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Circumcision: Medically Unnecessary - Fact vs. Fiction

Author // Georganne Chapin

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Circumcision: Medically Unnecessary
Fact vs. Fiction
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Fact vs. Fiction

So why are parents making their own decisions not to circumcise their baby boys? Perhaps it is helpful to look at some of the myths, and facts, about neonatal male circumcision.


Myth
: Studies in Africa proved that circumcision prevents the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Fact: While the studies showed some evidence of a reduction in female-to-male transmission of the virus, the CDC reported that women in these same studies contracted HIV at a somewhat higher rate from their male HIV-infected partners who were circumcised than did women whose HIV-infected partners were intact!

Further studies in Kenya had to be ended prematurely because of similar findings. Women in the studies were contracting HIV at alarmingly higher rates from circumcised men than women in control groups—presumably because the men, believing the surgery to be some kind of protective “silver bullet,” were not using condoms.


Myth: Circumcising boys is safe and harmless.

Fact: As with any surgery, cutting off part of a baby boy’s genitals causes pain and creates immediate health risks that can lead to serious complications, including infection, hemorrhaging, scarring, difficulty urinating and—in the inevitable cases of surgical mistake—partial or full amputation of the glans (head) or shaft of the penis. There are recorded cases of deaths linked to circumcision, including recent ones in New York, Kansas, South Dakota, British Columbia and England. Even a “safe” and “uncomplicated” circumcision causes the baby to experience pain lasting at least for several days—and, of course, the permanent loss of erogenous tissue.


Myth
: Circumcision is just a “little snip.”

Fact: The amount of skin removed from an infant in a typical circumcision grows to around 15 square inches (the size of a 3 x 5 inch index card) in an adult male. A typical circumcision carried out in a medical setting involves a doctor or nurse placing the baby on his back and strapping his arms and legs onto a molded plastic board. The baby’s penis is stroked to give him an erection, at which point the doctor inserts a metal instrument under the foreskin to forcibly separate it from the glans. The doctor then slits the foreskin to widen its opening, inserts a circumcision device which crushes the foreskin, and then cuts the foreskin off. This painful procedure takes at least 10 minutes—a very long time in the life of a newborn baby.


Myth
: The foreskin is an unnecessary appendage that can be removed without any impact on boys.

Fact: The foreskin is not a birth defect or an “extra” or “useless” flap of skin. Perfectly designed by nature, it is a normal, sensitive and functional body part with nerves, muscles and blood supply. In infant boys, it is attached to the head of the penis and protects it from urine, feces and irritation. It also protects the urinary opening from contaminants entering the sterile urinary tract. Throughout life, the foreskin keeps the head of the penis moist and protects it from injury. The foreskin has an important role in sexual pleasure, due to its specialized, erogenous nerve endings and its natural gliding and lubricating functions.


If a boy asks why his penis looks different from his father’s or his brother’s, he can be told honestly that daddy or brother had a part of their penis removed, but that it wasn’t done to him because “we now know it isn’t necessary.”


Myth
: A boy should “look like his father.”

Fact: Children differ from their parents in all kinds of ways, including hair and eye color, body type and, of course, size and sexual development. If Dad were missing an eye or had a large birthmark, no one would suggest removing his son’s eye or tattooing him with a birthmark. If a boy asks why his penis looks different from his father’s or his brother’s, he can be told honestly that daddy or brother had a part of their penis removed, but that it wasn’t done to him because “we now know it isn’t necessary.”


Myth
: Routine circumcision of boys cannot be compared to female genital mutilation (FGM), either as a cultural or medical practice.

Fact: Rationales offered in cultures that promote female genital cutting—hygiene, disease prevention, improved appearance of the genitalia and social acceptance—are similar to those offered in cultures that promote male circumcision. Whatever the rationale, forced removal of healthy genital tissue from any child of any sex is unethical. All children have the right to be spared this inhumane, unnecessary surgery.


Myth
: Opposing male circumcision is religious and cultural bigotry.

Fact: Many who oppose the painful and permanent alteration of children’s genitalia do so precisely because they believe in universal human rights. In our society, parents may raise their children in accordance with their own cultural and religious beliefs, but this right is not limitless. A parent does not have the right, directly or through the agency of a medical or religious practitioner, to inflict irreversible bodily harm on a child.


Myth
: Circumcising newborn baby boys produces health benefits later in life.

Fact: There is no proven link between circumcision and better health. One would never recommend routinely removing a baby’s fingernails to prevent him from scratching himself, or pulling a child’s teeth to prevent cavities later in life. And study after study shows that only abstinence or use of a condom can prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.


The Making of an Intactivist

In 1980, when I held my newborn son, I knew I could not agree to have him circumcised. Little did I imagine that 30 years later I would be leading a national organization dedicated to ending this practice. My thinking then was that it made no sense that every baby boy needed immediate, painful surgery to “correct” his normal, natural body. We don’t do that to our daughters, so why on earth should we do it to our sons?

When my son was 18, one day—out of the clear blue—he thanked me. He said, “Mom, I never told you how glad I am that you and Dad didn’t have me circumcised.” That moment was a huge eye-opener for me, and the beginning of my activism. Over recent years, the intact men I have spoken with about this issue express similar gratitude for having been spared.

As the executive director of Intact America (intactamerica.org) I am much in demand as a speaker and resource on the topic of circumcision. Every time I do a radio interview, every time I give a talk in public, women and men come up to me and tell me their circumcision stories. I have met mothers who still cry 10, 20, 30 years later when they recount how—because of their ignorance, and under pressure from doctors and hospital staff— they handed their newborn sons over for a “quick little snip,” and received back an exhausted, wounded child. One mother said, “His pain was so obvious; how could anyone say that babies don’t feel pain?” While, thankfully, many men do not consciously remember or dwell on the loss of their foreskins, I have also heard from hundreds of men who are acutely aware that they are missing something important, and wish they had been given a choice.

Maybe, just as war is too important to be left to the generals, deciding whether to leave a baby boy or girl genitally intact is too important to be left to a medical establishment that profits from expanding the number of surgeries.

In this case, parents—not a doctor—know best.


Pathways Issue 31 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #31.

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