By REBECCA WALD
Every mom is different and brings her own style when it comes to raising her kids. I didn’t circumcise my son and feel it was 100% the right choice. At the same time, I don’t condemn parents who circumcise. I recognize that good people can experience the world in different ways due to their circumstances and their natures and can come to different conclusions.
Choosing to leave my son with the penis he was born with was a decision very much in keeping with how I see myself as a parent. Some see parenting as a dictatorship (albeit benevolent) where the parent always knows best. Children are viewed as blank slates that must be taught not simply how to navigate themselves in the world, but also such things as morals and spirituality.
I hold a different view, which is that children come to the world perfect. That it is they who can teach us about how many things should be, if we would only step back and allow their true natures to unfold.
In this I agree with poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1930):
“Your children are not your children. / They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. / They come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. / You may give them your love but not your thoughts. / For they have their own thoughts. / You may house their bodies but not their souls, / For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. /You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”
It’s in the context of this approach to parenting that I entertained the question of whether to circumcise. Being American (and Jewish) I grew up in a culture where removing the foreskin of newborn boys was viewed as perfectly normal. I think this is why that even as a staunch circumcision critic, on some level, I still accept the circumcised penis as the “authentic” version. How hard it is to break from the shackles of what’s known and familiar! But despite my prejudices, the more I learned about circumcision, the more I came to see it as unnecessary and harmful.
Once we get can get away from the preconceived notions we’ve absorbed from the society around us, the bizarreness of circumcision becomes evident. Is it really necessary to perform a surgical procedure on a newborn to correct the natural anatomy? After all, it’s a procedure that hurts, has a risk of complications, requires a degree of wound care, leaves a scar, and can never be undone.
I would certainly consent to a needed and beneficial medical procedure on my child’s behalf, but I would have to be convinced that the benefits far outweighed the downsides. And here is where circumcision fell short for me.
Many Reasons to Circumcise
Recently my friend Stan, a behavioral psychologist of the skinnerian variety and a staunch defender of male infant circumcision, handed me a three-inch thick stack of papers, the sum of his internet research into the health benefits of the practice.
Stan, who is in his seventies, is a man of science to the core, a Jewish atheist, and has one of the biggest hearts I’ve encountered. He genuinely cares about people. Stan’s point is simple: it’s been demonstrated in the medical literature that circumcision can prevent a range of medical problems, both in circumcised men and in their sexual partners. Given Stan’s understanding that circumcision is a prophylaxis against illness, tantamount to vaccination, he sees every reason to circumcise infants at birth.
I’m well aware of the medical justifications for circumcision that Stan cites. Most of have been around for decades (prevention penile cancer, reduction of urinary tract infections, and the elimination of phimosis—a foreskin that’s too tight). The touted ability of circumcision to reduce STD acquisition and transmission is more recent. Although these medical justifications are not without some merit, in the end I didn’t find them persuasive enough to subject my son to the procedure. Here’s why. Like most who favor circumcision, Stan views the foreskin as a functionless body part. (I’ve tried to convince him otherwise, but he won’t see it any other way.) For Stan, the foreskin has no merit of its own, so he see nothing wrong with removing it, especially if it’s been shown to have any potential for causing trouble.
The Not So Worthless Foreskin
Before undertaking to learn about it, like most Americans (and Jews) I was completely uneducated about natural male anatomy. Although I questioned circumcision due to the obvious pain and potential complications, I assumed the foreskin was nothing more than excess or redundant skin. A covering on top of the “real” penis. What I learned, however, is that the foreskin has a number of important functions.
Like the human eyelid, the foreskin is made of a special kind of skin. It’s very thin and it’s dry on the exterior side but mucosal (moist) on the inside. This moist skin covers the penis, keeping it in a continually moist condition. For me, the very fact that the natural penis is a moist organ was a total shocker. Many American doctors don’t even understand this because they themselves are circumcised, and were trained by doctors who had no such knowledge, and the textbooks don’t explain it.
It’s not rocket science that the sexual experience must be different with two naturally moist organs coming into contact with one another. Some have even postulated this is the reason why the U.S. and Israel are the biggest consumers of Viagra and personal lubricant.
But even prior to sexual maturity, the foreskin has a role. It protects the penis from chafing and abrasion and keeps the urinary opening free from harmful bacteria. I encourage any parent struggling with the question of circumcision to do their own research into the function of the foreskin before drawing a conclusion about whether this part of the body is disposable.
For those like my friend Stan who view the foreskin as useless, there can be no competing interest that trumps its removal. In other words, if there is even one iota of benefit in removing it, why not? Since I view the foreskin is a valuable part of the normal male anatomy, I would consider its surgical removal a health measure only to be entertained if really necessary. So, what about all of those alleged health benefits?
Penile cancer is extremely rare in developed countries (estimated to be about one in 100,000 men) and is typically associated with other serious health conditions and lifestyle risk factors. Urinary tract infections are rare in boys regardless of their circumcision status (my own son has never had one) and are easily treatable with antibiotics. As far as sexually transmitted diseases, only safe sex can prevent them in a meaningful way. Consider all of the circumcised American men who have contracted HIV. Besides, infants don’t have sex. Adult men can always choose to get circumcised if they feel it’s worth it to prevent contracting STDs, or for any other reason they find compelling.
Just because a body part has some potential to cause trouble doesn’t mean we remove it. Using that logic, men would be walking around with one testicle to halve their chances of testicular cancer and women would be undergoing mastectomies as a matter of routine to prevent breast cancer. Given that the risk of a woman developing breast cancer during her lifetime has been estimated to be about one in eight, and that the consequences of this disease can be devastating, the argument for preventative mastectomies is in many ways more convincing than the medical arguments for foreskin removal at birth.
Cultural Rationales for Circumcising
Of course, there are many other justifications for male infant circumcision beyond the medical. Some say, “I want my son to look like his father,” or “I don’t want my son to be laughed at in the locker room/bedroom,” or “my Jewish parents/grandparents will never forgive me if I don’t circumcise,” or “I just think it’s cleaner,” or “he will be less Jewish.”
As far as fathers and sons looking alike, I absolutely understand the sentiment behind this, which is that fathers and sons should feel deeply connected and have a loving and close relationship. But does having “matching” penises really foster this bond? I think a father demonstrating genuine love for his child by protecting him from the cultural insanity of circumcision would foster a far greater bond with his son than making that son just like him through the same damaging surgery to which he was subjected.
To those worried about the locker room (or bedroom), like any mother I understand that no parent wants their child to be teased by his peers, or a girlfriend, especially about something as personal as his genitals. At the same time, people come in all shapes and colors. We shouldn’t judge people based on appearances, nor should we live in fear of others judging us this way. If we circumcise our sons based on our own fears of prejudice, what does that say about us? What message are we ultimately sending to our kids if we allow the wrongheaded opinions and actions of others guide our important life decisions?
Then there’s the Jewish parent/grandparent argument. Of course we want to please the older generation and I agree should try hard to do this—so long as it’s in keeping with our values and good judgment. But what if it’s not? Do we live our lives to placate and please others, even close family, when it means doing something we don’t believe in our hearts to be right? Except for those relatives who are devout practicing Jews, firmly entrenched in a religiously observant community, the vast majority will indeed “forgive,” and many may eventually come around to the idea that circumcision is wrong. Just wait until they get their hands on that newborn baby, perfect the way nature made him. In the words of my own mom, kvelling over my son’s nakedness: “Why on earth would anyone want to change that adorable penis?”
On the subject of cleanliness, girls and women manage to clean themselves properly despite having intact sex organs and boys and men can do the same. As far as young boys go (those whose foreskins have not yet become retractable, which is entirely normal up to puberty), care of the natural penis is simple. The outside is washed; no retraction is called for. The inside gets flushed out and cleaned whenever the boy urinates. Urine is completely sterile and the protection offered by the foreskin prevents bacteria and dirt from causing trouble.
Finally, for those who worry their child will somehow be less Jewish because he’s intact, or that he will have trouble finding or pleasing a Jewish woman, or that not circumcising somehow hurts the Jewish people, I think we need to calm down, take a step back and keep things in perspective. Assimilation and intermarriage are the biggest threats to Judaism, not the unaltered penis. My husband and I are Jewish and have chosen to raise our kids in a very Jewish way. They know and are proud of their heritage, we celebrate the holidays, and the kids are learning Hebrew. I’m not worried. Meanwhile, I have many Jewish friends and family members that have married non-Jewish spouses, celebrate Christmas, teach their children little or nothing about their Jewish heritage, and yet they say they circumcised their sons for religious reasons. Being Jewish is about far more than circumcising, and those who view circumcision as the be-all and end-all of the Jewish people are being short-sighted.