A rabbi holds an eight-day-old baby during a circumcision ceremony in Brussels, August 20, 2009..
This past June Israel’s highest court ruled that it isn’t appropriate to link a child’s circumcision to a divorce proceeding. It appears the American legal system has no such concerns.
In Palm Beach County, Florida, family court judge Jeffrey Gillen has ordered a young mother arrested and jailed for failing to hand over her healthy four-year-old son so he can be circumcised according to his dad’s wishes.
The situation looks bleak – for Heather Hironomous and for her son’s foreskin – as the initial circumcision order has already been appealed and affirmed. The family is not Jewish or Muslim, so religious concerns are not at issue here.
The cases in Israel and Florida are strikingly similar. Both involve mothers who have serious objections to childhood circumcision absent true medical necessity. Fearful of the pain their boys would inevitably endure, of the potential for surgical complications and of possible diminished sensation in adulthood, both mothers consider themselves to be “intactivists” – a burgeoning human rights group that believes women and men alike should make their own decisions, as consenting adults, when it comes to elective genital surgery.
Also similar in these cases, the question of whether to circumcise has arisen as part of a much larger parenting dispute, where parents who are divorcing (or in the Florida case, were never married) are disagreeing about a host of issues related to child custody and support. In such a circumstance, the circumcision issue can become a bargaining chip, or worse, a means of exacting revenge on the opposing parent.
FOR THIS reason, among others, the best interests of the child should dictate the outcome. In the Florida case, the question should be: Will circumcising this particular child, at age four, benefit him physically and emotionally? Such a determination should take place with the help of a child psychologist and social workers, not simply a doctor who will be paid to perform the circumcision.
A guardian ad litem (court-appointed child advocate) should certainly be brought in to advocate for the child’s – not the parents’ – best interests.
However, the family court judge in this case has refused to appoint a guardian ad litem. He has also refused to allow a child psychologist to meet with the boy and offer testimony as to his emotional state and needs. This is because the judge sees the matter as nothing more than a contractual dispute between the parents – a bargained-for exchange that took place years ago, when the child was much younger, in the form of a parenting agreement. No matter that the father delayed because he lacked the funds and we now have a much older child – one who will remember the pain and who may well mourn the loss of a familiar body part.
It is a sad situation indeed. Given Judge Gillen’s refusals to consider the child’s emotional needs, one wonders what other pertinent information relating to this case the judge has gotten wrong.
While the outcome of the Florida case remains uncertain, it’s likely this legal issue will present itself again in the United States until there is settled law regarding how disagreements between parents about medically unnecessary circumcision are to be handled. The US would do well to follow Israel’s lead in looking to the best interests of the child.The author is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and has written about the Israeli circumcision case on her blog, Beyond the Bris, a place of discussion for Jewish people who question circumcision. Her forthcoming book,
Celebrating Brit Shalom, will be published in May by Notim Press, and is the first-ever book written specifically for Jewish families opting out of the rite. The book is co-authored by Lisa Braver Moss.
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