cons will be.

It’s also worth noting how circumcising infants has been separated as EIMC from “voluntary” male “medical” circumcision (VMMC). Is it progress if they’ve stopped pretending that infant circumcision is voluntary? Not really, I think, since no one involved cared anyway and dropping it means they’re comfortable with making it clear they don’t care.

Flawed Circumcision Defense: Karin Klein

Posted: December 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, FCD, FGM, Science | 1 Comment »

Encouraging half-baked opinions, like this one by Los Angeles Times reporter Karin Klein, is the inevitable result of the CDC’s proposed recommendation. The opinion piece is titled, “It’s time to end inaccurate criticisms of male circumcision”, which suggests its author should not offer an incomplete analysis in defense of male circumcision. That is what Ms. Klein offers.

The recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should quell the unfounded arguments that male circumcision is no better than or different from female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. According to the draft guidelines released by the CDC, the benefits of male circumcision clearly outweigh the risks, in the form of reduced risks of urinary tract infection as infants and penile cancer later in life, and lower risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The short version of her essay is “Shut up.” It’s her introduction and conclusion. Alas¹, no.

“According to the draft guidelines released by the CDC” involves undue weight for the recommendation. The CDC’s conclusion is subjective. The equation is not merely benefits versus risks. There is a direct cost (i.e. harm) in the loss of the foreskin. That matters, yet it isn’t factored into the CDC’s analysis (or the AAP’s before it or Ms. Klein’s here). And the CDC ignores the individual foreskin owner’s preferences. Someone might value his foreskin more than reduced risks of future maladies. As I do. It isn’t defensible to declare that the potential benefits “clearly” outweigh the risks, for everyone, or that this demonstrates anything conclusive.

The comparison of male circumcision to female genital mutilation rests on the principle involved, not indifference to the disparity in recognized potential benefits. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. Minimal or maximal cutting is relevant for punishment, but not for whether the individual’s human rights are violated. A female owns her body from birth, including her genitals. A male owns his body from birth, including his genitals.

It’s understandable that circumcision has become controversial. It’s a permanent change made to the body, usually in infancy. (It should be noted that parents make all kinds of decisions that affect their children’s lives permanently; circumcision happens to be a particularly visible one.) …

It’s a permanent change made to the healthy body. Defending this removes any limitation on what parents may do. It isn’t that it’s a particularly visible effect. It’s that circumcision alters the child’s body without need. Proxy consent requires the patient’s need, not the proxy’s preference. Non-therapeutic circumcision is still cosmetic surgery, contra the silliness Ms. Klein will shortly suggest.

Nor is non-therapeutic circumcision acceptable because parents make all kinds of decisions. This common argument rests on the flawed premise that a) Parents make decisions for their children, b) Non-therapeutic genital cutting is a decision, therefore c) Parents may cut the healthy genitals of their children sons. It’s ridiculous. Treating all decisions equally to defend an extreme, gendered decision makes no sense. It imagines a strange scope of parenting we don’t accept, as evidenced by the required strikethrough in c) to narrow the conclusion to what parents may legally decide on non-therapeutic genital cutting. It’s about parental rights only to the convenient extent that it maps to what we want to do. It’s arbitrary.

The CDC report won’t end the debate, nor should it necessarily do so. Perhaps its most important short-term good will be to increase the likelihood that the procedure will be covered by health insurance, because circumcision could not be viewed as solely a cosmetic procedure, but rather one that carried health benefits backed by the most current scientific research. That gives parents the option — either way.

It is still cosmetic surgery, even with potential health benefits backed by the most current scientific research. It is backed by an incomplete analysis of all factors involved. Arguing only from potential benefits and risks without factoring in the costs (i.e. harms), as well as preferences for how an individual weighs those three aspects for himself, is biased, inaccurate nonsense. The CDC shouldn’t peddle it. Ms. Klein shouldn’t defend it.

But it should end the scurrilous argument that male circumcision, with its very low complication rate, is mutilation on par with female circumcision. There are no known health benefits to female genital circumcision and a long list of not-uncommon consequences, including fistulas, abscesses and childbirth complications.

If Ms. Klein is going to use a word like scurrilous to criticize critics, she should first understand mutilation. Should we assume that a case of non-therapeutic female genital cutting without the girl’s consent that doesn’t result in a complication, or at least only a “very low complication rate”, isn’t actually mutilation? I assume Ms. Klein’s answer is the correct answer, which is “obviously not”. We can also search for the unifying principle that shows how weird it is to argue that parents should have the choice to surgically alter the bodies of their children, except this choice is for sons only because we’ve researched that. For example, in the WHO factsheet on Female Genital Mutilation, this:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Partial removal or other injury to the genital organs for non-medical reasons? As long as you don’t foolishly suggest “reduced risk of X” is somehow a medical reason² for non-therapeutic circumcision, removing the foreskin is clearly such an injury.


FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.

Removing and damaging healthy and normal genital tissue, and interferes with the natural function of bodies? Male circumcision fits that, too. Without need or consent, male circumcision is indefensible genital mutilation. Awareness of potential benefits does not change the equation. It is mere question-begging.

Of course, even religious traditions shouldn’t outweigh health concerns. Just as female genital mutilation is outlawed in this country no matter what the religious beliefs of the parents, if the CDC report had found similar complications with male circumcision, then there should be serious conversations about whether the procedure should be allowed. But that’s not what the science shows; until there is solid evidence to contradict the CDC report, conversations about restricting parents’ ability to make this decision for their sons should end.

It makes sense to ask if the boys who suffer the complications, including the most serious outcomes, could be considered mutilated, or is it merely based on the intent we assume for the parents? (The simplistic, “Male genital cutting is well-intentioned. Female genital cutting is ill-intentioned.”) But complications and consequences are unique. Consequences includes the costs (e.g. loss of the foreskin). That ignored aspect is what makes non-therapeutic male circumcision an unacceptable parental choice. Again, using the subjective conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks while excluding the factual harms and the child’s preference is an incomplete analysis. Demanding, as Ms. Klein does, that we guide policy on this subjective opinion is ludicrous.

The CDC’s recommendation and Ms. Klein’s demand aren’t made better by using SCIENCE! as an incantation. Å normal, healthy foreskin is science. The numerous methods short of circumcision to prevent and/or treat maladies are science. A condom is no less SCIENCE! than circumcision. Antibiotics are no less SCIENCE! than circumcision. Soap and water are no less SCIENCE! than circumcision. It might be interesting that parents prefer SCIENCE! to SCIENCE!, but the issue involves ethics. The ethics are the same, whether it’s daughters or sons. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. We all have the same basic rights. Non-therapeutic genital cutting without the individual’s consent violates her – or his – basic human rights.

¹ The piece includes a “Shareline” suggestion to tweet out a link to it with propaganda, “There are reasonable debates about male circumcision — but not about its benefits vs. risks”. That’s also nothing more than “Shut up”. It poisons the conversation by setting boundaries on what’s “reasonable” to debate. It’s also incorrect.

² The factsheet makes it clear that this would not be accepted for any non-therapeutic female genital cutting, as the law against FGM in the United States also makes clear. There is a principle, and it doesn’t negate the principle of equal rights simply because we’ve agreed to study the possible benefits of cosmetic surgery.