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Ban circumcision? Why not ear piercing?

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
Amitai Etzioni says  the risk of complications from piercing a baby girl's ears is higher than that of circumcising a baby boy.
Amitai Etzioni says the risk of complications from piercing a baby girl's ears is higher than that of circumcising a baby boy.
  • Amitai Etzioni: A bill to ban male circumcision will be on the ballot in San Francisco
  • If circumcision is "bodily mutilation," then so is piercing infant girls' ears, he writes
  • He says ban would violate religious practice of Muslims and Jews and parental rights
  • Etzioni: Circumcision is safe, may even be beneficial in some cases

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- A San Francisco-based advocacy group known as Male Genital Mutilation Bill has collected enough signatures on its petition to ban circumcision that the proposal will appear on the city's November electoral ballot.

This petition will make circumcision a misdemeanor if performed on boys under age 18, punishable by a fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail. A similar effort is under way in Santa Monica, supported by the San Diego-based MGM, which has prepared anti-circumcision legislation in 46 states.

Some say you must draw the line on parents' rights to make decisions for their children at "bodily mutilation." If that is the case, then they should consider another very common and usually harmless procedure, often performed on infant females: ear-piercing. About 20% of baby girls suffer minor complications from ear piercing; about 3% suffer major ones. Complications include swelling, drainage, infection, bleeding, cyst formation, large scars and trauma. Surely such piercing should be banned before anyone bans circumcision.

Opponents of circumcision argue that "damage ranges from excruciating pain, nerve destruction, loss of normal, natural, and functional tissue, infection, disfigurement and sometimes death." Matthew Hess, founder and leader of MGM Bill, holds that "freedom of religion stops at another person's body." Likewise, anti-circumcision activist Jena Troutman says "I am just a mom trying to save the little babies."

Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni

But the rate of complications resulting from circumcision is lower than ear piercing, between 0.2% and 0.6%, with some bleeding as the most frequent complication. Studies, such as one at the University of Washington, have indicated that circumcision might have health benefits. It helps prevent HIV infection somewhat in heterosexual intercourse (although using condoms results in similar gains).

Circumcision: Who makes the call to cut?
San Francisco to ban circumcision?

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics counsels in its policy statement that the data are not sufficient enough to recommend routine neonatal circumcision, it reports that some studies suggest circumcision lowers the risk of STDs. Studies also indicate it decreases the risk of urinary tract infections, particularly within the first six months of life.

And the World Journal of Urology in 2008 reported studies that indicate the procedure can prevent penile cancer, particularly neonatal circumcision.

Claims about psychological harm caused by neonatal circumcision are based mainly on anecdotes and Freudian psychoanalysis. If circumcision had the traumatic effects some opponents maintain it has, roughly two out of every three American males would be in trouble.

Circumcision is an important element of religious practice for Muslims and Jews, a significant ritual that affirms membership in the group. Indeed, opponents of the bill argue that it violates the First Amendment's protection of the exercise of religion. They argue that putting such a matter to a popular vote goes against the Constitution's protections of the rights of individuals and minorities.

U.S. law has long allowed people to follow their religion in refusing medical care -- for themselves and their children -- in all but the most extreme situations, when the life of a child is directly endangered.

As I see it, the proponents of a circumcision ban challenge more than basic religious freedoms; they contest the relationship between parents and children. Parents make decisions in line with what they consider best for their kids every day. Some parents send their children to public schools because they cost less and are more diverse than private ones. Some parents allow their children to ride their bikes to school on roads with no bike paths and others give car keys to their 16-year-olds. Some parents stay home, others turn their children over to nannies.

A very poorly supported claim that circumcision is harmful, in the face of evidence that it might be of some benefit, is not enough to prevent parents from making decisions for their children on circumcision, ear piercing and much else.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

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