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On this page:
IN DEPTH: Reconsidering circumcision, Star Tribune, May 19, 1997.
Circumcision, A Reply to the Star Tribune
Jewish Pub

Male circumcision, female mutilation aren't comparable, Opinion Page, Minot Daily News, May 27, 1997.

Circumcision, A Reply to Nonsense. Minot Daily News

Circumcision editorial revealed generally prevailing attitudes, A Reply, Minot Daily News, June 18, 1997.
Female genital mutilation law will stand, court says, Bismarck Tribune, May 1996.
Suit to ask for equal protection, Bismarck Tribune, May 2, 1996.

Off-site: >
Lawsuit argues N.D. female mutilation law is
unconstitutional because it doesn't protect males, too
Jeremiah Garner, Associated Press, Minot Daily News, June 8, 1996.
Suit claims N.D. genital mutilation law biased, Patrick Springer, Fargo Forum, June 7, 1996

Star Tribune
Newspaper of the Twin Cities
Monday, May 19, 1997
Page A7

A lawsuit to be heard in St. Paul today alleges that a North Dakota law banning female genital mutilation is unconstitutional because it should also protect boys.

  N.D. woman challenges male circumcision

Reconsidering circumcision

By Maura Lerner
Star Tribune Staff Writer

For years, Jody McLaughlin of Minot, N.D., has been crusading to stop circumcision of baby boys. In her view, it's an unnecessary and harmful medical procedure v that's imposed on helpless infants against their will. But try as she might, she couldn't persuade her state's legislators to take up her cause.

So now, with the help of a Minnesota [and Fargo] lawyer, she's trying to get around the politicians: She's challenging a recent North Dakota law that bans female genital mutilation, saying it is unconstitutional because it doesn't protect boys. Today the battle moves to a hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Paul, and her lawyer has vowed to challenge similar laws in Minnesota and Congress.

"We cannot protect one gender against something and not protect the other," said McLaughlin, 46, an activist who publishes a natural childbirth magazine called the Compleat Mother.

McLaughlin and her lawyer, Zenas Baer of Hawley, Minn., are trying to force the public to take a fresh look at an emotional issue that touches on law, medicine and religious freedom.

Male circumcision—removal of the penis' foreskin—is both a medical procedure [sic]  and a 4,000 year old religious practice sacred to Muslims and Jews.

It's far more common in the United States than elsewhere, largely because of notions that it's a healthy practice. Nationwide, more than 60 percent of newborn boys are circumcised (about the same percentage as in 1979, but down from a high of 95 percent in the 1960s), according to government statistics. But only a few per cent of boys in Europe and Asia are circumcised.

U.S. doctors have debated the benefits and risks for, decades. For the most part they have considered circumcision cosmetic surgery, neither necessary nor harmful. This year––for the fourth time in 22 years—the American Academy of Pediatrics is reconsidering its neutral position in light of new evidence that circumcision could help prevent urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases. 

A moral equivalent?

But activists are trying to put male circumcision in a new light by comparing it to female genital mutilation. Sometimes known as female circumcision, it is a widely condemned ritual common in Africa and the Middle East, done to curb women's sexual desire.

"What's good for the girl is good for the boy," Baer said. "In both instances, you have the removal of otherwise healthy genital tissue for a purely social, religious or cultural reason,"

Activists argue that circumcision cuts off some of the male's most sexually sensitive tissue and exposes babies to the threat of unnecessary complications, such as infections. But they also say there's great resistance to change.

"What man wants to admit that the best part of his penis is thrown into a trash can?" asked Marilyn Milos, a nurse who runs the National Organization of Cir cumcision Information Resource Centers in San Anselmo, Calif. "What mother wants to admit that her precious baby's been harmed needlessly? What doctor wants to admit he's got blood on his hands?"

Even some activists against female mutilation see a parallel.

"I'm also sympathetic to their goals, frankly," said Dr. Nahib Toubia, whose New York based group, the Research Action and Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women, campaigns against female circumcision. “A health professional should never touch a child and remove some normal body organ."

But others say it's unfair to compare male circumcision to female genital mutilation. "It is an oppressive practice for females," said Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, of Temple of Aaron in St. Paul and coordinator of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association. "The male circumcision . . . we've been doing for 4,000 years, and we're fine. There's not a single Jewish guy who complains about it."

McLaughlin, who has two grown daughters, tried and failed to convince the North Dakota Legislature that the two rituals are linked. She and Duane Voskuil, a philosophy professor in Bismarck, N.D., drafted a law to ban genital alterations in both boys and girls. But when legislators refused to sponsor it, she said, they [legislators] rewrote it to mention girls only. "We knew at the time that this bill would be unconstitutional, but it passed both houses unanimously," she said.

They challenged own law

Then she and Voskuil joined with Donna Fishbeck, who had a newborn son, to challenge the law that McLaughlin and Voskuil had [originally] written [in a gender-neutral form]. The North Dakota attorney general's office fought back. "The Legislature did not intend to criminalize neonatal male circumcision," Doug Bahr, an assistant attorney general, argued.

The anticircumcision activists lost the first round in October when a federal judge in Bismarck threw out the case, saying the plaintiffs had no legal standing to challenge the law.

But Judge Patrick Conmy wasn't entirely unsympathetic. "This may very well be a worthwhile goal," he wrote, but "the plaintiffs accomplish nothing by this action." If they won, he said, they'd merely invalidate the protection for girls. "This battle is one for the education of new parents and for the legislatures of this [country]—not the courts."

Although today’s court hearing is only on the North Dakota law, Baer says he plans to use this as a steppingstone to challenge a similar 1994 [1996] Minnesota law and a federal law on female mutilation that took effect in March [1997].

These days doctors find themselves walking a fine line, especially when parents ask for advice. "As pediatricians we're sort of neutral to the idea," said Dr. Mary Meland, a Health Partners pediatrician in Bloomington. "But the fact is, there are some high quality studies showing there is some medical benefit."

More than 25 years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared there were no valid medical reasons for routine circumcision. That changed, somewhat, in 1989 after studies indicated that circumcision reduced the rate of infant urinary tract infections and penile cancer. But those are rare conditions, and the group recommended that parents weigh the facts and make their own decisions.

This year the group's task force is evaluating more evidence of possible benefits, including reduced risk of sexually transmitted diseases. "People feel it's really time to revisit and reconsider," said University of North Carolina pediatrician Carole Lannon, task force chairwoman.

Critics dismiss the benefits as myths and say they don't outweigh the risks, including bleeding, pain and, in extremely rare cases, death.

But Dr. Howard Stang, a Health Partners pediatrician in White Bear Lake, says studies have shown that it's tough to talk parents out of the procedure.

"In America, it's such an ingrained type of practice, it basically comes down to a gut feeling," said Stang, whose research helped encourage the widespread use of anesthesia during circumcisions.

"I don't spend a lot of my time trying to talk parents out of it," he said. "But I also applaud them for deciding not to circumcise their baby. I tell them that's fine, too."


  Circumcision, Reply to Star Tribune

I read with dismay the May 18 [1997] article about male circumcision. How can the practice occur so often in our so-called civilized society?

The medical benefits from the procedure seem dubious at best. You wouldn't remove a person's toenails for the reason of reducing the remote chance of he/she having nail fungus. You wouldn't remove a woman's breasts to simply eliminate her chances of getting breast cancer.

Religion is also not a valid reason. Much destruction has been done, wars fought, and many barbaric acts committed in the name of religion.

Circumcision, at a minimum, should not be performed on any newborn or child until they are old enough to make an informed decision about it on their own.

Evolution (whether through God's hand or not) gave our bodies everything they have.

  —Lyle Bergman, St. Paul

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California June 20, 1997
 U.S. appeals court rejects lawsuit by circumcision foes
MORDECAI SPECKTOR The American Jewish World

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Opponents of male infant circumcision argue that the religious ritual conducted by Jews and Muslims, as well as the operation done under medical auspices, is harmful and tantamount to child abuse. In a novel tactic to advance their cause, several crusaders against male circumcision have challenged a recent North Dakota law banning female genital mutilation (FGM), which is sometimes referred to as female circumcision. They contend that the law protecting girls should also protect boys based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. However, their legal strategy received a setback recently when a federal appeals court rejected their lawsuit. The adverse ruling marks the second time the suit has been thrown out. It was first rejected in October by a federal judge in Bismarck on the basis that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to challenge the law. On June 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which had heard oral arguments during a May 19 session in St. Paul, affirmed the district court's decision. "We're pleased with the decision and the quickness with which the court reached it," said Doug Bahr, assistant attorney general for North Dakota, during a telephone interview. "The 8th Circuit found that the parties did not have any standing because this lawsuit really has no impact upon them." Bringing the lawsuit were Donna Fishbeck, suing as an individual and "as mother and natural guardian of her infant son, Jonathan Fishbeck"; Jody McLaughlin; and Duane Voskuil. McLaughlin is the publisher of a journal, The Compleat Mother, devoted to natural childbirth and related issues. With Voskuil, McLaughlin heads NOCIRC-ND, a group opposed to circumcision that is attempting to enlarge FGM bans to include infant male circumcision. Their attorney, Zenas Baer of Hawley, Minn., said he intends to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I think the issue is whether or not -- in the name of culture or in the name of religion -- we can sit idly by and watch the children, those who have no ability to consent...mutilated by the surgical amputation of otherwise healthy genital tissue," said Baer. Equating male circumcision with female genital mutilation is "a long stretch," said Dr. Sheldon Berkowitz, a pediatrician and mohel in Minneapolis. "They're only similar in that they're done on the genitalia...[and] done on someone without their consent [emphasis added]." Berkowitz explained that FGM is done "to decrease sexual pleasure and prevent sexual activity for a long period of time. "There is no medical reason I have ever heard about for doing female circumcision," he added. [see Comparing FGM and MGM.] Carol Hogard, a women's studies instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, observed that "female circumcision" is a euphemism. "It should really be called female castration," she remarked, and added that Minnesota passed a law against FGM in 1994, and congressional legislation banning the practice was signed into law last year by President Clinton. In discussing the North Dakota statute proscribing FGM, attorney Zenas Baer contended that banning FGM while allowing infant male circumcision is an example of "cultural elitism, where we are passing judgment on the cultures and rituals practiced by the Mideast and African cultures, and not looking critically at our own culture." But observers like Berkowitz and Hogard point to the qualitative differences between the two practices. "This is not culture, it is torture," Hogard said regarding FGM. "Once it's done women have serious health problems for the rest of their lives."

Copyright Notice (c) 1997, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Minot Daily News
May 27, 1997


Nonsense: Male circumcision, female mutilation aren't comparable

She's at it again.

Jody McLaughlin of Minot wants to change a North Dakota law barring female circumcision so the law also would apply to males.

But it's ludicrous to equate the circumcision of males to the mutilation of female genitalia.

This mutilation of females occurs primarily in Muslim countries and in East Africa.

The practice is intended, at least in part, to decrease or eliminate a woman’s ability to haste pleasure during sex. Human rights activists around the world have campaigned against the practice.

North Dakota enacted its law in 1995 precisely because it's such an inhumane practice.

Circumcision of males involves removing some of the foreskin on the penis. It's a common medical procedure, and it’s a 4,000-year old religious practice sacred to Muslims and Jews. Statistics indicate some 60 percent of males in the United States have been circumcised. Medical specialists say circumcision does nothing to reduce sexual enjoyment for males, and as Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg of the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul has said, "There's not a single Jewish guy who complains about it."

McLaughlin, who publishes a magazine called Compleat Mother to promote natural childbirth and breast-feeding, brought her challenge to federal court, but Federal District Judge Patrick Conmy dismissed the case. McLaughlin appealed, and a three-judge panel in St. Paul, Minn., has 90 days to decide whether the word "female" should be struck from the North Dakota law.

If the judges broaden the law, the North Dakota attorney general's office could ask that the ruling be placed on hold. That would allow finale circumcision to continue until the state could appeal the ruling. The state would make its request to the appeals court. If denied, the request could be brought by the state to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition, if the appeals panel should change the law to include males, the state Legislature has the option of leaving the law on the books or repealing the law.

It would make the most sense for the appeals court to let the North Dakota law remain intact.

The judges should realize how ridiculous it is to speak of male circumcision in the same breath as removal of female genitalia, and they should realize there's no good reason to change North Dakota’s law.


Circumcision, A Reply to "Nonsense" Editorial
by Marilyn Milos, San Anselm, CA

I'm responding to your May 27 editorial titled "Nonsense: Male circumcision, female mutilation aren't comparable." It is important to note that the female genital mutilation law is being challenged for its unconstitutionality because it deals with only one half of the problem. In other words, it protects girls from surgical alteration, but not boys. With this legal challenge, no one is comparing the amount of pain, trauma, damage or suffering inflicted on a child. These vary from child to child, male or female. The challenge is to bring to an end to the human rights violation that begins with the first cut on the body of an unconsenting minor child, regardless of race, creed, culture or gender, because human rights supersedes them all.


Opinion Page
Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Circumcision editorial revealed generally prevailing attitudes
A Reply to "Nonsense" Editorial
by Duane Voskuil

Your decision to publish the "Nonsense: Male circumcision, female mutilation aren't comparable" editorial in the May 27 Minot Daily News is appreciated. I would like to thank the writer for this condensed version of a prevailing attitude regarding the issue of genital integrity or the absence thereof. However, I would like to point out a few incorrect statements that were made.

Well-educated, serious, respected and informed people, including the judges of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals find much that is comparable between non-consensual male and non-consensual female genital modifications. Your use of the emotional terms "ludicrous" and "ridiculous" to describe such a comparison only betrays an inability to objectively evaluate one's own cultural rituals in the context of constitutional protections of our state and nation.

The practice of amputating the most sensitive portion of a male's genitals has been justified as a way to "decrease or eliminate" his "ability to have pleasure during sex." Prepuce amputation began in earnest in the United States in the late l9th century as an attempt to prevent children from masturbating. At that time, the prevailing medical belief was that sexual arousal led to a loss of life­force and degenerative diseases would follow.

Although routine infant circumcision of males is practiced in the U.S., it is NOT a standard practice in the rest of the world. Physicians, the state health officer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the board of medical examiners, all say circumcision as practiced in our culture is not a medical issue, it is a cultural and social issue. At this time, anyone, not just doctors it seems, can circumcise a non-consenting child with impunity. Apparently this can be done at any age without a danger of being charged with a violation of the laws. Our attorney general has been asked about this possibility and, as yet, has not been willing to address this issue.

When physicians perform this ritual they are functioning as agents for a social custom not as health care providers. It has been stated repeatedly by medical experts and medical organizations that routine circumcision does not serve a medical need. The removal of healthy genital tissue from anyone is always suspect, even more so when the individual undergoing the procedure has not consented.

Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg's statement, "There is not a single Jewish guy who complains about it" which was printed earlier this month in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is simply wrong. He is unaware that more than any other group, Jews are involved in the social movement to end non-consenting circumcision. He must not know Dr. Ronald Goldman, a Jew who wrote "Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma" and, who encourages and supports Jews and nonJews alike to protect all children from circumcision. He knows many Jews, Moslems and others who are angry at having part of their genitals amputated in the name of medicine, ritual or custom.

Freedom of religion means one is free to believe and practice one's own religion, so long as it does not cause harm to others, including one's children. Parents practicing other religious faiths have been taken to court for allowing harm to come to their children in the name of religion.

Thank you for clearly conveying in your editorial that in our country we do have double standards, and in this one it is males who suffer from cultural bias.

 —Duane Voskuil, Bismarck, ND


Bismarck Tribune
JANELL COLE, staff writer
May 1996

Female genital mutilation law will stand, court says

• Challengers wanted both sexes protected

• “It is gratifying knowing (the state law) will stand.” North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp

North Dakota's female genital mutilation law will stand, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

The law was challenged as unconstitutional by two anti-circumcision activists, Duane Voskuil of Bismarck and Jody McLaughlin of Minot, along with a new mother, Donna Fishbeck, and her infant son of Mandan, who was circumcised without her consent after the law passed in 1995.

The plaintiffs said a law that protects one sex and not the other from genital cutting is unconstitutional. McLaughlin and Voskuil say routine circumcision of baby boys is medically unnecessary and harmful.

North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp said Thursday, "It is gratifying knowing (the state law) will stand."

The Eighth Circuit decision does not address the merits of the case, Voskuil told the Tribune.

The appeals panel instead agreed with U.S. District Judge Patrick Conmy of Bismarck that the three plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the law.

The female-only law was passed by the 1995 Legislature in part due to favorable testimony by Voskuil* and McLaughlin.

Female genital mutilation is a widely condoned practice in African and Mideastern countries, where parents and practitioners believe it limits the sexual arousal of girls. It became known in this country when immigrants from Africa and the Mideast began having it performed on their daughters here.

Voskuil said he and McLaughlin agreed to testify for the 1995 bill that only addressed female genital mutilation because it was "better than nothing." He said their original bill was drafted as gender-­neutral, but legislative sponsors were in favor only of an anti-FGM bill, so it was rewritten to address females only.

Voskuil said he warned legislators at the time that it could be unconstitutional if it did not also protect boys.

Voskuil said the judges ignored the fact that he, McLaughlin and many other citizens pay for male circumcision through higher medical insurance premiums and Medicaid costs.

The Eighth Circuit also said Fishbeck, while having a more personal interest in the case, also does not have standing because "the injury that her son received, if it is an injury, is in the past. Nothing that happens in this lawsuit can change that.”

The judges said it is only speculation that Fishbeck may have another baby, that the baby would be a boy and that her husband would want him circumcised.

"Their dismissal of her was really cavalier," Voskuil said.

 *Testimony on North Dakota Senate Bill No. 2454

Duane Voskuil, Ph.D., Philosophy and Ethics, Bismarck State College--2/27/95


     My name is Duane Voskuil. I have been in education for 35 years teaching languages, visual arts and philosophy. As a liberal arts professor, I place a high value on individual freedom and  respect a wide range of cultural traditions.

      Cultures develop and change, so moral sensitivity is not constant. Conflicts of freedoms do occur, especially so in cultures placing a high value on personal freedom. We are here today examining whether or not to allow a cultural tradition at least 2,000 years old. We are also addressing a moral and legal conflict between the rights of parents and children. Millions of parents claim a right to modify the genitals of their daughters to fit cultural expectations or personal belief. They sincerely believe the operations they force upon their daughters are for their benefit, even though most of us, hopefully, will find the reasons given for the operations to be unconvincing. (So you can judge this for yourself, I have attached a list of such reasons gathered by a woman who spent many years in Africa where these operations are most prevalent.)

      Most western cultures consider female prepuce amputations, clitoridectomies, labia amputations and suturing the vagina to be child sexual abuse and physical mutilation, so the practice in these countries is usually underground and hard to monitor. However, parents are asking physicians in the U.S. and Canada to perform these operations. Europe has already prosecuted parents for maiming their daughters, and U.S. prosecutors are working on it.

      Last May I was shocked as I videotaped an Elgin, MN, woman of Scandinavian descent addressing an international conference on genital mutilation, emotionally disclosing for the first time how she still remembers the pain and mistrust of those closest to her as a Wahpeton, ND, physician excised her normal clitoris forty-some years ago when she was three years old. No one has been prosecuted nor even censored for this amputation done to stop her from masturbating. (My research has found some BlueShield plans even paid for this kind of procedure as late as 1977.) If for no other reason, we owe her (and those others like her) this Bill as belated recognition of her life-long suffering and our culture’s indifference.

      Passage of Senate Bill 2454 will send a clear message that premature genital tissue separations and non-medically indicated surgeries are indeed mutilations and beyond the scope of tolerance even by independent-minded North Dakotans. We pride ourselves with the wide latitude we have to raise our children. However, there are also many precedents in which the state has set limits on parents’ and physicians’ behavior, knowing our trust has been betrayed before.

      Just as we in this country no longer accept men as the only voters, nor people as slaves (nor even smoking in rooms like this), we must now declare this practice, also imposed on non-consenting individuals, to violate their right to free choice and an intact body. It cannot be an acceptable part of our North Dakota heritage. Unless surgery is undisputedly necessary for the health of the child, each and every child must have a legal, as well as a human right, to grow up with an intact body.

      I urge you to recommend passage of this Bill. Thank you.


Suit to ask for equal protection

Bismarck Tribune
Thursday, May 2, 1996

The group of people who urged passage of a bill outlawing female genital mutilation plans to file a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the law violates the Constitution.

Jody McLaughlin of Minot said she believes the Female Genital Mutilation Law violates the Equal Protection Clause because it only applies to females, not males. McLaughlin will be one of the plaintiffs. Specifically, McLaughlin and the others want routine infant circumcision outlawed. The lawsuit will name the State of North Dakota as the defendant, McLaughlin said.

"(The law) does not go far enough to protect babies of both sexes," said McLaughlin, who asked a Fargo senator to introduce the bill. The law makes it a Class C felony to "knowingly separate or surgically alter normal, healthy, functioning genital tissue of a female minor." McLaughlin said they wanted the bill to include male and females, but they couldn't find enough sponsors.

But Dr. Ray Hippehen, a pediatrician at Mid Dakota Clinic, said male circumcision and clitoridectomies and other mutilations of young girls' genitalia are "vastly different procedures."

"I think there are valid objections to male circumcisions that can be made," Hippehen said, adding male circumcision is controversial with cultural and religious implications. "But I don't think you can link the two in the same bit of legislation. That appeals to emotionalism. It sounds very radical to me."

Minnesota attorney Zenas Baer, who is handling the plaintiff's case, confirmed he plans to file the case within the next two weeks but declined to comment further. He would only say the "general theory is equal protection."

Shelley Barker, a spokeswoman in the attorney general's office, said they weren't aware of the lawsuit.

   McLaughlin said the lawsuit developed because of the difficulty to get agencies -- including the North Dakota Medical Association and the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners -- to address routine infant circumcision.

  Cathy Rydell, executive vice president of the North Dakota Medical Association, said the association hasn't taken a stand on routine infant circumcision. , The committee on legislative issues met Wednesday in Minot, and circumcision was on the agenda, Rydell said. If they were to take a stand, it wouldn't be a "philosophical position, it would be based on good medicine." [No statement was ever issued, but the >American Academy of Pediatrics' statement -- supposedly also based only one "good medicine" goes into all manner of socio-cultural reasons to continue to allow it even when they could find NO medical basis for the procedure.]

"My opinion is it is a society issue," Rydell said, "The medical issue is a separate issue we will be discussing."

The North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners won't prosecute physicians who perform routine male infant circumcisions, said Rolf Sletten, executive secretary of the board.

"What we have said is if people like Jody McLaughlin want to prohibit those procedures, they ought to go to the Legislature and have it debated there," Sletten said. The board told the state Medical Association they might want to discuss it.

  McLaughlin said she filed a complaint with the Board of Medical Examiners about a doctor who was performing female genital mutilation. Sletten said state law specifies he can't comment on any complaint that might have been filed.

Routine infant circumcision serves no health purpose, McLaughlin said. In fact, she said, it's medically unnecessary and has short-term complications, including hemorrhaging, infection and death. McLaughlin said she didn't know how many infants die each year from circumcision but said the estimates are around 200. Most people don't know it's not only "contraindicated but also harmful," McLaughlin said.

"One of the long-term problems that I'm being told about is the inability to achieve and sustain an adequate erection, "McLaughlin said.

She said she hasn't met a physician who will say routine infant circumcision is medically necessary. Physicians tell her it's done for social, cultural or philosophical reasons, McLaughlin said. "Since when are physicians agents for social customs?" she asked.


Other Media Articles on Circumcision     FGM Lawsuit Court Papers



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