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Condoms, circumcision, safe sex and the supot

05:44 PM May 22, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO—In Manila and San Francisco, the debates are raging, heated public disputes — over people’s privates.

The issues involved are serious, I know.

But I can’t help thinking that, while Manila and San Francisco have long had strong ties, one city is now looking at the other with puzzled amazement, even amusement.


For in San Francisco, the idea of giving people the choice to use condoms is a no-brainer. So the debate in Philippines on whether that should be an option for couples planning their families is bizarre to most people here.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, having a son circumcised, even at birth, is an accepted tradition. So a proposal in San Francisco to ban the circumcision of children under 18 must sound really strange.

The circumcision ban is being pushed by the so-called intactivists – as in, they want to keep boys intact, foreskin and all. Male circumcision, in their view, is a cruel procedure, a form of genital mutilation.

“Parents are really guardians, and guardians have to do what’s in the best interest of the child. It’s his body. It’s his choice,” Lloyd Schofield, the measure’s main proponent told the Associated Press.

Schofield told ABC News that “when you take an infant, hold them down and give insufficient or no anesthesia and you cut off the most sensitive part of their body, there’s no question it’s exactly the same [as female genital mutilation].”

It’s a debatable point. As the report noted, experts agree that female circumcision can hardly be compared to the procedure on males.

“The male equivalent of those would be removal of the penis with or without the scrotum,” Dr. Douglas Diekema of the Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, told ABC News.

Female circumcision is seen as such an abhorrent practice, especially in parts of Africa, that personalities, including American novelist Alice Walker, have been waging a campaign to end it.


On the other hand, male circumcision, Dr Karen Boyle, a Baltimore-based surgeon, told ABC News, has health benefits, including minimizing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

She did note “the data is not strong enough in terms of its medical benefits to say ‘Yes, we should be routinely doing newborn circumcision on all newborn boy infants.”

But experts agree that it’s a safe procedure. It should be a choice left to moms and dads. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Boyle said, has “basically put the control and the decision-making power in to the hands of the parents.”

The proposed circumcision ban has naturally provoked outrage from Jews for whom circumcision has long been a religious and cultural tradition.

“The proposal’s backers are trying to deceive the voters by labeling it a ‘ban on genital mutilation,’” Rabbi Gil Leeds said in an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Honesty would have demanded they called it a ban on circumcision,” he added. “The United States was the first country in history to guarantee all faiths religious freedom. Now, two centuries later, this cherished freedom is being put up to a popular vote.”

It’s a point that’s strikingly relevant to the condom debate in the Philippines.

The Catholic Church is leading the charge against the reproductive health bill.

So some may ask: If the Jews have the right to preserve a tradition, shouldn’t the Catholics also have the right to assert their view that condoms are wrong?

But there’s a big difference.

The Jews (and in fact Muslims and Christians also circumcise their kids) aren’t imposing their beliefs on others on a practice medical experts deem safe.

The situation in the Philippines is a bit more complicated — and quirkier.

It is government that wants to give people informed choices on family planning. The Catholic hierarchy wants to take it away — and essentially paints those who disobey as apostles of the devil.

I’ve read the materials on the reproductive rights bill, and not once did I get the impression that the law would essentially say, “Wear a condom, or you’re in big trouble!”

On the other hand, in San Francisco, the proposed ban would mean a hefty fine and up to a year in jail for circumcising a baby boy.

One Filipina health professional based in Oakland was frustrated that the circumcision ban proposal is getting all the attention, given all the other more pressing problems in the Bay Area.

“What’s driving this is emotion – and machismo,” she said.

She could very have been describing the condom battle in Manila.

For it is also about machismo.

It’s about men in robes, and others who are not, who think women should not have limited say on whether or not they should have babies. That their role in the world is to make babies.

But back to the intactivists.

For Pinoys, the sense of “machismo” they appear to be pushing would surely seem odd. After all, in Filipino culture, to be “a man” means to be circumcised — to be tuli.

Dr. Boyle, in the interview with ABC News, noted that one possible consequence of a ban could be an “increase in the incidence of circumcision happening after when the child is a little older.”

That point really made me cringe. It made me really hope that this measure will eventually fail.

That’s because that’s what happened to me. Tired of being counted among the ridiculed tribe of the “supot,” I bravely went through the ritual that was supposed to turn Filipino boys into men.

I was 12. It was the worst summer of my boyhood.

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel

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TAGS: Beliefs, circumcision, Condoms, Culture, genital mutilation, Religion, RH Bill, safe sex, San Francisco, supot, tradition
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