Tuesday, January 27, 2004

To Cut or Not to Cut…There is No Question

To Cut or Not to Cut…There is No Question
Andria Brown

When my baby was born, no one even mentioned circumcision. No one looked at that perfect little being and said "So, do you want to cut?" Nobody even considered removing a third of the skin from one of the most sensitive organs of the body, leaving the site exposed to diaper waste and other irritants until it became permanently numb. It never occurred to our doctor to hinder future sexual function by performing cosmetic surgery on a newborn.

None of these issues were raised because I gave birth to a girl, and in this country, the routine mutilation of infant genitalia is a custom inflicted only on our sons.

As a recent convert to the "intactivist" movement, I thought I was shamefully behind the times, but I was stunned and depressed when I discovered that all of the other parents in our childbirth education class were planning to circumcise their sons. If the people who were making a conscious effort to have non-violent, baby-friendly, natural births didn't see a conflict between their parenting goals and circumcision, who would? It's a hard thing to talk about, especially with other mothers, because at this point in time, we all know someone who has chosen to circumcise. The bounty of misinformation in the media, in our society, and even in our doctors' offices has made it really difficult for parents to make an informed decision on this issue. I trust that parents who circumcise do so for what they believe are good reasons, but unfortunately, many of those reasons are myths, exaggerations or downright lies. Like so …

"It's healthier to be circumcised."

This is probably the most common reason for circumcising, yet there isn't a single major medical organization that recommends routine infant circumcision. Not a one. There are, on the contrary, a number of organizations that have spoken out against this practice. The medical "benefits" of circumcision are somewhere on the spectrum between overstated and made up. Studies showing an increased risk of cancer and STDs among the uncut have been widely debunked. The American Cancer Society even told pro-circ groups to stop claiming that circumcision decreased cancer risk, because it just ain't so. Even if it were true, more babies die from circumcision complications each year than adult men die of penile cancer (I ripped this statistic off from Paul Fleiss's book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Circumcision, an excellent read for anyone deliberating circumcision). And the STD thing? How to explain the U.S.'s significantly higher STD rate, in comparison to European countries that don't routinely circumcise?

It makes me really sad when I hear people quoting their doctors about the health benefits of circumcision, because these people have been gravely misinformed, and their babies are suffering for it. The rest of the world has figured this out, and the U.S. is now the only country on the planet that regularly performs non-religious circumcision. More and more American doctors are actually refusing to perform the surgery (check out www.DoctorsOpposingCircumcision.org), either out of ethical objections or because they fear legal recourse when these boys grow up and realize the harm that's been done to them without their consent.

The reasons why circumcision was introduced into Western medical practice have everything to do with morality and nothing to do with sound medicine. Victorians thought it would cure masturbation, and therefore cure all the other illnesses, from asthma to arthritis, that they thought were related to masturbation. And why would it do that? Because it made sex less fun. They knew that. That was the point. (These and other facts about the history of circumcision can be found at www.nocirc.org.)

"But he'll feel … different."

The whole "so he'll look like Dad" thing makes me more than a little ill. On top of the studies showing no psychological harm to boys whose fathers had different circumcision status, this is just a dumb, dumb reason to perform surgery on an infant. Kids don't look like adults to begin with, especially in their genital regions. They manage to wrap their heads around that pretty easily. And the whole locker room argument doesn't make sense anymore (if it ever did). Circumcision in the U.S. is on the decline, with the current rate at about 60%. So if this sort of teasing really does go on, the cut are just as likely to be mocked as the uncut. If it ends up really and truly bothering your son, he can have the surgery when he's older and, more importantly, when he can make the decision himself.

"It doesn't hurt."

If you have not seen how hospitals perform circumcision, watch a video, or even take a look at some diagrams. It's horrific. I don't have the space to go into details, so I'll just say this: the foreskin is attached to the penis with connective tissue, like fingernails are attached to the fingers. In order to remove it, that connection must first be broken, and the tissues must be separated. I don't know a single person who would consider pulling a newborn's fingernail from the nail bed, yet the procedure of circumcision is so very much more invasive. (Video footage and still photos of medical circumcision are available at www.intact.ca.) There is also research indicating that the extreme trauma of circumcision actually causes changes to the brain, resulting in a permanent lowering of the pain threshold—studies show that circumcised males are more responsive to pain than women or uncut males. Post-circumcision suffering also complicates the bonding between baby and parents. Who feels happy and receptive when their most sensitive area is in agony?

"Uncut boys are so hard to take keep clean."

Huh? I just don't get this. I've never heard anyone say this about girls, at least not as a reason to cut off pieces of genitalia. Besides, taking home a newborn is scary enough without having to worry about tending to a surgical site, especially one that is bound to be soaked in waste products most of the time.

"I don't have a penis, so his dad should make the decision."

Both sexes are born with foreskin over their most delicate bits. It's not just skin; it's part of those organs. It keeps bacteria out and protects them from the environment. It also plays a role in sexual function, providing lubrication and preserving sensitivity. If Dad is circumcised, he doesn't really know what he's missing, does he? Intact women, and mothers in particular, are in the best position to make this call. Can you imagine losing the function provided by your own foreskin? A few years ago, I saw a Dateline NBC episode about a class action lawsuit filed by women who had been circumcised by their gynecologist without their permission. They complained that their sexual responsiveness had at first been heightened exponentially, to the point of being painful, and then sensation basically disappeared as their clitorises lost feeling from constant contact with clothing, etc. This is what happens to every baby boy that goes under the knife; they just can't complain about it

I could not have found a doctor willing to perform circumcision on my newborn daughter, no matter how many arguments I made about improving her health, hygiene or cosmetic appearance. The very idea seems ridiculous, and we condemn other countries that perform similar rites. Yet many well-meaning, loving parents don't see the harmful double standard when it comes to boys. The decrease in U.S. circumcision rates leads me to believe that we are on the cusp of a major change in the social opinion of circumcision, but until that change is complete—until physicians refuse to perform unnecessary surgery on non-consenting patients, until parents defend the integrity of their sons' healthy bodies—I feel personally obligated to share the truth about this practice. I hope you will, too.

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