*A “war” of sorts is erupting in California and it has the potential of spreading to cities and states across the nation. The controversy centers on whether to circumcise or not to circumcise. Specifically, activists in San Francisco are pushing a ballot initiative which would make it a crime to circumcise (surgically remove the foreskin from the head of the penis of) baby boys.

The so-called “intactivists,” led by Lloyd Schofield, say circumcision is an archaic religious practice which has no health benefits and amounts to “culturally accepted genital mutilation.” But Jewish, Muslim and some other groups are up in arms. Speaking for the Jewish Community Relations Council, Abby Porth, has labeled the proposed ban “hurtful and offensive” to people of the Jewish faith.

Porth has been quoted as saying, “This [circumcision] is one of the most fundamental practices to our tradition of over 3,000 years. It’s symbolic of our covenant with God.” But Schofield says he already has half the signatures he needs to collect by late April in order to place the proposed ban on the November ballot. If the ban is approved, anyone caught cutting the foreskins of infants or other minors would face up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

Even though the practice is fairly widespread, especially in the United States, the medical community may be more closely aligned with those who oppose circumcision than with those who favor it. In 1999, the nation’s premier medical society – the American Medical Association – formally took the position that “… specialty societies and medical organizations do not recommend routine neonatal circumcision …”

Nevertheless, the best available data (National Hospital Discharge Survey) suggests that 65.5 percent of white male newborns and 64.4 percent of Black male newborns are circumcised. These are 1999 figures – the last year that complete data is available.

For African Americans, circumcision has a checkered history. The practice may actually date back to ancient Egypt. However, during slavery virtually no white males were circumcised but many Black males were because there was a racist belief that circumcision would prevent Black men from raping white women. Things began to change during the early 1900s as a “cleanliness” movement swept the country. This movement pushed the view that circumcision carried major health benefits.

Thus, by 1940, circumcision had become the norm. But many doctors were clear when questioned that the procedure was done primarily to comply with the religious beliefs of the parents than for any realistic health benefit. Meanwhile, most recently, there have been suggestions from a study in Africa that circumcision may help prevent AIDS. But this study has not been duplicated and some experts question its conclusions.

[What do you think? Based on your religious beliefs and health knowledge, do you think circumcision should be banned, discouraged or encouraged? Share your views by emailing [email protected] .]