When I found out I was having a baby boy, my first thought was, “There’s a little penis growing inside of me. That’s weird!” My second thought was, “And I’m going to have to protect it.”
Protect it from cultural and religious traditions that would pressure me to cut off half of a perfectly normal and natural body part. I felt instinctively and from the beginning that I would never circumcise my son. But when he was born, and I saw the perfect little penis that millions of years of evolution had decided was healthy and reproductively necessary for baby boys, I felt even more protective.
And yet, I still feel like mine is a decision that needs to be defended. Or at least, defending it feels like something that I need to do. The easiest way is probably to respond to all the arguments for why I should circumcise him.
1. “If you don’t circumcise him, he won’t look like all the other boys.” I have two main responses to this criticism. First, it’s not factually true. According to the CDC, nationwide the rate of circumcision is about 54%. It varies state by state, with some states (especially on the west coast) with very low rates and some states with much higher rates. My state’s rate is about 50-50. He’ll look like about half the boys his age. Not bad.
But more importantly: really? If your baby boy had a larger nose than normal, would you get him a nose job in infancy so that he matched all the other boys? (If your answer is yes, we need to have an entirely different conversation.) People look different. Some women have larger labia than others, so much so that it’s noticeably different. No one is talking about routine female infant circumcision so that all girls look alike. (Well, some people are, but we’ll get to that later.)
And also, if the worry is that the circumcised boys will make fun of my intact son, allow me to just throw this out there: Parents of circumcised boys, can you go ahead and teach your boys to be kind and thoughtful individuals who wouldn’t tease someone just because he happens to have his entire penis?
2. “If his dad is circumcised, he needs to be too, so that he looks like daddy.” Again, really? Kids look different from their parents. It’s one of the coolest parts about parenthood – trying to decide who the baby looks like or whether he doesn’t really look like anyone at all. Again to bring in the female analogy – maybe your daughter will have much smaller breasts than mom (or much bigger in my case!). Are you going to get her a boob job just so that she matches mom? (Again, if your answer is yes, we need to have a different conversation.) Not to mention, moms do a fine job of bonding with their boys, and they have entirely different genitals. Matching penises are not required for boys and their dads to love each other.
3. “It doesn’t hurt and the surgery is totally routine.” Oh really? Allow me to share this horrible description of the surgery: “The operator forces a metal clamp inside the foreskin, and tears the skin away from the glans. The operator then slices the foreskin down past the glans and cuts the foreskin off.” Plenty of studies have shown that it is, in fact, quite painful for the baby. Which is why they often use anesthesia (although not always enough, because anesthesia is dangerous for newborns). And there’s also the post-surgery pain. Oh, and the fact that babies DIE from circumcision. Over 100 babies die in the US every year from circumcision. Sure, that’s a pretty tiny number. But for a completely aesthetic surgery, why take that risk?
4. “But it’s not completely aesthetic, it reduces the risk of HIV . . . or something.” This idea is based on three studies in Africa and those studies had a lot of problems. Studies have also shown that it doesn’t reduce the risk of HIV. During the peak of the HIV epidemic, it spread in the US – where most men at the time were circumcised – as much or more than it did in Europe – where most men are not circumcised. And how about this: I’ll teach my son to practice safe sex and use condoms. Crazy idea, I know.
5. “OK, but it’s just cleaner, right?” Um, no. Shockingly enough, millions of years of evolution have developed a penis that’s efficient and self-cleaning. As much as we sometimes like to think we have a leg-up on nature, we usually just mess things up. Cleaning an intact penis is pretty simple: wipe down the outside. Done. Cleaning a circumcised penis is a little harder because, you know, there’s that bloody wound to deal with. Let me tell you what’s really hard to clean: a three-year-old girl’s vagina. Say she has a poopy diaper and gets poop up in there. She is NOT letting me clean it out. (Which is largely fine, because we’ve evolved a self-cleaning vagina, too. Yay evolution!) But for the sake of argument, maybe to keep it clean we should sew up the vagina. Just kidding, no one thinks that. (Oh wait, some people do. We’ll get to that later.)
6.”Fine, but the sex is better, right?” Actually, the foreskin is an incredibly sensitive part of the penis and cutting it off decreases sensation. In other words, circumcising your son means that he will have less sexual pleasure as an adult. In fact, circumcision became popular in the 1800’s precisely because it decreased pleasure and would, hopefully, stop those nasty little boys from masturbating so much.
7. “Well, I don’t know, but if doctors are doing it, it must be medically recommended.” No. Most medical associations actually recommend NOT circumcising infant boys. For example, the Canadian Paediatric Society says: “Circumcision of newborns should not be routinely performed.” The American Academy of Pediatrics is the only one that doesn’t actively recommend against it, and even they don’t actually recommend doing it. They hedge their bets, saying that the benefits “are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision.” But they’ve gotten a lot of criticism from the rest of the world for not coming out more strongly against it. In other words, this is not a medically necessary surgery – it’s purely elective. It’s giving a newborn boy painful plastic surgery, basically.
8. “Well, my religion requires it.” For some reason, this one seems to hold the most weight. No one wants to criticize someone else’s religion. Unless, of course, they’re criticizing Muslims or tribal communities in Africa who practice female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM.) But Jews in America who practice male circumcision? Total pass.
As a lawyer, I worked with female refugees who were forced to undergo FGM and the experience gave me a whole new insight on the question of circumcision. The reasons often cited by practitioners of FGM are remarkably similar to those cited by male circumcision supporters: religion or culture requires it, mothers who were cut want their daughters cut as well, cutting will reduce the girl’s sexual pleasure, thereby protecting her from impurity. And for practitioners who practice infibulation (sealing the vagina), there are arguments about preventing rape, maintaining virginity and keeping clean. Any of that sound familiar?
On the flip side, there are many arguments for why FGM is bad: it’s often done in unsanitary conditions or by non-doctors, leading to complications that can damage a woman for life. It’s often done in combination with arranged marriages at young ages and forced virginity testing. It’s often done by dark, scary-looking men or women in headscarves who don’t look like us. (Just kidding, no one actually admits to that last one, but let’s be honest, it’s the elephant in the room.)
But the strongest and most widely-cited argument against FGM is that it’s a violation of the girl’s bodily integrity and autonomy. (Or, as the WHO says: “FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.”) It’s a non-medically necessary surgery that should not be performed without the girl’s informed consent. Hmmmm… Sound familiar?
This, then, is what I really believe about routine male infant circumcision: it’s a violation of a boy’s bodily autonomy that should not be performed without the boy’s informed consent. And babies cannot give informed consent. If my son grows up and decides that he wants to be circumcised and I believe that he’s old enough and informed enough to make that decision, he’s welcome to have at it. But I’ll let him make that choice. I refuse to make it for him.