If you are anything like my husband and I, you probably didn't give much thought to circumcision. Even the most well-meaning, holistic, granola-loving parents are usually convinced by years of cultural subjugation that, "It is the best decision for my baby." It must be, or else why would almost everyone do it, right? Well, that is what we thought until a friend suggested we watch the video "The Elephant in the Hospital." She has two boys and has not had either one circumcised, so I thought, "Maybe she has some information I don't." Sure enough, halfway through the YouTube video, I was sobbing, my husband had broken out in cold sweats, and we both had completely changed our minds about having this procedure done to our baby (who is currently three months in-utero). As the speaker in the video does, I will occasionally refer to circumcision as "genital cutting," which seems to me to be a more accurate, neutral term.
1. There is no medical reason for the procedure.
I'm sure you've heard all the old tales: risk of infection, hygiene, and greater risk of STI's and UTI's. What we learned is that genital cutting is ENTIRELY a social procedure. An uncircumcised penis is actually easier to wash and care for than a vagina. Therefore, the risk of hygiene problems is no greater than that of any woman. There has been a lot of misinformation given to parents about how to wash a baby's uncircumcised penis. There is no need to pull back the foreskin. You simply wash it, as you would a vagina. You wouldn't douche a baby girl, or the baby girl would end up with infections; it is the same for a boy's penis. It simply needs to be washed gently with water. When the foreskin is ready to be pulled back, you will know, because it will be easy to do on its own, through the body's own natural process. The foreskin is made to protect the delicate skin of the penis for days after birth. As far as the risk of infections, this seems very simple: Unprotected sex causes STI's. Period. The increased risk of UTI is also illogical, as my friend put it, "When I get an infection, the solution isn't to cut off my clitoral hood."
2. It hurts... really badly.
You may have heard people say, "My baby slept right through it." As it turns out, this is impossible. The baby could not sleep through having the skin of his genitals cut unless he was under anesthesia, which cannot be done on an infant. The newborn is actually in a state of shock due to pain and trauma. Medical staff may try to assure you that the baby will receive pain medications and will not feel it. The amount of pain medications necessary for a baby to be completely numb to genital cutting is not possible to give to a newborn. Research has shown that even the most "effective" methods of numbing the pain used for genital cutting are not sufficient, as the baby still feels it. Do yourself—or, more accurately, your newborn—a favor and watch a video of genital cutting before you decide to have this done to your vulnerable baby. My husband and I found it horrifying. A blunt object has to be shoved into the area between the penis and the foreskin to separate it before the skin is cut all the way around, causing a permanent scar, which is visible on all adult men.
Even if genital cutting were 100-percent painless, it takes 7-10 days for a baby to recover from it. They will tell you that there will be some bleeding, as if that were nothing to worry about, but consider the fact that the average newborn only has about one cup of blood to begin with. Think of the pain of any wound, and imagine the wound on one of the most sensitive organs on the body. How many baby boys could be labeled "colicky" who are actually crying because of the pain of the wound from genital cutting? Combine that with nearly constant chafing of a body part that is meant to be covered by skin the majority of the time, and you might wonder if that is part of the reason your new baby boy cries constantly. All thoughts of pain aside, my husband and I see no need to add superfluous stress to an already tumultuous time.
3. The body remembers pain and trauma.
A large reason my husband and I thought this was perfectly all right immediately after birth was the idea, "He won't remember it." Technically, no, he won't recall it in the way that you and I consciously recall experiences, as the brain does not begin to store long-term memories until a human is around two years old. However, research has shown that the body remembers everything. We now know that pain and trauma that occurs even before memories begin to be stored rewires the human brain, making a person more sensitive to pain later in life.
4. Foreskin makes sex better (for both partners).
Perhaps you were worried about your son's sexual experiences when he gets older. We were. We had visions of him trying to court someone, and having some sort of problems because he still has his foreskin. When I heard that foreskin actually makes sex more pleasurable for a woman, too, I was a little skeptical. Then my husband said, "Think about ribbed condoms." That made sense. It has also been shown that the foreskin contains some of the most sensitive areas of the penis. By performing genital cutting, we are stripping a man of some of his most pleasurable experience. What are the effects of exposing this organ to constant use and chafing for years? One could imagine desensitization would have to occur, for one. Think Viagra. Think Cialis. Drug companies profit from sexual dysfunction of men. Perhaps that would be far less common if genital cutting wasn't the norm in our society.
5. It is taking away a fundamental choice.
What are the profound societal implications of stripping a man of a good portion of his "manhood" immediately after birth? We expect men to treat women's bodies with respect and to honor their choices, yet we have started their lives by depriving them of a life-altering choice. When our son is able to make the choice himself, he is more than welcome to have his foreskin removed. We will even be willing to pay for it for him. Until he has a voice and is able to dictate his own experiences in life, we will not deprive him of that.
We would never consider doing this to a woman. In fact, most of us look at societies, like in Africa, where genital cutting is performed on women, with utter disdain. Why is the same act accepted and even promoted in our culture?
I do not believe circumcision should be outlawed. Many people still have religious rites of passage and beliefs in which circumcision is a fundamental part. Also, I ultimately believe in freedom of choice. If after carefully examining all of the pertinent information, you still plan to circumcise your child, that should be your right to do so. Nor am I attempting to shame anyone for making that choice. I am simply encouraging people to stop and think about it. It is a great learning tool to question, "Why do we do the things we do?" My husband and I have always been big fans of researching and thinking for yourself. In this case, we felt our eyes have been opened, and we feel strongly that the best choice for our baby is to opt not to have his genitals cut. Whatever decision you make should come after careful, thoughtful exploration of ideas, not simply because, "It's just what you do."