Interview with Tim Hammond

Tim Hammond
Tim Hammond

Interview by Aubrey Terrón and Steven Svoboda

1.     How old were you when you realized that circumcision was something about which a male should decide for himself?

In 1988, at age 32, I embarked on my personal foreskin restoration efforts after watching an episode of the Phil Donahue show when Phil interviewed Marilyn Milos along with Richard Steiner, who talked about his surgical foreskin restoration.  See it on youtube.  

Marilyn and Dr. Dean Edell articulated the belief that circumcision should be something about which the owner of the penis himself should decide. That was a concept that really resonated with me at a time when I was becoming more aware of how I had been violated by my circumcision.

2.     What was the nature of your very first act as an activist for genital autonomy? 

After seeing the Donahue program, I contacted Marilyn, who put me in touch with Wayne Griffiths, who she said could talk to me about his own manual foreskin restoration methods. After discussing this subject with Wayne, I suggested that he and I begin a support group in San Francisco. We initially called it ReCAP (Re-Cover a Penis) [Note by Steven: a summer 1990 ReCAP meeting at Wayne’s place in Concord, California was my very first exposure to activism], an organization that later evolved into the National Organization of Restoring Men (NORM). Any interest I had in restoration was based on my own quest for personal healing from circumcision.  My activism for children grew out of my frustrations with foreskin restoration and my discovery of very strong emotions of sadness and anger about my own circumcision that, up to that point, I never knew I had. In 1992 I founded the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (NOHARMM), a non-violent, educational and direct-action network of men working together to end routine infant circumcision through a model of education and empowerment of other men. 

3.     Your video Whose Body, Whose Rights? (WBWR?) is now a classic for the movement. Is there a way new activists can see it or share it? 

The idea for creating WBWR? began after I researched existing parent-oriented videos about circumcision and found that they were not giving parents the full picture. They all talked about the “pros” and cons of circumcision.  Unfortunately, they did not include any discussion of the practice’s anti-sexual history, of foreskin functions, of harm caused by circumcision, of foreskin restoration, nor of legal, ethical and human rights considerations. I wanted to make a video primarily directed at men, especially new fathers, to wake them up and to break the cycle of abuse of boys. The original working title of WBWR? was 'And Suddenly Men Began to Scream', after a quote from Marilyn Milos, "I began my work to stop the screams of babies and then men began to scream." 

A great deal of time and talent was volunteered on WBWR? by videographer Lawrence Dillon and by voice talents Wayne Griffiths and Troy Christian, who is Marilyn’s son.  There were still a lot of unavoidable expenses. Through a tedious and time-consuming appeal to movement supporters (remember, this was decades before Kickstarter and GoFundMe existed), I was able to raise half of the approximately $25,000 that it ultimately cost to produce WBWR?  Hanny Lightfoot-Klein (author of Prisoners of Ritual) graciously introduced my film to her friend and philanthropist Lawrence Rockefeller, who indicated that he was willing to fund my project.  Rockefeller also expressed some displeasure with the working title and asked me to consider a different title before he would fund my project. I must have come up with over a dozen different alternative titles. I ran many of them by my friend, videographer James Loewen. After much consideration, we agreed that the title ‘Whose Body, Whose Rights?’ captured the essence of the documentary. Because there was so much content to WBWR? and because we received feedback from childbirth educators that a shorter video was needed for use with parents, I chose to break the video into two parts. Part One outlines the problem, while Part Two explores what’s being done to address solutions.

I completed WBWR? in early 1995 and it won several film festival awards and was sold in VHS format to the home and educational markets (schools and libraries) through the University of California/Berkeley Media Distribution Cooperative. It was also picked up and aired by numerous PBS stations and community access stations around the country, including KQED in San Francisco, who aired it twice (1995 and 1996). KQED was kind enough to share with me their telephone logs and letters from the public that they received after each airing. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with the general feedback being along the lines of, ‘Finally, someone is talking sensibly about this issue!’  I still remember, however, one letter in particular from a viewer in Oakland, California. He railed against the film’s ‘stridency’ and rather prophetically asked KQED’s General Manager, “Can you imagine this becoming a political issue?”  See it on youtube.

A DVD of the program can be purchased at www.circumcisionvideos.com. The same site also carries a DVD that contains ‘Whose Body, Whose Rights?’ along with the groundbreaking mini-documentaries ‘They Cut Babies Don’t They?’ (a profile of Canadian intactivist James Loewen), ‘Nurses of St. Vincent’ (profiling the courageous Santa Fe nurses who took a collective stand against newborn circumcision), and ‘Facing Circumcision: Eight Physicians Tell Their Stories’.

4.     Do you have a favorite “saved a baby” moment? 

I’ve never spent much time trying to save individual babies. My net was always cast much wider, as I strove to empower others to speak out, to form groups and to create events to make this a legitimate social issue and political cause. I did, however, save the son of two friends, a lesbian couple with whom I worked on LGBT issues in my hometown of Rochester, NY. I appealed to their feminist principles as women claiming control of their bodies, an approach that resonated with them. After all, if they had circumcised him, they would have been hypocrites to claim a right to control their own reproductive organs and yet would deny that same right to their son.

5.     We know you sent your Global Survey of Circumcision Harm to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) in 2013.  Did the CPS respond to you? Do you feel that their policy was impacted in any way? 

I sent the CPS a professionally printed and bound, fully tabbed copy of the 78-page report of findings from the survey that I conducted over a 15.5-month period in 2011 and 2012. The report contained the responses of 1,008 men from eight nations. Most respondents were from the U.S., but there were also 80 from Canada and even 10 from Israel. The report included photos of damage that more than 100 men submitted with their completed questionnaires. The report contained only two of the five photo galleries of harm that are on the website (circumcisionharm.org).  I also included a copy of my earlier harm survey of 546 men that was published in 1999 by BJU International, here.

Since I wasn’t really expecting a response from the CPS, with James Loewen’s help I recorded on youtube an open letter to the CPS to document that I sent them the report. That way, there would be a historical record that they were put on notice that long-term harm exists.  See it on youtube

The CPS, of course, never responded. Realistically, had they confirmed receipt of the survey, they would have then been on record as possessing evidence about the long-term harm. As expected, there was no mention of long-term circumcision harm in the CPS’ most recent policy statement of 2015, here.

What I find particularly damning to the CPS is that two provincial medical societies, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, had previously acknowledged not only long-term harm but critical issues of human rights!

Caution Against Routine Circumcision of Newborn Male Infants (2002)
College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, here.

Circumcision (Infant Male) - Professional Standards and Guidelines
College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia (2009), here

In 2014, I also sent a copy of the Harm Survey findings by registered mail to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  At the time, the CDC’s proposed recommendations about circumcision were open to public comment. Despite being put on official notice that the harm exists, the CDC also ignored this issue without including it when they published their pro-circumcision guidelines.

Despite my earlier skepticism about trying to convince the medical or academic communities to recognize the harm of circumcision, in 2015 I compiled the survey findings into a journal article, and with the help of co-author Dr. Adrienne Carmack, we started submitting the manuscript to journals such as BJU International, Advancements in Sexual Medicine and the International Journal of Men’s Health. While these journals turned us down, our article was recently accepted by the International Journal of Human Rights. The title is ‘Long-term adverse outcomes from neonatal circumcision reported in a survey of 1,008 men: An overview of health and human rights implications’. The exact publication date has not been set, but we expect it to be published in early 2017.

6.      What area of activism do you think holds the most immediate promise?  Long term?

I think there are multiple answers to this question, depending on where in the world you’re talking about. If it’s Europe, I think the answer can be found in better education of medical professionals about long-term circumcision harm and conservative foreskin treatment alternatives, and holding doctors accountable to a higher level of medical ethics and human rights. Among the Jewish community, even in Israel, I think the answer will be found in the majority of Jews discussing non-cutting alternatives and in greater recognition that the human right to bodily integrity applies as much to Jewish boys as it does to Jewish girls or to children of either sex in Africa. But for U.S. doctors, especially the obstetricians and gynecologists that perform most of the infant male circumcisions in America, I’m confident the answer will be found in litigation and court decisions that will make it unprofitable for them to continue. I sincerely hope that instead of looking at an infant’s penis and seeing a quick surgery that with even a few being done every week can easily translate to a $30,000 automobile each year, they’ll contemplate a judge’s gavel leading to professional dishonor and financial ruin. This is where I’m looking to ARC to lead the way - and I’m eager to assist - in creating a system to identify young plaintiffs who are aware of and can document their harm and are about to reach the age of majority so that they can file a case within the allowable statute of limitations.

7.     Is there something other activists can do to help you in your current endeavors? 

Right now I’m working on several projects.  One is an outreach effort to historically liberal, progressive Christian denominations who have not been afraid to stick their neck out and speak in favor of social justice and human rights issues (women’s rights, gay rights, an end to human trafficking, etc). One goal is to have the national office of such denominations endorse the 2012 Helsinki Declaration on Genital Autonomy. 

Another project I’m working on is a media guide to circumcision and human rights. I’m also working at the regional level (Southern California) to plan events in the Los Angeles area to mark World Genital Autonomy Day each year on May 7th, here

I also invite Southern California activists to contact me to coordinate an activist presence in the L.A. Pride Parade and Festival each June.

8.     Does your gay activism affect your activism on behalf of genital integrity, and if so, how?

Some might wonder what in the world LGBT issues might have to do with activism. Well, gay men are just as much victims of circumcision as straight men. Same-sex couples these days are also having or adopting children, so they are confronted with ‘the decision’ just as straight couples are. Many activists who’ve work on other social justice and human rights causes (e.g., animal welfare, women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights) can easily see the intersectionality or common ground among all of these issues. Steven Svoboda and other activists acknowledge that the activist movement is following a similar trajectory as the LGBT movement and we have much to learn from LGBT political experiences. LGBT history is full of experiences with medical and religious communities attempting to control, suppress and sometimes even eradicate our ‘undesirable’sexuality, much the way these institutions have attempted to eradicate the ‘undesirable’ foreskin. I think we’re also more politically fearless than most people in calling out institutions, beliefs and practices based on religion that harm others (intentionally or not). LGBT folk - I believe - can become some of our most socially, financially and politically potent allies. I explain this further in a brochure that we at CHHRP created called ‘Circumcision and the LGBTI Community’. Found here

9.     As founder and Executive Director of NOHARMM you were ARC's mentor in our early years. What have you learned about the movement in the intervening years? When you think back to the days when you and Steven worked together learning to track monthly donations using index cards, what has changed since then, in yourself, in Steven, in ARC? 

I think both Steven and I have expanded our awareness beyond male circumcision. Although our particular problem in the U.S. happens to target boys, speaking from a legal and human rights perspective, I think this is best addressed as a children’s rights issue that involves all children. I also believe Steven, Peter Adler and other ARC attorneys have done an amazing job at defining what the legal and human rights issues are. I think the next step for ARC and its lawyers is to design and find funding for a national program to find suitable young male plaintiffs who know they’ve been harmed (and can have it professionally documented) in order to bring legal action against their circumcisers and the facilitators (i.e., hospitals and insurance companies). The parents could even be co-plaintiffs on the grounds that they were fraudulently solicited to consent to their sons’ circumcisions. Ideally, this would be a case against ‘Big Circ,’ much the way we’ve seen lawsuits against “Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Tobacco’. I mean, just look at the magazine ads from the first half of the 20th century where doctors were endorsing cigarettes! You can’t convince me that they weren’t aware of the science behind the dangers of tobacco smoking, and I think the same holds true today for circumcision. Even if many of today’s doctors take a ‘neutral’ stand on circumcision, the very fact that they raise the issue with parents and are willing to do the circumcision sends a tacit message to parents, ‘It must be a good thing if the doctor is offering it.’

10. You lived in Canada for a number of years. Did your life outside the US affect your view of activism and activists in the US, and if so, how?

Having lived for the past eight years in Canada (Vancouver) I became aware of a very different sensibility about activism for genital autonomy. Since infant circumcision is no longer paid for by any provincial health plan, profiteers have sprung up to take advantage of this void by offering circumcision as a private, outpatient clinic ‘service’ to parents. The most notorious entrepreneur is Jewish mohel and physician Neil Pollock who runs a chain of circumcision clinics in British Columbia. Although there have been some organized street protests outside his clinics, I’m not aware of any sustained effort at this. However, under the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - which is similar to but stronger than the U.S. Bill of Rights - gender equality is supposedly a right of all Canadian citizens. Canada has a federal anti-FGM law that protects girls. So, any young man who was circumcised in Canada without medical indication and who becomes aware of and can document his harm can bring a lawsuit against the hospital and/or medical or religious circumciser within one year of turning age 18, based on harm done to his body and the violation of his Charter rights to equal protection based on gender. All it would take would be for one or two aware and courageous young Canadian men to become plaintiffs in such a case. As well, Canada has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), as has every other nation in the world except the U.S.*. In this way, Canadian activists potentially have two means of engaging the government on this issue. 

In the U.S., I predict the change must eventually rise to the level of the courts. Just as with the issue of marriage equality, the issue of children’s genital autonomy will entail a divisive political fight with human rights advocates on one side. On the other side will be the medical community trying to protect its prestige and profits, plus Jews and Muslims claiming ‘religious freedom,’ Christian fundamentalists claiming ‘parental rights’, and political conservatives claiming ‘judicial activism’ and ‘government intrusion’ into private family life. That said, this is not an issue we should shrink from. It just needs to be approached in a very careful, well thought out, and strategic manner. And that of course will not happen unless we come together to design the road map for change.

 * If you support U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, visit childrightscampaign.org.  If you want to read the absurd arguments from those who oppose the UNCROC visit noCRC.org.  

11.     What are you most excited about in activism?

I’m most hopeful when I see the young people at high school and college level who grasp that this is a legitimate issue of gender equality and human rights.  While having a presence at baby fairs is important, we can no longer confine ourselves to that brief nine-month window of opportunity. We need to transform the dialogue into a legitimate society-wide debate over children’s rights vs. parental responsibilities and the limits of religious freedom.

12.     What are you most concerned about in activism?

I’m concerned that some of our organizations don’t seem to have clearly defined strategies. As well, many activists rely too heavily on either social media or street protests as the only means of change.  We also need to focus on creative ways to fund our movement. One way that I recently discovered was 1% cashback credit cards.  I convinced and helped ARC to sign up for these programs. Anyone who applies for these cards can now designate 1% of their cashback rewards to go to ARC. [Editor’s Note: Details regarding this program are available here: ] This is a start, but we need to combine our skills and talents to search for more ways to fundraise. 

I believe public support for our message will be easier to secure if we focus—as ARC is doing—on protecting all children, male, female and intersex. I believe the physicians within our movement need to be better organized and aggressive in terms of creating lobbies within their respective fields to educate their peers about foreskin anatomy, development and function, conservative treatment alternatives to circumcision,  and pushing for resolutions that recognize the ethical and human rights dimensions of non-consensual genital cutting of children.

I also believe that some activists need to do a better job at policing themselves on social media. When I speak to non-activists about our issue, I often hear impressions of activists as “rude bullies” who try to make circumcised men feel bad about themselves or make parents feel bad about choosing circumcision.  There are methods of accomplishing ‘change without denigration’ that can be more effective than some techniques now being used by some U.S. activists.