As a childbirth educator and doula, circumcision is a regular topic in class and with doula clients as well as on various forums I’m on, so I have heard quite a variety of reasons why parents choose to circumcise their baby boy. For some parents, these discussions are the first time they really realize they have a kinder alternative. Here is a list of (and my rebuttal to) some of the reasons to circumcise that parents have shared with me over the years:
- “Well, my husband wants to circumcise our boy so he can potty train him.” As a mom of two girls and two boys, I’ve done a lot of potty training and I have never found my lack of a penis to be a problem when encouraging my boys to use the potty. Because, you see, it’s really all about them, not me, not their dad. They are far more interested in what they can hit with their stream of urine or the excited song and dance we perform whenever they actually do make it to the potty than in comparing genitalia or anything else. And when they do observe in passing that dad’s penis looks different, it’s just as much about size and surrounding hairiness as anything else. Children take these things in stride and with acceptance; it’s parents who turn it into a big deal.
- “We don’t want our child to be laughed at in the locker room.” Given the current statistics, the locker rooms of our children in most parts of the country may soon be around 50-50 intact/circumcised, and with the national rate having fallen to 32.5% in 2009, many areas will be overwhelmingly intact. But that’s beside the point. Shouldn’t we as parents aim to teach our children that they can and should be happy and confident about their whole body rather than remove a healthy part for our own reasons? Don’t we want them to love and accept themselves for who they are, inside and out? What message does it send to our children if we surgically remove a body part for no medical reason and without respect for their ability to later make a decision about their own genitals? I would imagine the challenge would more likely be to remind intact children to be gentle if ever they do face criticism or teasing from someone who may have some issues processing or grieving the fact that they had a healthy functioning foreskin removed without consent.
- “My husband wants his son to look like him.” I don’t understand this one. How often do men sit around with their dads and compare penises? When is the last time that husband and his father felt bonded over the appearance of their genitals? Aren’t there much more fundamental and important ways to bond with your offspring than to subject a child to the same unnecessary surgery you were subjected to? If you’ve had your tonsils or appendix removed, would you want that done to your child too? Would you tattoo or pierce your child to look like you? Probably not, because that’s illegal. If you have a scar on another body part, would you intentionally inflict one on your son to match? No? Then why cause a penile scar? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
- “I knew (or heard about) a guy who needed to be circumcised later in life so I’ll just circumcise my boy when he’s a newborn.” You cannot predict which ailments your child might have to deal with later in life. It is far more likely that your child will need other body parts surgically removed, such as his tonsils, adenoids, appendix or gallbladder. Would you remove any or all of these in any infant for no medical reason, just the fear of some future possibility? (Just like girls: some breasts will need to be removed later in life due to breast cancer but you wouldn’t remove a baby’s breast buds to prevent that possibility, and deaths from breast cancer are far higher than from penile cancer.) I assure you that the overwhelmingly vast majority of foreskins make it through life without needing to be removed. In fact, a boy’s chances of requiring corrective surgery after a circumcision are much higher than those of an intact adult male requiring circumcision.
- “It’s easier to clean a cut penis.” Here’s another one I cannot understand. I think it’s such an insult to male intelligence that I don’t know why more men don’t take issue with this. The men and boys in my life are very competent and capable and cleaning the foreskin is very simple – certainly nothing they can’t handle. I’ve had a much harder time cleaning dirt and grime off my boys’ toes but I’d never dream of cutting those off to make my life simpler.
- “I don’t have a penis so I can’t decide. I’ll leave it to my boyfriend.” It pains me when women say this. It is such a cop-out. He’s your child too and part of the responsibility of motherhood is to protect your child. If your child has a disease or sickness, injury, or condition that requires regular care, treatment or anything else, your job as a parent is to step up, get informed and take care of your child – whether you have had that body part or condition or not.
- Similarly, as said by a dad: “That decision should be left for the Dad as only he can make a decision on what to do with a penis.” Again, I strongly disagree that only dad’s (or mom’s) opinions should matter on this (or any) part of their children’s lives. Should I not have a say in the care of our visually-impaired child because I have perfect vision and my husband doesn’t? Should my husband not have a say in whether our daughters use birth control as teens because he doesn’t have a uterus? That’s absurd, right? Both parents have every responsibility to educate themselves on any drug, test or procedure they are considering for their child and they both have every right to have input on the health and bodily integrity of their children. Furthermore, one day that baby is going to be a grown male and I’m quite certain he, like you, would like to be able to make decisions about his own genitals. The greatest gift you can give your child is a choice! Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of the foreskin in sexual relations with the opposite sex. Here are some articles to get you started:
- How Male Circumcision May Be Affecting Your Love Life by Dr Christiane Northrup
- The Sexual Effects of Circumcision
- Effects of Male Circumcision on Female Arousal and Orgasm
- Improve Marital Sex: Keep the Foreskins by Dr Dean Edell
- “My husband wanted to circumcise our son but I didn’t. Eventually, against my better judgment, I consented….” The decision should be with the owner of the penis. If parents are split, the decision should still be with the owner of the penis. I don’t understand men or women who force their personal preference upon their child and their partner when they know their partner is against it. To me, that’s indicative of a significant lack of respect for the other’s parental instinct to protect their child from harm and hurt. Again, we are talking about a procedure which no medical association in the world recommends as routine for newborn boys. I don’t understand partners who allow something so permanent and drastic against their better judgment. But fortunately, this is not a marital battle I’ve had to wage.
- “If you don’t circumcise, the penis may get infected and fall off.” I know, this sounds ludicrous, and of course it is, but people actually say this. I had the misfortune of answering someone’s Facebook question about circumcision and then seeing a woman who claimed to be a nurse from North Carolina really write this:
Somehow, since we know some 80% of the world’s men are intact, it seems we would have known if there was an epidemic of penises falling off, but there simply isn’t. And really, is the possibility that a future caregiver of your son may have to simply retract his foreskin to clean it when he’s in the twilight of his life a good reason to deprive him of the functional, protective and erogenous organ that is the foreskin? No.
- “We would rather circumcise him now and prevent penile cancer in the future for our son.” While I appreciate the love of these parents and their desire to protect the child, we need to get some perspective here. About 1,500 American men will be diagnosed with penile cancer this year. It is very rare and occurs in about 1 per 100,000 men annually in the United States, including circumcised men. According to the National Cancer Institute, some 310 men will die of penile cancer in 2012. However, breast cancer will claim the life of 410 males; and neonatal circumcision kills 117 baby boys each year. We don’t remove or surgically alter infant female body parts for disease prevention, even though 940 women will die this year of vulvar cancer, more than all male deaths for penile cancer, breast cancer and circumcision combined.
- “He won’t remember it anyway.” What kind of argument is this? It sounds like a poor excuse for poor behavior. Would it be OK to rape someone while they’re drugged because they won’t remember? Of course not. Would it be OK to intentionally hurt a baby because she won’t remember? Of course not. Frankly, I don’t consciously remember much of anything from my first few years earthside but I know that I would be a very different person today if those years had not been spent in a loving family. The trauma of this surgery, which is often performed without adequate anaesthesia, causes tremendous stress and affects the body at the cellular level, the effects of which last much longer than most would care to think about.
- “Well, my adopted six-year-old’s going to be under general anaesthesia to get his tonsils removed so we figured we might as well get him circumcised at the same time.” Really? Shame on the doctor who agreed to this. Shame!
My heart breaks a little each time I hear something along the lines of one of the above, or indeed any excuse for circumcision. If you know me, you know I can’t be neutral when it comes to circumcision. For some reason, I feel passionately compelled to try to be the voice for babies who are perfectly happy with their intact natural penises. My belief that genital integrity is a basic human right and that circumcision is a cruel way to welcome a baby into the world is firm.
It saddens me so much whenever I hear stories of regret – and there are many. So much pain, physical and emotional, for child and for parent, that could have been so easily prevented. Yet I am so grateful to those honest brave parents for voicing their regrets and helping to save another child from a similar fate. Although many learned the hard way or did not research their options or did not listen to their intuition the first time, many fortunately kept later sons intact. For that, I have the greatest admiration.
Let me just say that I don’t believe parents who circumcise their children are bad parents. But I do think every human has the right to have his or her body as it is born, that we should normalize and appreciate the functions of the foreskin, and that parents who choose to surgically alter their children’s genitals for no medically indicated reason are making a mistake. And if this post, or any other like it in which someone speaks up on behalf of baby boys, saves one child from unnecessary surgery, then it is worth it.