On Sunday BBC radio show 5Live Investigates carried an outstanding report on the issue of home circumcision, fronted by Adrian Goldberg with some brilliant journalism by Nicola Dowling.
The centrepiece of the show is a heartbreaking interview with the mother of Goodluck Caubergs, who died last year in Greater Manchester. The midwife who conducted the operation, on the family kitchen table with a pair of scissors and some olive oil, was later convicted of manslaughter. I wrote about the case here.
The real scandal revealed by Nicola Dowling was about a different case. Dr Muhamad Siddiqui, a hospital surgeon in Sussex, had been running his own little private sideline in home circumcisions. When 23 month-old Najem Braiha was left traumatised and infected after a home circumcision conducted, it is alleged, under unhygienic conditions, his parents complained to the General Medical Council. They imposed conditions on the surgeon’s GMC registration which barred him from conducting the procedure.
As part of the BBC investigation, an actor phoned up Dr Siddiqui and asked him to conduct a home circumcision on their baby. He agreed, in direct contravention of his GMC ban. Since then, and after discovering he had been exposed by the BBC, Dr Siddiqui has resigned from his NHS job. The astonishing consequence of that resignation is that it now allows him to resume conducting circumcisions, which it appears he fully intends to do.
Yes, you did read that correctly. Circumcisions are completely unregulated in the UK, and anyone – you, me or the local barber – can set up a business cutting off baby boy’s foreskins at a hundred quid a pop. Any doctor under the employ of the NHS, however, is bound to the regulation of the GMC and the Quality and Care Commission. A circumcision conducted in a hospital, with anaesthetic and surgical implements is carefully controlled and subject to monitoring and audit. A circumcision conducted on a kitchen table or in a community centre is completely unregulated. There are more regulations surrounding the piercing of an ear than the surgical amputation of a foreskin.
Nobody knows how many botched circumcisions happen in the UK each year. Paediatric urologists across the country report seeing cases as a regular part of their caseload. In my own experience as a journalist who covers the issue, virtually every case of a serious complications, infection or tragic fatality has resulted from a home circumcision conducted under non-clinical conditions. The BBC documentary detailed many such cases, including the terrifying rates of complications found after a ‘circumcision camp’ in Oxford.
In my experience, people who are new to this issue are astonished to learn about the legal position of circumcision practice in the UK. How can it be that this is possible? Whatever one’s feelings on the rights and wrongs of circumcision as a whole, how can it be that nobody has ever got around to laying down some basic health and safety regulations and a requirement for anaesthesia and clinical conditions?
It pains me to say it, but I lay at least some of the blame squarely at the feet of anti-circumcision activists. Legislative progress rarely materialises from the ether or spring from the initiative of politicians’ imaginations. Changes occur through lobbying, campaigning, persuasion and demand. The simple truth is that nobody has been badgering politicians to introduce a law to provide the most basic protection for infant boys at risk.
After the death of Baby Goodluck, I tried taking some initiative myself, I tried to organise petitions, letter-writing campaigns, lobbying through official channels. I approached the UK’s leading anti-circumcision campaigns and they all refused to help, stating that they could not support any policy that could be seen to be endorsing circumcision at all.
When I wrote in the Guardian calling for regulation of circumcision rather than an immediate ban, I received several abusive emails and messages from intactivists calling me a sellout, a traitor, a disgrace and more.
This is infuriating to me. I too would like to see an absolute end to circumcision but let us be clear – for the foreseeable future, the prospects of enforcing a legal ban without the active co-operation of Jewish and Muslim communities are literally zero. For all kinds of reasons, and whether we like it or not, it is Not. Going. To. Happen. Anyone with the faintest grasp of the realities of politics must recognise that.
If (or when) the day comes that circumcision can be criminalised, it will come at the end of a long process of awareness-raising, education, persuasion and the gradual marginalisation of the tradition within cultural communities. Not before. A campaign to control and regulate the practice would and could be a significant first step along that route. Those who refuse to countenance regulation remind me of those extreme ultra-leftists who opposed progress on issues like gay rights as a bourgeois distraction that would delay the glorious revolution. It is self-indulgent, self-defeating Narnia politics.
All the while, day after day, real boys little boys with real names, real lives, real futures, continued to be subjected to needless suffering, illness, lifelong scarring and the risk of serious medical complications all the way up to death, because nobody is doing anything to help. That is unconscionable, and simply has to change.