Ancient ritual does no harm

Catherine Ford, The Calgary Herald, April 2002

Leo entered both a covenant and controversy this week -- at just a few days old.

He was the focus of that covenant, although unaware of the significance of a ceremony enrolling him in a religion thousands of years old.

He is also just one child in the growing debate over circumcision. It was a deeply spiritual experience, to be present at Leo's bris, the circumcision performed on every Jewish boy when he is eight days old. The word itself -- bris -- means covenant in Hebrew, and is a basic Jewish law, so important it is held regardless of whether the eighth day falls on the Sabbath or Yom Kippur. It outweighs all other commandments.

It is this covenant Dr. Margaret Somerville of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law seeks to break. She has likened circumcision to criminal assault, despite medical evidence the procedure does no harm to the child.

But her supporters have made her the touchstone of a movement to ban voluntary circumcision. In her recent book, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit, Somerville says the procedure can only be justified on the basis of a charter challenge to freedom of religion. That this would marginalize religions that mandate circumcision -- primarily the nearly 800,000 Canadians who are Jewish or Muslim -- is obvious.

To ban voluntary circumcisions, routinely performed for other than religious reasons, would isolate religious observance from the mainstream. That, in and of itself, is anathema to most Canadians.

Worse, a group calling itself the Association for Genital Integrity has applied for public funding to launch a court challenge against routine circumcision.

In a stunning example of ignorance, they insist male circumcision is discriminatory because only female genital mutilation is banned in Canada. That such a spurious argument could in any way jeopardize the religious observances of both Jews and Muslims is astounding: likening the procedure to what is routinely and ignorantly done to girls in sub-Saharan Africa is to liken a manicure to getting one's fingers sliced off with a piece of broken glass.

Surely Canadian courts cannot be swayed by such specious challenges, but Somerville is not some lunatic hearing voices through her fillings. She is a respected, educated and thoughtful spokesman for medical ethics. Such credentials give her arguments weight, give her access to the mainstream media, and make people stop and listen.

She opposes circumcision on the grounds it is not medically necessary, and the Canadian Pediatric Society bolstered her argument. It found the only benefit was a reduced risk of urinary tract infection, which can be treated easily with antibiotics.

An opposite argument could be made to support circumcision -- it does no lasting harm and is not a painful procedure.

The question of pain is one raised by opponents. Yet Leo's cries were brief, occasioned more by the sudden exposure to cool air where there had been only the comforting warmth of diaper and sleeper.

The mohel -- a doctor from Edmonton who is a specialist in religious circumcisions -- said he administers appropriate pain-killers, including a local anesthetic. The actual procedure took less than a breath's time. And in a wonderful, uplifting ceremony, he recited the ritual prayers that generations of Jews, back to Abraham, have repeated.

Later he told me how honoured he felt to be asked routinely by non- Jews to perform their son's circumcision, and please, would he say a prayer over the baby. There is, after all, only one God.

At Leo's bris there were solemn moments, but also an outburst of joyous celebration, centred on the gathering of family. One grandfather spoke about Leo carrying the name of his own father, pausing only briefly to compose himself as he shed a few tears of joy and memory.

When Somerville and her supporters dismiss this religious practice, they strike at the heart of Jewish and Muslim observances. To suggest religions should seek a charter exception is to say to the assembled community "these" people are not us.

Too often, that has been the case.