Stacey and I have taken a very conscious, intentional approach to this pregnancy. In a lot of areas we have chosen to take the less common, more “natural” route – choosing to use a midwife, to have a home birth, to breastfeed, to “wear” the baby. It is natural, in such a carefully considered pregnancy, for the question of circumcision to come up. Especially when, as in our case, the expected baby is a boy. I was discussing our choice to circumcise with an online acquaintance recently, and I decided subsequent to the conversation that it was probably a good idea to put my thoughts on the subject in some kind of order.
I should preface this, first of all, with the disclaimer that these are my thoughts and reasons alone, not those of sagaloo. She shares my conclusion, but I can’t speak for her reasoning.
Circumcision is a contentious topic, and for those who care deeply about it can arouse some pretty strong feelings. Whichever side you stand on, I ask that you read this with an open mind. If you comment, please do so civilly and with the understanding that our decision is final and not subject to change. I am very much interested in other perspectives, but please refrain from condemnation or guilt trips. Thanks.
The anti-circumcision movement has gathered a lot of strength in recent decades. Not without reason. Most of the arguments that were used to make circumcision the norm in the US were flimsy at best, laughable at worst. The reconsideration of the practice of routine circumcision in light of current medical knowledge and cultural values is overdue.
The thoughts that follow are the result of a lot of study of both the pro-and ant-circumcision arguments, coupled with a great deal of thought, discussion, and soul-searching.
The first realization I had to confront when wrestling with this issue was that circumcision is mutilation; and mutilation of a particularly sensitive area at that. There’s just no other way around it. It’s not just a “little cut”. It’s a surgery. Like any surgery it carries a rare but real risk of serious complications. It causes pain. It forever and irreversibly alters the natural shape (and, according to some, the function) of the penis. I don’t feel that one can honestly engage with this issue without starting with the acknowledgment that what we are talking about is genital mutilation.
So with that fact in mind, what are some of the arguments in favor of this disfiguring procedure?
Fighting the scourge of Onanism
Reduction of masturbation was one of the justifications used by doctors popularising circumcision in the US at the turn of the 20th century. This argument ought to win some kind of prize for misguided public policy by being simultaneously wrong-minded and totally ineffective. Of course recent medical research has shown the importance of regular masturbation to prostate health; but even without that knowledge it takes a special kind of stupid to think that circumcision would make a dent in self-love.
Everybody else is doing it…
One argument in favor of circumcision that I have heard is that an uncircumcised boy will be vulnerable to self-image issues when he discovers that he is shaped different than his father; and/or the ridicule of his circumcised peers. One report in 1985 found this to be the leading reason US parents gave for circumcision.
Personally, I find this justification too stupid to devote more than a passing guffaw to it.
Here’s where we start getting to the meatier arguments. Public health, particularly in regards to STDs, was one of the original reasons given for practicing widespread circumcisions in the US. Later, the American Associations of Pediatrics withdrew their support for the procedure, citing insufficient benefits to offset the risks. However, recent research, particularly in Africa, has shown a strong link between circumcision and reduced risk of passing STDs.
I find the most recent research hard to argue with. There is strong evidence that male circumcision can reduce the risk of contracting HIV by over 50%. That is not a small number. Quoting William Saletan in Slate:
Four years ago, an analysis of 38 studies by the U.S. Agency for International Development, mostly in Africa, concluded that circumcised men were less than half as likely as uncircumcised men to get HIV, apparently because of the susceptibility of foreskin. Last fall, reporting on a randomized controlled trial in South Africa, scientists found that circumcision reduced female-to-male transmission by 60 percent. “Male circumcision provides a degree of protection against acquiring HIV infection, equivalent to what a vaccine of high efficacy would have achieved,” they wrote. It was, they observed, “the first experimental study demonstrating that surgery can be used to prevent an infectious disease.”
On the other hand, proper sex education and use of safer sex practices can have even better results. In the final analysis, the health argument alone does not sway me.
As you all know Stacey and I are Jewish. It is impossible to overstate the centrality of circumcision in the religious experience of the Jewish male. In a sense, circumcision is his Jewish-ness. A lot of non-Jews probably think of the Bar Mitzvah as the Jewish equivalent to baptism; but in fact circumcision is a much closer analog. Just as baptism is the pivotal event that marks a person as a Christian, so circumcision is the act that sets a boy apart as Jewish. This point is stressed repeatedly in the Torah. Anyone arguing circumcision with even a marginally observant Jew needs to realize that they are likely going to come across as arguing for the de-Judaizing of Jewish sons. It would be like telling a Catholic that they shouldn’t have their baby baptized.
And yet… Our Judaism is in many other ways unorthodox and even (*gasp*) contrary to Torah. I do not believe in a God who would smite or forsake a child for being un-cut. This, too, is not a sufficient argument.
Humans are tribal animals. We thrive on a sense of family and community; we despair without these things. Tribes use physical markings – often permanent ones – as a marker of identity. Humans tribes have been subjecting their children to painful initiation rites since time immemorial. Many of them include mutilations more severe and painful than circumcision.
And this, for me, is the crux. I am a member of an ancient and tenacious tribe, the Jews. A tribe that has stubbornly kept it’s identity despite the attempts of almost every nation on earth to disperse or destroy that identity. When my parents chose to have me circumcised, they initiated me into that tribe, and forever gave me a sense of belonging that is as close to me as my own manhood. In retrospect, they have my retroactive consent – even thanks – for that act. I dearly hope that my son will come to feel the same way about it when he comes of age to appreciate the choice that we are making now. He may not, and I accept that possibility, and the moral responsibility for the choice.
So this, finally, is what it comes down to. Not health, not even religion, but identity. This is why I will have my son’s foreskin sliced off with a scalpel at the tender age of eight days. I hope that this serves as a sufficient explanation to anyone who wonders why an intelligent, informed individual could make the decision to circumcise in 2008. If not, I hope that you will choose to agree to peacefully disagree with me. Most of all, I hope my son agrees with me in ten or twenty years. Only time will tell.
EDIT: I will delete comments that fail to abide by the guidelines I set at the top of this post. If you’re a regular commenter or a friend of mine and you feel compelled to argue passionately against circumcision, I’ll probably cut you some slack because I know you. But if you’re some random stranger coming to my journal just to rant, either take a lesson from jwhispers, and learn to politely and respectfully disagree; or save yourself the effort, because it’ll only go in the bit-bucket.