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The danger of extremists - UPDATED

Andrew Gross Published June 22, 2021

Updated July 7, 2021

"What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents."

- Robert F. Kennedy, "The Pursuit of Justice"; 1964

In 2013 the popular online political magazine Slate published one of the first articles that warned the public about the fanaticism of the burgeoning intactivist movement. In "How Circumcision Broke the Internet," Mark Joseph Stern explained that "a fringe group of self-proclaimed 'intactivists' has hijacked the conversation, dismissing science, slamming reason, and tossing splenetic accusations at anyone who dares to question their conspiracy theory." [1] The examples that Stern provided of the "vitriolic mob" would be familiar to anyone who has had the misfortune to encounter the intactivist bullies. [2]

The reaction of the intactivist movement to the Slate piece was completely predictable. Immune to any possibility of self-reflection, they validated and confirmed Stern's points by immediately turning their fury toward the author. while dismissing the possibility that he might have even a single valid point [3] Attorneys for the Rights of the Child wrote a letter to the National Post in which ARC claimed that Stern had written "outright falsehoods" about intactivists, who ARC denied were "fringe activists." [4]

A response by anti-circumcision scholar Brian Earp was more interesting. An associate director of ethics at Yale University, Earp penned an open letter that was published on a men's issues website. [5] (Earp referred to his open letter as a "rebuttal.") [6] Stern had devoted 7 of the 11 paragraphs in his article to describe how the rabid intactivist movement attacks anyone who dares to disagree and prevents reasoned, rational discussion of the topic online. Yet Earp paid mere lip service to Stern's main point before quickly pivoting to criticize Stern's statements about the effects of the procedure.

In his open letter Earp employed a number of logical fallacies, including tu quoque - by claiming that Stern employed rhetorical excess in any way comparable to that committed by intactivists; [7] slippery slope - by comparing circumcision to the removal of an infant girl's breast buds; [8] and ad hominem - by accusing Stern of being bound by American cultural norms and by predicting that his similarly influenced readers would automatically agree with him. [9] Earp falsely implied that circumcision is unique to American medicine, and he claimed that the entire "rest of the developed world views [the normality of circumcision in the United States] with a mix of curiosity and disbelief" - by cherry-picking a single letter signed by 38 doctors from Europe and Canada. [10][11]

He accused Stern of "implying ... boisterously ... that the only people who are opposed to circumcision are 'wacky' activists." I can understand why Earp would infer this, since Stern alternated between the terms "intactivists" and "anti-circumcision activists." Perhaps it's the case that intactivists are so boisterous themselves that they drown out sober, rational anti-circumcision voices. To be sure, Stern wrote that "for doctors, circumcision remains a complex, delicate issue," an implicit acknowledgment that currently there is no medical consensus. [12]

Many of Earp's assertions have been addressed in these Circumcision Choice articles:

Anti-circumcision leaders and physicians

I found Earp's flippant denial of Stern's point "that the only people who are opposed to circumcision are 'wacky' activists" to be curious. Earp implied that a large majority of those strongly against the procedure are sober, responsible, intellectuals. Let's take a look at several leaders of the anti-circumcision movement. Readers should consider whether their actions are representative of sober, responsible individuals - or of crazed, fanatical extremists.

Paul Fleiss, a Los Angeles physician and author of several articles and books about circumcision, was eulogized by Marilyn Milos as "an extraordinary pediatrician and a remarkable man." [13] In 1995 Fleiss pled guilty to bank fraud and money laundering. He had shielded assets for his daughter Heidi - known infamously as "The Hollywood Madam," and he had falsely claimed Heidi as an employee in his medical office. In 2005 his refusal to accept the link between HIV and AIDS cost a 3 year-old patient her life. [14] Fleiss invented the commonly-cited statistic that the foreskin contains more than 20,000 nerve endings. [15]

Rosemary Romberg, author of a 1985 anti-circumcision book and a frequent protester, was described as a "pioneer of the intactivist movement." [16] Romberg admitted her circumcision obsession caused her to suffer an emotional breakdown. [17] She reacted to a publisher's rejection letter of her anti-circumcision book by punching her fist through a glass window. [18] She fantasized about punching doctors and nurses - not just those who perform circumcision - but anyone who would defend the procedure. [19] She made an obscene comparison between happily circumcised men and hypothetical "pro-Hitler" Holocaust survivors. [20-22]

Marilyn Milos, founder of NOCIRC, has been lauded as a compassionate nurse and "mother of the intactivist movement." [23] Upon the death of Dr. Edgar Schoen - chair of the 1988 AAP Circumcision Task Force, this "compassionate" nurse expressed a desire to celebrate by carrying balloons, dancing on his casket, and praying for his eternal suffering. [24] During a 2015 parental dispute that garnered international attention, Heather Hironimus fled with her 4 year-old son in violation of a court order and a parental agreement by preventing contact between the son and Dennis Nebus, the boy's father, for 79 days. After the mother was apprehended, Milos called the arrest "a miscarriage of justice." She stoked the flames of intactivist rage by opining that the father, the judge, and sheriff's department officers - all of whom followed the law - should be locked up. [25] [26] Stern wrote about the Hironimus-Nebus case at the time. [27]

Georganne Chapin is the executive director of Intact America, the largest anti-circumcision organization in the United States. In a 2014 speech at an anti-circumcision conference, she admonished leaders who questioned the motives or actions of anti-Semitic and fanatical intactivists. She concluded the speech by declaring that anyone who circumcises a child is "the enemy," [28] and she has referred to people who defend circumcision as "cockroaches." [29] She has blamed "the Jewish lobby" for blocking laws that would prohibit circumcision. [30] [31] In a 2015 op-ed she compared mohels and doctors who circumcise infants to Nazi doctors who conducted inhumane experiments on concentration camp prisoners. [32] [21-22] During the 2015 parental dispute, Intact America published a frantic post with the name of the 4 year-old child (breaking a promise the organization had given weeks earlier), the name and phone number of the hospital, and the phone number of the doctor's office. Chapin linked to a map showing the location of the doctor's office. [33] Shortly therafter the doctor received death threats and the hospital received a bomb threat and threats to hack the hospital's computer system. [34] Chapin is arguably the most powerful and prominent circumcision opponent in the United States.

George Denniston is the founder and president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision. [35] He has made the absurd argument that circumcision may be the cause of up to a million abortions in the United States each year. [36] He falsely claimed that most circumcised boys develop meatal stenosis, and that every circumcision has complications and causes permanent damage. [37] He vilifies the field of obstetrics, saying that American obstetricians should not be allowed anywhere near a woman giving birth. [38]

Morten Frisch is a Danish physician and author of several anti-circumcision articles. He was the lead author of the cherry-picked letter I mentioned earlier - a 2013 letter signed by 38 European and Canadian doctors criticizing the AAP's Circumcision Task Force. [10] Frisch has stated that the brit milah ritual "feeds" the prevalence of attacks against Jews - in effect blaming the victims for anti-Semitism. [39] Previously he dismissed anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as "ploys used by Jews to silence ... debate." [40] [41]

Kenneth Hopkins, the founder and leader of the Blood Stained Men, calls himself "Brother K." The intactivist movement widely regards him as a messianic figure: "the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa," [42] " a god amongst men," [43] and "a legend [deserving of a] Nobel peace prize." [44][45] In 2013 he drove 820 miles (1,300 km) to stalk a pediatric nurse inside her medical office - because he was offended by a Facebook post. [46] In 2019 he led protesters into an office building and used false pretenses in an unsuccessful attempt to enter a medical office. He assaulted a female doctor who blocked him from entry, and then lied about the incident to a responding police officer. [47] He routinely makes histrionic, inflammatory analogies, comparing circumcision to "drilling a hole into your baby's head" or "throwing your baby into a volcano." Hopkins spends most of his days - "pretty much a full-time job for me" - leading and inciting intactivists in a systematic harassment campaign against parents, doctors, nurses, and anyone who dares to cross him. [48] He has directed his followers to search social media for circumcision posts all day long. [49] He is a pathological liar. [50]

James Loewen is a Canadian photographer, videographer, and member of the Blood Stained Men board of directors. Other anti-circumcision leaders have praised him as "a great individual with a big heart," [51] "fearless, tireless, and a TRUE HERO," [52] and "a kind and deeply insightful friend." [53] Loewen holds particular malice toward happily circumcised men. In response to the comment "I love my circumcised penis!", he sneered, "What do you like best about having a scarred, less functional penis than what nature provided?" [54] In a private intactivist group he envisioned a film that would depict doctors and mohels being tortured and put through a wood chipper. [55] In March 2020 Rabbi Romi Cohn of New York City died from coronavirus complications. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, Cohn was a hero who at age 16 had personally saved 56 Jewish families from the Nazis. [56] Loewen celebrated Cohn's death, calling him "a serial child molester" - apparently because the Holocaust survivor had also served as a mohel who provided free circumcisions. [57] Loewen spent much of 2020 spreading the fringe QAnon conspiracy theory. He claimed that philanthropist Bill Gates and major health and pharamaceutical organizations intentionally deceived the public in order to create a mandatory vaccine that digitally connects the recipient to a global matrix. He claimed that billionaire George Soros funded Black Lives Matter protests in order to ferment civil unrest and that U.S. President Donald Trump was working to uncover a massive pedophile ring involved in human trafficking, satanic blood rituals, and human sacrifice. In particular, he claimed the existence of video evidence showing that former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her aide ripped off a child's face and wore it as a mask before drinking the child's blood in a demonic ritual. [58]

Christiane Northrup is an ob-gyn and a member of the Intact America Board of Health Professionals. Intact America named her "Intactivist of the Month" in May, 2013, [59] and she has been quoted approvingly by Doctors Opposing Circumcision. [60] Northrup rejects germ theory [61] and promotes astrology, [62] tarot cards, [63] and regression therapy, [64] none of which has any scientific basis. She denied the reality of the Coronavirus, and she claimed that the Covid-19 vaccine would be integrated into a recipient's DNA to make recipients the property of vaccine patent holders. [65] Last October she retweeted a tweet which said that Canada was building Covid-19 concentration camps. [66] Like Loewen, she has embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory. Local writers warned that "Northrup's nihilistic prescriptions pose a clear and present danger to public health." [67] In April Instagram suspended her account for spreading false information, [68] and two U.S. senators have asked Facebook and Twitter to ban her from their platforms. [69]

The above individuals are prominent leaders in the anti-circumcision movement; they serve as role models for how intactivists should behave. I will acknowledge that not every single person who opposes circumcision is extreme, dishonest, and dangerous. In fact Circumcision Choice has distinguished between a mere circumcision opponent and an intactivist whose entire life revolves around this obsession. [70] I call Earp to consider the possibility that the anti-circumcision movement - from the top down - has become infested with fanatical, hysterical, and in some cases dangerous extremists.

Consequences of a missed opportunity [SEE UPDATE BELOW]

In How Circumcision Broke the Internet, Mark Joseph Stern warned that the intactivists were silencing any reasoned discussion of circumcision. It would be expected and reasonable for Brian Earp and others to respond to what they considered to be inacurrate or misleading information in the article. But the article provided Earp - a responsible and respected voice in the anti-circumcision movement - with a golden opportunity to do so much more; an opportunity to guide leaders of the movement toward reason and sanity.

Earp gave a keynote speech at a 2018 anti-circumcision conference in San Francisco, [71] and he was honored with the "Jonathon Conte Award - for furthering the cause of Genital Autonomy" at a 2016 conference in Newcastle, U.K. [72] So it's reasonable to assume that he is personally acquainted with some or most of these influential leaders. Earp could have taken time during the past eight years to speak directly with these individuals about the valid points that Stern raised. In his open letter Earp acknowledged that the foreskin does not have "mythical powers," and he admitted that "circumcised men are not all damaged goods nor condemned to having terrible sex lives." He could have echoed these points to intactivist leaders who seem to think otherwise. He could have clarified that circumcised men are not all sexually crippled and that insulting neonatally circumcised men who are happy does nothing to reduce the prevalence of infant circumcision today. He could have explained the need for them to manage their own expectations and those of their followers. He could have asked them to tone down the feverish rhetoric. He could have advised them that while they have the right to protest and express their views, it is ethically wrong - and often counterproductive - to bully and threaten doctors, nurses, parents, and anyone else who disagrees with them.

Regrettably, Earp has not yet seized that opportunity.

Meanwhile, in 2014 Raw Story published a list of "the weirdest people on the internet." The criteria to be on the list were: 1. “Being outright deluded in their obsession or, even if they might have a sliver of a point, their obsession outstrips any sense of proportion, pushing them into the 'delusional‘ category. 2. First rate trolling abilities. They can turn all sorts of discussions into flamewars about their obsession. They have this uncanny ability to know if there's a thread somewhere online that touches on their obsession, so they can descend en masse and utterly derail any productive conversation. 3. No sense of humor whatsoever, coupled with an enormous ego that leads to rapid fire butthurt at even the merest whiff of pushback." Not surprisingly, intactivists were ranked #1. Author Amanda Marcotte didn't refer to all circumcision opponents, but to "the people who act like removing a foreskin is one of the greatest human rights abuses of all time, on level not just with the much more serious female circumcision but also with slavery and the Holocaust and who tend to use the word 'mutilated' to describe it... Because of the combination of gender weirdness, sexual obsessions, bad faith, and lack of all proportion, they get the number one spot." [73]

On New Years Day of 2015 Earp could have suggested that members of the intactivist movement each make a resolution to take a deep breath and calm down. Instead he posted another link to his open letter. [74] Seven weeks later Heather Hironimus - egged on by the intactivists - made an irresponsible decision that ultimately would backfire on herself and her child. She kidnapped her son and for 79 days hid from the law in a women's shelter. Her illegal actions failed to prevent her son's circumcision, but they did cause her to lose child custody. [25] In April my op-ed "It's time for anti-circumcision extremists to stop the bullying" was published, reinforcing many of the points raised by Stern and Marcotte. [75]

In 2016 Jennifer Bossio completed a study comparing penile sensitivity of uncircumcised men and neonatally circumcised men. [76] The study was part of Bossio's dissertation for her PhD in psychology. [77] Certainly her conclusion that circumcision has minimal long-term implications for penile sensitivity and her skepticism that the foreskin is the most sensitive part of the penis (in terms of sexual pleasure) would be disappointing for circumcision opponents. Earp himself disputed her conclusion, and he accused Bossio of reporting the study in a misleading manner. [78] The intactivists responded aggressively and mercilessly. They "found her phone number and work address and sent her death threats, with messages such as ’I hope you get cancer‘ and flooded her university's Facebook page with abusive comments 'for years' after the study's publication. They also sent messages to her partner's number, with claims that she was 'fucking other men.'" [79]

Bossio could have been a valuable asset in the conversation about circumcision policy. Most researchers who study circumcision enter the field with strong preexisting feelings for or against the procedure; unsurprisingly their study results and conclusions support their respective agendas. Bossio is a rare individual who began her research without a partisan agenda. [80] She modestly explained, "Regardless of what we find – whether circumcision decreases penile sensitivity, increases it, or has no difference – I hope that this research is used to make a difference in people’s lives in some small way.” [81] Hers was one of the higher quality circumcision studies I've reviewed, notwithstanding the small sample size. But Dr. Jennifer Bossio won't be conducting any more circumcision research; the harassment was too much to endure. She said, "If I'd known what I was getting into, I would not have done this important research in the first place." [79] Frankly, I don't blame her one bit for withdrawing.

In January 2019 Earp posted another link to his open letter. The tweet revealed an increase in his animosity toward the Stern article, calling it a "dangerously uniformed polemic." [82] Labeling the article - which warns about a group of extremists who threaten opponents and seek to silence disagreement - as dangerous seems ironic. Six months later the Blood Stained Men conducted theit trespass and assault inside the medical office building in Denver. [47]

Over the past several years, the group behind Circumcision Choice has seen hundreds of heartbreaking instances in which a young man on social media describes how he suffers daily from depression and suicidal thoughts - because he has become convinced that circumcision has ruined his life. [83] We've also seen several instances where men have threatened to blow up a hospital [34] [84] or vowed to confront the doctors who performed their own neonatal circumcisions. With the movement in a state of perpetual frenzy, it surely is just a matter of time until a confrontation results in a serious injury or death.