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May 23, 2015

Failure is impossible: The significance of the Hironimus vs. Nebus circumcision case for America

Parenting Circumcision
Gavel Courts 08032019 Photo by Bill Oxford/on Unsplash


It took over 70 years of determined, dogged and dedicated effort to gain the right for women to vote in the United States. Seventy years. The women and men who initially campaigned for universal suffrage didn’t live to see the passage of the 19th amendment.

Susan B. Anthony was jailed, chastised and ridiculed. She nonetheless remained faithful to the eventual success of her vision. “Failure is impossible,” she stated, energizing the younger activists who would pick up the mantle after her death.

Failure is impossible

A great deal has changed since Anthony’s time. Women can now own property, initiate divorce, vote, and serve as lawyers, judges, and on a jury. We take these basic rights for granted and easily forget that a few generations ago they existed only as illuminating ideas held true by a handful of “fringe” activists. For example, my paternal grandfather was born in 1918, before any of the aforementioned rights were legal.

Challenging social and cultural practices that are embedded as norms is significantly difficult work. Setbacks, failures and heartache constitute the rough terrain. Nonetheless, when the human spirit beholds a vision of equality and becomes enlivened by the pursuit of justice, a fire is lit -- one that is not easily quelled.

I am an intactivist.

I firmly support the right to genital integrity for all children. I uphold the rights of individuals, upon reaching the age of consent, to choose whether or not they want to permanently alter the most private parts of their bodies -- be it for religious, cultural or personal reasons.

As in any social justice movement, the intactivist community is diverse. Some of us live and work in countries where the cutting of girls is a widely practiced religious and/or cultural norm. Some of us live and work in countries where the cutting of boys is openly accepted. Intactivists opposing such practices range widely in their approach to protest. Like the suffragette bloomers, America’s “bloodstained men” boldly challenge emotionally charged norms in visible and daring ways. Other intactivists are quiet in the holdings of opinions; perhaps only voicing them with a polite “No, thank you” when asked by a labor and delivery nurse if a newborn boy is to be circumcised.

Recently, intactivist Heather Hironimus, a mother whose story continues to make headline news, served jail time and faced intense public scrutiny as she engaged in a Herculean struggle to safeguard the rights and well-being of her 4 ½ year-old son.

Charged with contempt of court for refusing to sign consent forms authorizing an unwanted and unnecessary elective circumcision, Hironimus fled to a domestic violence shelter. There, she took refuge with her son for over 80 days. Currently, she is being punished for violating the custody agreement she had with the boy’s father, Dennis Nebus, who didn’t have access to his regular visitations while Hironimus and the boy lived and received counseling in the center.

Judge Jeffery Dana Gillen: “She is going to sign the paperwork authorizing Chase’s circumcision or she’s going to sit behind bars until she does.”

However, if Hironimus had sufficient grounds upon which to enter the domestic violence center, as carefully determined by the center’s authorities, then why should she be punished more severely than any other mother who flees abuse and causes an abusive parent to miss visitation?

This question and concerns regarding the emotional and physical safety of the 4 ½ year-old child keep me awake at night.

Hironimus vs. Nebus

“It is the Dred Scott decision of the genital integrity movement,” states Greg Hartley, director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers. Complete with all of the dramatic intrigue needed for an award winning feature film, the Hironimus vs. Nebus case has fascinated, saddened and angered America.

Certainly, many more facts and background information will be revealed in the weeks and months to come.

Consider again why the domestic violence shelter agreed to take Hironimus and her son in. Such centers are not set up as sanctuaries for people fleeing elective surgery. Presumably evidence must exist in Florida’s Department of Children and Families, criminal or police records that would have granted Hironimus and her son access to the treatment and services provided by the shelter. Has anyone investigated? Was Nebus’ criminal background, or lack thereof, ever placed before the court? If not, only negligence can explain the absent investigative effort. Surely an examination of custody issues and concerns brought forward before the circumcision battle began is central to safeguarding the well-being of the innocent child.

Why did Nebus have such a dramatic change of heart with regard to the circumcision of his son? After all, he signed a parenting agreement that stipulated his role in paying for a circumcision, but two years passed before he brought the issue up -- claiming that a medical problem necessitated the surgery. Once his concern was put to rest by a pediatric urologist, he changed his tune and pushed for the cutting regardless. Indeed, he seemed hell bent on getting it done.

On Hironimus' side, one wonders why she signed the parenting agreement in the first place. For the first three months of her son’s life, she had full custody. According to Hironimus' supporters, Nebus had no interest in the boy when he was born. While Hironimus wasn’t involved in the intactivist movement at the time of the boy’s birth, the boy remained intact. Certainly, this doesn’t reflect a pro-circumcision stance. So, how did she understand the signing of the contract? What were her interpretations of the circumcision clause?

Perhaps she understood the circumcision clause to relate only to the possibility of a medically necessitated surgery. However, the clause states nothing about a future circumcision applying only if medical conditions justify the procedure. A literal reading of the clause, not the well-being of the child in question, served as the crucial decisive factor in Florida family court proceedings that favored Nebus’ sudden determination to force an elective surgery upon on a healthy boy.

Boy or Girl?

The Hironimus vs. Nebus case would have never seen a day in court if the child in question had been a girl. In the U.S., it is a felony to subject a girl to genital cutting.

Does that mean American girls are never cut? Not at all. It simply means that parents, who hold true to religious and/or cultural practices that stipulate the cutting of female genitalia, travel abroad for the procedure. (“Vacation cutting,” if discovered, also carries felony charges.) Or, they risk certain jail time and have the surgery performed at home.

Americans are swift to condemn the practice of female genital cutting – some forms of which are milder than what is routinely done to boys in American hospitals. But what of the small percentage of Americans who claim that the ritual cutting of female genitalia forms a sacred link connecting them back to their foremothers across time? Our collective response: they are entitled to their opinions, but cannot legally act on them on US soil. No court has recognized a religious defense for it.

Joseph Campbell, the renowned American scholar of mythology, once stated: “Myth is what we call other people’s religion.” If western culture had inherited a tradition where a supreme being had mandated the cutting of girls, it’s quite plausible that our boys would be protected while a plethora of beliefs, many regarded as medical facts, would justify the practice of female cutting.

A quick study of the practice in Egypt serves as a case in point.

In Egypt, an estimated 90% of women are circumcised. The practice of female circumcision is African in origination but hailed as Islamic in many African Muslim countries. (Female cutting isn’t practiced by the majority of Muslims worldwide, though male cutting is.) Egyptian women have their clitorises clipped -- not excised as in the most extreme forms of female genital mutilation (FGM).

In 1994, CNN aired footage of a 10-year-old girl being circumcised in Egypt. The international outcry was intense. So intense that Egypt’s Minister of Health quickly outlawed the practice in public hospitals, though private hospitals could still perform the procedure. Lebanese-American journalist, Genieve Abdo, was in Egypt at the time. In writing, “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam,” Abdo interviewed well-known Egyptian doctors who justified the practice in medical terms.

These doctors claimed that “repeated tension and mental disturbance” result when girls are not cut. They claimed that the clitoris “grows and dangles outside of the body” if it is not clipped. The clitoris is said to cause infections and release “cancerous cells.” Women are cleaner if cut and their sexual energies are made “safer” for society.

“It has been proven scientifically that women are healthier if they are circumcised,” stated gynecologist Mounir Mohammed Fawzi.

Americans balk at such pseudoscience. And we should. Yet, it would humble us to remember that leading pediatric organizations in the western world regard pro-circumcision statements made by our American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in much the same way. The Canadian Paediatric Society, Royal Australasian College of Physicians, British Medical Association, The Royal Dutch Medical Association and the German Pediatric Association all stand clearly against the practice.

But aren’t circumcised men cleaner? Doesn’t circumcision thwart the spread of HIV/AIDS? What about the prevention of penile or cervical cancers?

In his popular April 10th, 2015 Huffington Post article entitled “Time for US Parents to Reconsider the Acceptability of Circumcision,” Danish doctor and sexual health researcher Morten Frisch writes: “The situation in Europe, where most men are not circumcised, provides an important insight: all of the diseases that circumcision is claimed to prevent are about equally or even less common there than in the United States. For example, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the United States where most men are circumcised is 2-6 times higher than in non-circumcising countries of Northern Europe. While there are many cultural and other variables that play into these differences, the point is that the percentage of excised foreskins in a given population is far from the most relevant factor.”

The US stands alone as the only country in the world that routinely cuts the genitals of infant boys for non-religious reasons. Alone. 

According to the German Pediatric Association: "The other claimed health benefits, including protection against HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, genital warts, and penile cancer, are questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context, and they do not represent compelling reasons for surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves… Therefore it is not understandable that circumcision of boys should be allowed but that of girls prohibited worldwide… ”

The US stands alone as the only country in the world that routinely cuts the genitals of infant boys for non-religious reasons. Alone. Our unique cultural acceptance of the practice, dating back to the popular anti-masturbation campaign of the Victorian age, has spawned our own pseudoscience with regard to the supposed medical benefits of male circumcision. Our pro-circumcision attitudes will take generations to change and vested interests are at work to keep this change at bay. After all, the cutting of infant boys constitutes big business in America -- lining the pockets of doctors and filling the coffers of the hospitals that sell harvested foreskins to bioresearch labs.

If a singular ounce of good has come out of the Hironimus vs. Nebus debacle, it is that the uniquely American practice of cutting off a fully functional part of a boy’s penis has been catapulted into the realm of public debate.


“She is going to sign the paperwork authorizing Chase’s circumcision or she’s going to sit behind bars until she does.”

– Judge Jeffery Dana Gillen

Hironimus challenged Nebus’ interpretation of the circumcision clause in their parenting contract. She sought to amend the parenting contract and retain the vital right to veto it on her son’s behalf. She did this not only because she believed her son, upon reaching the age of consent, should be able to make an informed decision about the state of his own body, but also because she came to realize that the surgery entailed unnecessary risk.

According to Patrick O’Connor -- a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of depression, loss and trauma during childhood and adolescence – those circumcised as children often experience the procedure as “a serious violation of their bodily integrity and develop symptoms that are commonly seen in children who have been sexually abused.” In addition to this worrying information about the psychological impact of the elective procedure, Hironimus was (and remains) deeply concerned about conditions specific to her son’s profile. According to Hironimus, her son had a terrible reaction to anesthesia when he had a medically necessitated surgery as a younger boy. He also develops keloid scars.

Hironimus lost in the court proceeding. The court ordered that the boy recover in Nebus’ charge for two weeks post-surgery, without any visitation from his mother. A warrant was issued for Hironimus’ arrest when she failed to show up in court and sign consent forms authorizing the surgery. On May 14th, she was arrested at the domestic violence shelter and jailed without the possibility of bail. One can only imagine the little boy’s fearful and angry tears.

In an attempt to override the pro-circumcision decisions found in the state of Florida, a brief filing with a federal court was made. However, challenging deeply seated norms that regard the cutting of boy genitals as culturally, historically, and medically sanctioned requires generations of work. Victory looked dim and the very real possibility of Hironimus losing permanent custody or visitation dawned.

On Friday, May 22nd, Hironimus openly wept as she signed court ordered consent forms authorizing an unwanted elective surgery to alter and damage her son’s healthy genitals.

That she signed these forms in handcuffs constitutes a sad day in the annals of American justice.

The courts have failed the boy. But the mother has not. She will not. Even as she signed, in clear and unequivocal duress, the dreaded consent forms -- she didn’t fail him. Yes, she lost the battle with regard to this specific surgery. But in her effort to free herself from jail, she strives to move one step closer to holding her beloved child in her arms. To this day, she remains the central, nurturing, and powerful emotional ballast in her son’s life. She valiantly attempts to bring as much healing as she can pre and post procedure. The boy should not face this court ordered surgery alone with only an apparent father-as-nemesis by his side. No one who understands the power of a mother’s heart can fault her.

We will remember

In 1873, Susan B. Anthony stepped into a courtroom. The charge? “Knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully” voting. Forbidden to take the stand on her own behalf, she regarded her judge as a “small brained, pale faced, prim looking man” who sternly ruled against her despite the fact that her lawyer, Henry Seldon, skillfully pointed out the obvious.

“If the same act had been done by her brother under the same circumstances, the act would have been not only innocent, but honorable and laudable; but having been done by a woman it is said to be a crime,” stated Seldon.

Anthony lost in the court proceeding. Like the tens of thousands of suffragettes who marched in the streets, faced jail time and forced feedings, her work was misunderstood and routinely disregarded. This didn’t stop her. Anthony spent the next 33 years campaigning for a gender-inclusive interpretation of our constitution’s 14th amendment equal protection clause. She worked diligently and remained optimistic.

Today, many Americans regard the practice of bobbing the ears or clipping the tails of household pets as barbaric and inhumane but affirm the circumcising of their infant sons as normal. This will change. In the past few decades, there has been a continual decline in the practice of male genital cutting in the US. Today over 40% of infant boys are left intact, in some states the figure is 80%.

As intactivists strive to safeguard genital integrity for all children, we will remember the images of Heather Hironimus praying, crying and signing “consent” forms while handcuffed -- images viewed by hundreds of millions worldwide. We will remember a “small-minded” judge and the hypocritical dismissal of the equal protection clause with regard to genital cutting in contemporary American law.

We will remember a mother’s courage and a little boy’s pain. And while we remember, we envision an American future that is in no way fringe.

Failure is impossible.

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