Circumcision Armageddon

This poor kid.

Chase’s Guardians guard Chase. Or at least part of him.

Photo courtesy Chase’s Guardians

Heather Hironimus and Dennis Nebus are fixated on their son’s foreskin. It is an obsession that has bound them together long beyond the end of their relationship. Nebus believes their 4 1/2-year-old son, Chase Ryan Nebus-Hironimus, should be circumcised for medical reasons. Hironimus believes circumcision is barbaric genital mutilation. Nebus has gone to court to get his son circumcised. Hironimus has gone to jail to prevent it. Their dispute is easily the weirdest, saddest, most disturbing battle yet in the war over circumcision.

Hironimus and Nebus had little luck in love. The Florida couple never married, and they separated about a year after Chase was born. As part of their separation, both Hironimus and Nebus signed a formal “parenting plan” approved by a judge. One portion of this plan specified that Nebus would take Chase to be circumcised and cover the costs. At the time, Hironimus agreed to this stipulation.

Nebus put off the circumcision until December of 2013—when he saw Chase, then 3, urinating on his leg. A pediatrician suggested Chase’s foreskin was too tight and should be removed. Later, a urologist questioned that diagnosis, but agreed that Chase would benefit generally from a circumcision. When Nebus informed Hironimus of the impending procedure, however, Hironimus balked. Since signing the parenting plan two years earlier, Hironimus had become an intactivist—an anti-circumcision activist who believes the removal of a child’s foreskin constitutes child abuse and a human rights violation.

When Hironimus refused to allow the procedure to go forward, Nebus took her to court to enforce the contract she had signed. A state court sided with Nebus, noting that their parenting plan “clearly and unambiguously provides” that Chase would be circumcised. An appeals court unanimously affirmed the ruling, and a judge ordered Hironimus to turn Chase over to Nebus so he could schedule the procedure. Hironimus instead disappeared with her son. The judge then issued a warrant for her arrest for interfering with child custody. For weeks Hironimus escaped arrest by hiding with Chase in a domestic violence shelter. (Hironimus has not claimed that she was abused.) While hiding out, Hironimus filed a federal lawsuit against Nebus, asserting that, by having Chase circumcised, Nebus would violate his son’s constitutional rights. Eventually, the police discovered Hironimus’ whereabouts, took her into custody, and turned Chase over to Nebus.

From her jail cell, Hironimus filed an emergency motion in federal court to prevent Nebus from having Chase circumcised. When a federal judge essentially laughed Hironimus out of court, she withdrew her federal suit. A state judge ruled that Hironimus will remain in jail until she signs the consent form for Chase to be circumcised. On Friday a weeping Hironimus signed the form. She still faces criminal charges for absconding with Chase in violation of her custody agreement.

How did a local parenting dispute become the stuff of tabloid headlines? The answer lies in the tenacious community of intactivists who seized upon Hironimus’ plight as both a crusade and a publicity stunt. A group that calls itself Chase’s Guardians has sponsored a legal fund for Hironimus that, it claims, has raised more than $50,000. The group set up a WhiteHouse.gov petition that drew more than 3,500 signatures. Its members have staged protests and candlelight vigils outside the jail where Hironimus is being held. They have quietly spread anti-circumcision literature throughout local libraries and strange, graphic, scaremongering memes across the Internet. They convinced Richard Dawkins to rail against “traumatic amputation” and tweet a link to their fundraiser. 

I reached out to the person who runs the Chase’s Guardians Facebook page, hoping to interview him for this story. He promptly sent back a link to a retort to my 2013 article on intactivists and wrote: “Sorry about your semi-functional penis remnant Marky.”

He declined to discuss his work with Chase’s Guardians.

The next day, another member of Chase’s Guardians reached out to me and agreed to provide more background on the condition of anonymity. Hironimus, the woman told me, knew nothing about circumcision when she signed the parenting agreement and paid no attention to the clause’s inclusion. Over the next few years, she became a vehement intactivist and posted anti-circumcision articles on social media. According to my source, when Nebus learned of Hironimus’ position, he “vindictively began pursuing the circumcision,” even though Chase was already 3 years old. (This account contradicts a good deal of sworn testimony, including Nebus’ assertion—uncontested in court—that he pursued Chase’s circumcision on the advice of a doctor.)

Domestic lawsuits involving custody or parental rights are often convoluted and contentious. The spat over Chase’s foreskin demonstrates why legal conflicts between parents are best resolved by, well, parents—and not a merry band of extremists. On the one hand, circumcision is really not a big deal. It does not seem to reduce sexual satisfaction, as intactivists claim, but it does appear to reduce a man’s odds of contracting herpes, HPV, syphilis, genital warts, and HIV. On the other hand, infancy is undoubtedly the best time to perform a circumcision: While infant circumcision is safe and simple, circumcising older children poses a greater risk of complication. Plus, no kid wants to undergo surgery, even if it’s quite minor—and Hironimus has likely filled Chase’s head with horrifying exaggerations about the procedure.

The drawbacks of Chase’s circumcision at this late date, then, probably outweigh the benefits, given the ambiguity of his medical diagnoses. The indefinite imprisonment of Hironimus is, by any standard, absurdly excessive. And the possibility that Nebus is using circumcision to torment Hironimus is deeply troubling, if unsubstantiated. But, as the courts have noted, Hironimus only developed her intactivist zeal after she signed an agreement explicitly permitting the circumcision of her son. That tips the balance in the other direction: For better or for worse, contract law does not permit us to renege on legally binding agreements just because we’ve been indoctrinated with the belief that the foreskin holds mystical powers of sexual pleasure.

It’s hard not to pity Chase, Nebus, and Hironimus for being sucked into the whirlwind of chaos and vitriol. The question of Chase’s health and well-being has clearly been overtaken by acrimonious ideological mudslinging. Hironimus insists she doesn’t want Chase to be traumatized, which I’m sure is true. But by allowing intactivists to co-opt her cause, she put Chase at the center of a media circus and an Internet campaign. His penis is infamous; his father is vilified and despised; and his mother faces criminal charges. I can’t imagine a better way to traumatize a child.