Nurses Speak Out Against Circumcision: U.S. Cited for Rampant Human Rights Violations
“We Americans recoil in horror at reports of female circumcision in other countries,
yet we refuse to see that brutal acts of genital mutilation are committed every day
on baby boys in the United States.” —Cat Saunders
By Cat Saunders
The title of this article was not taken from some political piece reprinted from The Washington Post. Nor was it borrowed from the official U.N. list of countries that are still committing human rights violations brutal enough to make you sick.
Rather, the title for this article comes straight from the heart of one person, me, who has the audacity to speak out in behalf of untold millions of baby boys who have been mutilated in our own country. What’s worse, the basic human rights of baby boys are still being violated every day in the United States.
I’m tired of being nice about what’s happening. I’m sick of using euphemisms to talk about “it”—circumcision—as if it’s no big deal. I hate the idea that I should talk about circumcision in cool, calm, collected terms so I don’t trigger “uncomfortable” feelings of guilt in the people who are responsible for its continuation. That includes parents, doctors, religious authorities, hospital personnel, legislators and political leaders, circumcision restraint manufacturers, the general media, and anyone else who supports it directly or indirectly through apathy or denial.
Most of all, I’ve had it with the fact that our government parades around like some kind of moral icon, blasting other countries for their human rights violations, when we are violating the rights of our own children every day. We Americans recoil in horror at reports of female circumcision in other countries, yet we refuse to see that brutal acts of genital mutilation are committed every day on baby boys in the United States.
Do you think I’m exaggerating when I say that infant circumcision is genital mutilation? Then I must beg you to reconsider—and imagine your genitals being sliced without your permission and without anesthesia.
Do you think I’m seeing clearly, but you feel helpless to change what’s happening? Then I applaud you for your compassion, and I invite you to use your feelings about circumcision to help fight it.
If everyone takes these feelings of helplessness and transforms them into powerful feelings of grief and rage, then together we can stop this terrible injustice. No one can change what’s already been done, but we can mourn it and refuse to keep doing it. We can face the incredible ramifications of this kind of legally sanctioned, institutionally practiced, and religiously supported abuse. And we can say no.
Involuntary infant circumcision is abuse. It is a profound violation of human rights. Think about it. When a circumcision is performed, a piece of foreskin that would become 15 square inches (when erect) of sensitive penile tissue is sliced from the penis of a baby boy—without his permission and typically, without anesthesia.
Let’s face it. Infant circumcision happens for one reason and one reason alone: because the babies are helpless to defend themselves. But if the victims of circumcision cannot defend themselves, and if the government offers no legal protection, then who will stop this insanity? Those of us who can see what is happening must help stop it.
A group of nurses from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, can see what is happening, and they are working hard to stop infant circumcision. In this interview, I spoke with four of these nurses: Mary Conant, Betty Katz Sperlich, Mary-Rose Booker, and Carole Alley.
As you read their stories, I hope you will listen with your heart. If people can honestly face and acknowledge the horror of circumcision, then we can use the power of our collective compassion to stop it. And yes, we can stop involuntary infant circumcision. Together we can stop it now.
Cat: How did your conscientious objection to circumcision begin?
Mary: We came into this very simply. We just wanted people to stop hurting babies. In 1992, we started a petition. Before that, I think we all had the sense that something was wrong, but we had never communicated about it. Everything I’d read said circumcision isn’t a necessary thing to do, from a medical or health standpoint. So why are we doing it? You take a newborn baby, strap him down to a board, and cut on him. It’s obviously painful!
Circumcision became so intolerable that five of us wrote a letter saying that ethically we could no longer assist. When we were getting ready to present the letter, other nurses came out of the woodwork and asked to sign it. Out of about 50 nurses, 24 signed it.
Betty: For years before that, we dealt with it the way women deal with things when they feel powerless. When it came time to do one, we would just make ourselves scarce. When I did have to assist, I would not look at the circumcision. I would look at the baby’s face, and maybe put my finger in his mouth to pacify him. But whatever name you call it—mutilation, torture, cutting, creating a wound, violation—it was going on, and I was never looking. It was crazy!
Now we’re conscientious objectors, but it’s still going on. We can still hear it.
Mary: Yes. Behind closed doors, you can hear the baby screaming. You know exactly what part of the operation is happening by how the screams are.
Betty: Yes, that’s important. Please quote that.
Cat: How about the maiming that happens? One of my friends (who is not circumcised) said that in gym class, he noticed boys who have been maimed by circumcision.
Mary: Most people don’t see that. They say, “What complications? What problems?”
Cat: Mary-Rose, in the video you all did, called “Saying No to Circumcision,” begins with you telling a story about a recurring dream.
Mary-Rose: Sometimes I think we get messages from the spiritual realm that we try to turn away, but the messages keep coming, and we have to listen. My dreams were about taking the babies and strapping them down, participating in the whole thing, and having the babies say to me, “Why are you doing this? You were just welcoming me, and now you’re torturing me. Why, why, why?”
I’ve watched doctors taking more foreskin than they should. When there’s too much bleeding, they burn the wound with silver nitrate so that the penis looks like it’s been burned with a cigarette. Then the doctor will tell us to go tell the mother that this is what it’s supposed to look like.
I know people are going to say it’s weird, but I think circumcision is like the Holocaust; it’s like rape—like any kind of injustice—and this kind of abuse is still going on!
Cat: It is definitely abusive. Mary, you said in the video that doctors have told you not to say “poor baby” and not to comfort the baby after his circumcision, if the parents are nearby. This brings up the whole issue of responsibility and guilt, and how everyone protects the abusers instead of caring for the victims.
Mary: Betty is actually in trouble for reacting to a circumcision. She opened a diaper, and her facial expression was such that the parents wrote a letter saying that she had “made them” feel guilty.
Betty: Yes. They’re saying my facial expression was “unprofessional.” I was looking at a genital wound! I thought I was doing well, because I didn’t cry. My thought was that maybe it was a botched circumcision, and that maybe too much had been cut off. But who am I to say, because now I think that any amount is too much. That’s the position we’re in now, where we are actually accused of harassing.
Mary: Just by our mere existence, we “make” people feel guilty. People don’t take responsibility for their guilt. There’s so much denial about this.
Mary-Rose: Sometimes I’ll see a father with his son right after birth, and the bonding is really great. The baby is looking at the father, and the father is ecstatic—he’s communicating with his baby. Yet, he has his son circumcised. Afterward, the baby won’t look at the father, and the father wants to know, “Why won’t my baby look at me?
Cat: Betty, you spoke on the video about how people who are Jewish can shift their perspective and still honor their Judaism, but stop doing circumcision.
Betty: All religions have traditions, but I always wonder why we can’t keep what is beautiful and reject what is brutal. To me, it’s just common sense. Besides, what kind of god are you worshipping anyway, if your god is demanding a blood mutilation sacrifice? I used to feel guilty as a Jew, because our son is not circumcised. I thought, “All these thousands of years of tradition ending here.” But now I see!
A Jewish man asked me, “I know you’re against circumcision in the hospital. But how do you feel about Jewish circumcisions?”
I said, “What?! You think I should only protect the goyish babies and just let the Jewish babies be mutilated? What kind of a Jew would I be?”
Cat: Great answer. I don’t think circumcision should be legal, but since it is, I think parents should be required to watch videos of all the worst case scenarios—maiming, hemorrhage, death—before they are allowed to sign over their son’s body to be cut.
Betty: We’re actually trying to get what we call “informed consent”—though we hope people won’t consent—so parents have information beforehand.
Mary-Rose: But we have to go further than that. Let’s go all the way to elementary school and start educating young people about it.
Cat: Yes, and some people are going the other direction—to the United Nations—to get circumcision included on the charter of human rights violations for the world.
Carole, a personal question for you. You said on the video that one of your sons is circumcised—the other is not—and that if you could take back one thing in your life, you would take back your younger son’s circumcision. I’m wondering, how would you coach parents who are beginning to come out of their denial and are realizing the horror of what they’ve done?
Carole: I feel like I’m still working on me. I’m dealing with the whole feeling of being an accomplice to all this for so many years, and for doing what I did to my son. Before I go out and try to tell someone else how to heal, I have to do it for myself first.
Betty: Yes. We have so much to heal about being accomplices ourselves. In Banished Knowledge, Alice Miller writes about the importance of the witness coming forth, which is what I feel we are doing. We are saying what is happening, because the male myth is, “Well, I was circumcised and I am fine, and my son was circumcised and he’s fine.”
But we’re saying, “Maybe you were circumcised, but it wasn’t fine, because we were there, and we saw what happened. It’s the same thing with your baby. We were there, and we saw it. It was not fine.”
Cat: I wouldn’t say this directly to such a man unless he was way out of denial, but I’ll tell you that I doubt he’s really “fine.”
Betty: Yes. That is the next step, for the grown men to come forward. It’s happening now. There is a powerful coalition forming. We women are coming out as mothers and as witnesses to this brutal sexual assault. Women who have been circumcised in Africa are coming forward, too. We’re all saying this isn’t okay.
But it’s a weird situation. We identify ourselves as feminists, yet we haven’t been well-received by other feminists.
Carole: They’re saying, “Circumcision is a men’s issue. Why are you helping them? What are we going to get out of it?”
Cat: Well, a whole lot less aggression, for one thing. Less violence. Nicer relationships. Better sex. More trust.
Carole: How about just a nicer place to be?
Cat: Yes. What do you all see in your dreams, in terms of how circumcision will end? Do you think parents will always have the right to treat their children like property and allow their babies’ genitals to be cut?
Mary. No. I think there are a lot of factors converging on circumcision to make it go away. For one thing, insurance companies are starting to refuse to pay for it, because it’s more understood now that there is no medical reason to support it.
In England, when their health plan quit paying for circumcision in the 1950s, the rate went down to less than one percent. In our country, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder has a law before Congress now to outlaw female genital mutilation here. People in the anti-circumcision movement have been corresponding with her, and she’s realizing that boys must also be legally protected. I think it also helps that more and more information is getting out about the function of the foreskin.
Betty: The foreskin is a very erogenous part of a man’s body. It also helps keep the head of the penis moist and lubricated during sex.
Cat: Most people don’t know that. In fact, in our country, it seems like women are usually blamed for the lack of lubrication during sex, as if men—the majority of whom are still circumcised here—play no role in the problem.
We’ve talked a lot about how we’re expected to be “reasonable” when talking about circumcision, so people don’t feel threatened. But how about the poor babies? Don’t you ever want to run screaming down the street to protest this injustice?
Mary: Absolutely. I want to throw my body in front of the door to the circ room and tell the parents, “You’re not going to do that to your baby!”
It makes me wonder, why haven’t I done that yet? It’s the old accomplice thing, you know: “If you’re an accomplice, then you’re an enabler.” It’s really heavy.
Not only that, but the people who are still doing it want us to “respect” them. Are they really thinking what they’re asking of us? They’re baby torturers! How can I respect them?
This article was adapted from the original version published by The New Times in February, 1995, and it was updated in March 2017.
Special thanks to the four nurses interviewed here: Mary Conant, Betty Katz Sperlich, Mary-Rose Booker, and Carole Alley. You can see the nurses in a six-minute YouTube video called “The Nurses of St. Vincent: Saying ‘No’ to Circumcision.”
For more information on “Nurses for the Rights of the Child” please visit childrightsnurses.org.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).