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Protesters rally to draw attention to male circumcision

Protesters with Bloodstained Men hold signs at the intersection of Union Avenue and Pleasant Valley Boulevard on Wednesday in Altoona. Mirror photo by Holly Claycomb

The sight of several protesters along Plank Road and Pleasant Valley Boulevard Wednesday in white outfits, crotches colored crimson, was arresting — like the name of their organization: Bloodstained Men.

The group was protesting a practice that is routine in the U.S. — although not with men, but infant boys — circumcision.

Surgery removing the foreskin of the penis is tantamount to sexual abuse, an unnatural tradition that can be painful and even traumatic for babies, depriving them when older of a full measure of sexual pleasure, sometimes leading to psychological and relationship problems, according to the national leader of the organization, who was part of the group.

“All children deserve the right to grow up with intact bodies,” said David Atkinson, CEO of Bloodstained Men, whose allies Wednesday included “intactivists” from all over the country, who periodically conduct regional protest tours like the current tour through Pennsylvania.

In the U.S., about 60% of baby boys are circumcised, although only 33% of males get the operation worldwide, according to the Cleveland Clinic website. Circumcision rates are highest in the U.S., the Mideast and South Korea, while much lower in Europe, parts of Asia and South America, according to the clinic.

Benefits include a lower risk of certain health conditions, including penile cancer, and certain sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, urinary tract infections and cervical cancer in female sexual partners, according to the clinic and the UPMC website.

Researchers don’t believe circumcision hurts — or enhances — sexual pleasure, according to the clinic.

Still, “the potential increased risk for uncircumcised males is low,” including the risk of urinary tract infections, the UPMC website states.

Conversely, there are occasional complications with circumcision surgery, according to the UPMC website.

Atkinson largely dismissed the health benefit claims for circumcision, particularly alleging that there were flaws in studies in Africa that found the practice helped lower HIV infections.

Some risks allegedly lowered by the operation only come into play in very old age, Atkinson said.

The operation is “an ancient blood ritual” that “messes with the mechanics of normal intercourse,” he said.

“(It’s) disruptive” to remove a healthy, important body part, said Atkinson, whose opposition to circumcision began to crystallize after his first year in college.

Doctors who are themselves circumcised have performed the operation and passed on misunderstandings about its alleged benefits for generations, largely because they don’t know anything different, Atkinson said.

They have an incentive not to backtrack now because of liability concerns, he said.

Atkinson was circumcised himself as an infant, at a time when there was less information that indicated the procedure should be abandoned, he said.

But parents now have access to that information, he said.

Altoona-area residents Brooke and Robert Fogal participated in Wednesday’s protest, bringing along their 20-month-old son Phoenix, who sat in a red wagon.

“He is intact,” Brooke said.

Their older two sons, 8 and 10, however, are not, she said.

She became opposed to circumcision after the older boys had some problems, and she studied the subject, she said.

She sees her opposition as a “human rights issue,” she stated.

There’s no accepted equivalent for baby girls, so there shouldn’t be for baby boys, she said.

She gave birth to her first two sons when she was young.

“The older I got, the less sense it made,” she said.

Circumcision dates back thousands of years to Abraham, father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, according to Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.

Ordered by God to be performed on boys eight days after their birth, it created a “physical mark of commitment to the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel.

“It’s an outward symbol of the covenant between God and God’s people,” Wallen said.

It helped to differentiate men of the monotheistic Jewish faith from others who worshiped idols, Wallen said.

It remains a “first sort of rite of passage” in Judaism, Wallen said.

It’s still practiced widely in that faith, Korotkin said.

Circumcision is also practiced by Muslims, according to Wallen.

Leaders of the Jewish community haven’t received any information from the medical community that there’s anything harmful in circumcision, except in particular instances where it may be contraindicated, Korotkin said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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