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CIRCUMCISION IN CANADA
A Short Chronology of Events
1903—2000

 


1903  
From The Globe, Toronto, December 1, 1903:
...Jacob Halpern, a butcher at 59 Chestnut Street, was called in by the father on Sunday to perform the Jewish rite of circumcision. After the operation, bleeding was so profuse that Halpern applied carbolic acid, with the result that the child died in terrible agony. [Full text: PDF (536K); or HTML]
The death was investigated by the Chief Coroner and a jury. The verdict: that Halpern was guilty of not knowing how to use carbolic acid. [Full text: PDF (535K); or HTML]

The inquest was expected to have "far-reaching results," but a full century later, ritual male circumcision in Canada, as in most other countries, remained unprohibited and unregulated.



1945  
The Ontario Medical Association announced that it was planning to introduce a surgery prepayment plan for Ontario residents. Rates were set at $1 per month for single persons, $2.25 for families. Circumcision was among the procedures to be covered. [Globe & Mail, May 24]


1947  
A Vancouver study found that circumcised men were less likely to contract venereal diseases, now generally known as sexually transmitted infections. [Full text]

However, this study was methodologically weak. A more rigorous study conducted half a century later in the United States found no significant difference between circumcised and non-circumcised men in terms of their susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections. In fact, the latter study found that circumcised men were slightly more likely to have had both a bacterial and a viral STI.

Note: The 1947 study reported that the circumcision rate at Vancouver General Hospital at the time was 59 percent. In 2001, the circumcision rate at Vancouver hospitals ranged from 7 percent to 15 percent.



1965  
Dr. W. K. C. (Keith) Morgan, of London, Ontario, wrote a provocative article called The Rape of the Phallus which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Following publication of this piece, Dr. Morgan was accused of being a Nazi. Nevertheless, he persisted in speaking out against infant circumcision, describing the procedure as "chronic remunerative surgery" in a 1967 article titled Penile Plunder.

In 1982, Dr. Morgan wrote a letter to the Canadian Medical Association Journal rebutting an extremist article that recommended circumcision of all males.



1975  
Another Ontario death, this time in Cambridge:
...after he applied the clamp that draws the foreskin into position for surgery he was advised by anesthetist Dr. Ross Howson that the patient's heart had stopped. [Full text: PDF (428K); Abstract: HTML]
Also in 1975 the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a position statement entitled Circumcision in the Newborn Period. This statement advised that "there is no medical indication for circumcision during the neonatal period" and described neonatal circumcision as "a mutilative operation of questionable benefit." (This statement was superseded by a new statement in 1996.)

On October 7, the Globe and Mail published an article titled "Circumcision not necessary, MDs say," taken from the Associated Press newswire. This article described the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics. [Abstract]



1976  
Fearing a backlash from parents and religious groups, the Canadian Medical Association voted against a motion to discourage neonatal circumcision. [Globe & Mail, June 25]

Credit for the defeat of the motion was claimed by Dr. L. J. Genesove of Willowdale, Ont., who asserted in a letter to the Canadian Medical Association Journal that he had "played a prominent role in the debate."



1978  
A Toronto man received three life terms plus 26 years after being convicted of committing a series of rapes at knife-point. Evidence emerged that he had been abused in childhood by his mother and grandmother, and had been circumcised at home at age 6 after he was caught masturbating. [Globe & Mail, Dec. 13]


1980  
Globe and Mail columnnist Alan Stewart wrote an article that began as follows:
Perhaps the most intimate surgical operation that men ever undergo is circumcision, yet very few of us have any say in whether we want it. [Full text]
At a surprisingly early date, Stewart raised the issues of consent (more accurately, the lack thereof), trauma, and long-term harm.


1983  
A study conducted in Fredericton, New Brunswick, found that parents who opt for circumcision are motivated by a desire "to make hygiene easier and to match the newborn boy with other males in the family." [Globe & Mail, Apr. 14]

In December, Globe and Mail columnist Sidney Katz wrote, "People often cling to long-held beliefs, even to those that may have been disproved. A case in point is the issue of circumcision." [Globe &  Mail, Dec. 22]



1984  
Effective April 1, British Columbia became the first province in Canada to discontinue insurance coverage for routine circumcision.

Later that year, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a study entitled "Neonatal circumcision: an economic perspective" which concluded that infant male circumcision was not cost-effective and should not be covered by taxpayer-funded health insurance plans. [Abstract]

By 2004, routine circumcision was de-insured in all provinces and territories except Manitoba. However, a survey carried out in Ontario after de-listing in 1994 found no subsequent drop in the circumcision rate. [Abstract]



1985  
A B.C. judge allowed a 22-year-old welder to sue a Burnaby urologist over a circumcision that had occurred 10 years earlier. The judge decided that under the six-year limit for medical negligence suits, the "clock did not start ticking" until the plaintiff was old enough to find out he had a sexual dysfunction. [Globe & Mail, Mar. 13]


1986  
In a landmark case called Re Eve, the Supreme Court of Canada set the legal standard for non-therapeutic surgery on people who cannot give informed consent for themselves. The court's decision, which was described by experts as having "tremendous legal implications," created an important precedent in Canadian law that limits parents' ability to give medical consent on behalf of children. If circumcision is not necessary for a baby's physical or mental health, then it is arguable (on the basis of Re Eve) that a parent cannot legally give the consent necessary to perform it.

On November 17, journalist Dorothy Lipovenko reported the court's ruling in the Globe and Mail. [Abstract]



1991  
A feature article on circumcision by reporter Alanna Mitchell appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail on June 22. The theme of this article was that the Canadian circumcision rate was showing signs of rising after declining steadily for two decades. [Abstract]

Note: the circumcision rate continued to creep upward in most provinces until the mid-1990s, when it resumed its decline.

[More on circumcision rates in Canada]



1992  
The regulatory body that governs Ontario doctors, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, said it was concerned about requests for female circumcision from African immigrants. The college reported that it was drafting a policy on the issue because "it's better to come out with a clear position so doctors know where they stand with respect to the college and the law." [Globe & Mail, Jan. 3]

Oddly, the college has seen no need to come out with a clear position on male circumcision, a far more common procedure. In a letter to Michael Miller dated February 19, 2003, the college said it had decided that the development of a policy on male circumcision was "not warranted."



1993  
A feature article entitled "Circumcision: The Unkindest Cut?" appeared on May 29 in the Health section of the Globe and Mail. This article, which was taken straight from the Associated Press wire, focused on circumcision practices in the United States.
[Full text PDF (346K)]


1994  

Jacqueline Sonnendrucker, a Vancouver-area registered nurse, brought forward a motion at the annual convention of the B.C. Registered Nurses Association calling on the association to draft a position paper on newborn circumcision. Ms. Sonnendrucker described the surgery as "infant torture." [Vancouver Sun, Apr. 8]

However, a nurse from Victoria, Carol Larson, objected to the motion, saying a discussion on infant male circumcision "would not be in the public interest." A two-thirds majority of the delegates agreed with her. As a consequence, the motion was withdrawn without debate. [Vancouver Sun, Apr. 9]



1995  

B.C.'s registered nurses condemned the routine circumcision of baby boys at their annual convention in Vancouver. [Vancouver Sun, Apr. 10]

Last year, the issue had proved too controversial and a similar resolution was withdrawn.



1996  
Dr. John R. Taylor's ground-breaking paper, "The prepuce: Specialized mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision," was published in the British Journal of Urology. [Full text]

The Canadian Paediatric Society issued a new position statement on neonatal circumcision, recommending that the procedure "should not be routinely performed." [Full text]

On June 6, an article entitled "Circumcision: a matter of circumstance," by Sean Silcoff, was published in the National News section of the Globe and Mail. This article discussed the wide variation in circumcision rates in different parts of Ontario. It reported that the overall neonatal circumcision rate in Ontario was 299 per thousand in 1994-95, down from 416 in 1991-92.
[Full text PDF (250K)]

On October 9, TV Ontario aired a British documentary on ritual circumcision called "It's A Boy." [Review] Three days later the Globe and Mail published a letter co-authored by Toronto mohel Dr. Aaron Jesin and Moshe Ronen, chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, condemning the review. [Full text]



1997  
Nova Scotia de-insured routine circumcision on January 20, leaving Manitoba and the Northwest Territories as the only jurisdictions in Canada still funding the procedure.

One of Canada's top ethicists, Dr. Margaret Somerville, founding director of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, publicly condemned routine infant circumcision. "We as a society have to decide whether to stop circumcisions," said Dr. Somerville in an October 17 front-page article in the Ottawa Citizen.
[Full text GIF (92K)]



1998  
On August 6, Dr. Margaret Somerville was presented with a human rights award at the Fifth International Symposium on Genital Mutilations in Oxford, England. Dr. Somerville received the award for her courage in denouncing circumcision. [Globe & Mail, Aug. 6]


1999  
An exceptionally moving article on circumcision by Toronto writer Diane Mason was published in the Globe and Mail. [Full text]

Lawrence Barichello, executive director of Intact, staged a multimedia presentation on infant circumcision at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. [National Post, Oct. 21]



2000  
A physician in Sherwood Park, Alberta, was reprimanded and fined $15,300 for a botched ritual circumcision performed on a 9-year-old Muslim boy. [Edmonton Journal, June 12]

On September 10, the Halifax Daily News published the results of an informal survey on health-related issues. Readers were asked if they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements, including this one: "I doubt that Canada will outlaw the routine circumcision of infant boys during the next three years."

A surprisingly high proportion of respondents, more than one-third, either disagreed or were unsure:
 
 Agree: 64.2%  Disagree: 14.4%  Unsure: 21.4%


 

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