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Where Sex and Violence Mix

Suchi Solomon
The Sun/Santa Fe, NM, March 1995

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While Santa Fe, like the world at large, abounds with pressing issues worth knowing and doing something about, a group of about twenty nurses at St. Vincent Hospital are making history. They are the first Registered Nurses in the nation to declare themselves Conscientious Objectors to infant circumcision. After years of thinking about the issues, these women declared they are not available whenever the operation is performed.

"We know we're rocking the boat" explained a soft spoken veteran of 12 years of maternal-child health service. "But the issues are too fundamental to avoid: infant rights, following authority or one's conscience, sexuality, and parents rights to know what's really happening to their infant sons."

"After we wrote the first letter to hospital administration and staff in October 1992, a lot of other nurses came along and wanted to sign it. We never tried to organize, it was just something that all of us couldn't live with."

As hands-on care givers to newborns, these nurses have developed a fine tuned sensitivity that allows them to feel subtle nuances of health and well-being in tiny babies. "I found it hard to rouse them after they had been circumcised. They were exhausted from the ordeal," a young nurse commented.

Anesthesia is often not given because the side effects are too risky. "I began to think about what was really going on here," she explained. "We were told that babies don't feel very much, but we know that babies do feel, at least as much as adults do." The
foreskin in exquisitely sensitive tissue filled with as many nerve endings as the fingertips. Babies cry and struggle throughout the 15 minutes when the foreskin is being pulled, clamped and finally cut off. Often this occurs in the first day of life because hospitals routinely release mothers and babies within 24 hours after delivery.

After writing their letter of intent to withdraw from assisting at circumcisions, the nurses found themselves living at the center of a storm. "We finally decided to take the issue to mediation, an agreement was reached in January, 1995. This agreement was a real achievement and reflects and well on the mediation team as well as on St. Vincent Hospital as a whole. Credit goes to the skilled work of the mediator Lucy Moore of Western Network and to Dianne Justin, Staff Representative of 1199 NM.

The hospital administration has agreed that the Conscientious Objector nurses will be relieved of duties of circumcision. However, certain restraints were placed upon the nurses within the hospital setting: the nurses are expected to provide answers to parent's questions concerning specific approved informed consent materials ordered by the doctor, but not provide additional personal counseling.

The nurses have known for a long time that parents often consent to circumcision without enough information. Circumcision was promoted by physicians at the turn of the century because of a fear of masturbation. It has been discredited as a means preventing masturbation. Circumcision has also been discredited as a means of preventing AIDS, urinary tract infections and penile and cervical cancer The intact foreskin is not difficult to keep clean and only requires simple washing like all other parts of the body.

In Europe few babies are circumcised today and world wide 85% of all males are intact. The foreskin is an erogenous part of a man's body. But in the U.S., many young mothers do not know what an intact penis looks like. Many young fathers want their sons to look just like them.

"Circumcision is where sex and violence first meet, in the first day of a baby's life," reports Christopher Fletcher, M.D., a local family practice physician who is against infant circumcision. "It will stop when docs take responsibility for their actions instead of saying they do it because parents want them to. It will definitely stop when the malpractice insurance companies refuse to cover it."

The Conscientious Objector nurses have been working nationally as well as locally to increase public awareness of. the issues. An independent New York filmmaker, Barry Ellsworth, made a video, The Nurses of St. Vincent: Saying No to Circumcision. It profiles six of the nurses who tell what they saw in the circumcision room that led them to take their historic stand.

Recently the video was shown in Santa Fe at the downtown public library and at the Unitarian Church. It is currently available for loan at the main library. During lively discussions following the film, many people told moving stories. Mothers explained how their protective instinct took over and they kept their sons intact. Others sadly recounted their failure to withstand family pressure and the authority of husbands. A nurse spoke of how she deftly helped a new father at the hospital decide about circumcision. When he asked her, she answered, "Wouldn't it be nice to take your baby home whole and get to know him?" The father smiled and walked out with his baby safely in his arms.

Genital mutilation (circumcision) is not an exclusively male or female issue but involves all our sensibilities toward ourselves and our gender. Cutting the baby's foreskin also severs the emotional bond between mother and child. In the infants suffering and pain he feels unprotected and abandoned. He comes to distrust the love of his mother who failed to protect him. It takes a lot of time for this emotional "wound" to heal, if it ever does. Circumcision is also male violence against males. The fact that we question this act now and come to know what it does to our sons, lovers, husbands, fathers and brothers is a hopeful sign that we have awakened to see the world as it is, through the eyes of a little baby.

See also:  The Universality of Incest  Lloyd DeMause  Journal of Psychohistory, 1991. Article concludes with discussion of female and male circumcision customs.

More Pages Related to Male & Female Circumcision

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