Circumcision violates rights of boys as much as girls
Sir: Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 13 November) states the foreskin is just a "tiny piece of skin" and believes that parents have a right to amputate it from a baby for reasons including custom, aesthetics, prevention of rare diseases, or simply a belief that their son won't wash it properly.
How would it be if we applied his logic to female genitals? We'd call the labia pointless dangly bits, and have parents instructing doctors to snip them off (she won't feel a thing!) and then justifying this on the grounds that they look disgusting to a future partner, and harbour smegma. Those parents who had done it (and felt a little guilty) would be delighted by the latest news from Tanzania, which shows that female genital cutting significantly reduces the chance of HIV transmission.
Neither of your recent articles about ritual foreskin amputation has paid any regard to the actual value and function of this body part. The adult male foreskin is around 12-15 square inches of highly erogenous tissue. Near its tip is the most sensitive part of the penis (a unique "ridged band" which may contain two to three times as many nerve endings as the clitoris). In no civilised society can it be acceptable to take from a man or a woman healthy body parts without full informed consent. In fact our laws ban even the symbolic marking of girls' genitals. It's time we gave the guys their right to choose. Since when were human rights just for girls?
Sir: According to Dominic Lawson the case for circumcision is "all about statistics" – unfortunately, to quote Andrew Lang: "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts: for support rather than for illumination."
Mr Lawson cites an academic paper which reports that circumcised men are 22 times less likely to develop invasive penile cancer than those with an intact foreskin. What Mr Lawson fails to mention is that in England and Wales in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were just 89 deaths from penile cancer (of any type) out of a male population of more than 26 million. For contrast, in the same group there were 381 deaths attributed to falls on or from stairs or steps and, perhaps more pertinently, 185 from complications of medical or surgical care.
I have no strong views on the merits or demerits of circumcision; I do deplore attempts to cause anxiety by citing increases in relative risk while ignoring the fact that the absolute risk is extremely low.
Ken Campbell MSc (Clinical Oncology)
Plastic bags help the environment
Sir: I read with dismay your cover story "Ban the Bag" (14 November). The comment that plastics bags will be "unmourned by anyone who cares about cleaning up the environment" was offensive. The UK plastics industry takes environmental matters extremely seriously and has an excellent record of improvement and innovation, but believes that the banning of plastic bags would have a significant and detrimental environmental impact.
Plastic bags are lightweight, convenient and popular. Plastic bags are extraordinarily energy-efficient in manufacture, significantly more so than alternatives. Just 4 per cent of crude oil consumption is used for all plastics, and only 2 per cent for all films; of this 2 per cent, shopping bags represent an even smaller proportion. HDPE, the plastic most commonly used for the manufacture of bags, is made from a fraction of oil that might otherwise be flared. As such, plastics bags can be considered a resources-efficient by-product of oil production.
Plastic bags already achieve a tremendous rate of re-use by UK consumers, estimated at 80 per cent in a government survey in 2000. These can be used as bin liners, dog-fouling bags, or indeed, for future trips to the supermarket. In addition the embodied energy can be and is recovered either by recycling or via energy-from-waste systems.
The real way to protect the environment and make a difference is not to ban resource-efficient carrier bags, but for London councils to bite the bullet and invest in more collection and recycling of waste and more energy-from-waste plants, where there is no environmental benefit to be gained from recycling, as opposed to relying on fast diminishing landfill for 72 per cent of London's waste.
Director-General, British Plastics Federation, London EC2
Sir: You cite Ireland's ban on plastic bags approvingly, but you have made no report of the environmental disaster that their tax has inflicted on that country.
As a result of their "plastax", food retailers now prepackage all fruit, vegetables, bakery and deli products using seven to 20 times more weight of packaging than we do when using lightweight plastic bags. The vast majority of non-food retailers have switched to non-taxable paper carriers. To keep them hygienic and waterproof, these are mostly covered in polypropylene, another plastic.
We have already signed up to the Kyoto protocol, but should this insane idea be promoted, then, without any shadow of doubt, the UK, and the other countries from which we import the alternatives, will dramatically increase the world's carbon-dioxide and methane emissions.
Just to give you a simple example, one 20ft container holds 2 million lightweight supermarket check-out bags; the same 20ft container holds either 60,000 paper carriers, or 40,000 cotton carriers, or 30,000 jute carriers.
Please, for heaven's sake don't think about cotton or jute as an alternative. If you visit the source of these appalling products, unannounced, as I have, you will see unhygienic, unsafe conditions and underage children working in indentured poverty.
J Neil Young
Managing Director, SImpac ltd, Glasgow
Sir: Your leading article (14 November) concerning plastic shopping bags is right to focus on the Government's total lack of will to address the subject. Importing billions of these items from China, adding of course to that nation's dire environmental degradation, as well as to our own through dumping into scarce landfill sites, is an absurdity. More importantly, it illustrates the impotency of government in facing up to the great environmental challenges society is faced with. That action should instead have to come from the grass-roots level speaks volumes about the abdication of leadership.
Graham V Cornwell
Sir: I bought some newspapers at a Tesco near Ipswich today and on the top of the pile when I went to pay was your "Ban the bag" front page (14 November). The girl at the checkout glanced at it as she scanned the barcode, then asked me: "Do you want those in a bag?"
Wickham Market, Suffolk
Disabled people are far from helpless
Sir: In a few short paragraphs Simon Usborne demonstrates why Creature Discomforts, which will, he says, "revolutionise our attitudes to disabled people" (Picture Post, 13 November), is needed.
Alex Milhaly is "confined to a wheelchair" and Spud the Slug and Brian the Bull Terrier are "wheelchair-bound". Add to that the description of Sheila Morgan as "a multiple sclerosis sufferer" and you have a picture of disabled people which is very different from the reality which I and others live every day. The language which he uses is that of a medical model which sees us as poor, helpless beings.
My wheelchair gives me the freedom and independence which my body no longer has. There is nothing confining about my use of it. "Suffer" creates a load of negative images, of the poor little patient who can do nothing – not an accurate description of my friends who have MS.
Of course, my friends and I would prefer not to have MS or any other disabling condition, but don't write us off, especially in an article which purports to be portraying positive images.
Margaret M Brand
Age limits for adoptive parents
Sir: Deborah Orr's distinction between myth and truth is a little shaky on this occasion ("There are some so-called myths about adoption that are all too painfully true", 10 November).
Age limits on new adopters applied by agencies tend to be for those seeking to adopt new babies, of whom there have been few in Britain since the 1970s. The many children in care for whom adoptive homes are being sought are generally older children and those with additional needs. For these children, older or less "conventional" prospective parents are regularly encouraged to put themselves forward.
The key point is that adoption is a service primarily for the children who actually need it, and those needs do not always equate to the expectations of adults seeking to adopt.
Professor of Childhood and Youth Research, University of Central Lancashire, Preston
Sacked nurse is one the NHS's finest
Sir: Thank you for Mark Steel's excellent article about the sacking of Karen Reissmann (14 November). It is time that this disgraceful affair was brought to the attention of the British people. The "surreal charges" that Karen was found guilty of might almost be humorous if it wasn't for the fact that a truly excellent nurse is now without a job. The real reason for her dismissal was that she had the audacity to speak out about creeping privatisation and the decimation of community mental-health services.
I have worked with Karen for more than 25 years in this Trust and can vouch for the fact that you would not find a more caring, knowledgeable, professional and dedicated nurse anywhere in the NHS. Karen should be receiving national recognition for her service to the NHS, not her P45.
Sir: While Mark Steel's article concerning the dismissal of Karen Reissmann exposes most of the insanity (I use the word intentionally) of the way she has been treated it does miss another major point. Karen received a letter informing her of her promotion. Later that day she was taken out of a meeting with a patient to be informed that she had been suspended for bringing the trust into disrepute.
The support for Karen is not confined to her own union or branch. It comes from her patients, service users, health-care professionals, and other trade unionists across the cities of Manchester and Salford.
I suspect that as the facts of this case become more widely known there will be only one viable charge of bringing the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust into disrepute, and that will be against the Trust and its director.
Public and Commercial Services Union, Oldham
A public penance for Tony Blair?
Sir: Richard Ingrams's piece on Tony Blair's probable conversion to Catholicism (10 November) got it right. But I doubt that the Church will fail to make a song and dance about what will be thought a high-profile conversion.
If there is any justice, before accepting him, the Church should insist that Blair makes a statement admitting his culpability in the deaths and mutilation of thousands of men, women and children in his immoral, illegal and unnecessary war on Iraq and perform a public penance for his arrogance, egotism. After all, Henry II was the prime mover in only one man's death, which it is believed he did not order or even want, but yet he made a very public confession and penance.
A M J Bove
Sir: Why on earth does Ben Russell (report, 13 November) claim that a post-ratification referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be "unprecedented"? The 1975 referendum under Harold Wilson on whether to accept the (hardly changed) new terms of membership of the then EEC or leave was inherently a referendum on abrogation of the European Communities Act 1972 which took us in.
How to say 'difficile'
Sir: The other microbiologists I talked to back in the 1980s all pronounced it diff – itch – illy rhyming with chilli. I have often wondered what happened to its name but am happy to lay the blame on the BBC for spreading C. diffi-seel. It is rather sad that budding microbiologists were infected with it and sadder still that they became BBC consultants.
Dr Stephen Hogg
Senior Lecturer School of Dental Sciences University of Newcastle
Europe on the move
Sir: Pedantry could for once really make a difference. The admirable Steve Richards writes of the new Eurostar service (13 November) that Europe is moving closer. It isn't. "Europe" is not synonymous with "Continental Europe". And the scrupulous use of the latter when that is what we mean might do something to counter the relentless onslaught of the xenophobic press. In the meantime, we may move ever closer physically to "Continental Europe" but in relation to "Europe" we will stay exactly where we are; on the fringes.
US values aren't ours
Sir: Perhaps Gordon Brown's lifelong love of America has blinded him to the differences between our values and the enacted values of the US, as opposed to the values which the US espouses ("Brown insists that US is Britain's strongest ally", 12 November). The values he admires have resulted in a shamefully unequal society, repeated foreign policy misjudgements arising from hubris, and an unwillingness to listen to others. We must all hope these are not the values to which Gordon Brown aspires.
In praise of maturity
Sir: Your cheering report on "the new Ian Paisley" (15 November) tempts the thought that perhaps politicians are at their best in their much later years and our craze for kiddies in their 30s and 40s is a guarantee of a fragmented and unhappy world.
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