The XX Factor

San Francisco’s Potential Circumcision Ban: Not Crazy at All

Could San Francisco be the first city in the U.S. to ban male circumcision? Let’s look at the numbers. Jewish people make up only 6.4 percent of the city’s population-but not every Jew favors or practices circumcision, so those 50,000 or so people can’t be counted on to vote in a bloc (if they did, they could make up nearly half of the voters in an off-cycle election; only 102,000 people voted in San Francisco’s 2009 municipal elections). On the other hand, circumcision is far more common in the United States than religious practice can account for; in 2003 (the last year for which I could find data), 55 percent of U.S.-born boys were circumcised. In California, that number is lower-in hospitals, only 21 percent, although that doesn’t take into account circumcisions performed later, which would include nearly all ritual circumcisions of Jewish babies. In 2007, a San Francisco pediatric urologist estimated that about 40 percent of that city’s baby boys were circumcised.

That’s a relatively low percentage, but probably not low enough to reflect the kind of change that brings people out to vote for a ban-or, more likely, to reveal support of a ban among people who were voting anyway. Even in San Francisco, voters skew older. A ban on circumcision calls into question beliefs on personal and religious freedom, and is a challenge to the status quo-all things that make it less likely to fly, even with that noted California eccentricity at play. I’d bet against this one. I wouldn’t want to take it to court yet, either: A constitutional challenge to a ban on male circumcision would need to balance the state’s interest in protecting its citizens against religious freedom. The state’s “interest” is obviously subjective. As public opinion against circumcision shifts (and in-hospital circumcision rates, which reveal primarily nonreligious procedures, have dropped dramatically in the past decade ), the state’s interest will appear stronger. If “intactivists” wait a few years, their chances will be greater.

A ballot initiative is still a smart move. There’s a passionate debate out there on whether male circumcision is comparable to female circumcision-more commonly known as genital mutilation. The more that debate rages, the more our general cultural acceptance of the practice is called into question, which is exactly what organizers want. What starts as national news about “crazy California” moves quickly into a national conversation. California activists are, as the cliche goes, crazy like a fox.