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Jewish Journal

In foreskin fight, even terminology is being disputed

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 31, 2011 | 2:57 pm

According to the proponent of a ballot initiative to prohibit the act of surgically removing a male baby’s foreskin, the term “circumcision” is nothing but a euphemism.

“Having your foreskin amputated is probably more like it,” said Jena Troutman, a doula and mother of two sons, who initiated the process of petitioning Santa Monica to include the initiative on a future ballot.

On May 19, Troutman filed a “Notice of Intent to Circulate Petition” with the Santa Monica City Clerk aimed to prohibit what she called “medically unnecessary genital cutting of male minors.”

That language is being rejected by city officials. The official title, which was prepared by Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, is “An Initiative Measure Amending the Municipal Code to Prohibit Circumcising a Male Under the Age of 18 Except in a Medical Emergency.”

To get the initiative onto the November 2012 ballot in Santa Monica, backers will need about 6,000 registered voters to sign a petition that includes that language. More than 12,000 people in San Francisco signed a petition that successfully put a measure aimed at prohibiting “male circumcision” on the November 2011 ballot.

The term “circumcision” was used on the San Francisco petition and will be included on the Santa Monica petition, in spite of each measure’s backers having initially referred to their initiatives as measures prohibiting “genital cutting of male minors.”

Already the language of the self-described “intactivists” has provoked strong reactions from Jewish community leaders. A coalition led by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council is working to defeat that city’s proposition at the ballot box. Because the measure has not yet qualified for inclusion on the Santa Monica ballot, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have been less vocal so far. At press time, a joint statement opposing the proposed measure was expected to be released in the coming days.

Jewish groups primarily are fighting the ballot measure on the basis that it infringes upon freedom of religion, however many are also accusing the measure’s backers of using misleading language.

“These people went out with a false approach, and they got this on the ballot by convincing people that they were signing something against genital mutilation, not something against religious circumcision,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, the national liaison from Chabad Lubavitch to Jewish Federations of North America.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gil Leeds, a rabbi and certified mohel (ritual circumciser), called the language of mutilation used by the proposal’s backers toxic and deceptive. “The Hebrew word for ritual circumcision, bris, literally means ‘a covenant,’ ” Leeds wrote. “It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago.”

The language of the San Francisco proposition and the proposed Santa Monica ballot measure originates with a San Diego-based group, MGMbill.org, which was initially intent on pursuing federal legislation prohibiting what it calls “male genital mutilation.” The language is based upon a similarly worded federal law, passed in 1997, that prohibits female genital mutilation.

Election law experts said that the actual language of the propositions that appear on each ballot could be contested. In both Santa Monica and San Francisco, city officials have to give “an objective title and summary” to the proposition, Colleen McAndrews, an election law attorney in Santa Monica, said.

“If they don’t like it, they have an opportunity to litigate it,” McAndrews said. “If the court deems it ‘false and misleading,’ the court can strike the words or rewrite them.”

It appears likely that the ballots, like the petitions, will use the word “circumcision” and not “genital mutilation” or “genital cutting.”

“American society has always regarded male and female circumcision very differently,” Howard Friedman, professor of law emeritus at University of Toledo and author of the Religion Clause blog, wrote in an e-mail. “It has generally been felt that government has a compelling interest in outlawing female circumcision because of the physical, psychological and health effects on girls. On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of male circumcision in the U.S. is not seen as giving the government a compelling interest in outlawing it,” Friedman wrote.

The medical benefits of circumcision — which are cited by opponents of a ban and disputed by backers — are sure to have an impact on the debate as it progresses.

The language used by each side is not likely to change anytime soon, however.

“There’s a baby male, and that baby male — either for medical ritual or religious ritual — is having its foreskin removed,” Suzanne Wertheim, a visiting lecturer at UCLA, said, illustrating what a neutral description of the act in question might look like.

But no matter what the courts or the voters decide, Wertheim, a linguistic anthropologist, said that people on each side of the argument are unlikely to start speaking neutrally.

“There are people who say that abortion should not be legal and should not be an option for women, and there are people who say that abortion should be legal and should be an option for women,” Wertheim said. “That is a neutral phrasing of those stances. But no one ever discusses abortion that way.”

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