Circumcision and Parental Rights – Can They Be Taken Away?

Circumcision and Parental Rights - Can They Be Taken Away?

Recently, a mother in Florida was arrested for refusing to comply with a court order to have her four-year-old son circumcised.

Regardless of how you feel about circumcision, you can’t help but feel for everyone involved. A mother, believing she is protecting her son from an elective surgery, now sits in jail.

Heather Hironimus and Dennis Nebus were never married but share joint custody of their son Chase. They have been fighting since Heather’s pregnancy. When Chase was one, Heather signed an agreement to have him circumcised. After further research Heather changed her mind giving way to this long legal battle began.

Why Is This News?

Custody battles are nothing unusual. But circumcision is a hot button topic, one fueled by culture, religion, societal norms, and it gets mixed with conflicting evidence.

Circumcision has long been a part of religious culture. Regions with high Jewish and Muslim populations continue to have the highest rates of circumcision.

The popularity of circumcision in the US dates back only around 140 years to Dr. Lewis Sayre, a founder of the American Medical Association. Sayre believed the genitals played a large role in many medical conditions. He believed circumcision could be used to treat mental health issues, epilepsy and a variety of infections.

Circumcision became very common among higher classes, and it was seen as hygienic. It was promoted as a deterrent for masturbation. Eventually evidence showed these theories to be untrue, but not before the popularity of circumcision spread.

What Stance Do Medical Organisations and Governments Take?

From the American Academy of Pediatrics official statement, “the American Academy of Pediatrics found the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision.”

The AAP believes the final decision should be left up to the parents to make in the context of their religious, cultural and ethical beliefs — something that can become complicated when parents don’t agree.

In Germany, May 2012, a Cologne court ruled that the circumcision of a young boy on religious grounds amounted to grievous bodily harm, and was therefore illegal. Another law was eventually passed which kept it legal, but included standards they felt would provide protection to infants undergoing the procedure.

Norway recently began requiring all state-run hospitals to offer newborn male circumcision. Circumcision has not always been the cultural norm, and therefore many Norwegian doctors are still refusing to offer elective circumcision.

In 2010 the Royal Australian College of Physicians released this statement, “After reviewing the currently available evidence, the RACP believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand.”

What Are The Circumcision Rates?

Circumcision rates vary greatly by region. In the US they even vary significantly state to state. We are seeing a decline in circumcision in younger generations. 75.5% of men are circumcised in the US, but just 55-57% of newborn males are circumcised in the hospital – this rate is also dropping by 1% each year.

In Australia it is estimated that around 32% of men under the age of 30 are circumcised. Newborn circumcision rates were estimated at just 12% in 2002. There is a continued trend of decline in routine infant circumcision.

In the U.K. just 8.5% of males are circumcised.

World-wide only around 20-30% of males are circumcised. The majority of males around the world remain intact.

Why Do Some Families Choose Circumcision?

For Jewish and Muslim families it is a deeply rooted religious practice.

For some families it feels like the norm. Dad was circumcised, dad’s dad was circumcised and so it feels like the right thing to do.

When making the decision some families research the benefits of circumcision. They might feel the protection from UTIs and STIs warrants circumcision. The incidence of UTIs in intact infant males is 0.702%, slightly higher than the circumcised infant male incidence of 0.188%, but still very low. For perspective, the incidence of UTIs in female infants is 5%.

Some studies, conducted in developing countries, found circumcision could reduce the risk of acquiring HIV or an STI. However, similar studies in industrial counties, such as the US and Australia, have not showed the same result.

Parents might fear an intact infant might require circumcision for medical reasons later in life. When properly cared for though, very few require circumcision for medical reasons.

Why Do Some Families Choose Not To Circumcise?

Circumcision is not the norm in some communities and regions. For some families there is little if any thought about choosing to circumcise.

Many families research and decide the risks of circumcision do not outweigh the benefits. Parents might be concerned about bleeding, scarring and even death. One estimate, based on a review of death certificates, is 117 infant deaths in the US are associated with circumcision. These statistics are not widely accepted by the medical community, but it does cause many parents to think seriously about circumcision.

Some studies have found that adequate pain relief is not used, or even available, making the procedure traumatic for infants.

Parents might also feel their child has the right to make such a permanent, not medically necessary, decision about their own body and one that could impact their sexual health.

This court case shows just how far the circumcision debate can go. Two parents with strongly opposing views can keep fighting all the way to federal court. Strangers will rally in support of a parent they feel is protecting her child from an unnecessary procedure.

Even renowned figures are weighing in on the debate. Scientist Richard Dawkins tweeted, “Mother jailed for refusing to have her 4-yr-old son circumcised. WHAT? Can the world get any madder than this?”

Heather has received support worldwide thanks to the power of social media. Campaigns such as #FreeHeather and #SaveChase have been growing as more learn about her case and story.

Despite all of the support and media attention, Heather has dropped the court case. Dennis Nebus has the law on his side. On Friday May 22nd, Heather was forced to sign a consent form giving her permission for the circumcision to take place. This was required of her in order to regain custody of her son.

Regardless of how you feel about circumcision, this case raises a lot of questions about parental rights and civil liberties.

How can it be that saying ‘no’ to an elective procedure can result in a mother being sent to prison?

How can a parent be forced to agree to an unnecessary surgery or risk custody of their child?

  • 28


Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.


  1. I just cannot imagine having perfectly healthy skin from my child’s genitals removed without pressing medical need .. It doesn’t seem right and absolutely calls into question gender equality (regarding the acceptance of male circ but not female circ in America and the identical reasoning that those who favor both practices use ) and parental rights/where the line is drawn with procedures done without pressing medical need…

  2. You have attempted balance, but much remains unsaid. The AAP claimed to find the benefits outweighed the risks, but it considered only medical risks, assigning no value to having intact genitals, and it had no figures for the worst risks, major complcations and death, so the claim that they are outweighed is smoke and mirrors. 38 top European paediatricians (heads and spokespeople for the paediatric associations of Austria, Britain, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and senior paediatricians in Canada, the Czech Republic, France and Poland) to “Pediatrics” concluded
    “There is growing consensus among physicians, including those in the United States, that physicians should discourage parents from circumcising their healthy infant boys because non-therapeutic circumcision of underage boys in Western societies has no compelling health benefits, causes postoperative pain, can have serious long-term consequences, constitutes a violation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and conflicts with the Hippocratic oath: primum non nocere: First, do no harm”

    More and more men are outraged that this was done to them before they could resist, and who can gainsay them? It was common knowledge before infant male genital cutting became customary that the foreskin is important for full sexual functioning, a character in Shakespeare calling it “my sweet ounce of man’s flesh”.

    There is no fundamental parental right to cut parts off infant genitals. Male, female or intersex, the issue is consent, informed adult consent. Let adults cut off or have cut off anything or everything, and good luck to them. Don’t do it to any children except for pressing medical need.

  3. Regarding the comment about gender equality-male circumcision and female genital mutilation are completely different things.
    Personally, I don’t agree with modifying anybody’s body without their consent; which babies of course, cannot give.
    male circumcision though is practiced to encourage cleanliness and while it does reduce sexual pleasure later in life-undoing the body’s natural design… Female genital mutilation – depending on the kind performed-not only completely takes away all opportunity for sexual pleasure, is a lot more imposing, is the result of gross sexism, but also leads to; infection, sterility and death.

    1. “Female genital mutilation – depending on the kind performed- ”
      Exactly! And some of the kinds of female cutting (like that done to millions of baby girls in Indonesia and Malaysia in the name of Islam) are very, very similar, or even milder than any male cutting. Yet in The USA, ALL female cutting, no mattor how minor, is Federally outlawed. It’s a pure double standard. Non-religious MGC was introduced to thwart and punish masturbation – in other words to make sex less pleasurable. It is tribal FGC that leads to infection, sterility and death, and tribal MGC can do that too (43 boys and young men died of it last year in South Africa alone). When you compare like with like, they’re not so different. They’re both human rights abuses, both must end.

  4. The skin covering our entire body is a protective sensory organ. It is fused to the under layer to keep the the particular area it covers safe from invasive infection. As a sensory organ,when intact, it provides sensation necessary for developing feelins and emotions connected to that area. Most of the skin is tightly fused, covering the body. Some having mobility necessary for function of that body part, are partially fused and movable where necessary for function. The skin on our arms, chest, face, legs, etc is fused completely, to protect the under layers. The foreskin, eyelids, made to be mobile, are partially fused. At birth, the eyelids do not open as wide as an adults, because the infant’s eyes are so small. If we were to tear the lids open to look like the adults, we would cause injury to the eye and expose it to the environment, causing dryness and pain. The eyelids grow with the individual, to accommodate the size of the adult eye. The foreskin at birth is fused to protect the urethral opening from bacterial infection and the glans penis from irritation and dryness. As the child grows, the foreskin grows, stretches and separates to allow for adult sexual function of the foreskin and penis for sexual pleasure. A denuded penis becomes dry, the urethral opening shrinks, the penis develops callouses and sexual experience is associated with pain, swelling, tearing, bleeding and great discomfort. The pleasure meant to be experienced is diminished and changed. The scarring affects sexual pleasure and deprives the man, whose penis was altered at birth and his partner full sexual pleasure that rightfully belongs to him. He will never know what that feeling is, when his penis is altered so young.

  5. While the AAP takes the stance that parents have a right to decide, a member of the 2012 AAP Task Force on Circumcision, Doug Diekema, wrote in 2009 (in light of the Boldt vs. Boldt case):

    “Consent of both parents should be required when the procedure is not medically required. It should not be performed in the face of parental disagreement. (3) Absent a significant medical indication, circumcision should not be performed on older children and adolescents in the face of dissent or less than enthusiastic assent”

    Based on those principles, the ethical factor should be clear. Regardless of the pre-existing parental agreement, if a parent no longer agrees with the procedure it should not be done, and if the child does not agree with the procedure, it should not be done.

    Diekema said “older children”, but did not define how old has to be to become “older”. The judge declined to listen to Heather’s child, to appoint a guardian, or to have the child be psychologically evaluated.
    Boldt v. Boldt: A pediatric ethics perspective.

  6. The way I see it, a man has the right to decide if he wants his penis partially peeled. It’s his body so he should choose and no one else.

Leave a Reply

Please note: in order to prevent spam and inappropriate language, all comments are moderated before they appear. We appreciate your patience awaiting approval. BellyBelly receives many comments every day, and we are unable to approve them all as soon as they are posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

loaded font roboto