Taking a Conscientious Objector Stand:
The Santa Fe Nurses

Betty Katz Sperlich, R.N. and Mary Conant, R.N.

Presented at
The Third International Symposium on Circumcision,
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
May 22-25, 1994.

       As conscientious objectors to infant circumcision, we would like to discuss, in a very practical way, what we have found to work for us, and what did not work.

       It did not work for us to "hide out" in the closet. By this we mean opposing circumcision but not coming out at the hospital, making ourselves scarce when it was time for the procedure to be done, cringing at the thought of assisting, and so on. This definitely did not work for us, although we spent years doing it. "Hiding out" increased our feelings of dread and powerlessness.

       It also did not work for us to "shut down." By this we mean shutting our hearts and minds to the screams of babies undergoing genital surgery without anesthesia. "Shutting down" made us lose too much of ourselves and led to an intolerable feeling of unreality.

       It also did not work for us to create a loving birth environment one day and hand the baby over to the circumciser the next day. We were betraying the babies and felt a growing sense of despair.

       Another thing that definitely did not work for us was asking permission to be excused from the procedure. We put a lot of effort into this by writing letters to various hospital authorities and seeking meetings with supervisors, but after years of trying we realized we were getting nowhere with this approach. This road led to frustration and a deep sense of being discounted.

       Finally, we realized that if we wanted things to be different, we would have to be different. Something changed in us internally, and in October 1992 we gave ourselves permission to become conscientious objectors. At the time we decided to do this, we were about five nurses committed to the position. We knew we were risking our jobs, but we had to do it for the sake of our own integrity. We had each come to the point in our own lives where we knew that if we continued to assist with brutal assaults on babies we could no longer live with ourselves. It was as simple and compelling as that.

       We decided that if we lost our jobs we would try, with the help of our union lawyer, to get reinstated. Luckily, we did not check with our union lawyer on how he felt about things before we took our stand.

       As it turned out, we were not fired. When other nurses found out that we were not going to be fired, they wanted to join us. We wrote a position statement 1 and, in the end, 24 nurses signed the letter informing the hospital that we would no longer take part in the procedure.

       We were astonished at the number of nurses who wanted to join us. Empowering ourselves worked. As for organizing, we never even tried. Looking back, however, it is apparent that we had been slowly building our base through many years of consciousness-raising. Especially important for us was a continuing education workshop on circumcision that we arranged at our hospital several years ago.

       Most of the nurses in our group are not what would be called activists. They are basically just relieved that they don't have to participate in the brutality anymore. Our group is about as grass-roots and low-structure as you can get. Most of us have very busy lives, and we all have high-responsibility jobs. We just don't have time for regular meetings, although sometimes we schedule a special meeting. Our group functions very much like an informal feminist support group. For example, a nurse who is pressured or intimidated by one of the circumcising physicians lets the rest of us know, so we can give support and figure out alternative ways of responding in the future. In this way we are all strengthened and encouraged.

       We also encourage each nurse to take as much of a leadership role as she would like, for example, taking part in a press conference, or speaking to other nurses out of state. This loose, egalitarian type of organization works for us, and in fact we feel very comfortable with it. Projects, such as our prenatal education classes, have come out of informal discussion, when someone recognized a need for something to be done and we considered what to do about it.

       Our stance as conscientious objectors serves as a continual thorn in the side of the circumcisers at our hospital. We also provoke the interest of parents who are curious to learn about our position.

       On the other hand, appealing to other feminists for support has not really worked for us yet. With one or two notable exceptions, we have been disappointed in their responses.

       It also has not worked for us to focus too much attention on physicians at our hospital. We tried to work with the Perinatal Committee on several issues, such as infant pain during surgery without anesthesia, lack of informed parental consent, etc., but essentially we have gotten nowhere with them.

       In the end, the project that has been the most gratifying for us has been our prenatal education classes, and we would like to discuss this ongoing effort in more detail. One year ago, we set up free prenatal classes at the hospital for prospective parents who want in-depth information about circumcision. We saw a need to offer interested parents circumcision information in a relaxed setting where they would have plenty of time to discuss and think about the issues.2 This contrasts with the immediate postpartum period in the hospital when the parents are generally sleep deprived and emotionally exhausted after the experience of birth, probably one of the worst times in their lives for them to make a rational decision about genital surgery on their babies.

       The classes we offer are about one hour long, one evening a month, and feature a video3 showing a circumcision, a handout4 discussing the issues, and a question and answer period. We bring along books5 for the parents to borrow if they wish. We distribute a handout on care of the intact penis,6 and we have also developed a handout called "Resources for Jewish Families,"7 for Jewish parents who are considering an alternative ceremony in place of a traditional bris. We have found that the most effective approach is a friendly, matter-of-fact tone, and the most effective tool for parent education is a video showing the actual procedure. We advertise our classes through local newspapers, other prenatal classes, and fliers distributed at physicians' offices.

       The classes are easy and gratifying to do (except that we find it increasingly difficult to witness a circumcision, even on video). Our expectations are low: If even two or four parents show up for a class, we are happy. The parents generally thank us for the classes. If any of you would like help or more information in setting up a similar class in your neighborhood, please let us know.

       We would like to finish our presentation by talking about backlash. It might sound as if we have been moving from one satisfying project to another. But backlash has been and remains a dark reality in our lives. It's something we'd rather forget about. In fact, we sometimes do forget about it, and then are shocked by its reappearance. It can be very scary, even paralyzing, to face people who would like to silence you or make you disappear. We have found that recognizing backlash decreases its power over us, and this is comforting. We have come to expect some negative response to our work, and to see it as a teacher: The intensity of the backlash is really a measure of the depth of our challenge.

       We joke about it, but through backlash we have discovered strengths in ourselves that we never realized we had. We see our strength as coming primarily from the babies. Once we really heard their screams, became conscious of the violations being performed on them, we had no choice: We had to become conscientious objectors. We have also gained strength from each other, and from the world-wide support we have received. We would like to thank all of you who have to us. You will never know how much your letters and messages have meant to us, arriving as they sometimes did when we felt the most despair. We have also been sustained in our work as conscientious objectors by our vision: We envision a world where all children will be allowed to grow up with whole bodies, they way they are born.

Our position statement:

  • Neonatal circumcision violates a newborn baby's right to an intact body.
  • No compelling medical reason exists for the procedure. Amputating the foreskin deprives the infant of a protective and sexually functional part of his body.
  • Circumcision is a surgical procedure that entails risks, such as bleeding, infection, and mutilation.
  • The procedure is painful; often inadequate or no anesthesia is used, and postoperative pain management is rare.
  • Parental information about circumcision is incomplete.
  • The infant cannot state his own wishes or defend himself.

       In this, we are following the guidelines of NAACOG, Nurses' Role in Neonatal Circumcision, August 1985, p. 3, in which the prenatal period is recommended as the best time for parents to consider the alternatives.

       Our simple handout, "Circumcision: Questions Parents Ask," is available from us for a stamped self-addressed envelope.

Betty Katz Sperlich, R.N., is, along with Mary Conant, R.N., co-founder of Nurses for the Rights of the Child, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of infants and children to genital integrity. Her work includes empowering, supporting and advising other nurses who want to stop the socially-sanctioned genital mutilation of minors. Since 1981, she has served as a staff nurse primarily in maternal-child health at St. Vincent Hospital, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and since 1992 she has been an R.N. Conscientious Objector to infant circumcision. She has a Master's Degree in Philosophy from Harvard University.

Mary Conant, R.N., is, along with Betty Katz Sperlich, R.N., co-founder of Nurses for the Rights of the Child. Her work includes empowering, supporting and advising other nurses who want to stop the socially-sanctioned genital mutilation of minors. Since 1979, she has served as a maternal-child health staff nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and since 1992 she has been an R.N. Conscientious Objector to infant circumcision.

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