The circumcision debate

Author: By Georganne Chapin
Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009

When my son was born in 1980, little did I know that a decision his father and I made would later become a cause. “We’re not going to have him circumcised,” we told the doctor. Why not?  Well, we simply thought it strange that newborn baby boys should need immediate surgery to remove a normal body part. 

So we said no, and over the years, I didn’t think much about circumcision. But when my son was 17, I overheard him talking with a group of male relatives about circumcision, saying that he felt both lucky and grateful.  That’s when I began to investigate, and I became an activist or, as we are known, an intactivist!

The U.S. is the only country in the world where doctors routinely circumcise baby boys. In other English-speaking countries, like Britain and Canada, the procedure was once practiced widely but now has been virtually abandoned as a poor use of health care funds. In most of Europe, Asia, India, Latin
America and the Caribbean, parents would no more be asked if they want to circumcise their baby boy than they would be asked the same question about their daughter. 

Most Americans don’t know that medical circumcision started in the 19th century, when it was promoted to stop masturbation (not one of the most effective health measures, by all accounts). Never having witnessed a circumcision, most people are also unaware of what it entails. The current explanations for circumcision (hygiene, prevention of disease) say more about our own fears than about the surgery’s benefits. It seems we are afraid our boys won’t learn to wash their genitals, even though they can be taught to wash their hands and brush their teeth! As for sexually-transmitted infections, common sense tells us that safe sex practices are the only effective prevention.  

Our discomfort with talking about body parts, especially the ones related to sex, together with a reluctance to question cultural norms (think of driving on the right side of the road), means that when circumcision or the foreskin is mentioned, many people defend the practice or make light of it. The media regularly refers to the surgery as a “snip” and the prepuce (foreskin) as “funny looking” or “useless.” In reality, the amount of sensitive, nerve-laden tissue removed from a baby in a typical circumcision amounts to nearly half of his penile skin.

With good information as well as many videos now available over the internet, American parents are learning that their child’s natural penis is nothing to fear, and the circumcision rate is falling. Over the past decade, I have talked with thousands of people about circumcision. 

Parents who at one time may have worried that their intact sons would be made fun of “in the locker room” are now saying, “We think nature knows best; and we will leave the decision for him.” Many doctors tell me their own sons are not circumcised.  And fathers know that if their sons can have different eyes and hair color, then cutting off a body part to make the boy “look like Dad” might be going a bit too far. 

Georganne Chapin, an attorney, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Hudson Health Plan and the Hudson Center for Health Equity and Quality, which recently received grant funding to establish Intact America. For more information, see www.intactamerica.org.

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