Legal and ethical consent is more than just a mark on a piece of paper. A scrawled signature is worth nothing if it does not represent freely volunteered, informed agreement. Consent offered under duress of coercion, fear or force has no meaning, no value.
The piece of paper signed by Florida mother Heather Hironimus is not a document of consent but a testament to a dysfunctional legal system that has become detached from fundamental principles of justice and human rights and which shames the United States of America in the eyes of the world.
The courtroom photos record Hironimus at the time of the signature, bound in handcuffs, sobbing uncontrollably, throwing her head back with hands clenched in a prayer for support or forgiveness. When she took the pen from her lawyer, it was subsequent to nine days held in jail with clear conditions from the presiding judge that she would be imprisoned indefinitely until she offered that signature.
Those nine days followed three months living in hiding in a domestic violence refuge. At the time of putting pen to paper, Hironimus was clearly distraught, distressed and presumably exhausted. Any document signed at such time has about as much validity as a confession to the Spanish inquisition.
What was the cause that drove the Florida justice system to such ignominious lengths? Astonishingly, the entire case hinges on a single decision resolved amicably by millions of American parents every year – whether or not to circumcise their sons.
Signing of a parental agreement
The origins of this saga lie in a parenting agreement signed by Hironimus and the boy’s father, Dennis Nebus, at the time of birth. The parents were not in an ongoing relationship and they signed an agreement on shared parenting, which included a clause stating that it would be the father who would schedule and pay for any circumcision procedure.
Nebus never took up the option until the child was three years old. In the intervening time, there were two important developments. The first was Hironimus learned more about the consequences of circumcision, including risks of complications from either the procedure or the anaesthetics involved.
Like ever-growing numbers of American parents, she came to believe or understand the supposed health benefits to circumcision are spurious and do not justify the risks and the loss of bodily integrity.
Secondly, and equally significantly, her son grew old enough to have an opinion as to what should happen to his own penis and decided he did not want bits of it cut off by a doctor for no sensible reason.
Nonetheless, in 2014, a Florida judge ruled that in signing the original parenting agreement, Hironimus had signed away any right to change her mind at any time, and lost the power to object to the permanent surgical mutilation of her own son.