BOYNTON BEACH, Florida – An estranged Florida couple's fight over whether to circumcise their son has become a rallying cry for those who denounce the procedure as barbaric.
The dispute between Heather Hironimus, the mother opposing circumcision, and Dennis Nebus, the father favoring it, has sparked a prolonged court battle, protests and the rapt attention of a movement of self-proclaimed "intactivists."
Judges have ruled in favor of the father, meaning the surgery is likely to happen, but the possible closure of the legal chapter has done little to mute the case's most passionate followers. Though many still choose to remove their sons' foreskins at the suggestion of a doctor, for religious or cultural reasons, or out of habit, opponents have been bolstered by the overall waning popularity of circumcision, and the fact this fight has gone on so long the boy at its center is now 4 years old.
"I couldn't speak when I was cut, but I can speak now," said Thomas Frederiksen, a 39-year-old machinist who traveled from Orlando to protest, wearing a red beret and "I (Heart) My Foreskin" T-shirt and speaking breathlessly about the issue.
Volumes of court filings tell the story: Hironimus and Nebus had a six-month relationship that resulted in a pregnancy, the birth of a boy named Chase, and a fight over nearly everything since. Nebus sued to prove his paternity and to get partial custody of the boy and the couple whittled out a parenting plan outlining everything from his surname to his legal address, to whom he calls mommy or daddy and, notably, what becomes of his penis.
In that document, the circumcision of the child was agreed to by both parents. When it came time to schedule the procedure, though, the mother resisted, having researched the subject further. The matter wound its way through circuit court, which ruled in Nebus' favor, then to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which refused to overturn the lower court's ruling. Hironimus could ask for a rehearing in the appellate court, but has made no further legal filings.
"Just the normal thing to do," the father said of circumcision, according to the court files. "To me, it's not worth it to put my son's life at risk for a cosmetic procedure," the mother said.
The parents entered an agreement on Dec. 24 to not talk to the press and to avoid any other campaigns or actions that might exploit the child. There is no indication in the court documents the circumcision is being done for religious reasons. The attorney that had represented the mother, who lives in Boynton Beach, is no longer being retained and has not been replaced, the lawyer's office said. The attorney for the father, who lives in Boca Raton, did not respond to requests for comment.
Though circumcision rates have fallen in the U.S., a majority of boys still undergo the removal of their foreskin. A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 58.3 percent of newborn boys were circumcised in 2010, down from 64.5 percent in 1979. (The data excluded babies who were circumcised after leaving the hospital -- many Jewish boys have the procedure during a ceremony called a bris, eight days after birth.) Meantime, a bubbling anti-circumcision movement has grown.
They have made the boy at the center of this case their cause celebre, as evidenced by one of several small sidewalk protests here featuring signs including "Let Chase Keep His Foreskin," "Don't Cut Chase's Penis," "Don't You Dare Circumcise Chase!" and "Ethics 101: No Disease, No Consent, No Circumcision." Some passing motorists honked or gave gestures of support; some looked puzzled or shouted "Who's Chase?"
Jonathan Friedman, 27, who organized the demonstration as part of his "Saving Chase" campaign, traveled from Chicago for the event and makes anti-circumcision advocacy the focus of his life. He wore a "Children Never Forget Trauma" T-shirt and said he became vocal on the issue when he realized the harm of his own circumcision, which he blames for bleeding, chafing and painful erections.
What has driven supporters to his side, Friedman says, is the age of the boy in this case.
"People are not OK with a 4-year-old boy being circumcised -- a conscious, articulate boy. That's just not OK," Friedman said. "Not everyone is against circumcisions, but I think everyone is against a 4-year-old's circumcision."
Last month, the CDC released a draft of long-awaited federal guidelines on circumcision, stopping short of telling parents they should choose the procedure, but saying medical evidence shows benefits clearly outweigh risks. It can lower a male's risk of sexually transmitted diseases, penile cancer and even urinary tract infections, the CDC said, potential benefits of which the protesters expressed serious doubt.
Gathered quietly near the office of a pediatric urologist who examined the boy and who may be chosen for the surgery, they said the circumcision should be put off until adulthood, when the patient could decide for himself. To those who view the procedure as minor, they gave a list of reasons they believe shows it is not -- from loss of sensation to unseen psychological damage.
"They think it's just a little snip and it's not," said Jennifer Blanchard, 34, of Miami. "It's a big deal."