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The V Word and the Legislature

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[L]et God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs,
Let them mind their own affairs.
A.E. Houseman,
The Laws of God, the Laws of Man

The beauty of it is the symmetry. Politicians and clerics here and abroad spend so much of their time trying to regulate what women they've never met can do with their bodies and what assorted body parts can properly be called in polite company that it's nice when the penis gets some attention.

The vagina got attention when a few sensitive sorts of the male variety took offense at the word's appearance on the House floor in the Michigan House of Representatives in mid-June. It made its appearance during a discussion by the male members (people that is) of legislation pertaining to women's reproductive rights that was being considered on the House floor. The specific legislation was sponsored by the Republicans and proposed outlawing abortion after 20 weeks and requiring a woman taking the morning-after pill to do so in the presence of a doctor. The latter provision was not because the men believed women did not know how to swallow pills and might choke unless supervised. It was to make it more difficult for women to avoid pregnancy. In response to the concern of the men Representative Lisa Brown said to the assembled multitude that she was flattered that "you're all so interested in my vagina." In a show of support for Representative Brown, Representative Barb Byrum offered a proposal that a man be required to prove his life was in danger before he could get a vasectomy. The men in the House were horrified. They were so offended that the following day neither of the women was permitted to address the body (legislative) giving the men an opportunity to regain their composure. Representative Mike Callton explained his embarrassment at this word's unwelcome appearance on the floor of the house (though not its proprietor's appearance since that would be sexist) saying the word "was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company." Thanks to a German court the male member (non-person) has now taken center stage although not for the first time.

In 2011 the word made an appearance in a proposed ordinance in San Francisco that would have become Article 50 of the San Francisco Police Code. It was proposed by a group led by Matthew Hess who invented the famous "foreskin restoration device" that purports to undo the effect of male circumcision. Matthew believes boys and girls should be treated the same and says male and female circumcision are the same and both should be banned. The proposed ordinance would have made it unlawful to "circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years." The only exception was if the circumcision was "necessary to the physical health of the person on whom it is performed because of a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need with no less destructive alternative treatment available, and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner." The proposed ordinance made no exception for those for whom the operation was required "as a matter of custom or ritual." It was soundly defeated in the 2011 election. A court ruling has now achieved Mr. Matthew's goals and gives comfort to those who approve of regulating other people's bodies.

On June 26, 2012, a German court in Cologne, Germany ruled that circumcising young boys inflicted grievous bodily harm on the boys. It banned the practice. The case arose out of prosecution of the doctor who performed the circumcision on a 4-year old Muslim child whose circumcision went awry leading to minor medical complications. The court said "the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents." It observed that the child's body is "permanently and irreparably changed by the circumcision. This change runs counter to the interests of the child, who can decide his religious affiliation himself later in life." The ruling was, of course, not well received by the religious groups who have used circumcision for years as part of their religious practices.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an "unprecedented and dramatic intrusion" on the right to religious freedom. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany called the ruling a "blatant and inadmissible interference" in the rights of parents. Although the ruling applies only to the jurisdiction in which the court is sitting, both groups demanded that the German parliament enact legislation protecting freedom of religion. They are concerned that although the ruling applies only to the jurisdiction in which the court is sitting, doctors in other jurisdictions will be reluctant to perform circumcisions for fear of being prosecuted. They want the parliament to act "to provide legal clarity in order to prevent attacks on religious freedom."

Whether parliament will heed the request of the religious groups is not known as of this writing. What is known is that it is another victory for those who believe that other people should be deciding for other people what sorts of rules should be imposed on other people and their bodies.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at humanraceandothersports.com