The following review was published in NAPSAC NEWS, Fall-Winter, 1986


CIRCUMCISION: The Painful Dilemma, by Rosemary Romberg. Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1985

The following quotes are excerpts from “What others have said about Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma”:

“Rosemary Romberg has given us the definitive book on circumcision… I enthusiastically join (the author) in her well-documented, comprehensive condemnation of modern hospital circumcision.” Robert Mendelsohn, MD.

“I strongly endorse your thesis opposing circumcision…I consider that you have written a fair-minded and thorough review of all the pros and cons. Your book will be extremely useful as a reference source as well as a policy statement.” John Money, PhD, Professor of Medical Psychology

“…Your stories from mothers are wonderful. I have always appreciated testimony, and I was very appreciative of yours. Your personal story brought tears to my eyes…” Raven Lang, Author (The Birth Book)

Rosemary Romberg has indeed written the “definitive” book on circumcision. Every page is loaded with information from statistics, personal experiences, medical and religious opinion, complications, history, and more. The Painful Dilemma contains 18 chapters, index, extensive bibliography (490 references), glossary of terms, and a list of valuable resources. It is complete, compelling, and a powerful statement about the way in which we, as a people, perceive and treat newborns.

Romberg’s introduction is her own story. Her involvement in her third son’s circumcision and the trauma it entailed for both of them led her to doing the research with which she wrote this book.

The sheer volume of information contained in these chapters precludes any in-depth discussion. Chapters 1 through 4 discuss the history of circumcision, female circumcision, circumcision and Judaism, and circumcision of Christianity. The author analyzes the religious issue with great sensitivity and respect for deeply ingrained beliefs, but does not gloss over possible complications and the rights and feelings of the newborn. Her interviews with religious authorities and Jewish parents show wide differences of opinion regarding the necessity of circumcision and point out that a small, but growing number of Jewish parents are seeking and practicing alternatives to accepted religious custom.

Chapter 5, “Routine Infant Circumcision as a Medical Practice in 20th Century United States,” includes interviews with a physician, an OB nurse, letters from parents of circumcised sons, and picture display of methods of circumcision with accompanying explanations. The letters from parents are painful to read:
“I stood outside the door while they were doing it to him and listened to him scream and cry. That’s the first time I really began to wonder why I had let them do it to my baby. Since then I have asked myself that a million times.” Jacque Dyer, Mother.

Chapters 6 through 9 cover circumcision and sexuality, the military service, circumcision of a 3 year old, and circumcision of an adult, respectively.

In chapter 10, John Strand writes about his search for a plastic surgeon willing to attempt restoration with ridicule, hostility, and advice to obtain psychiatric help. Finally he found a physician willing to help him. Of Dr. Don Greer he writes:
“The empathy and perception of this man to be able to see through all the years of anger, pain and rejection was no less than a miracle.”

“The Complications of Circumcision,” title of chapter 11, should be read carefully by physicians contemplating it. Childbirth educators and midwives owe it to their clients to be familiar with this information and to pass it on.

Questions about penile, prostate, and cervical cancer, as well as sexually transmitted disease are answered in-depth in chapters 12 through 15.

Chapter 16 answers the question, “Is Circumcision Traumatic for a Newborn Baby?” Justin Call, M.D., pediatrician and psychoanalyst says: “Does the baby feel pain? You bet he feels pain! The helpless panicky cry of an infant when circumcised is an abnormal kind of cry that is never heard in other normally occurring circumstances.”

Finally, in chapter 18, Romberg explores the possibility of humane alternatives in infant circumcision. Mini-circumcision and the use of anesthesia involves strapping the baby down, hurting his penis, and exposing him to unnecessary trauma and risk of complications. She further clarifies her position:
“Although the issue of pain experienced by infants has been of primary importance to me as a mother, it is of secondary importance to the overall anti-circumcision concern. The central issue is that the infant’s penis should be left in its natural regardless of the pain. One cannot improve on the body by cutting any part off. The other chapters have uncovered some disastrous consequences of circumcision. But even if cutting off the foreskin conferred minor benefits, or make absolutely no difference to the well-being of the individual, the operation, when performed on an infant is a violation of basic human rights because the infant does not have a choice over whether or not he should have his foreskin. Circumcision of an infant is taking away something that belongs to that individual –painful or not!”

Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma should be required reading for medical, nursing, and midwifery students, childbirth educators, parents, and parents-to-be. We owe it to our children to be as well-informed as possible before making such a momentous decision. Just as NAPSAC members have questioned routine obstetrical and childrearing practices done ” for our own good,” so do we have the responsibility of questioning the so-called “scientific” merits of circumcision. Readers looking for the truth about circumcision will find it in Rosemary Romberg’s book.

Nancy B. Perry, RN, CNL
Mother & Childbirth Educator
Certified NAPSA Leader
Chairperson, NAPSAC Review Committee
Marlboro, Massachusetts

(NAPSAC (National Association of Parents and Professionals for Safe Alternatives in Childbirth) was founded in the 1970’s by David and Lee Stewart. NAPSAC – was a well known and highly influential information resource during the 1970’s & 1980’s)

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