CITYWIDE — A San Diego-based organization that opposes circumcision for newborns has filed paperwork to place a measure on the 2012 Santa Monica ballot that would make it a misdemeanor to perform the procedure on boys under the age of 18.
The Santa Monica MGM Bill Ballot Initiative, if passed, would make it a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or a year in county jail for anybody to circumcise any male below the age of consent.
MGM stands for “male genital mutilation.”
“We’re not trying to stop people from getting circumcised if they want to,” said Matthew Hess, president of MGMbill.org. “We just want to protect children from getting it forced on them.”
Hess and others who oppose circumcision, usually called “intactivists,” contend that circumcision not only removes a piece of the body that serves a vital function, it deprives men of heightened sexual pleasure by removing nerve endings.
“The foreskin is there for a reason. It has functions,” Hess said. “If you cut that off, you’re losing that function and it’s going to be a different experience.”
The bill leaves room for a circumcision performed for valid health reasons, but not for religious purposes.
Hess’ group likens circumcision — a procedure where the foreskin of the penis is removed — to female genital mutilation, where the genitals are purposely injured for no medical reason.
“It’s currently illegal to circumcise or draw a single drop of blood from a girl’s genitals,” Hess said. “This is an example where religious freedom is not absolute.”
According to the World Health Organization, no religion directly calls for FGM, although it is widely practiced in some cultures, ostensibly to keep young girls “pure” and ready for marriage.
Dr. David Baron, former chief of staff at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and physician at Primary Caring in Malibu, dismissed the comparison.
“It’s obviously misleading and inaccurate,” Baron said. “It’s inappropriate and inaccurate to draw a connection between the two.”
Baron is trained both as a physician and a mohel, a person who performs the Jewish circumcision ceremony called a “bris.”
In the Jewish faith, circumcision represents a contract between the faithful and God. It’s performed eight days after the baby is born, usually, at the home.
The only difference between a religious circumcision and one performed at the hospital is location and prayers, Baron said.
Circumcision’s importance to both the Jewish and Islamic religions is evident, but its medical necessity has been the topic of much debate.
The medical community responds to questions about whether or not circumcision is a good idea with a firm “maybe.”
“Circumcised men are known to have a lower incidence of urinary tract infections and a lower risk of sexually transmitted diseases, primarily HPV,” Baron said, referencing the Human Papilloma Virus. “They also have a lower risk, almost no risk, of penile cancer.”
Penile cancer, virtually unheard of in the United States, is caused by HPV which manifests in warts that form under the foreskin.
On the other hand, Baron noted, all of those potential gains can be achieved by uncircumcised men that use proper hygiene.
“It’s shocking to me that there would be a movement to ban this,” Baron said. “This is a procedure that’s been done for 4,000 years. Name me another surgical procedure that’s been around for 4,000 years.”
Before the potential ban becomes a formal ballot measure, supporters have to gather enough signatures to qualify, or 10 percent of the voting population of Santa Monica.
As of June 2010, Santa Monica had 61,192 voters, said City Clerk Maria Stewart. That would put the signature threshold at just over 6,000 voters, although the exact number has not been confirmed by the Los Angeles County clerk.
A similar measure is already on the ballot in San Francisco’s November 2011 election.
It’s the first time that the issue of male circumcision will be voted on.
Hess’ group began trying to ban circumcision in 2003 with a statewide bill, and succeeded in finding a sponsor for a similar measure in Massachusetts, although the bill ultimately failed.
The San Francisco and Santa Monica attempts are the first efforts to get around legislators and go straight to the voters.
“It’s spread to various states as people requested that we write a proposal for them,” Hess said.
The request for Santa Monica came from resident Jena Troutman, an intactivist who has been active in the movement for some time, Hess said.
It’s unclear if the initiative will face legal challenges as no version has gotten this far before, Hess said.