My friend Peter, whose parents are Russian, grew up in America with an intact foreskin, as have all the men in his family for generations. But when he became sexually active the foreskin was so tight around the head of his penis that it did not retract easily.
Peter’s condition has a name, phimosis, and if you Google “foreskin problems” you’ll find chat groups of young men experiencing similar difficulties asking for advice.
Peter decided to be circumcised as an adult. Circumcision is part of my Jewish cultural heritage. All of my male relatives – my father, uncles, and three older brothers – have been circumcised. In the Bible, God commands Abraham to circumcise his male descendants. Practicing Jews hold a festive ceremony, called a bris, on the eighth day of a boy’s life during which the foreskin is removed either by a doctor or a mohel, a rabbi trained in circumcision. Even in countries where circumcision is not the norm, the majority of Jews choose to circumcise.
Despite the problem he had with his foreskin, Peter – a nurse practitioner who advises thousands of patients a year on medical issues – decided not to circumcise his own son when the time came.
Peter’s story in addition to the research I’ve done – witnessing the procedure firsthand, talking to men about their feelings – has convinced me that circumcision is not only unnecessary, it’s a painful and traumatizing procedure that should not be done in infancy.
Although in England less than 5 percent of men are circumcised, in America my uncircumcised son is in the minority. According to an article in the New York Times, approximately 79 percent of all adult American males are circumcised, and according to Intact America, a nonprofit organization trying to stop routine circumcision, circumcision is one of the most common surgeries performed in America, happening to over 1 million newborns a year, more than 3,000 times a day, once every 26 seconds.
Every parent of an American boy faces a decision about circumcision, though the majority simply chooses to follow the doctor or hospital’s recommendation. Yet most American hospitals do not present circumcision as a choice, they simply assume that parents will opt to circumcise.
When my friend Karen’s son, born in Atlanta, was a day old, a nurse bustled in with paperwork. “Ready for his circ?” the nurse asked. Karen looked at her husband. Patrick shrugged, “I guess so,” he muttered, and the baby was taken away. Karen and Patrick assumed the hospital was making the best choice for their child, but they had obviously never discussed it.
Most parents do not watch their baby being circumcised and do not know that the procedure can be excruciatingly painful, even with anesthesia. Anyone who has ever witnessed a circumcision and heard the high-pitched scream of a newborn having part of his penis cut off (you can watch one on the internet if you don’t believe me) knows that this surgery causes pain.
Since the foreskin is attached to the head of the penis (also called the glans) like a fingernail is attached to the nail bed, in order to remove it has to be forcibly pried away. For the week or so that the cut is healing, a baby is peeing and defecating on a raw, open wound.
Circumcision can be dangerous. This past March an Atlanta jury awarded $1.8 million in damages to a boy’s parents after a seriously botched circumcision. It’s also a procedure that can cause lasting regret. My cousin so laments being circumcised that he tries to dissuade the rest of the family from imposing it on our children. Although this is not a subject broached at cocktail parties, when men take the time to talk about having been circumcised, they often regret the loss of their foreskin.
My husband is a good example. James had never really thought about being circumcised himself until our son was born six years ago. After reading up on the subject, he said: “I kind of feel cheated. I could have made my own decision as a teenager if my parents had left well enough alone.” He was horrified to realize that, in order for the penis to heal, the skin of the glans grows a covering, like a callous, to protect it.
“It’s appalling. If I’d had the choice, I would have left my body as evolution left it, with functioning parts.”
Other men feel similarly. An economist sent me this email: “Many say the anger only comes from botched surgeries, mine wasn’t. I’m hurt and upset about what happened to me as a baby boy and I have nightmares about it a few times a year. To be strapped to a board and violated like this is one of the most upsetting things that has happened to me in life… and I’m a cancer survivor as well.”
Why circumcise a baby? The trend started in America in large part to keep boys from masturbating. Physicians writing in the 19th century even suggest the surgery should be done without medication so that a child will associate his genitals with pain.
In Plain Facts for Young and Old (1882), John Harvey Kellogg writes: “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:”
Like female genital mutilation, the idea was to make sexual sensations less pleasurable. Is that really what you want to do to your son?
Today arguments in favor of circumcision are supposedly based on scientific research. Recent health studies in Africa suggest that circumcised heterosexual men are less likely to get HIV than non-circumcised counterparts, if they choose not to wear a condom. If they wear a condom, circumcision makes no difference. Proponents also argue that urinary tract infections are less likely, and that it is necessary for cleanliness.
Yet the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) claims that the medical data in favor of circumcision “are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision,” and most American doctors admit the procedure is not medically necessary.
Given the AAP’s stance against recommending circumcision, why do some hospitals encourage or even pressure parents to circumcise? Of course they make money from the procedure, as they do from every medical intervention performed. But there may be another, much more nefarious reason: Human foreskin is used to manufacture artificial skin for burn victims and diabetics, as well as high-end cosmetics. “Where does the supply of foreskins come from?” my husband asks, looking disturbed. “Adult donors?”
The male foreskin is not a superfluous body part; it protects the penis when a boy is a child and also plays a key role in female pleasure when a boy is a man. If there really is a correlation between circumcision and HIV prevention, then we should let adult men choose to have the procedure done once they decide to be sexually active.
Despite a cultural legacy of thousands of years, my husband and I did not circumcise our son. If he chooses to get circumcised as an adult, either for a medical reason or to follow his cultural heritage, that’s his decision.
Let’s keep American baby boys intact. It’s wrong to force an irreversible circumcision on a child when he is too young to decide for himself.