The hill I’m willing to die on

I’m so proud that probably the most important, yet emotionally charged, blog post I’ve written has traveled farther around the internet than I would have ever expected. If just one mother decides to keep the boy she’s pregnant with whole, or one dad says, “I’m cut and my two sons are cut, but my next son will remain intact,” then I will have been successful. Regardless of the number of interpersonal relationships I’ve strained or the number of people I’ve outright pissed off, a seed has been planted.

The topic of routine infant circumcision is not one that can be neatly summed up in one post, though, so I’m highlighting links and comments left on my last post to provide additional food for thought.

Instead of outlawing the practice all together for being antiquated, unnecessary, and detrimental, the ”medical reasons” for circumcision change from century to century to fit with the issues of the time. Whereas today it is sold as a way to reduce the risk of UTIs, penile cancer, STDs, and HIV (efforts are being made to circumcise in African countries for this very reason), here are the medical reasons for circumcision in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in doctors’ own words:

“A remedy [for masturbation] which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision…The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment…” [John Harvey Kellogg. Plain Facts for Old and Young. Burlington, Iowa: F. Segner & Co. 1888:295.]

“In all cases of masturbation circumcision is undoubtedly the physicians’ closest friend and ally…To obtain the best results one must cut away enough skin and mucous membrane to rather put it on the stretch when erections come later. There must be no play in the skin after the wound has thoroughly healed, but it must fit tightly over the penis, for should there be any play the patient will be found to readily resume his practice. . .” [E. J. Spratling. Masturbation in the Adult. Medical Record 1895;24:442-443.]

“Local indications for circumcision: Hygienic, phimosis, paraphimosis, redundancy (where the prepuce more than covers the glans). adhesions, papillomata, eczema (acute and chronic), oedema, chancre, chancroid, cicatrices, inflammatory thickening, elephantiasis, naevus, epithelioma, gangrene, tuberculosis, preputial calculi, hip-joint disease, hernia. Systemic indications: Onanism, seminal emissions, enuresis, dysuria, retention, general nervousness, impotence, convulsions, hystero-epilepsy.” [George F. Shrady. Circumscisus. Medical Record 1896;49:430]

“Circumcision offers a diminished tendency to masturbation, nocturnal pollutions, convulsions and other nervous results of local irritation. It is the moral duty of every physician to encourage circumcision in the young…” [Abraham L. Wolbarst. Universal Circumcision. Journal of the American Medical Association 1914;62:92-97.]

“…[W]e do feel that there are many excellent reasons for routinely circumcising the male… Longevity, immunity to nearly all physical and mental illness, increased physical vigor, etc., are all attributed to this practice… In addition to the aforementioned reasons for doing the operation, we shall list several reasons to support immediate circumcision. … Convenience: Under the present regime the obstetrician finishes his episiotomy, walks across the hall and circumcises the infant, and is finished with the whole business.” [Richard L. Miller. Donald C. Snyder. Immediate Circumcision of the Newborn Male. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 1953;65:1-11.]

 

Today, however, non-American medical associations (here is the AAP’s policy) such as the Royal Dutch Medical Association have a firm stance against routine infant circumcision:

“The official viewpoint of KNMG and other related medical/scientific organisations is that non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors is a violation of children’s rights to autonomy and physical integrity. Contrary to popular belief, circumcision can cause complications – bleeding, infection, urethral stricture and panic attacks are particularly common. KNMG is therefore urging a strong policy of deterrence. KNMG is calling upon doctors to actively and insistently inform parents who are considering the procedure of the absence of medical benefits and the danger of complications.”

Despite the beliefs held in other nations and the easy access to information in the internet age, Americans, albeit in decreasing numbers, are still circumcising. Here a reader named Roger gives a few reasons why:

Dad fears that son will be mocked and taunted in the sports locker room and in summer camp. Nobody mentions that this never happens after a boy finishes high school. Never mind that most parents believe that a young woman should be proud of the body that God gave her, and should have nothing to do with young men who do not accept her as she is. Never mind that an intact boy can simply be told that he is healthy and normal, and that almost every male is born looking as he does.”

Yes. Should I plan on breast implants for my daughter in case she’s an A cup like her mama, so boys will like her?

“Parents believe that if routine circumcision were harmful, doctors would not offer to do it.”

As I sit here today while an acquaintance delivers her baby via scheduled c-section because she is “too short to dilate,” I am reminded that physicians are often placed on a pedestal of omniscience from which they are thought to be able to do no wrong.

“Many families circumcise their sons because Dad insists on it, despite Mom having serious reservations about the practice. Mom decides that this is not a hill she is willing to die on.”

I’ve read dozens of comments online from women who leave the decision up to their husbands simply because they have a penis, or who are against circumcision but defer to their husbands’ wishes to have a son who “looks like him.” (Fortunately, there are many other men who are bold enough to not do to their sons what was done to them.)

Here’s where I tell you what I have not told my husband.

If he had an extramarital affair then perhaps (and that’s a very small perhaps) we could work it out. But if he was adamant about having either of our children circumcised I would be on the next flight to Mexico. . .with my babies.

It is a hill I’m willing to die on.

Culture is the culprit

My husband cut off his thumb when I was pregnant with our daughter. After she was born I considered surgically amputating her thumb as well. So she could look like him. So she could avoid those pesky hangnails and the feeling of smashing her thumb with a hammer. Besides, the doctors would leave just a bit of it, a little stump, so it would still have some function.

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It took me awhile to figure out what it was about the Michael Vick dogfighting case that didn’t sit quite right with me. While I think dogfighting is atrocious and Vick should have been punished for participating in it, the issue was not that black and white to me. While being vilified by the majority of Americans, Vick had also been victimized by the culture in which he was raised–a culture in which dogfighting was socially acceptable. “We never knew there was nothing wrong with it,” his brother is quoted here as saying.

We are all products of our culture.

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We cannot withhold facts for fear of offending because the importance of the information outweighs people’s right to not be challenged in their beliefs. -Maddy Reid

When I was pregnant with my daughter my midwife asked if I would circumcise if I had a boy. My first two thoughts were: “Isn’t that just what you do?” and “It seems like such a bizarre thing to do.”

After that appointment I went online to look for information and within minutes was watching a video of the procedure. . . with sound. My husband found me crying a short time later, and I told him I would never do that to any son of mine.

When my midwife asked me again at my next appointment if I’d decided whether or not to circumcise I said, “no way.” As it’s been said about circumcision, the more you know, the more you’re against it. In truth, I’d sooner gnaw off my own arm than subject my non-consenting child to such a barbaric act. (I’m fairly certain that’s not an exaggeration.)

Months passed before I revisited the issue, though. (Some issues are so disturbing they must be left alone in a dark corner for a while.) When I did I discovered that:

  • The foreskin is not a useless flap of skin. It provides an immunological and physical barrier against disease and supports the growth of beneficial bacteria. It also contains thousands of nerve endings and offers a gliding action that enhances sexual pleasure.
  • Circumcision became popular in the U.S. as a means to prevent masturbation. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, of breakfast cereal fame, recommended it as a preventative measure and as punishment for those caught masturbating, for whom the procedure would preferably be performed without anesthesia. (He recommended carbolic acid for girls’ genitals.)
  • Circumcision is painful. The foreskin must be ripped and cut away from the glans, to which, in infancy, it is adhered like a fingernail to a finger. Anesthesia is not always used and even when it is, it’s inadequate.
  • Circumcision does not prevent UTIs or HIV or any other STD. (European countries have far lower rates of both circumcision and HIV than the U.S.) Antibiotics can easily treat UTIs, and condoms and abstinence prevent STDs.
  • Circumcision can disrupt a previously established breastfeeding relationship.
  • Circumcision can lead to complications including infection, excessive blood loss, excessive skin removal, loss of glans (head of penis) and other deformities, sexual dysfunction in later life, and death.
  • Over time the exposed glans becomes keratinized and loses sensitivity, as it is forced to become an external organ that must weather constant chafing from clothes.
  • The U.S. and Israel are the only two countries in the world where the majority of male infants are circumcised. (In Muslim countries circumcision occurs anytime during childhood.)
  • Females are protected by U.S. law from routine infant circumcision.
  • The female genital mutilation we abhor in other countries is ethically no different from male genital mutilation (aka circumcision) in the U.S.
  • No major medical association in the world recommends circumcision.

The more I learned, yes, the more I was against it. The more pissed off I was, to be precise. Pissed off that the wool could be pulled over the eyes of so many well-meaning parents–my friends, my family members. Pissed off that the natural penis is billed as unclean, unhealthy and ugly, and the foreskin as useless. Pissed off that our culture has decided that baby girls have the right to genital integrity, but baby boys do not. Pissed off that men and their partners are missing out on the full sexual experience as nature intended it. Pissed off that anyone other than the owner of the penis would be granted the right to make irreversible decisions about it for strictly cosmetic and cultural reasons.

We are all products of our culture. And sometimes culture needs to be called out on being a horrifically shitty mess.

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I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. -Maya Angelou

To learn more about the functions of the foreskin and to be inspired to change our circumcision culture visit:

Doctors Opposing Circumcision

Jews Against Circumcision

The Whole Network

Intact Network

Peaceful Parenting

Saving Our Sons

Keeping Future Sons Intact

Psychology Today series

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Of course I didn’t really consider surgically removing my daughter’s thumb. That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

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