What About Chase? Circumcision & The Right To Bodily Integrity

This Circumcision Debate Should Be About The Question: What Is In Chase’s Best Interest?

by Avens O’Brien

Heather Hironimus, sitting with her attorney Thomas Hunker, breaks down as she signs consent for her 4-year-old son to be circumcised, during a hearing, Friday, May 22, 2015, in Delray Beach, Fla. Hironimus' yearslong battle against her child's father over the boy's circumcision ended Friday, with her agreeing to the procedure in exchange for her release from jail. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)  MAGS OUT, NO SALES

Heather Hironimus signing consent for her son to be circumcised.

Last week pictures began to flood Facebook News Feeds and elsewhere, a crying mother signing a “consent” form for her 4.5 year old son to be circumcised. The image was certainly disturbing — a woman, clearly distraught, signing a piece of paper apparently under duress. The image was powerful, the captions describing a terrible decision.

Author’s disclosure: I researched to try to find a copy of the Parental Agreement mentioned below. I was unable to. The list below was compiled by combing through copious reports, the court statements I could find, and trying to parse through the loaded language on both sides of the fight in various heavily biased news stories and editorials. I clearly have my own bias, but I prefer to disclose facts as openly as possible and then add my opinions afterwards.   

Looking into things, the quick facts of the story come to light:

  • Heather Hironimus and Dennis Nebus had a baby named Chase in 2010. They are never married. They split about a year after Chase was born.
  • In 2012, when Chase was 2, they signed a Parenting Plan dictating the terms of their custody/responsibility arrangement. One of the terms included Chase being circumcised.
  • Nebus did not have his son circumcised immediately or even quickly after this arrangement was signed. In the meantime, Hironimus began researching circumcision and decided she no longer wanted this done to her son.
  • In December of 2013, Nebus finally decided to get Chase circumcised, allegedly after a doctor’s visit indicated it may be best for him after a complication with urination. When Nebus informed Hironimus, she refused to agree to the procedure.
  • Nubus took Hironimus to court to uphold the Parenting Plan. Hironimus lost in March of 2014. [Note: the details of the court order linked don’t confirm medical necessity.]
  • An appeals court confirmed the ruling, and Hironimus disappeared with her son. A warrant was issued for her arrest for interfering with child custody.
  • While hiding out, Hironimus filed a federal lawsuit to block the procedure, stating it violated Chase’s rights. Hironimus was found and arrested. Nebus received custody of Chase.
  • While in jail, Hironimus filed a motion to prevent the surgery while awaiting the results of the federal lawsuit.
  • Last week she was pressured to sign a form consenting to circumcise her son.
  • All along, the court has not taken into consideration the stated preference of Chase himself.

Outside observers of this case generally agree on a few things:

  • Hironimus did sign a Parenting Plan saying Nebus could circumcise the child.
  • Four years old is a particularly unfortunate age to be circumcised.

Where they differ are in a few points:

  • Whether the Parenting Plan is alterable.
  • Whether circumcision itself is bad.
  • Whether the circumcision is medically necessary in this case.
  • Whether Chase gets a say in this procedure.

Researching this case I’ve found a number of nuanced comments, though most stating the court is in the right to enforce the Nebus’ wishes given the pre-determined contract.

RELATED: Why do girls have a right to genital integrity, but not boys? 

However, as someone interested in custodial agreements and in bodily integrity, I think we’re missing a lot of details here.

Parenting agreements vary state by state, but usually stipulate a variety of details regarding the raising of children between split households. They include things like monetary support, physical custody arrangements, medical rights, responsibilities, education and more. Parenting agreements are common in divorces, and generally agreed upon privately, between two parents, without the involvement of the courts at all (if there are disputes, those are arbitrated by courts). Florida appears to require approval by the courts to determine if the plan is in the best interests of the child.

Parenting Plans in Florida can be modified by parents upon mutual agreement, otherwise they require a showing of a “substantial, material and unanticipated change of circumstances”. Under the substantial change test, the moving party must show both that 1. the circumstances have substantially and materially changed since the custody determination and 2. the child’s best interests justify the change.

Having observed a number of divorces involving minor children (none in Florida, however), I’m surprised about a few things in this case:

  • Firstly, that an advocate hasn’t been appointed to interview the child independently to determine what is actually in the interest and preference of the child.
  • Secondly, that the court hasn’t asked for further evidence regarding the circumcision procedure: both the materials that have convinced the Hironimus that this procedure is wrong to be done and also a doctor’s testimony that the procedure is medically necessary.

I’m generally opposed to routine infant circumcision, as I believe bodily autonomy is essential to liberty. However, in the event a circumcision or other alteration is medically necessary due to a number of real complications that could potentially arise, I have no issue with parents making these sorts of decisions for a minor child.

This is, however, another case in which Americans are beginning to be made aware of how unnecessary routine infant circumcision is, and questioning whether or not a parenting agreement should be allowed to make this sort of decision for a child in the first place. We have a federal ban on female circumcision in this country. In fact, we refer to it as “female genital mutilation”, which I think we should. How long until we begin, in common usage, to refer to male circumcision as the same?

Is this case an example of government overreach? Ironically, I often say that we must be careful with over-application of law, for it is a blunt instrument when what we may need is a scalpel. In this case, we have a very literal scalpel when perhaps none is needed at all. Either way, Chase is soon to undergo a painful, irreparable modification to his body, while his mother tried to fight it, and his father pursued it.

The court did what it agreed to do: arbitrate the dispute regarding the contract, and in that, it may have technically been in the right. In any other case, regarding any other stipulation, it probably would be. However, when justice is blind, it can also be ignorant: willfully ignoring that perhaps what was contracted shouldn’t have been either parent’s right to agree to.

I hope, for Chase’s sake, that it really was medically necessary, and not just some arbitrary preference his father forced on him

Perhaps we should begin demanding evidence of such things. Perhaps we should begin demanding these sorts of things not be left up to the arbitrary preferences of parents, but, unless medically necessary, leave children intact until they’re old enough to make their own informed decisions about what modifications they want done to their bodies.

I fight for women’s rights to have control over their bodies, I’ll fight for every little boy’s too.

My body, my choice. His body, his choice. Our bodies. Our own choices.

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  • SandraHippink

    Thank-you for speaking out about this case. The poor little boy has nothing wrong with his body and does NOT want his penis cut.
    FYI, Phimosis is NORMAL for boys, the foreskin is supposed to be fused to the glans. Phimosis can NOT be diagnosed in a child. If the foreskin still has not retracted naturally by the time he becomes sexually active (and wants it to retract), there are easy methods of achieving this that do NOT require amputation of the highly innervated, multi-functional foreskin.

  • concerned cynic

    “I hope, for Chase’s sake, that it really was medically necessary, and not just some arbitrary preference his father forced on him.”

    The AAP (whose stance has been endorsed by the ACOG and is about to be endorsed by the CDC) has completely muddied the waters here by ruling that the “benefits [of prophylactic circumcision] outweigh the risks”, while also declining to formally recommend routine infant circumcision. The AAP urged that parents be given the option of circumcising their newborn sons, and that private health insurance and Medicaid cover the cost. This fence-sitting stance is, of course, all things to all people, and provides no guidance whatsoever to the justice system in a case like this one.

    The father’s preference is not “arbitrary” but a predictable consequence of the ruthless hunting down on infant foreskins pursued in much of middle class America before 1940, and damn near all of America it once workplace health insurance became the norm in the 1940s. Michelangelo’s David notwithstanding, in the USA, the penis Nature Intended is a Weird And Disgusting, a “dog dick”, “anteater”, “elephant trunk”, fit only for taunts by cut boys, and rejection by the grown women he tries to date.

    Chase was not a party to this contract. Moreover the court refused to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent Chase’s interests in this dispute between his parents.

    This too is disturbing: “The court hasn’t asked for further evidence regarding the circumcision procedure: both the materials that have convinced Hironimus that this procedure should not be done, and also a doctor’s expert testimony that the procedure is medically necessary.”

    I do not like at all that Hironimus was threatened with indefinite detention (and, tacitly, with loss of custody of her child) if she did not sign a document giving permission for her son to be circumcised. I see that chivalry is well and truly dead.

    Contracts are not sacrosanct, and are breached and renegotiated all the time. When this happens specific performance is an unusual remedy. It is blatantly obvious to me that Chase’s foreskin is stuck in a no man’s land between his warring parents. Judges should be wary of letting feuding parents use Family Court to settle scores at the expense of the children governed by dual custody.

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  • tz

    What if the dispute was not about circumcision but vaccination? One parent wanted every possible vaccine and didn’t believe in the possibility of any side-effects, and the other was concerned, especially for diseases that did not pose a threat of disability or death, and wanted to wait until the child was no longer an infant (larger, could tolerate more, could verbally explain symptoms if a reaction did occur), wanted vaccines serially instead of in large bunches.

    Ask the child if he wants to get a shot?

    “Medically necessary” was in dispute over the circumcision, but no one knows if any particular child will get any particular disease, and how it will affect the child if he does get it. So vaccines can never be “Medically Necessary”. They can only be medically prudent.

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