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Rethinking Circumcision: Why I’m Over This “Boy’s Club”

I agreed to have my first son circumcised. My husband preferred it, and my (male) OB assured me it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. In fact, he promoted it, saying circumcision reduces HIV contraction risk. The subject matter — and the discussions surrounding it — felt very much like male territory, and in a way, I wanted to allow my husband some role in the otherwise mother-centric sphere that is all things pregnancy and birth.

The circumcision was performed in the hospital just a day or two after my baby was born. My husband and doctor took my son for the procedure. When they returned, my baby was asleep, but he no longer wore the content, dreamy newborn expression he’d left with. Looking at photos of our first few days with our baby, I know exactly which ones were taken before and after his circumcision, and I regret consenting to it. Everything about it — everything I was assured was normal, even — didn’t feel normal, or right, at all, from his bandaged penis to his lethargy that lasted for a few days afterward, a period during which a newborn usually begins to “wake up” and nurse like crazy in order to bring in his mother’s milk.

Of course, my son recovered — and so did I. But I decided as soon as I learned my second child would also be a boy that he would remain intact. He’s now 5 months old, and I haven’t regretted that decision for a moment.
When it came to this baby,  my decision was not about statistics or medical debates (or even ethical debates, for that matter).
Our first days were permeated by a sustained, peaceful calm. When it came to this baby, my decision was not about statistics or medical debates (or even ethical debates, for that matter), it was about what felt right, to me, as a mother who’d just given birth, whose maternal instinct had been allowed to flourish instead of being patronizingly tsk-tsk’d by a doctor who’d want me to believe that a little bit of sugar water could possibly mitigate the pain of genital mutilation. What felt right to me was not handing my baby over to join some kind of boy’s club, but instead holding him close between us and keeping him safe from harm. It was very simple, really.

Statistics, medicine and ethics are of consequence, of course, when it comes to circumcision’s legality, and in the case of this procedure culture and religion also come into play, making it more than a little controversial.

Now, two major medical groups, in Sweden and Denmark, have issued statements calling for a ban on non-medical infant circumcision. A recommendation made by the Swedish Medical Association, which represents about 85 percent of the nation’s physicians, states that boys should be at least 12 years old — old enough to give consent — in order to undergo the procedure. The Danish College of Pediatrics has meanwhile issued its own statement equating infant circumcision to abuse and mutilation.

These recommendations follow a joint statement made in September of last year by the Child Rights International Network and the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and Pediatric Experts. In the statement, the groups proclaimed infant circumcision conflicts with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, “which addresses the child’s right to express his/her own views in all matters concerning him/her, and… which states that children must be protected against traditional practices that may be prejudicial to their health.”

This doesn’t mean the laws in Sweden — and the five other countries whose representatives signed last year’s statement — will change right away, but these statements do collectively suggest that the laws eventually will follow, and that the international medical community may be shifting its views more definitively on circumcision. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recently slackened its stance on the procedure, it also officially acknowledges that one in every 500 circumcisions in the United States results in acute complications. That’s a high number for an unnecessary procedure, especially when it means some babies are emerging disfigured.

I do believe parents should have the right to make medical decisions for their children — we don’t ask for our children’s consent in deciding whether or not to vaccinate them, after all—but, having consented to one circumcision for one of my sons, I agree with the recent recommendations out of Europe: Circumcision is not medically necessary. Therefore, it’s not really a medical decision. It can lead to medical complications, though — even death. Furthermore, it hurts. So why are we doing this? Because it’s just… what we do? What would happen if there was a ban on infant circumcision? Certain traditions might evolve. Countless babies would be spared painful procedures on their genitals. Others’ lives would be saved. And, I’m willing to venture, very few 12-year-old boys would volunteer to have their foreskins removed.

Do you think circumcision should still be legal? 

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