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The Unkindest Cut 

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By Jeffrey Felshman

Clustered on the corner of Randolph and Michigan, the demonstrators, who've come from around the country to protest the practice of circumcision, draw a cold reception. Traffic slows but doesn't stop. Four beefy men jammed shoulder to shoulder in a Chrysler compact put on a demonstration of their own, yucking it up and slapping each other. The demonstrators don't notice. The movement that gets no respect is on the move.

With an escort of two policemen, one leading and the other trailing, the 30 or so men and women--mostly middle-aged, though there are also a baby, a toddler, and a 12-year-old girl--head toward the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker, where they intended to picket the convention of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP's position on circumcision is middle of the road--they don't recommend it, they don't advise against it. The decision is between parent and doctor. The demonstrators say the AAP is sitting on the fence, and they want to push it off.

The group crosses Randolph, the wind whipping their signs and banners. Behind the windshield of a Lincoln Town Car a hand goes up, the middle finger extended. But it's the casual gesture of someone who's merely annoyed.

"Hey hey, ho ho, circumcision has got to go," the marchers chant as they walk down Michigan. But the onlookers don't join them. The rising Michigan Avenue drawbridge gets more attention.

Darillyn Starr, who's come all the way from Utah, says she adopted a baby boy through the Mormon Church in 1988, and the church's adoption service had him circumcised--routine then. "It wasn't right," she says. She wrote a letter. The church soon wrote back, saying it had changed its policy. "That policy still stands, as far as I know," she says, smiling. "They don't cut the babies that are put up for adoption anymore."

Most of the demonstrators are members of one or more of the groups that have organized four days of events in Chicago: NOCIRC, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, which has been around for 17 years; DOC, Doctors Opposing Circumcision, which has been around since last Thursday; NOHARMM, the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males; the Intact Network; and Nurses for the Rights of the Child.

The marchers wrestle with their posters as one after another blows off the sticks holding them. One man disappears into the hotel, heading for the convention hall where several of the anticircumcision organizations are sharing a table.

An older man passes the marchers. "It's bullshit," he says pleasantly.

"What's bullshit?" asks a demonstrator.

"This," he says, laughing and waving his hand at the demonstrators. "I'm fine."

"How about your grandchildren?" asks Tom Morris, a San Francisco member of NOHARMM.

The man walks on without saying anything.

"About 80 percent of the world agrees with us," says Morris, "but people still think we're crazy. I'm talking about good people, and when you bring this up to them they laugh. I'm talking about pain and trauma to children, and they laugh." He says he knows an older man in San Francisco who was circumcised a few years ago. "He said it was the worst experience of his life and that if he ever had grandsons he'd want to spare them that pain--so he'd have it done immediately." He laughs. "Now that's crazy."

Martin Novoa, an investment banker who moved from Chicago to San Francisco three years ago, says, "I've come to believe that the two most important aspects of this issue are money and superstition. Superstition because circumcision is so ingrained here that people are afraid to not have it done. Money because if insurance companies or HMOs don't pay for circumcision the practice will drop off to nothing." He points to Britain, Canada, and Australia as models. "When health services in those countries stopped paying for it it practically stopped. If we can change the incentive, stop paying a bounty for foreskins, the same thing will happen here. The rate is 58 percent now, which is down from about 90 percent in 1980."

The marchers make one last pass in front of the entrance to the hotel, then head back toward Randolph and Michigan. On the way they get a thumbs-up from two cars, and another car honks.

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