Rav Hayim Leiter
The Mother of All Lies
The newest voice in the anti-circumcision movement comes from a very unlikely place. A 29-year-old mother from Nottingham is seeking legal action and calling for a ban on circumcision after a doctor performed the operation on her son without her knowledge. She said her child was in such distress that he could have died during the unwanted procedure and was in so much pain afterward that he was unable to wear a diaper. She also stated, “For Female Genital Mutilation they can stop people taking daughters out of this country but they won’t protect boys.”
As it turns out this is not the first time this case has made the news; that was back in June and November of last year. The story is quite unusual. The mother and father of the child are not married, and when the father took the baby for a scheduled visitation, he and the grandparents had him circumcised without the mother knowing.
An interesting facet of the latest articles is that they seem to completely forget that there’s a background to this story. In fact, in this article from November 2017, the courts decided not to prosecute the doctor. And that makes complete sense because the doctor did nothing wrong. He was contracted by the father and the grandparents to perform a procedure and most likely had no idea that the mother wasn’t on board. So the most recent coverage of this story should, at best, be reporting that the mother is attempting another round of legal action, which she lost the first time.
The mother’s point about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) bears some explanation. A few weeks ago, parents living in the UK, where FGM is illegal, attempted to take their daughter out of the country to undergo the procedure. The courts mandated, correctly, that the family was not able to leave the country, so as to thwart their plans. The mother’s statement is a classic anti-circumcision move, comparing Brit Milah to FGM. But as the victims of FGM themselves will happily point out, the two are polar opposites and comparing them belittles what they’ve gone through. Brit Milah is an attempt to elevate the child to full religious status, whereas FGM is intended to make the woman subservient to her husband and feel no sexual pleasure. So, in effect, the mother in this case simply stated a fact: FGM is rightfully illegal and circumcision is not.
The statement that the child was in near death distress during the procedure is probably the most troubling part of this. I’ve observed and performed plenty of Britot, and even though I’ve written numerous times that doctors are not necessarily the best place to have the procedure done, the distress that a baby experiences does not take them to the brink of death, God forbid. Things that can do that are gross negligence or bleeding complications. And if those issues were present in this case then the mother would have sued on those grounds, but she did not. And if these issues had been present than the court would have chosen to prosecute, but it did not.
Not only have I performed and been present at plenty of Britot, but I’ve also been present for the post care of all of the Britot I’ve done. Never once has a parent complained that the baby couldn’t wear a diaper because he was in too much pain. These two statements, both that the child almost died and that he couldn’t wear a diaper, are more indicative of the mother’s state of being than the baby’s. Most likely the mother was further traumatized by the state of her son’s healing and was deeply concerned that if she put on a diaper she’d hurt him even more.
There is no doubt that this woman experienced a serious trauma and that is nothing to scoff at. Someone whisking your son away to do an unwanted, irreversible procedure must haunt her daily. And the truth is, Jewish law, in some ways, would side with her. The Ramah states (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 261:1) that no one can circumcise a person’s son without his consent [and foreknowledge]. Very few would disagree with the Ramah’s position. But this case isn’t being used to advocate parental consent and authority, but rather it’s being used to bash circumcision on deceptive grounds, at best. And that’s something none of us should agree with.
This post originally appeared in the Times of Israel