Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

Author: Janet Heimlich

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. By Janet Heimlich. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2011. 397 pages. No price listed on book but website gives price as $20. Review by J. Steven Svoboda

Janet Heimlich, a freelance journalist who formerly worked for National Public Radio, has written a very interesting book surveying the many forms of religiously based child abuse in the United States. Heimlich’s book is divided into four parts, in turn examining physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and medical neglect.

The entire volume is well researched, impartially analyzed, and incisively presented. Heimlich does not impress as an author with any particular axe to grind but rather with a scythe she wields in her valiant attempts to cut through to the truth behind the many ways in which we act out our societal and personal dysfunctions upon those least able to protect themselves.

Whatever specific topic she may be analyzing, Heimlich always keeps in mind the primary subject of her book—the tiny victims. “We owe it to the recipients of these procedures—most of whom have no say in the matter whatsoever—to consider these risks carefully and then decide whether circumcision is truly in the best interest of the child.”

The author writes that she did not necessarily intend to address the issue of male circumcision or MGC as she saw it as outside the scope of her concerns. “Then I did some research, “ she writes, “and what I found shocked me.”

We can learn much from the author, both for what she gets right and for what she occasionally gets wrong. Both are encapsulated in a single sentence as she writes, “while male circumcision has some health benefits, it carries serious risk, even the risk of death.”

As her book addresses religiously motivated child mistreatment, she appropriately examines the religious issue, correctly noting, “many Jews, Muslims, and, surprisingly, Christians, assume that their faith requires them to remove the foreskin of the penis. However, it’s worth questioning this position in the case of all three faiths.” Heimlich also points out that “the type of circumcision performed in Abraham’s time was much more conservative than what is done today.” She discussed alternative brises and notes that it is “a fallacy” that all [male] Muslim babies are subjected to the procedure.

Heimlich also addresses female genital cutting (FGC), treating that issue every bit as fairly as she does MGC. She makes the occasional slip, as when she completely omits to discuss the 2010 flip flop performed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its position statements. The author mentions 19th century FGC without mentioning 19th century MGC, and her statement that the overall circumcision rate is 79 per cent is out of date. The chapter could have used a bit more editing, as when she devotes far too much space to a Muslim woman who defends FGC and later in analyzing John Harvey Kellogg,

Heimlich approvingly cites Dan Bollinger’s study of deaths caused by circumcision, almost sounding like one of us when she writes:

The importance of allowing the penis of a newborn to remain intact goes a long way toward explaining why I have not come across a single scientific study proving that circumcision helps to improve or prolong life in a majority of males or why no medical association recommends that the procedure be routinely performed on newborns.

Heimlich has a knack for extracting useful information, as when she notes, “In one study, a mother even said that the procedure was so horrible to watch, she told the doctor afterward that had she had a gun at the time, she would have killed him.”

She delves into detail in retelling the story of Michelle Richardson’s son, who suffered from the removal of tissue beyond what is habitually removed in a circumcision.

The conclusion of the chapter, titled, “Are We Hypocritical?” fundamentally concludes that the answer is “yes” insofar as we view and treat MGC differently from FGC. “Just as with its female counterpart, the rationales given by advocates of male circumcision do not stack up against the many risks, and religious justifications are legalistic and exploitive.” The author goes so far as to state that, “the mildest form of [FGC]—where only the hood of the clitoris… is removed—is essentially no different from male circumcision.” Heimlich points out the violation of equal protection inherent in our simultaneous vilification of FGC and acceptance of MGC.

“Given what we know about the dangers of male circumcision, one wonders why Americans tend to be so accepting of the procedure.” Heimlich provides some answers to her own question in the final sentences of the chapter, noting, “a majority of Americans appear to embrace conformity, partly due to being unaware of circumcision’s risks and the ease of caring for the intact penis.”

It is hard to object to an author who closes her chapter on genital cutting by writing, “many circumcision opponents hope that the country will soon look upon male circumcision in much the same way they view female circumcision: an unnecessary, potentially dangerous procedure that removes an important part of the body.”

Highly recommended for all intactivists and all other human beings.