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Calif. bill seeks statewide rules on circumcision

California lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on whether local jurisdictions have the right to ban male circumcision or whether the practice should be covered by statewide rules, a debate that evolved from a divisive ballot measure in San Francisco.

A bill by two Democratic lawmakers being considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee would declare that circumcision — surgically removing the foreskin that covers the tip of the penis — has health, cultural and other benefits, and that uniform statewide rules are needed to govern it and a parent's authority over whether their children receive it.

"It's a medical procedure, and it has value," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, co-author of AB768. Passing the bill, he told the committee, would prevent a statewide patchwork of laws governing circumcision.

The legislation comes against a national backdrop of efforts to limit male circumcision, which critics say is an unnecessary surgery to a healthy and defenseless child. They compare the practice to genital mutilation of female children, which is banned by federal and California law.

Advocates have developed model legislation and say they have tried for years to advance circumcision bans at statehouses across the country, but they typically are not introduced. Such a bill introduced in Massachusetts in 2009 died in committee last year.

"There's been an international effort on this issue for decades," said Lloyd Schofield, a San Francisco resident who led efforts to place a circumcision ban on that city's ballot this year, a measure later removed by a judge.

Supporters of male circumcision include researchers who say it can reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and cancer, and many Jews and Muslims, for whom the practice is an important religious ritual.

Local ballot measures on the subject interfere with the practice of medicine, said Ryan Spencer, a spokesman for the California Medical Association.

"The decision to perform male circumcision should be left up to the parents in consultation with their physician, wherever they reside," Spencer testified.

There may be some health benefits, but the same could be said of mastectomy and that procedure can't be performed on a healthy child, countered Matthew Hess, president of San Diego-based MGMbill.org, a national group that has developed model legislation to ban circumcision of males younger than 18.

The issue drew national attention when supporters of the ban collected more than 7,700 signatures to put a measure on the November ballot in San Francisco to outlaw the circumcision of most male children.

What would have been the first vote on the practice in a U.S. city became more controversial when the Anti-Defamation League accused proponents of the ban of using anti-Semitic caricatures to support their cause.

A group of Jewish and Muslim San Francisco residents, doctors who perform circumcisions, the Anti-Defamation League and a local chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council sued in June to block the ballot measure. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Loretta Giorgi on July 28 ordered it struck from the ballot, ruling that California law says only the state, not cities, can regulate medical procedures.

Giorgi also said it violated protections of religious freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

If approved, the bill would short-circuit future attempts to pass local laws or ballot initiatives limiting male circumcision on medical or any other basis.

Gatto said that was necessary because Giorgi's ruling could be overturned on appeal. In addition, he said, circumcision of Jewish children is often performed by a religious specialist known as a mohel, who might arguably not be included among the "healing arts practitioners" covered by the state law on medical procedures.

Gatto and co-author Fiona Ma, a San Francisco Democrat, are pursuing a two-thirds majority vote for the bill, which would allow the statewide standard to take effect immediately.

"These kinds of local referendums, they are so divisive, so unnecessarily mean-spirited, that I'm hopeful" that Republican and Democratic lawmakers will provide the votes needed, Gatto said.