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Sleep-deprived dad and “Barefoot Intactivist” spar over circumcision science

by Jonah Lowenfeld

July 5, 2011 | 6:53 pm

This little guy is working to answer the questions about the science of circumcision (right between feedings and nap time).

Gordon Haber says he’s tired of the intactivists’ “bullsh*t.”

For those of you not following the ongoing debate over circumcision, intactivists are anti-circumcision activists. They often talk about being in favor of “genital integrity” or describe themselves as human rights activists, and some have been agitating for legislation outlawing male circumcision for decades.

In May, San Francisco announced that a measure aiming to ban the procedure in the city for all boys under 18 for any reason other than a medical emergency had qualified for the November 2011 ballot—which turned what had been an uncomfortable (but mostly private) conversation into a very public fight over foreskins.

This fight has taken root in the Jewish community, and more than a few writers from the tribe have weighed in with their takes. (Last week’s contributions: Jay Michaelson offered a modest, carefully considered and somewhat biblical proposal to the medical/ethical/religious circumcision question in the Forward and Eli Ungar-Sargon, whose documentary “Cut” took a hard, Jewish look at circumcision, interviewed a prominent intactivist on Jewschool.)

And then there’s Haber, a writer who has published work in a number of publications, including a few Jewish ones. He recently started his own skirmish with an article for the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Not content with the media’s coverage of the discussion around circumcision, Haber, who had recently had a Jewish ritual circumcision—a bris—for his own son, decided to try to “[parse] the claims of both sides and [evaluate] the science.”

“I suppose I should have known better,” the new father writes, “but, as I mentioned, I was sleep-deprived.”

And though Haber starts off by acknowledging his ambivalence—and later unaease—about the decision to circumcise his newborn son, by the article’s end it’s clear which side he’s on. Haber grants that intactivists, though they may resemble conspiracy theorists like truthers and birthers, “are actually performing a public service by making their opponents defend a procedure that, for decades, most Americans have accepted without question.”

But that’s about all the credit he’ll give them. Consider Haber’s last two paragraphs:

What, though, are we to make of the ones attempting, through various forms of quackery, to “restore” their foreskins? Some may snigger, but I find something pitiable in the “tugging devices” and “taping methods,” which can’t be comfortable and can take years. Instead of accepting themselves as they are, these men are obsessed with how they feel they should be—to they point where some undergo “foreskin restoration surgery,” once again putting the most sensitive part of their anatomy under the knife.

But this is the fringe of the fringe. For the rest of us—the concerned expectant parents, the sleep-deprived new fathers and mothers—here, then, is my advice. Jews and Muslims should do it if they like, and everybody should use anesthetic. However, since the procedure can never be entirely painless, I wouldn’t blame any parent for leaving it out—or on. That’s why if one day my boy is blessed with a son of his own, I hope I will remember to butt out. And until they can come up with some real arguments, intactivists should do the same.

In short, Haber tells intactivists to butt out.

No surprise, then, that Haber’s piece quickly provoked responses from across the spectrum. Last week KTB published a 545-word letter from The Barefoot Intactivist, a New-York Based vocal opponent of infant circumcision (of the religious or medicalized varieties) alongside an even longer response from Haber.

But the anti-circ writer couldn’t let Haber have the last word, especially not after “one of Haber’s supporters goaded [him]” into responding. (Apparently Haber’s comment, that Barefoot Intactivist either “has some issues with reading comprehension” or is “batshit crazy” wasn’t enough to elicit a retort.)

Whatever the impetus, Barefoot Intactivist hammered out a 5,000-word response—complete with video and photographic illustrations—and posted it on what appears to be a blog created for this express purpose.

At the tail end of his long entry, Barefoot Intactivist recommends to Haber a few books “any one of [which] would have saved your son,” and notes that all of the intactivist writers—David Gollaher (historian of medicine and science), Leonard Glick (cultural anthropologist), Paul Fleiss (pediatrician), Ronald Goldman (psychologist)—are all Jews.

What Barefoot Intactivist didn’t mention is that three of the four—Glick, Fleiss and Goldman—all signed a “Message to Jewish Americans on Circumcision” last month that lamented “statements and tactics by individuals opposed to circumcision that are insensitive and even offensive to many Jews.”

The statement rejected these tactics, but did not name them. But when asked if the attempt being made in San Francisco to ban circumcision of male minors without regard for religious belief would qualify as “insensitive and even offensive to many Jews,” Goldman, the statement’s primary author, said that he and his co-signers was “intended to refer to anything and everything that is insensitive or offensive to the Jewish community.”

Goldman also said that the aim of those who signed that statement was not to ban the practice, but to educate people about what they feel are the harms of circumcision.

(Goldman also took issue with the media—“Generally speaking,” he said, “media coverage of circumcision tends to ignore one of our main points that we’re trying to get across, which is that circumcision is very harmful”—which sounds remarkably similar to the feeling that inspired Haber to start writing about the science of circumcision in the first place.)

And if even the most prominent Jewish intactivists are not supporting the effort to enact an outright ban in San Francisco, favoring education and questioning, then it would seem that the Jews Barefoot Intactivist cites would actually not find much that is objectionable in Haber’s original conclusion—even if they would almost certainly take issue with his assessment of the science and with the personal choice he made for his son.

So what is this fight about again?

Oh, right: Science. And a ballot measure that aims to institute a blanket ban on circumcision—which, for those keeping track, the San Francisco City Attorney said last week might be found unconstitutional.

A tentative court date has been set for July 28, and if the measure survives judicial scrutiny, the election will take place in November. But the scientific debate—well, that’ll probably go on for some time.

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