Snip Snip

Here’s an interesting ethical dilemma: A divorced man decides to convert to Judaism and also decides to have his son, for whom he is the custodial parent, circumcised. Wrinkle #1: former wife, who is Russian Orthodox, opposes the circumcision. Wrinkle #2: the boy in question is twelve. Is it in the courts? Sure is.

This one is pretty straightforward in my mind: Converting to Judaism in later life is not sufficient cause in itself to snip off some not-insignificant portion of your pubescent son’s penis. The story says that the son in this case also expressed an interest in converting to Judaism, up to and including circumcision, but the story also notes the kid said it when he was nine. No offense to precocious nine-year-olds everywhere, but it’s kind of an early age to affirmatively decide to undergo elective surgery (or, for that matter, religious conversion). And I really don’t know too many 12-year-olds who think about things the same way they did when they were nine.

Now, as far as I can read, this issue seems to be proceeding without much consideration as to the kid’s current opinion on the matter, and I find that, well, a little weird. I’m not this kid, but I know that when I was 12, I wouldn’t be in a whole hell of a rush to let anyone take a sharp object to my genitals and come away with some portion thereof, for a medically unnecessary reason, even if one of my parents said it was important. In fact — I’m pretty sure about this — if one of my parents had said “I have the legal right to order some portion of your penis sliced off” when I was 12, my reaction (after clutching my wee package in defensive horror) would be to treat said parent to the first instance of me telling them to kiss my ass. In neither US or talmudic law is 12 the age of adulthood, but it’s certainly old enough for a kid of normal intelligence to decide who gets to do what with his penis, from a medically-unnecessary-surgery point of view.

If I were the judges in this particular case, what I would do is make sure the kid is capable of understanding what the issues were in this particular case and is capable of making a rational choice about what’s being decided regarding his own body, and only then — if I were satisfied that the kid knew what was going on, what circumcision entailed and that the kid was wanting to go through with it — would I begin to sort out the issue of what the parental rights were. I think it’s one thing to have infant male circumcision (which I’m not hugely for, but having grown up in a generation where circumcision was routinely performed for presumed medical reasons, don’t see it as having horrible side effects in general, so whatever); it’s another to perform it on someone who has the capability to understand what’s going on and deserves to have a say in whether he wants it or not. Maybe it’s just the manner in which this article is written that leaves this unaddressed, but I’m more than a little surprised that the kid’s choice in the matter isn’t more integral to the entire discussion. If it were my body up for discussion, I’d sure as hell want a say.

50 thoughts on “Snip Snip

  1. I’m going to have to go with equating this with forced female circumcision (which is also normally done about the time of puberty or just before marriage) and place it in the “abuse” category. Also, and I am not Jewish so I am most likely speaking out of my ass at the moment, I don’t think the boy would be considered “fully Jewish” since his mother (I think the law is specifically keyed to the mohter) isn’t Jewish, so being circumcised isn’t a necessary part of his conversion. I would think, if I was a judge, to wait until the child was at least 16 before allwoing this, and then only with the kid’s consent.

  2. Good Lord that’s disturbing. It seems that for every competent parent you see, there’s fifteen or twenty whose sole brain cell decided to stop functioning after the baby came along.

  3. Near the end of the article is the relevant sentence:

    The trial judge did not interview the child or appoint an attorney to represent him.

    By Jewish law, this kid is approaching adulthood. His wishes should certainly enter into the decision. (i.e. regardless of what a civil court says, no Rabbi should allow the circumcision without the kid saying its what he wants.)

    By tradition, candidates for conversion are supposed to be repeatedly discouraged from doing so. The decision has to be demonstrated to be an affirmative, educated decision. In other words, not only do Jews not proselytize, they make you prove you really want to convert.

    Its an interesting question whether a custodial parent would need a non-custodial parent’s consent to allow a child a nose job. Its a more relevant question whether a custodial parent would need a non-custodial parent’s consent to give a child a nose job regardless of the child’s wishes.</em?

    (I really wish you’d bring back the “Preview” button)

  4. I’m all for medical snipping at birth, but I won’t give all my reasons simply for the double-whammy of privacy and TMI.

    That said, no, I wouldn’t ask a 12-year-old to do it. There’s a time and a place to do things like that and other bizarre things to your genitals, and it’s called “college.”

    (Isaac Hayes or the South Park guys don’t read this blog, right? Right? Um… I play the parody card and stick my tongue out at thee.)

  5. As a mother of a 13 year old boy, yikes! As a lawyer, I am pretty sure that the original court either talked with the boy or appointed him an advocate that would have made a recommendation to the court. Almost all family courts now appoint an advocate for the children if custody or other issues are contested.

  6. Steve wrote:
    I’m going to have to go with equating this with forced female circumcision (which is also normally done about the time of puberty or just before marriage) and place it in the “abuse” category.

    Um, well, no. Male circumcision would be equivalent to female circumcision if 90% of the penis was removed and not just the foreskin. The vast majority of circumcised men seem to have orgasms. The vast majority of circumcised women CANNOT. Female circumcision removes the whole clitoris and can involve further mutilation.

    Do I think a 12-year-old boy should be circumcised against his will? Of course not. But, if he is circumcised, it probably won’t ruin his sex life.

  7. A 12 year old should not be circumcised unless he really, really, really, wants to and understands the potential risks (if slight). He needs his own lawyer.
    On a somewhat related note:
    My now former step-nephew joined the Navy about 10 years ago and (at least at that time) they still required all sailors* to be circumcised. (I guess for medical reasons.) Dory called his mother first chance he got and said “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” One of the young men in his group, however, didn’t know what it meant. One of the young ladies explained it to him. He turned green; his little man was wearing a turtle-neck.

    * I choose not to go for the easy sophomoric laugh.

  8. Oh man John, this is a snark-bomb waiting to go off!

    Okay, I’ll fight it. No, nobody should be forcibly circumcised.

    On the subject of circumcision in general I have no objections. I was circumcised as a child (actually I was over circumcised, for which my mother apologizes to my wife regularly). My only concern is that all foreskins should be saved and combined to make either wallets or handbags. The benefit of this foreskin accessory is that, when rubbed, it could be turned into a suitcase.

    Okay, I couldn’t avoid the snark, sorry if I offended anyone

  9. Laurie Mann, I was looking more at the forced/consent part than the actual consequences of the surgery. It’s not like if forced female circumcision had less consequences I would change my mind about it being abuse. As someone who has dealt with issues of abuse before, I’m not going to say that psychological or physical abuse is more okay because at least the victim wasn’t raped. Or say that those that were raped only a few times were less abused than those raped continually and by multiple family member.

  10. Wife:
    “My invisible friend in the sky says it’s bad to slice the winky!”

    Husband:
    “Well ~MY~ invisible friend in the sky wants the peepee Ginsu’ed ASAP!”

    OMNIPOTENT GENERIC INVISIBLE FRIEND:
    “Uh folks, isn’t there more important stuff going on down there?”

  11. The risks associated with circumcision increase with age. I’m appalled, too, that none of the actors in this case seem to have asked the kid.

    I think the age of twelve is significant, since it’s the last age that he is a child by tradition. It’s a power struggle, nothing more: using the kid’s body as a vehicle to express possession.

    If the circumcision is not done in infancy, and is not done for medical reasons (there are those occasional foreskins which are problematicall), it shouldn’t be done until the boy could legally choose it without the parents’ permission.

    I second the preview thing.

  12. On a related note… my brother was 6 when he was circumsized, and I will never forget the week he spent on the couch, nor the staggering amount of blood that seemed to ooze from the wound. If by some odd chance of fate I do wind up having a son, no way in hell is he getting snipped.

    There’s also no medical reason to get snipped, it’s a cultural decision not a hygenic one.

  13. Errr…WHY is the father having the kid circumcised? The father’s converting. The kid isn’t (and he would have to, since he wasn’t born Jewish). Which means, halachically, a lot of studying and being discouraged from going through with it.

    Sorry, I can’t see that the father is in the right at all here, and certainly not according to Jewish law

  14. My now former step-nephew joined the Navy about 10 years ago and (at least at that time) they still required all sailors* to be circumcised. (I guess for medical reasons.)

    Uh, what? There is no such regulation, not now, not ever (though it was highly encouraged before the advent of antibiotics, Sailors, foreign ports, etc.). I think your former step nephew was telling you a sea story, Marciepooh. Either that or he picked up an infection and circumcision was required for medical reasons that he was too embarrassed to tell you the truth about, Sailors, foreign ports, etc.
    —-

    On topic: I’m curious, one day this Dad wakes up, mid-life, and says, “you know, I think I’ll be a different religion for a while. And I think I’ll make my son do it too, ’cause I likes to spread the crazy around.” What happens, in say five years, when he again wakes up one morning and say, “Oye vey! You know, this whole new religion thing, not so much. Son, we’ve now got teh jeebus and we’re Born Again! Hallelujah! Uh, sorry about the whole foreskin thing.”

    Since this guy has reserved the right to change his beliefs in the middle of his life, it’s only fair and just that his son be allowed the same choice. But see, this isn’t about religion, or the medical necessity (or lack) of circumcision – it’s about power, it’s about control, it’s about using the kid to get back at the mother. This guy needs a swift kick in the head, and revocation of parental rights, he doesn’t deserve to be a father.

  15. If I were the judges in this particular case, what I would do….

    John, that statement may simply have been the result of speed-typing, but that’s almost certainly one thing the Oregon appellate court justices can’t do. The question before them at this point is one of law, not the facts of the case. If you were the district court judge first hearing the case, and determining the facts, you could appoint an ad litem to represent the child’s legal interests (something I would have done if I’d been the judge), but the judge presiding over the case apparently declined to do so.

    If the trial-level judge broke Oregon law by not appointing counsel to the child and that decision was properly raised by a party on appeal or is plain error, the Oregon justices could remand the case back for the judge to do that, but that’s the extent of it.

    (I practice crim law in NC and those are general principles; if there’s some bizarre quirk in Oregon state law, mileage may vary.)

    It may vary state-to-state on this point, but I doubt there’s any state where 12 is legally old enough for a child of any intelligence to make any decision whatsoever about his penis, medically speaking or otherwise. Any decision is going to be either up to the parents (medical or religious) or the state (age-of-consent). Whether this is the way things should be or not, it’s so deeply entrenched and so unlikely to change that any discussion is pretty much philosophical at this point.

    In any case, the only matters before the court are family-law issues of custody and guardianship, and there’s nothing weird about that: weird would be if the Oregon State Supreme Court suddenly decided ad hoc to make a sweeping decision about children’s rights based on issues not properly before them on appeal.

    Please understand, I’m a liberal, an atheist, and have a good bit of my practice in juvenile court (where, for instance, I’ve staunchly advocated kids’ rights of self-defense against parents and rights of privacy against schools–to very little effect, sadly, but I haven’t given up). I’m not saying the kid shouldn’t have any say in the matter, or that I think a parent’s religion justifies taking a blade to his kid’s genitals. I’m just pointing out the rules and realities of the situation, as far as I can make them out from a single newspaper article.

  16. I’m kind of in the same camp as Jim Winter…in that I think circumscision at birth is preferable if you’re going to do it at all. But I certainly wouldn’t force my twelve year old son to undergo it if it wasn’t done at birth. He can decide when he’s older if he wants to put himself at risk.

    (This reminds me of the scene in Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment where the main character’s parents convert to Judaism, partly so they can emigrate to the US, and the main character freaks out about having the idea of circumcision. His parents don’t force him. They just wait until he decides that he can live with the idea.)

  17. Jim: your last paragraph sums up what this case is probably really about. Which might have been a good reason for the original judge to give the kid a lawyer. Unfortunately (as you probably know), that won’t be before the Oregon Supremes, either. (Whether it’ll influence any of them may depend on whether they remember actually practicing law or not; robe-itis appears to damage the parts of the brain associated with long-term memory. It’s very sad.)

  18. “I’m not this kid, but I know that when I was 12, I wouldn’t be in a whole hell of a rush to let anyone take a sharp object to my genitals and come away with some portion thereof, for a medically unnecessary reason, even if one of my parents said it was important.”

    And now, 30-some odd years later? More open-minded?

    Although I’m fairly certain (sort of) that at the age of 43 I can come up with better things to do with my penis than I did at 12, having anyone come near it with a sharp implement isn’t one of them.

  19. It is a really interesting issue. First, I would hope that the father has continued to consult his child regarding his desires. Second, I assume that the Rabbi involved in the conversion process has continued to consider the child’s desires, as it is required by Jewish law. If neither of those are the case, which I think is unlikely, the first question is, if a parent wants to convert to a major world religion can he require his 12 year old child to do so as well? Unfortunately for this child, becoming Jewish requires more then some water on your forehead. If it is a matter of age (consciousness) where exactly do you draw the line? If the child was 10 months, would that be OK? How about a 1 year 2,3,4…? I agree that a 12 year old should have rights to decide what happens to his/her own body. But how far should those rights extend. Should a 12 year old child be able to refuse a surgery that his parents feel has the potential to save his LIFE? Is it any different if you replace the world LIFE with SOUL?

  20. Jim, it was the US Navy. They were still in basic. All I know is what my nephew told my sister-in-law and brother. I am very glad to know that it must be a old sailor’s tale and circumcision is not required.

    Corey, I’d say yes it is very different. The existence of the soul is debatable, never mind how to save it. Life-saving surgery and it’s effect on a child is, generally, much less debatable. (I am assuming that the surgery would not be to prevent some possible future ailment but rather an immediately life-threatening one.)

  21. Corey J Feldman, considering this would be elective surgery, the comparison to “life threatening” is a little extreme. And it does make a difference between LIFE and SOUL. It could be argued a different way that there are some religions that forbid allopathic medicinal/surgical practices. If they child was dying, could you force the parents to consent or remove their parental will to allow a medicinal proceedure that they feel would jeapordize the soul of their child.

  22. An Eric, if I ever need a lawyer, I’m calling you.

    What I find hypocritical, is that in an increasingly large number of states, a teenaged girl can get an abortion without parental consent or even notification (specifically in some cases to protect her from her parent’s religious beliefs), but a boy doesn’t have say over his own foreskin.

    Disclaimer: I’m too unmotivated to look up whether teenaged abortion requires parental consent by Oregon State law, the above was just an observation on the general trend of things.

    Also, don’t read anything into what I said, I strongly believe in a girl’s right to decide, though as a parent I have mixed feelings about a child having a major procedure (of any kind) without the parent’s knowledge.

  23. marciepooh, while the general idea of creationism makes me laugh, 1/2 this country believes so strongly in their religious convictions that they ignore the “less debatable” scientific evidence. The laws in the country are written to protect religious freedoms and parental rights. I myself believe there is room for both. I personally don’t believe in a G-d that would forsake a soul based on religious belief, but the fact is more people in this country put their faith in G-d then they do science and most faiths are a bit exclusionary i.e. I’m right, you wrong…don’t forget the marshmallows on your way down. For a majority of this country’s populous, the concept of soul carries as much or more weight then scientific evidence.

  24. Steve Buchheit, it is only elective if he chooses not to convert his child. Under Jewish law it is required for conversion. I agree it is absolutely abhorrent to deny medical treatment to a child in the name of religious conviction; as do the courts. The courts have shown that they will force a child to have a blood transfusion even if the Jehovah Witness parents disagree. But with that the courts have also ruled that you have to show significant risk to the child before they will interfere. It is very unlikely that most US courts would rule male circumcision as abuse. For the record I do not believe that ones religious beliefs will determine the fate of whatever lies beyond. My point was that many American’s do and the US courts have gone out of their way to protect religious freedoms.

  25. If they child was dying, could you force the parents to consent or remove their parental will to allow a medicinal proceedure that they feel would jeapordize the soul of their child.

    Yes. At least we do in the UK – the hospital would obtain a court order allowing them to override the wishes of the parents.

  26. Just a point of clarification:

    On page two of the article it says the son had decided he wanted to convert. This isn’t about a father wanting to circumcise his son just because he (the father) has converted.

    Whether or not the kid actually wants to convert (and therefore need the circumcision), I can’t say. Once again, the kid ought to be participating in the discussion.

    Lastly, if we set aside the particulars of this case, when does the non-custodial parent get to interfere with the custodial parent’s decisions? I would think it should be in cases where the custodial parent’s decisions were questionable enough to warrant re-assessing custody itself. Short of that, I think the non-custodial parent should STFU.

    Just my 2¢.

  27. Mike
    There’s also no medical reason to get snipped, it’s a cultural decision not a hygenic one.

    Actually, there is. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4371384.stm
    Apparently, circumcision reduces the risk of catching HIV by about 30-60%. Some African countries have moved to extend infant circumcision on those grounds and Brasil recently rejected a motion to make it universal.

    The health benefits, however, are not what’s being argued here. Circumcision is a last ditch effort to stop an HIV pandemic where everything else has failed. Let’s assume this kid will have other ways of protecting himself. Besides, I don’t think a circumcision in a month old child is comparable to that of a 12 year-old.

    In Spain, kids 12 and up get a say on their medical decisions. They’re opinion won’t hold if it goes against logic, but it is considered.

  28. Any Muslim readers wish to comment on this? It’s been a few years since I took a college course on Islam, but my recollection is that a large number of Muslims circumcize their youth at age 12. (Ishmael was 12 years old when Isaac was 8 days old and Abraham decided to convert.)

    However, circumcizing the 12-year-old boy won’t make him Jewish without him going through the other aspects of the conversion (all of which are much less painful.) But if he wants to do it (and that is key) I don’t see anything wrong with it.

  29. My only concern is that all foreskins should be saved and combined to make either wallets or handbags. The benefit of this foreskin accessory is that, when rubbed, it could be turned into a suitcase.

    Actually, when my friend’s mother had surgery and required a small skin patch (I know there’s a real word–can’t remember) they actually used foreskin tissue. Since she was in her 80s, I didn’t feel comfortable making any penis jokes. :)

  30. Lastly, if we set aside the particulars of this case, when does the non-custodial parent get to interfere with the custodial parent’s decisions? I would think it should be in cases where the custodial parent’s decisions were questionable enough to warrant re-assessing custody itself. Short of that, I think the non-custodial parent should STFU.

    Nathan, it really depends on the custody agreement. Speaking only of my own case, my ex and I share joint legal custody of our children, while physical custody is split.

    Based on our divorce agreement and where we divorced, that means we have an equal voice in matters of health, religion and education on both children. The physical custody addresses the more day-to-day concerns.

    So to the case in point, my ex and I would have equal input on an elective surgical procedure.

    I can’t speak to others’ experience, but this arrangement seems to have worked out well enough for us.

  31. Being both a) female and b) not Jewish by any stretch of the imagination, anything I say here has c)no bearing on the situation and d)no weight. With that in mind, my heart goes out to the poor kid. Come on. He’s 12, not 4. His main concerns should be algebra and spin the bottle, not strangers and his own father deciding to mutilate his genitals. Poor guy’s going to need therapy. Why not have him go through with the rest of the conversion (I have no idea what the rest of converting to Judaism is like, so there you go) and hold off on cirumcision until the kid is older?

    Just a thought.

  32. Just to stir the pot a little, according to the NY Sun:

    “The anti-circumcision brief notes that during a prior court proceeding unrelated to the circumcision issue, the Boldts agreed that they had a dominant-submissive relationship — in which Mr. Boldt was “god” or “sovereign” — and that sometimes involved Mr. Boldt administering beatings to his wife, who assumed the role of “slave girl.” The Boldts’ son “must not be abandoned by the courts, to become embroiled in his father’s need for a replacement slave … if that is what happened,” the anti-circumcision group argued.”

  33. Oops, hit post too quickly. Anyway, given that history I’d hope any rabbi would be really really wary of allowing the son to decide to convert. (And yes, according to Halacha a 12-year-old would have to have a serious say in the decision.)

  34. Janiece,

    I’m pretty sure the article said that when they first divorced, the mother had custody and that later the father won full custody. Knowing the difficulty men have in gaining sole custody, (especially 10 or so years ago), I have to infer that the mother was providing less than stellar mothering. (I could be way off base, having only inferences from this one article).

    King Wachtelschlag Fliegender,

    I probably lean toward your solution. The normal conversion process is anywhere from six months to a year, depending on who’s running it. I don’t see anything wrong with letting this kid pursue a Jewish education (if that’s what he wants), and then let him go ahead with the full conversion and circumcision at some later date (after he’s 16? 18?). And, since most Jews (who actually worry about it), don’t think that only Jews go to heaven, his soul isn’t in any danger. (Jews believe that following the halacha (Jewish Law) is more about the here and now than for the sake of any “reward” in an afterlife.

  35. Hmm… According to Jon’s link, the guy’s got a doctor lined up, not a rabbi.

    And what he says on the second page, about tattoos, is worse than freaky. He seems to be implying that it’s okay to give a child a tattoo as long as it’s not offensive.

  36. Jim Wright@18:
    But see, this isn’t about religion, or the medical necessity (or lack) of circumcision – it’s about power, it’s about control, it’s about using the kid to get back at the mother. This guy needs a swift kick in the head, and revocation of parental rights, he doesn’t deserve to be a father.

    If I were ever to be elected President of the US, one of the first things I would want to do is appoint Jim Wright to the Supreme Court. The ability to cut through the bullshit and identify the real issues in a case is badly needed in our courts.

  37. Show the kid the Penn & Teller episode of Bullshit devoted to circumcision – including the video of a baby being circumcised – and see if he’s still interested. If he is, commit him to a mental hospital, because no rational human being could possibly want to endure that kind of trauma

  38. Someone might have said this above, but how hard could it be to let the kid experience the aspects of converting to judiasm (except circumcision) and then when he is 18 he can decide for himself if he wants to go through with it. Is g-d going to punish him if he waits six little years?

    Which reminds me of something that was said to me repeatedly about my two sons when family/friends noticed my decision to not circumsize them during diaper changes. After hearing all the myths and misconceptions regarding what horrible thing was going to happen because I didn’t circumsize them, I said, “well, they will be free to correct my error when they are 18, then.” To which the reply was, “Well, no one is going to voluntarily do that.”

    Um, yeah. Doesn’t that tell you something?

  39. As a Jew, not only do I think that the kid should be left alone, but I also feel that the father’s conversion should be rescinded, including the reattachment of his foreskin. With a desk stapler, preferably.

  40. AMERICAN REFORM JUDAISM DOES NOT REQUIRE THE CIRCUMCISION OF CONVERTS. And has not since 1893, over a century past. Just had to get that out there. In the other branches, if a child old enough to speak is involved, many rabbis will leave that decision for them to make when they come of age. It may be required for conversion, but children do not choose to convert.

    My father was circumcised at age 14 due to an infection. All his sons were circumcised at birth–from his own experience he figured better early than later. Can’t get infected in what isn’t there. I’m sure it was painful but I don’t recall–I was very young at the time. :-) His tale of what it was like at 14 was enough to make me cringe.

    And yes, circumcision has been conclusively shown to significantly lower the chances of both getting and spreading venereal diseases (something military doctors have known for centuries) but if you’re an uncircumcised adult male there are easier ways to avoid same, such as not dippin’ your nekkid wick in suspect pools in the first place. And circumcision is over 99% effective in preventing penile cancer. OTOH, penile cancer is pretty rare in the first place, is directly associated with poor hygeine, and most of us use soap and everything.

  41. If the child sincerely wishes to convert, understanding what circumcision entails, then he may do so. On the other hand, he’d have to be given the opportunity to ‘opt out’ so to speak, after his 13th birthday anyway due to the strict injunctions against forced conversions, so why do it now? Sounds like the father is more than a bit unhinged.

Comments are closed.