Bringing foreskins back to the forefront of medicine

Letters
Vol. 9
No. 1
Daniel Strandjord
Sun, 07/24/2011

Even though circumcision had been an issue for me ever since I can remember, I’ve only been openly intactivist since 1999.  Since then, I participated in several group protests at events held by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and during Genital Integrity Awareness Week and became comfortable protesting with other like minded people.  On such person, Van Lewis, told me of being arrested for protesting at a local hospital and I admired him having the courage of his convictions.

Back home in Chicago, I began wearing intactivist t-shirts and buttons virtually everywhere I went.  Living around the University of Chicago where my father had been a well liked and respected professor in the medical school, I was sometimes approached by physicians who asked about my t-shirts (“Where is my foreskin?”, “Genital Mutilation Survivor”, “Circumcision:  I didn’t give MY consent”, etc).  Every doctor who talked to me agreed that there was no medical  justification for infant circumcision, but when I mentioned the terms human rights and medical ethics, they all had a look of shock as though they suddenly realized that the circumcisions they had done might have been unethical.  Suddenly, they didn’t want to continue the conversation.

Since I wasn’t making any obvious progress with the doctors, I decided to try the human rights program at the University of Chicago and attended a human rights symposium on campus.  Much to my surprise, the new director of the human rights program was a woman who lived in my building and had seen my t-shirts and buttons (“Infant Circumcision Violates Children’s Rights”) and had never said anything to me.  At the reception after the symposium, I politely asked her if I could come talk to her about Genital Integrity for all children – male, female, and intersex – as a human rights issue.  She raised her voice and responded “I’m Jewish!  I know what you are going to say and I don’t agree with you.  I’m not going to talk to you.”  She then turned around and accused me of being anti-Semitic as she rushed away.

I decided that if neither the doctors nor the human rights people were going to talk to me, then I would talk to anyone who would talk to me by protesting outside the University of Chicago hospital.  While I still admired Van’s willingness to be arrested (though he hadn’t intended it), I first went to the University of Chicago Police and informed them of my intention to protest and asked what I needed to do.  They told me that I was welcome to exercise my 1st Amendment right to protest as long as I didn’t block entrances to University of Chicago buildings or sidewalks.

I’ve just started my 8th year of protesting nearly every weekday when the weather is decent and when I’m in town.  My protest is usually between 1 and 2 hours (on my way home from swimming every day at the University pool) and I’ve talked to thousands of people.  Most people who talk to me already agree with me, but those who don’t stop to talk or take a brochure still end up being constantly confronted by the issue.  My sign reads: “The FOREFRONT of Medicine Should Know FORESKIN is NOT a Birth Defect.”  This is my way of trying to remind the University of Chicago Hospital that they are not living up to their motto: “At the Forefront of Medicine.”

In the fall of 2009, I was finally invited inside to talk to a class on “The Biology of Gender.”  The professor is an expert on human development and physiology who admits that he was told to ignore the foreskin in his classes on anatomy when he was in school.  He was willing to listen to me and take my information and invites me to speak to his students each year when he teaches this particular class.  He has also taken my information to the anatomy professor who teaches medical students.  I’m told that the anatomy professor has agreed to start teaching University of Chicago medical students about the anatomy, development, and functions of a foreskin.  

I hope that I will never have another 4th-year University of Chicago medical student come up to me and say:  “I’ve never been taught anything about foreskin in my classes and there is nothing about foreskin in my textbooks.  I’ve never even seen a foreskin in my entire life!”  There is no excuse for such ignorance in American medical schools.

While I know I have saved some children with my protest, my real goal is to influence others to take action.  One of the best things that my protest helped to inspire was Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s film “CUT: Slicing thru the Myths of Circumcision,” which had it’s premiere at the Hillel Center at the University of Chicago.  

I must thank Van Lewis again for helping me find the courage to speak out and protest by myself at my local hospital.