Circumcision...A Human Rights Issue

In some cultures, female genital circumcision is an
age-old tradition. The ritual removing of the clitoris
of a young, un-consenting girl, although a local
custom where practiced, is generally considered
barbaric in western countries. Female genital
mutilation is not only socially unacceptable, but also
a federal crime in the United States.

But what about our own painful cultural practices
forced on newborns? Americans routinely remove the
healthy foreskin of almost 63% of their newborn baby
boys for no medical reason. Defenders of the practice
try to differentiate between male and female
circumcisions. It is easy to judge a foreign culture's
practices, but much more difficult to objectively
evaluate your own. In fact, many of the arguments for
male and female circumcision are similar. Proponents
of either procedure say that uncircumcised genitals
are unclean and unpleasant to look at, that
circumcision will benefit the victims future sexual
partner and that it is normal. In both cases the
procedure removes healthy tissue from an un-consenting
child's body for cultural purposes with no medical

Routine male infant circumcision was introduced into
the United States through England who long ago
abandoned the practice. It was popularized as a means
to curb masturbation in boys in medical textbooks as
recently as the 1970's although it didn't work. The
radical practice of circumcising all newborn males was
instituted without public comment or debate and
amounted to a compulsory practice. Until a series of
lawsuits in the 1970's hospitals did not even have to
even obtain parental consent to perform this surgery.

Prior to an infant circumcision, the child is first
strapped spread eagle to a board.  Sharp instruments
are used to separate the foreskin from the rest of the
penis and remove it. The idea that a baby doesn't feel
it is absurd to anyone who has witnessed the
procedure. Although analgesia is now  used as a pain
reliever during circumcision, it is still traumatic to
see inflicted on a helpless child.

The most prevalent myth about the uncircumcised penis
today is probably that it is unclean and difficult to
take care of if left intact. The foreskin is in fact
specifically designed to protect the health of the
penis similar to the way the eyelids protect the eyes.
A child's foreskin is self cleansing and attached to
the glans (head of the penis) for several years
protecting it from germs and bacteria. Infant
circumcision leaves a raw open wound that is exposed
to frequent contact with urine and feces.

When the penis is left intact, the separation occurs
in it's own time as nature intended. In the Annals of
the Academy of Medicine, H.L. Tan described the
process this way, "The foreskin can be likened to a
rosebud... It will only blossom when the time is
right. No one opens a rosebud to make it blossom." It
is likewise inadvisable to forcibly retract the
foreskin to clean it as that can not only cause pain
and damage, but can destroy the beneficial bacteria
that protect the penis, leading to irritation and
infection. Antibacterial and antiviral proteins such
as lysozyme (also found in tears and breastmilk) are
produced by the glands in the foreskin.

The foreskin maintains optimal temperature, pH
balance and cleanliness while keeping the surface of
the penis soft, moist and sensitive. Anatomical
studies have shown that circumcision removes more than
20,000 nerve endings. The foreskin has a richer
variety and higher concentration of these specialized
sensitive nerve endings than any other part of the

Cutting off the foreskin also removes as much as 80%
of the penile skin which, depending on it's length,
can make the penis 25% shorter.

Circumcision can be a religious matter. Some parents
however are finding new ways to create loving and
non-violent ceremonies that honor their faith and
their child.

Other prevalent myths regarding circumcision focus
on health care, cancer, and sexually transmitted
diseases (STDs). A recent study shows that the penile
cancer rate is higher in the U.S. than in Denmark
where circumcision is almost unheard of. Female
partners of circumcised men do not have a lower risk
of cervical cancer either according to a study in the
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. And as
for STDs, the U.S. has the highest rate of AIDS and
the highest rate of circumcised males in the western
world. Prospective studies on circumcised American men
show that they may be at a higher risk for bacterial
and viral STDs.

The U.S. is the only one of 23 advanced medical
nations to routinely circumcise such a large
percentage of it's baby boys. The procedure has never
become popular in in Europe, Asia, South or Central
America. With less than 1/20 of the world's
population, the U.S. performs half of all
circumcisions worldwide. In fact, 82% of males
worldwide are not circumcised. If problems with the
foreskin are really so common, wouldn't the rest of
the medically advanced nations be routinely
circumcising their boys? The fact that in the global
community only 18% of males are circumcised also poses
a question to parents who are concerned their sons
will be "different" if left intact. Even within the
U.S., popularity of the procedure varies by region. In
the mid-west the circumcision rate is near 80% whereas
in the west, the rate is only  34%.     
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend
infant circumcision and states  that "the procedure is
not essential to a child's well being." Is it ethical
to perform what is essentially cosmetic surgery on an
un-consenting minor? Medi-Cal and some private
insurance companies no longer cover the procedure
recognizing it as elective surgery without medical
value. Is it even the role of a health care
professional to perform a surgery removing healthy
tissue with no medical benefits only to support
societal agendas? Doctors Opposing Circumcision thinks
it is not. According to Human Rights and Ethical
Medical Practice" by James W. Prescott, PhD, Marilyn
Fayre Milos, RN, and George C. Denniston, MD, "
Circumcision is a needless act of violence upon a
resisting and non-consenting newborn infant or child.
The pain and trauma of the procedure cannot be
adequately ameliorated by anesthesia or analgesia, and
the suffering can continue long after the painkiller
has worn off." 

There is always risk in any medical procedure. The
surgical complication rate of circumcision is 1 in
500. This includes uncontrollable bleeding and fatal
infections. An open wound provides easy access for
harmful organisms to enter the newborns fragile body.
Reports include gangrene following circumcision and
babies who have had all or part of their penis cut off
during the surgery. The reported death rate in infant
circumcision is 1 in 500,000.

The trauma of circumcision can also disrupt a child's
behavioral development and sleep patterns. It has been
shown in a number of studies to disrupt the mother /
infant bond during the critical newborn period. and
can interfere with establishing breastfeeding. In a
study at Washington School of Medicine, most babies
would not nurse after they were circumcised, and those
who did would not look into their mothers eyes. A
basic fundamental trust in the parent as protector was

Circumcised fathers may have mixed feelings about
leaving their sons intact, but it is a parents first
and foremost responsibility to protect their child
from harm. Even men who are satisfied with their own
circumcision owe to it their children to keep their
genitals in a natural and intact state until they are
old enough to make an informed decision about their
own bodies. Is it really our right to subject our
child to a painful surgery and cut off a part of their
genitals without their consent for no medical reason?
Most males who are given the choice keep their
foreskins and are happy with their wholeness. But once
a child is circumcised, it cannot be undone. A part of
their sexual organs is gone forever and they had no
choice in the matter. Every babies birthright should
be to keep their body whole and perfect in it's

Pamela Jorrick is a writer, doula, mother and wife
living in northern California. She sells baby slings
and maintains parenting a website at


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