BEHIND THE STORY: CIRCUMCISION AND HIV.

One of the great things about being a magazine writer is that it
allows you to develop quirky areas of expertise. And indeed, as regular readers will know, I've been
covering the HIV/circumcision story on and off for over two years,
since I first wrote for In These Times about Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to encourage circumcision among gay men of color in New York. (Incidentally, that article was my first for editor Phoebe Connelly. A few months later, we both joined the Prospect.)

With the Times reporting
this week that the CDC is considering recommending routine circumcision
of American infants, the issue is gaining wider media pick-up. My
boyfriend reports that he saw talking heads debating the topic on
MSNBC. And this morning, I was a guest on the BBC/Times NPR show "The Takeaway," alongside Dr. Roy Gulick,
chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell Medical
College. You can listen to the segment, which is about 10 minutes long,
here. It's a good introduction to the current research and public health debate around circumcision.

When "Takeaway" producer Molly Webster called me yesterday
to discuss coming on the show, she asked me how I got interested in
this topic -- one that raises a lot of people's eyebrows, and can lead
to very heated arguments in families and between partners. (Joseph O'Neill wrote a wonderful short story for Harper's
dealing with the question of whether to circumcise a son.) There are a
few reasons. First, I've been living for over three years in
Washington, D.C., the city with the highest HIV-infection rate in the
United States: 1 in every 20 adults. That horrific number inspired me
to follow more closely the HIV/AIDS research coming out of Africa. I
was excited and encouraged to read that among heterosexual men,
circumcision can decrease HIV contraction rates by as much as 60
percent. (The jury is out on whether the procedure helps gay men.)

But that news came at a time when, on a more personal
level, I was questioning the practice, especially since I am Jewish
and it is considered an absolute give-in -- even among totally secular
Jews -- that infant boys will undergo circumcision. Why is it that even
as Jews have assimilated and rejected many religious practices, such as
strict Kashrut, we continue, as a community, to cling to
circumcision? In large part, it's because of the understandable desire
for sons to look like their fathers, especially on a part of the body
that carries so much psychological weight. But there's also a deep
emotional tie to circumcision; a feeling of pride that Jews are
physically marked as such -- that a Jewish man can never totally escape
his ethnicity, because it is inscribed on his body through
circumcision. During the Holocaust, this was one way in which Jews were
identified by the Nazis. We Jews are rightfully attached to that
history. One of my friends, who is studying to become a rabbi, recently told me he considers circumcision the single most important Jewish religious obligation.

There have been discussions about circumcision in my own Jewish
family, as intermarriage and new births forced some of the older
members of the clan to question the practice for the first time. I
don't have a firm conclusion on any of this stuff. Public health and
cultural concerns need to be balanced with the reality that
circumcision is surgery without consent, and that it removes a natural,
though not totally essential, part of male anatomy. I suspect that
circumcision rates, after declining over the past several decades, will
go back up. After all, most parents would like to give their children
any weapon they can to fight disease. In any case, those are my
thoughts on all this, since I'm often asked why I write periodically
about this topic.

--Dana Goldstein

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