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'Issue of Human Rights'

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

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FARGO - Routine circumcision of baby boys is cruel and parents should be prohibited from seeking the procedure for their children, plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit said Friday.

"It's like tearing your fingernail off. That's how painful it is," said Duane Voskuil, a philosophy and ethics professor at Bismarck State College.

Voskuil supported a law enacted by the 1995 North Dakota Legislature that prohibits the mutilation of genitals in girls age 17 and younger. But now he is one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to declare the law unconstitutional.


Zenas Baer, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said the law amounts to gender discrimination because it does not give males the same legal protection from routine circumcisions - a procedure he characterizes as mutilation. Baer filed a lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court in Fargo.

"We think baby boys should get the same protection as baby girls," he said.

Baer said that unless there is a legitimate medical reason, neither parents nor doctors should be able to decide whether baby boys are circumcised. It's a procedure that "severely deforms that individual for life," he said. Since babies cannot consent to circumcision, the procedure should only be allowed in adult men, Voskuil said.

"We are not against circumcision, but we are against non-consenting circumcision," he said.

Good or Bad?

Roger Allen, a pediatrician in Minot said some studies show that circumcisions reduce the risk of boys developing infections and diseases later in life. But evidence is sketchy, he said.

"You can't demonstrate anything remarkably good or remarkably bad that relates to the procedure," Allen said.

State lawmakers considered including boys in the 1995 bill. But the idea was scratched because of a lack of support, said Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, a bill co-sponsor.

"I would have had no problem keeping it together and both males and females being treated the same," he said. "But we couldn't get enough votes."

About 60 percent of baby boys are circumcised nationwide, including between 80 and 90 percent of North Dakota boys, said plaintiff Jody McLaughlin, of Minot. It's a traditional procedure that has little medical basis and is shunned by other Western countries, she said.

"People in Europe ... call us barbarians," McLaughlin said.

Circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin at the end of the penis. Baer said taking away the foreskin and its nerve endings decreases a male's potential for sexual pleasure.

The lawsuit could have national and international importance, Baer said. "It really becomes an issue of human rights," he said.

Religious implications

The lawsuit also could have religious implications. Many Jewish and Islamic people consider circumcision a religious practice.

"We don't believe you have a right to do that based on religion," Baer said. But the court would likely grant exemptions for Jews and Muslims if routine circumcision ever were outlawed, he added.

Baer said he hopes the 1995 law is ruled unconstitutional and the Legislature then decides to pass a new law forbidding the mutilation of the genitals of both boys and girls.

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