Rethinking Circumcision

Imagine a couple walking into a U.S. hospital with their newborn baby girl and asking a doctor to surgically remove her clitoral foreskin.  Hospital
staff would surely decline this request because female genital mutilation is illegal.   
The procedure is medically unnecessary.  And it is just plain cruel.

The procedure would - and should -- appall most people.  Yet, our culture routinely circumcises 60 percent of infant boys without thinking twice about
it.  Some will argue that male and female circumcision are very different. But are they?  Neither are medically necessary.  They are simply accepted cultural practices. And both subject infants to excruciating pain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its position on routine male circumcision stating that it does not have to be done.  While this is a far cry from the position anti-circumcision advocates would like them to take, it is a tremendous step forward in helping parents make informed choices about the health and well-being of their sons. 

The risks associated with infant male circumcision justify a rigorous public education program aimed at new and expecting parents.  Most Americans think circumcision offers health benefits to their sons.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  With circumcision, boys are placed at risk of excessive bleeding, infection, complications from anesthesia, loss of glans penis, and even death.   The medical community has long known that boys will not bond with their mothers or breast-feed for several days after circumcision, and circumcised males tend to be more aggressive than other boys. Parents deserve to know this before they make the decision to circumcise. 

Many good parents have their sons circumcised, and are later very upset that doctors did not fully explain the risks associated with the procedure.  Because circumcision is so common, some parents in the United States even believe an infant male must be circumcised.

For many years, good and ethical doctors followed the lead of the American Academy of Pediatrics and routinely circumcised their newborn male patients.  But now the pediatric community knows better.  And we owe it to parents to give them the facts about circumcision.

Most parents believe that their sons should be circumcised to avoid penile infection.   True, the uncircumcised human penis does need more attention in terms of hygiene.   But ears gets dirty too and we don't chop them off.  We simply clean them.   Teeth need to be brushed twice a day and flossed daily - a high maintenance body part, indeed.  Should we have all of our teeth extracted?  Of course not.   Yet this is the very same logic that supports circumcision to prevent infection.

Fathers often say they want their sons circumcised so they can look like them.  Okay, I just have to ask - how much time do these guys intend to spend
comparing penises with their sons?!  If similar appearance is so important to these fathers, will they also insist their infant boys grow beards? Guys, people look different.   Mutilating your sons so you can have matching penises is an act of narcissism and cruelty.

Finally, many anti-circumcision advocates are charged with anti-Semitism because the practice began as a Jewish rite of passage.  My good friend, who is both Jewish and a passionate opponent of circumcision, is among a growing cadre of Jewish people rethinking the covenant between God and Abraham.  As she says, "Folks, I guarantee you, God does not want your son's foreskins, but I assure you your sons do."   Many Jewish families are now hosting circumcision-free brises for their sons, a humane way to preserve the religious tradition.

Many people say that because of anesthesia, infants do not feel pain when they are circumcised.  Or, worse yet, they say the infant's neurological system is not fully developed, therefore they cannot feel the pain of the procedure.   As a pediatric nurse, I can say with some authority that both counts are absolutely false.

When I was a nursing student, a pediatrician asked me to assist him in a circumcision and it was an experience I will never forget.  We had to strap down the infant to a molded board specially designed for circumcision.  At that point he began crying.  The doctor injected anesthesia to numb the penis, an experience which in itself was traumatic.  During the procedure, the child cried uncontrollably and was obviously in excruciating pain.  It was a horrific procedure - one that scarred my soul forever.  "Never do this to your son," the doctor said when he was finished.  And I knew I never would.

As a culture, it is time we rethink male circumcision.  While we once believed there were medical benefits that justified the practice, science in its ever-evolving wisdom has proven us wrong.  Now that the world's largest and most respected authority on pediatrics has claimed that male circumcision is not medically necessary, we must work to eliminate the practice with the same zeal we worked to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Sarah T. Ng, RN, BNS, is a pediatric nurse and a mother.

Email Sarah with your thoughts: [email protected]


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