Georgeanne Chapin: The beginning of Intact America and the common sense of Intactivism

Georganne Chapin (MPhil, JD) discusses her first awareness of male circumcision and the events leading to her becoming Executive Director of Intact America.

Chapin also talks about the curious policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors

published on 2010 April 26 (the AAP has since rescinded that statement).

(slightly modified)

Since the days that medical anthropologists discovered female genital mutilation and got completely incensed about it—and I had been an anthropology student myself—I remember thinking the first time I heard about this:

Why are we all so upset about this when we [Americans] do this to little boys?

So, I obviously had enough awareness and enough consciousness about male circumcision at the time (this would have probably been the early-to-mid 1970s). When I look back now, I realize I [have] a brother who had a botched circumcision; he was born when I was 11 [years old] and it was not spoken of, really, but he had to be taken back [to a doctor] to have another procedure [to correct the previous circumcision], and I remember my mother coming home with him from the pediatrician and everybody being [distraught]. It wasn't until many years later (until I was part of the [Intactivist] Movement) that I realized that [my brother] had probably [suffered from] meatal stenosis [(a complication of circumcision)] and [thus] had to have his urethra reopened. So, I think [the issue of circumcision] was in my consciousness for a very very long time.

The way I became formally involved, though, was when I was 47 years old and running a non-profit health plan in New York state. I decided to go to law school; I was just going to take whatever [classes] I wanted because I never thought I would be a practicing attorney—I just wanted to go to school and learn some new things (and I really think of law as anthropology). I had a degree in public health (I was working in the health care field), so I took:
  • bioethics
  • health law
  • a lot of international courses:
    • refugee law
    • immigration law
    • human rights law

I just kept thinking about male circumcision and particularly about childhood circumcision—infants and boys; it just became my focus, really.

My last year in law school, I wrote a paper about [the unethical nature of male circumcision] for a bioethics class. Like a lot of us who didn't really realize what a movement there is—what a movement there has been—I was taken aback:

There's a movement of people who are actually working on this!

It's not like I thought I discovered the issue—I wasn't that arrogant—but I certainly had no idea how many people were involved and for how long. So, [I became fully involved] through that; I remember the first time I received an email from George Denniston, and the first time I spoke to Marilyn [Milos] over the phone, and started reading what people had written, and looking at websites, and I just became involved, and that's really the beginning of my activism.

One day in probably [2007], Marilyn asked me to be on a phone call where a number of intactivists—sort of a core group of intactivists—were talking to a man named Dean Pisani, who is a Texan businessman who had been donating to NOCIRC for a number of years and had told Marilyn that he wanted to do something larger but needed more of an infrastructure and a plan. She brought me into the phone call, and over the course of a few months, I stepped forward to pull together a consulting project: I hired some social enterprise consultants [whom] I had [employed] in my health care work, and we developed a plan for a new organization.

[We] met Dean (the potential donor) a number of times, and a number of us gathered in Texas where his office was and finally in New York. At the end of this planning process, [Dean] asked me if I would take [the project] on and offered to put a million dollars up, and that was the [formal] beginning of Intact America. Of course, the beginning of Intact America was the movement, which pre-dated any involvement I [have] had.

[In any case], you can't say “no” when someone offers a gift like that. Very luckily, [I was able to] draw from some of the resources [of] another non-profit that I run, [which is] called the Hudson Center for Healthy Equity and Quality, so we were able to start up [without having] to go out and rent space and buy phones and buy computers; we were able to defer the expenses of the host organization.

I had a very progressive board of directors [at the Hudson Center], who saw this cause as absolutely part of our mission; the mission of the Hudson Center is to advocate for a cost-effective, high-quality, humane health care system. So, everybody felt that not circumcising baby boys [should be part of such a system]. So, we were able to start [Intact America] that way.

It took some work to get the press to be interested. The first time was the [situation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)]; we told the media (The Washington Post, The New York Times):

Look, this big national organization is going to recommend circumcision; they've never done this before.

That got the attention of the media. Then we wrote an open letter. When we were in Atlanta for the CDC meeting, we had a movable billboard that said:

Tell the CDC not to recommend circumcision!

We had a picture of a baby, and that billboard was on a truck and it went all around Atlanta; the Associated Press was interested in that. Then we did an open letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Something much more interesting happened this spring just as we were wondering what's going to be our next opportunity to really get out there and make some noise. We thought [our next opportunity] would probably be [when] the CDC or the AAP actually came out with recommendations [for circumcision]. [However], just out of the blue completely—none of us would have anticipated it—the AAP for some crazy reason put out that new policy on female genital cutting, actually recommend[ing] that Federal Law be amended to allow doctors to perform a little tiny ritual nick on baby girls' genitalia (aimed of course at the African population). They even referred to taking girls back to “their native countries” [when] of course these girls' native country is America—these girls were born [as] American citizens. We were so astonished. We spent a week being astonished and then we mounted a campaign. Within 3 or 4 days, we had generated 15 thousand [incensed] emails to the AAP.

[Instead of recognizing gender equity by] recommending against the cutting of boys, they were actually [going to recognize gender equity by] expanding pediatricians' purview, allowing them to perform this genital cutting on little girls! Well, you know what happened; [the AAP] had to retract their statement.

It was a wonderful opportunity for Intact America to get out there. We've always said from the beginning [that] we protect all children [from genital cutting]; I don't think any of us would have believed that an American medical group would actually come out in favor of any type of female genital cutting. I mean, we were naive, but it was a wonderful opportunity for us to promote the gender equity argument, [especially given that the AAP was justifying this already illegal ritual prick of girls' genitalia by officially stating that this ritual nick “is much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting”].

I believe that the way the Intactivist Movement is spreading is through common sense, really. As we have the opportunity to get our message out there to tens of thousands of people, [saying]:

Now, wait a minute; let's think about this. Is it really OK to cut little boys if we can't cut little girls [even slightly]? Is it really OK to cut half the population? What could be wrong with the body as it has evolved over millions and millions of years?

[While it is an unfortunate] fact that a bunch of [American] doctors—who make money off circumcision—might recommend [in favor of circumcision], I think [the Intactivist Movement is] going to win [the argument]; I think the rate [of routine childhood circumcision] is going to continue to go down. I don't think circumcision will be outlawed any time soon, but I believe our message—as we're conveying it now after all these years of intactivism—is going to sink in, and common sense will prevail.

His body. His choice.

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