Now before everyone goes up in arms, let me preface this post by saying that I understand that circumcision is a ritual that is important to a few religious groups. I’m not going to get into the religious thing today. Instead I will simply dissect the other 6 most common reasons that Americans choose to circumcise their infants and why I think they are absolutely bonkers.
There are very few topics that fire me up as much as the whole “pros and cons of circumcision” one does. Actually, I can’t think of a single issue that comes close. Sadly, I know many people will disagree with me, including my friends and family but if it helps even just a couple of parents to reconsider the pros and cons of circumcision it will be worth the ruffled feathers.
When I first learned I was having a boy I knew this conversation would have to happen. For me, having lived in Argentina most of my life (where circumcision is practically unheard of) it was a non issue- it just wasn’t happening. For my American-born, circumcised husband, it was obvious that we would circumcise our son. That’s just what we do.
But Why Would We Circumcise Him?
The predominant answer to that question was, “Because we’ve always done it.” As I mentioned in my unschooling post, I think that is a terrible answer to ANY question. Just because we’ve been doing something for a long time, doesn’t mean we should continue doing it. And I really think its time to take a look at routine infant circumcision and dissect the reasons behind this dangerous practice.
And therein lies the problem: that circumcision of infants is routine. I personally don’t have anything against the procedure of circumcision itself, but rather the fact that we grab a freshly-popped-out baby boy and circumcise him just because and/or just incase. I’m sorry, but is that not insane?
How’d that work out for you gentlemen? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Unless you count the several weeks it takes for the penis to heal after the procedure, circumcision isn’t very effective at preventing masturbation. And since we now know that masturbation isn’t going to cause problems like hairy palms, blindness or stunted growth, it seems pretty ridiculous to cut off a boy’s foreskin for that reason.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the other main reasons for circumcising an infant.
1: Circumcision for Hygiene
Many people will argue that one of the benefits to circumcision is that a circumcised penis is easier to clean. This argument had grounds in history. In the 23rd century BC[iii] (when circumcision is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt), it is fair to say that basic hygiene wasn’t as easy as it is today. But, do we not have running water in most places that currently perform routine circumcision? Under the hygiene argument, we might as well chop off our ears so we don’t have to wash behind them.
2: Circumcision for Medical Reasons
Proponents of routine circumcision will say that the procedure reduces risk of medical problems like urinary tract infections, phimosis and paraphimosis (problems with retracting the foreskin and returning it to the proper location), and balanoposthitis (inflammation).
True, there are a lot of studies which show that these conditions do occur more frequently in uncircumcised boys and men. However, in developed countries (where maintaining hygiene is not problematic), their difference is negligible. For example, many studies have found that there is a tenfold increased risk of urinary tract infections in uncircumcised infants compared to circumcised infants[iv]. This seems like a huge risk – until you look at the actual numbers. The risk of UTIs in male infants is incredibly low in both groups. About 1 to 2 circumcised infant males out of 1000 get UTIs in the first year of life compared to 7 to 14 uncircumcised males.
Some proponents of circumcision for medical reasons take it to extremes, making claims that circumcision reduces risk of sexually transmitted diseases like HPV, herpes, and HIV[v]. There are some studies which indicate an increase incidence of STDs with uncircumcised men, but these studies often fail to adjust for cultural differences, such as the fact that Muslim men (circumcised) may have fewer sexual partners than Christians, or that condoms are not regularly used in some parts of the world. Regardless, circumcision will not undermine the solid case for practicing safe sex. If STD prevention is a concern, shouldn’t we advocate safe sex instead of cutting off the foreskin?
While we are on the topic of medical reasons for circumcision, let’s talk about the medical problems which can happen because of circumcision.
Circumcision increases the chance of meatitis and meatal stenosis, conditions in which the penis becomes inflamed or irritated. This happens more in circumcised men because they lack foreskin to protect the penis[vi]. Meatitis and meatal stenosis occur in 8-21% of circumcised infants but is virtually unheard of in uncircumcised infants[vii].
With circumcision, there is also the risk of bleeding, removal of too much tissue, infection from the operation, urinary retention, impotence, necrosis, and so on. And then there is the risk of death: 114 boys die yearly in the US because of complications with circumcision![viii]
When you weigh the actual medical risks of not circumcising against the risks of circumcising, then you realize that “medical reasons” is not a good argument for circumcision.
Yes, very few males may eventually need medically-necessary circumcisions. But do we really have to do preventative circumcision just in case? That’s like giving them a tonsillectomy in case they need it later since, of course, they won’t remember it at birth, right?
3: Circumcision Because His Father is Circumcised
We can’t possibly be serious about this. When I first started talking about this I was shocked at how defensive adult men got about this topic. Perhaps they felt their extremity had been insulted as if it is somehow damaged goods. I understand that most adult men do not remember their circumcision vividly, but perhaps watching a simple video on YouTube on how this procedure is done will refresh their memory and help make this decision for their son. I’m serious. Google it, and keep a stiff drink handy.
We wouldn’t give your baby boy a nose job if his nose was somehow very different to his father, would we?
4: Circumcision Because Most Boys Are Circumcised
The tides are turning. In the 1970s and 1980s, circumcision was incredibly common in the US. According to the CDC, circumcision rates were at their highest in the 1980s with about 65% of infant boys being circumcised[ix]. The rates remained fairly consistent throughout the next couple of decades. However, by 2008, circumcision rates were at just 56.9%[x]. By the next year, the CDC found that circumcision rates in the US had dropped drastically: in 2009, the circumcision rate was just 33%[xi]!
It sounds like the truth is starting to circulate.
Regardless, since when has “because everybody’s doing it” been a good reason for surgery? I’m thoroughly baffled by this one.
5: Circumcision Because Foreskin is Useless
We don’t really think Mother Nature screwed up and the foreskin has no purpose, do we? What about our eyelids — are those useless too?
Some of the most important functions of the foreskin include[xii]:
- Keeping the glans moist
- Protecting glans from contaminants which could enter the urethra
- Producing antibodies to protect against infection
- Producing lubrication to protect the penis
- Improving pleasure during sexual activity (for both the male and his partner)
6: What Will People Think?!
When I asked for opinions on my Facebook page, I was pleasantly surprised at how many of my readers are against routine infant circumcision. One comment that really stood out came from a mom whose sons were both “snipped”:
“I personally enjoy snipped over not…”
YOU? YOU enjoy snipped over not? But it’s not about YOU at all, is it? And that’s where I circle back to the beginning. These are not our bodies as adults we are talking about. As far as I’m concerned, as an adult, men should be able to get circumcised if they choose. But routinely circumcising an infant? Why can’t we let him get a vote in the matter?
There’s always time to circumcise later but you can’t UN-circumcise.
This same reader also said: “I see it no different than piercing your daughters’ ears.” I’ve heard this one so many times I felt it necessary to address. If I had a daughter tomorrow I would not pierce her ears, but somehow I doubt the death rate from ear piercing complications is anything to write home about.
If you’re still not convinced about all the cons of circumcision, all I ask is that you please watch an unbiased video of a circumcision being performed on YouTube. Then decide if you want to subject your son to the procedure.
For those of you still reading and curious, my 3-year-old son is uncircumcised and has never had a problem. My brother and my entire family on my mom’s side (from Argentina) were also not circumcised and I never once heard of any problems.
I may regret this but, go ahead and comment below. Passionate debate is fine. Insults are not. Let’s please be respectful when communicating with one another.
Need a great book on all things “baby”. I love The Baby Book by Dr. Sears. (You can find it here)
Did/would you circumcise your son? Why or why not?
[viii] Bollinger, D. Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths. Thymos: J Boyhood Studies, 2010;4(1), 78-90