Anti-circumcision activists — or “intactivists,” as some prefer to be called — have erected a billboard in Oakland denouncing the practice for infants, claiming it causes “harm.”
The billboard depicts a man holding a baby with the words “Love ALL of him. Circumcision harms.” It was installed on July 2 on Boulevard of the Allies near Bates Street, and will remain there for one month, according to a press release from Your Whole Baby, the Texas-based non-profit behind the project.
Pittsburgh is not the first city that the organization has targeted with a billboard, according to Greg Hartley, the state director of Your Whole Baby of PA. Other billboards have been displayed in Detroit and Owensboro, Ky.
The Oakland location was chosen, Hartley said, because of its proximity to Magee-Women’s Hospital, with the aim of catching the attention of pregnant women headed to the facility. It’s also a “high-traffic area,” Hartley acknowledged.
It also happens to be a short distance from the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on McKee Place, but Hartley said that he was unaware of the Federation’s location and that it had no bearing on the choice of the billboard’s placement.
About half the funding for the billboard came from Hartley, who lives in Franklin Park, along with another donor living near Pittsburgh whose identity Hartley declined to reveal. The remainder of the funding came from an online fundraising campaign, with 31 supporters donating a total of $1,500.
Your Whole Baby is “not against circumcision,” Hartley said. Instead, he frames the group’s stance as being “pro-genital integrity.”
Infants, he said, should not be circumcised because they do not have the capacity to make that choice for themselves. It is improper for a Jewish parent to impose that decision on an infant because “freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. A child might not want to be that religion,” and should not be forced to undergo a body-altering procedure to satisfy the “religious desires of the parents. A child shouldn’t be subjected to that.”
Jews are not the only religious group that requires circumcision of newborn male children. Islamic male circumcision is similar to the Jewish practice, and Islam is the largest religious group worldwide in which the practice is followed.
In addition to religion, there are other factors that influence parents’ decisions on whether to circumcise their sons, including health benefits.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics clearly states there is a benefit to doing circumcisions,” said Dr. Mark Diamond, a local pediatrician and a trained mohel. “It’s a healthier practice to do them than not to do them.”
The most recent AAP statement regarding newborn circumcision was released in 2012. It concluded that “after a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence…the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision.” The policy goes on to state that “the final decision should still be left to parents to make in the context of their religious, ethical and cultural beliefs.”
Although circumcision is a surgical procedure, Diamond said, “there is not a huge number of problems associated with it. But it has been shown that uncircumcised men are more likely to carry sexually transmitted diseases, and there is evidence that an uncircumcised boy is more likely to get urinary tract infections.”
Medical studies also have shown that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection by about 60 percent.
While the circumcision debate has been going on for years, Diamond said, “the medical evidence that it is beneficial to do it has been overwhelming.”
If a circumcision is done properly, “it’s a very safe procedure with very limited side effects,” he said. “The risks are very small,” and any pain associated with a circumcision can be “totally eliminated” with certain local anesthetics “that are religiously acceptable.”
Hartley refuted the claims that circumcision is medically beneficial, saying that the studies showing those outcomes are either flawed or the statistical health advantage is too small to justify the procedure, and argued that sexual sensation is diminished in men who are circumcised. He compared the loss of penile sensation without a foreskin to “trying to read Braille with your elbow.”
“We need to protect children from bodily alteration,” Hartley argued. “It’s not the parents’ penis. They don’t own the penis, and they are not allowed ethically to make bodily alterations. You don’t cut healthy body parts.”
Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, described Your Whole Baby as appearing to be “a fringe group of activists trying to persuade Jews, Muslims and anyone who will listen against the act of circumcision.”
Your Whole Baby devotes an entire section on its website to Jews, suggesting alternate brit ceremonies that do not involve circumcision.
“Cutting off your foreskin does not make you Jewish,” Hartley said.
Another section on the organization’s website is devoted to Islam, with passages suggesting that circumcision is not prescribed by Islamic law.
Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said that the billboard could be seen as an attempt to marginalize minorities.
“While I’m sure that the sign was well-intentioned, it is highly inappropriate to assume that parents who circumcise their children do not love them,” Mohamed said in an email. “It is dishonest to say that this procedure is harmful and that the parents of circumcised children are guilty of child endangerment in any way. I see this as just another attempt to paint particular religions and cultures that are not mainstream as barbaric with misinformation.”
Sayles said that he would classify Your Whole Baby’s work alongside that of “anti-kashrut and anti-halel” campaigns: to make Jews and Muslims feel uncomfortable in their own community.
“The best-case scenario regarding this billboard is that it is unintentionally anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, and, if successful, will make Jews and Muslims feel less welcome,” said Sayles.
But he stressed that he did not think Your Whole Baby would gain much traction in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about,” he said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.