Monday, August 30, 2010

Circumcision: Willy or Won’t He?

The night I learned I was pregnant, my unsuspecting Irish fella was out with a friend of his whose wife had just learned she was expecting. They toasted this news into the wee hours, and my Irish fella spent that night dreaming about babies, specifically that he had twin daughters.

Upon learning the next morning that I, too, was pregnant, he continued dreaming about having twin girls, one dressed in blue and one in yellow. The dreams were detailed and recurring, and we began to believe in the girls, and had picked out perfect names for them. An eight-week ultrasound eliminated the possibility of twins, but we still leaned very heavily toward ‘girl’. It wasn’t a preference—just a feeling.

When we went for the 20-week ultrasound, the first image we got was that of our baby yawning. It was incredible to see. The technician took us on a 30-minute gray/blue grainy tour, pointing to and measuring the skull, the lips, the hands, the feet. “Here are the lungs,” she beamed, “and the heart, and the stomach, and here is the liver, and here—” she drew an arrow onscreen—“are the balls!”

And indeed, there were the balls. This meant we had to rethink our names, but it also meant, for me anyway, that we had to talk about something else.

In the States, although the practice is increasingly questioned, circumcision is still the norm. It’s not something I had made up my mind about, but it’s something I thought we should discuss. But because the Irish fella is ‘unsnipped,’ I assumed his answer to the circumcision question would be absolutely not.

“Absolutely not,” he said, “and don’t be Googling it.”

But I’m a Googler, so of course I Googled. The United States, I learned, is the only country in the world that circumcises the majority of its male infants for non-religious reasons, and I was curious to know why so many parents opted for this.

Many members of the parenting discussion groups I visited online seemed to believe it was better for the baby. But as far as medical benefits, there are none, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has been saying as much since 1971. In fact, no national medical organization in the United States recommends circumcision. Claims that circumcision helps reduce the instance of infection and the spread of STDs are unfounded.

One woman in a pregnancy forum said she was going to circumcise her son because she didn’t want to have to handle his bits in order to wash them. The improbability of avoiding touching your son’s privates while caring for him in the early years aside, this is misinformed. The penis in its natural form is a self-cleaning mechanism, much like a vagina, and it is not true that an uncircumcised penis is more difficult to clean—not in adulthood and not in infancy. In fact, the baby books are very clear on how to care for a newborn’s foreskin: leave it alone.

What I’ve found, both online and in speaking to mothers of sons, is the overwhelming majority of parents lean in favor of circumcision so the baby will “look like daddy.” This seems widely accepted, but it doesn’t hold for me.

These are well-meaning parents, as I believe most are. But the “look like daddy” argument is a self-perpetuating one that ensures the continuation of circumcision while negating medical research that not only dismisses any benefits of the practice, but that actually points to the potential damage—physical and psychological—that can result from it.

I understand that children are wonderfully inquisitive and observant and will notice and ask about the differences between their bodies and their daddy’s (and mommy’s). But on hearing something like, “people used to cut the skin off because they thought it was safer, but now we know that is not true so we didn’t do that to you,” I think most little boys will accept this simple truth rather than have confusion instilled about their masculine identity.

Adults over-complicate, but kids don’t. Explaining my divorce to a small child sounded something like this: “We decided we are better friends when we aren’t married to each other.” It took a little more explaining to grown-ups, but the additional details didn’t really change the core truth of what I’d said to my friend’s six year old. We shouldn’t impose our instinct to over-analyze on children. We should allow them to enjoy a period of life where simpler explanations are acceptable, particularly when they tell us all we need to know.

I can only conclude that we, meaning Americans, circumcise because it’s what we’re used to doing, and because the majority of boys in the States get the snip, a circumcised penis is what we are more accustomed to seeing.

One woman wrote in an online forum that she once saw an uncircumcised penis and it looked like Darth Vader in a turtleneck. She said it was ugly, and worried that girls wouldn’t be attracted to her son. I can’t imagine society accepting elective surgery on the genitals of female babies because we prefer how it looks.

And of course circumcision is not the norm worldwide. According to some statistics, about 60 percent of infant boys are circumcised in the U.S., and Australia is not far behind. Only about 30 percent are snipped in Canada, and figures drop to less than 20 percent in countries elsewhere in the world. I mentioned these numbers to an Australian friend of mine, a circumcised male, who immediately fell into a fit of insecurity about whether Dutch girls think he looks like a freak.

It reminds me of the Dr Seuss story about an island inhabited by two breeds of Sneetch: some have stars on their bellies and are considered vastly superior to those without. The star-less Sneetches obtain a large and fabulously Seussian machine that puts stars on their bellies, prompting the original star-bellied Sneetches to acquire a machine that removes their stars. Chaos ensues: nobody knows anymore whether it’s preferable to have a star or not to have a star.

Of course a star is not a foreskin and a baby is not a Sneetch. The bottom line is that every parent should choose what they think is best for their child. Inform yourself and weigh the pros and cons.

For me, my baby will not be circumcised, not because he’ll be growing up in Europe and not because he’ll look like his daddy if we leave him intact, but simply because it is not necessary.


  1. I have huge guilt over having my son circumcised. This isn't an excuse, but what happened to me is that I'd done the research and was leaning toward not circumcising (my husband wasn't so sure), but we kept putting off making a final decision. Which doesn't seem like a big deal except when the baby is born and you're exhausted and confused by even the simplest mental tasks, you have nothing to offer but a bleary nod when the doctor enters the room, all authority, saying that it's time for the circumcision. I mean, we'd discussed the possibility with him before, questioning the practice, but he was so pro circumcision that we didn't bring it up with him again.

    Anyway, this is long-winded way of saying that if you live in the States, decide where you stand before labor, because if you don't there's an excellent chance that your medical team will try to move the circumcision process along, and you'll have very little mental power with which to mull it all over. I know I'm ultimately accountable for my son's circumcision, but I wish I'd made a different choice at a different point.

  2. I could have told you he's a lad and certainly to leave his willy be. I'm not shy!

  3. An often overlooked, but nonetheless important, benefit: it'll keep his penis warm in the swimming pool.

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