In the weeks ahead, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are likely to publish a recommendation that all infant boys undergo circumcision. This is a huge mistake. Circumcision is an unnecessary procedure that is painful and can lead to complications, including death. No organization in the world currently recommends this. Why should we routinely remove normal, functioning tissue from the genitals of little boys within days of their birth?
The vast majority of the world’s men, including most Europeans and Scandinavians, are uncircumcised. And before 1900, circumcision was virtually nonexistent in the United States as well—except for Jewish and Muslim people, who’ve been performing circumcisions for thousands of years for religious reasons. Believe it or not, circumcision was introduced in English-speaking countries in the late 1800’s to control or prevent masturbation, similar to the way that female circumcision—the removal of the clitoris and labia—was promoted and continues to be advocated in some Muslim and African countries to control women’s sexuality. Berkeley1
Routine female circumcision, which has been practiced in some cultures, is completely unacceptable. Few people would argue otherwise. In fact, the United Nations has issued a decree against it. Circumcision is a form of sexual abuse whether it’s done to girls or boys. We justify male infant circumcision by pretending that the babies don’t feel it because they’re too young and it will have no consequences when they are older. This is not true. Women who experience memories of abuse in childhood know how deeply and painfully early experiences leave their marks in the body. Why wouldn’t the same thing apply to boys?
In medical school, I was taught that babies couldn’t feel when they were born and therefore wouldn’t feel their circumcision. Why was it, then, that when I strapped their little arms and legs down on the board (called a “circumstraint”), they were often perfectly calm; then when I started cutting their foreskin, they screamed loudly, with cries that broke my heart? For years, in some hospitals, surgery on infants has been carried out without anesthesia because of this misconception!
From the 1980s through today, as the tide has been turning against male circumcision, misleading medical information has begun to surface (yet again) in support of circumcision. This information supports the belief that men with foreskins are more likely to get viral or bacterial infections and pass them on; that the foreskin is tender and thin, and therefore more prone to tiny cuts through which germs can be transmitted. New justifications, such as circumcision to prevent penile and cervical cancer, too often receive the blessing of the medical establishment. But these are justifications that science has been unable to support. Nor is there any scientific proof that circumcision prevents sexually transmitted diseases.
This includes the recent studies done in Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda by Ronald H. Gray, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He recently reported that men who were circumcised were less likely by half to contract HIV virus and less likely by one-third to become infected with HPV and herpes. Tobian2
While this sounds promising, I agree with my colleague George Denniston, M.D., who said, “The United States has high rates of HIV and the highest rate of circumcision in the West. The ‘experiment’ of using circumcision to stem HIV infection has been running here for decades. It has failed miserably. Why do countries such as New Zealand, where they abandoned infant circumcision 50 years ago, or European countries, where circumcision is rare, have such low rates of HIV?” Denniston3
Emotions run very high around the subject of circumcision, a perfect example of the strength and influence of first chakra cultural programming on our beliefs and emotions. This programming is so ingrained that many people cannot even discuss the subject of circumcision without guilt, denial, or other strong emotions. I know from years of experience that even addressing the subject of the baby boy’s bodily integrity, choices, and pain isn’t enough to change a belief that’s been ingrained in the child’s parents from their own birth.
Consciousness about circumcision is changing. And even some Jews, like Ron Goldman, Ph.D., in Boston, are rethinking the practice and modifying the traditional ceremony. The baby is blessed and sanctified according to Jewish tradition, however, the foreskin isn’t fully removed. Instead, a tiny cut is made as a symbolic gesture after a topical anesthetic is administered. (Jewish boys circumcised by a mohel [a man trained to perform circumcisions] are always given a topical anesthetic before their circumcision, and the mohel does everything possible to keep the baby from feeling pain. Often, the babies are given a few drops of wine after the procedure for pain, too.) This allows the parents to practice their faith and adhere to tradition while protecting their child from a painful, medically-unnecessary procedure. This is far superior to what baby boys are subjected to in most hospitals. I know. I’ve done hundreds of circumcisions personally.
In the past when I did the procedure in the hospital, I would ask mothers to come into the nursery to comfort their babies while they were being circumcised, but they wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t stand the idea. I always made sure that I personally took the newly circumcised baby to his mother as soon as I was finished, so that she could comfort her child. I didn’t want him wounded and then left alone in the nursery. The Jewish practice is very similar to what I used to do instinctively. The mohel gives the son to his mother immediately after the procedure and he strongly encourages her to nurse the baby. He also strongly suggests that she continue to comfort him as much as she can for the next few hours by holding him, and so forth.
Circumcision also has profound implications for male sexuality. Studies document that the amount of pleasure a man can receive during intercourse is greater in uncircumcised males. That’s because the male foreskin, like the clitoris, is richly innervated for maximum sexual pleasure. Sexual researchers have determined that men with the original configuration (with the foreskin) are more likely to feel the most pleasure when they make love in a certain way. Without getting into details here, as it turns out, this “natural” sex is more likely to enhance a woman’s pleasure, too. I’ve written about this extensively in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom.
I hope you will consider supporting two organizations that are working to protect infant boys from unnecessary surgery. The first is Doctors Opposing Circumcision in Seattle, WA; the second is Intact America, a grass roots organization in Tarrytown, NY. The time has come for us to look at this common practice with fresh eyes and do what we can to stop this dangerous and unnecessary medical intervention.
- Berkeley, B. 1993. Foreskin: A Closer Look Boston: Alyson Publications, p. 188.
- Tobian, A., Gray, R., Quinn, T., 2010. Male Circumcision for the Prevention of Acquisition and Transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections: The Case for Neonatal Circumcision, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 164(1):78-84.
- Denniston, G., There’s good concern for not circumcising boys, The Washington Post, January 21, 2010.