I am an American middle class woman. I have a college degree and consider myself intelligent. I am a person who actively seeks to inform and educate myself about all matters that will concern my children and myself.
However, like many Americans, I grew up uninformed about one important matter. All my life I believed that penises were supposed to look a certain way with the rounded “head” exposed at the end. I assumed that all males were born with penises like that. I had no awareness that they should look any different or that anything had been cut off.
I had heard of the term “circumcision. ” I knew that the Bible mentioned it and that it had something to do with the penis. I knew that people thought of circumcision as a good thing and that it somehow had something to do with cleanliness. I had no understanding of what circumcision involved or why it was done. People seldom discussed the subject. I rarely thought about it.
I am married to a Jewish man. We do not actively practice the Jewish faith. However, I knew that circumcision of infant males was important to Jewish people.
The following is my own personal account of the birth and circumcisions of my own three sons. It is a story of sincerity, seeking, pain and growth, which led to my decision to write this book:
It is 1972. Steve and I are excitedly expecting our first child. I want to do everything possible to make things right, perfect, and beautiful for this child that we already love so much. We attend Lamaze classes together. Steve will be by my side in the delivery room. I plan to give birth without medication. I also am looking forward to nursing my baby.
I discuss birth with a friend of mine. She has two little sons. Eagerly we share our ideas about birth and breastfeeding. Then she says, “Another thing that we decided was not to have our boys circumcised It seems to me that if that skin was not meant to be there, they would have been born without it.”
To me her idea seems strange. “Oh, that doesn’t appeal to me. Circumcision seems cleaner,” I reply. “Also, I’ve read that a newborn baby does not have a highly developed pain response and that circumcision doesn’t hurt them the way it would if it were done at a later age. Besides, Steve is Jewish and his family would object if we did not have our son circumcised.”
Later, at my obstetrician’s office the doctor asks me, “Now, do you want the baby circumcised?”
I giggle, “Yes, but only if it’s a boy.”
May 27, 1972, after hours of challenging, exhausting labor, I push our child into the world. I am on the delivery table, on my back, with my legs up in stirrups. Steve is by my side. I have had no medication and am fully conscious. In the mirror I watch the baby’s head emerge, and then the body. “That’s the baby!! That’s the baby!!” Steve exclaims excitedly. Now the baby is down on a table in front of me. I can hear him crying but I cannot see. The doctor informs us, “You have a boy.”
“Honey, we have a little boy! I can’t believe it!”
Our son Eric is held up in front of us, wailing and screaming, and then handed to the nurse who carries him down the hall to the central nursery. We are unbelievably excited over the birth of our first child! But now the three of us are sent our separate ways. Eric is in the nursery. I am taken to the recovery room. Steve must go home.
Before he leaves Steve talks to our doctor and then tells me: “He says you did a great job with natural childbirth! He’s going to circumcise the baby for us in the morning.”
It is now the 9 a.m. feeding. Finally I hold Eric for the first time, twelve hours after his birth. He does not nurse. His body is wrapped in blankets with only his head visible. Mothers are not allowed to unwrap their babies. Soon the nurse takes him away. Eric is brought to me again for feedings at 1 p.m. and at 5 p.m. but still he does not nurse. I am wondering if there is something wrong with me. I ask the doctor if we can go home the following day. Maybe once we are home I’ll be able to get him to nurse.
It is the 9 p.m. feeding. Eric is 24 hours old and finally nurses. I am beginning to feel like this baby is mine.
It is the afternoon of the second day. Eric and I are ready to go home. Steve has brought some diapers and baby clothes. A nurse changes and dresses Eric while we watch. This is the first time I get to see my baby’s body. The end of his little penis is bright red from his circumcision. Eric was circumcised some time the previous day, before he had ever even nursed. Possibly it was done before I had even held him. The nurse gives me a small tube of petroleum jelly and instructs me, “Put this on his circumcision each time you change his diaper until it heals. Also, apply alcohol to his umbilical stump until it dries up and falls off.”
Now Eric and I are home. I am still exhausted from the hours of agonizing labor. I am in great pain from my episiotomy. My uterus cramps with after-labor contractions. My nipples are sore and blistered from my first attempts to nurse. Soon my breasts become painfully engorged. That subsides and then I develop a breast infection. My entire body feels like a raw mass of blood and pain, as if I’ve been put through a meat grinder!! But it will be okay if it means bringing a beautiful, healthy baby into the world to hold and love. Eric is a good sweet baby and is nursing well. His only problem is that he screams frantically during every diaper change. A friend suggests, “Maybe it’s because of his circumcision.” I agree, “Yeah, maybe so.”
Soon Eric and I both heal and become bonded to each other. Despite our poor start in the hospital and our painful postpartum adjustment, we are now a happy, loving mother-child couple.
Months later I show a friend the pictures we took of Eric in the delivery room. She comments, “That’s what they look like before they’re circumcised.”
I ask her, “You had your two boys circumcised, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but my sister’s two kids aren’t,” she replies. “Their father didn’t want to have it done. Their little penises look so funny!”
1974. 1 am pregnant with our second child. I have become a Lamaze instructor. I now know much more about pregnancy, birth and babies than I did the first time. This time we want to hold, love, and be with our baby from the beginning. We consider giving birth at home so that we will not be separated from our baby.
I find a hospital with a “family centered” maternity department. My doctor is supportive and enthusiastic about our desires. With this birth I will nurse the baby on the delivery table and have immediate rooming in.
October 31, 1974. Again I am pushing on the delivery table. Steve is by my side. This time the stirrups are lowered and my back is raised. We watch our child emerge into the world. “It’s another BOY!!” we all shout at once “Waah!!” Jason cries softly while the doctor suctions him and “milks” and clamps the cord. The baby is placed on my abdomen on top of the drapes while I gaze at him lovingly. Then he is wrapped up and given to me to nurse. It is beautiful to gaze into his eyes and get to know Jason. The doctor sews up my episiotomy. Soon the nurse takes Jason away to the nursery to weigh him and clean him up. I shower and eat lunch. Then the baby is brought to my room and we stay together from then on.
The following morning the doctor comes back to examine us and to circumcise Jason. He wheels the baby across the hall in his plastic bassinet. I feel anxious, expecting to hear a lot of screaming. In about 15 minutes the doctor brings Jason back. “He didn’t really cry about being circumcised. He fussed and spit up a little bit afterwards,” the doctor informs us. I feel relieved. We go on to talk about breastfeeding and other things. With rooming in I change the baby’s diapers. I know to apply petroleum jelly to his circumcision wound, as I had with Eric.
Shortly afterwards I walk down the hall. The nurse’s aide is cleaning some instruments and shows me the device that was used to circumcise the baby. It is a metal gadget that fits over him with a hole where the baby’s penis comes through and another part that comes down and clamps the foreskin. I find it interesting. I had imagined that the doctor trimmed off the foreskin freehand fashion. Then she says, “Maybe I shouldn’t show this to you. This could get a mother upset.”
“No, that’s okay.”
I give Jason’s circumcision no further concern. The baby and I stay together for the rest of the day and night and go home the following day. We go on to form a new, happy, mother-child nursing relationship.
1977. I am now pregnant with our third child. We are going to have this baby at home with a midwife. I have Dr. Leboyer’s book Birth Without Violence. We will use some of his ideas for this baby’s birth. Eric and Jason had both screamed frantically at birth, the way we had, at the time, expected all babies to behave. The lights had been bright, people had been noisy, and their cords had been cut right away. Leboyer presents some radically different ways to treat a newborn baby.
Our new baby will be welcomed into the world at home, into loving arms, peace, and contentment. We will use dim lighting in our birth room. We will speak softly to the child. We will massage and caress the infant. We will wait a while before cutting the cord. We will not use silver nitrate in the baby’s eyes. This child is very special, and his or her birth will be beautiful, pure, and perfect.
I am taking additional training in childbirth education, to teach home birth oriented classes. I am studying obstetric textbooks, attending seminars, and learning much more about pregnancy, birth, and babies.
One day an idea occurs to me. I tell Steve: “You know what I’ve been thinking? If this baby is a boy, I’d like to not have him circumcised.”
“Oh, no.” He replies, “They can get terrible infections if they’re not circumcised.”
“Well, I suppose with your being Jewish, you wouldn’t want a son not to be circumcised.”
“No, being Jewish isn’t the reason. I just think it’s necessary for their health.”
“It just seems with all of the other neat things that we are going to be doing for this baby’s birth, not circumcising would be another ‘natural’ thing to do.”
My mind is full of questions. I have seen other baby boys who were not circumcised. The longer, straight penis has a “strange” appearance to my American middle class eyes. I do not know whether it is better for a baby to be that way or to be circumcised. But I guess our third son would not like being different from his two brothers or his Daddy. Being neither male, nor Jewish, maybe it is not my place to suggest not circumcising.
“I had always thought that newborn babies were squalling little bundles of appetite and nerves that did not become cute or enjoyable until they were about two to three months old. But this little baby evokes an ethereal tranquility that I have never seen before. He drifts between sleep and wakefulness and makes little smiles just like the pictures in Dr. Leboyer’s book – totally happy and trusting of this world.”
Early in the morning, April 25, 1977, our third child silently emerges into the world on the bed in our dimly lit room. Steve and our midwife catch the baby together. “It’s a boy.” our midwife says softly. Ryan’s little body is placed on my tummy and I massage and caress him. He coughs, sputters, and starts to breathe quietly. His body is relaxed and there is no crying. The skin-to-skin contact is a warm, beautiful experience that I never had with my other two babies. Eric and Jason are standing by the bed, awestruck by the birth of their tiny new brother. After about ten minutes the cord stops pulsating and we cut it. I put Ryan to the breast. He nuzzles but does not nurse. Steve takes off his shirt and snuggles Ryan against his bare chest. I work at expelling the placenta. Ryan is again placed in my arms and now begins nursing. In the dim light his little eyes open and he looks at me.
In a little while the midwife examines Ryan’s perfect little body. “Are you going to have him circumcised?” she asks. She tends to favor it. Her own son is circumcised. “Yes.” I reply absently. I am not thinking about it right now.
It’s about 4:30 a.m. The midwife and my other friend leave. Steve sleeps on the couch. The kids go back to their beds. Ryan and I are alone in the birth room together. He is so tiny, 7 lbs. 3 oz., the littlest of my three babies. He has a perfect little round head and is fair and blond. His face is tiny and sweet and bespeaks a calmness brought about by his most peaceful birth. It’s hard to believe that anything so little and fragile could be real.
In the days that follow, Ryan sleeps and nurses peacefully and never leaves my side. I had always thought that newborn babies were squalling little bundles of appetite and nerves that did not become cute or enjoyable until they were about two to three months old. But this little baby evokes an ethereal tranquility that I have never seen before. He drifts between sleep and wakefulness and makes little smiles just like the pictures in Dr. Leboyer’s book totally happy and trusting of this world.
“Why is Ryan’s penis different from mine?” asks Eric who is almost five.
“Ryan hasn’t been circumcised yet,” I explain.
“What is ‘circumcised’?”
I explain to Eric that baby boys are born with this skin on the end of their penises but most parents have it cut off. “We will take Ryan to a doctor and have him cut the skin off of the end of his penis.”
“Oh, it’s supposed to be easier to keep clean.”
Ryan’s appointment with the pediatrician is on Monday morning. He will be eight days old. The doctor wants us to take the baby to the hospital for a vitamin K shot and PKU test first. We stop by his office to get a prescription for this. I sit in the car and feel like crying. I had my baby at home so I could avoid all of these traumatizing medical procedures. I made so many plans to have his birth be beautiful and perfect. Right now I feel helpless. “Please, can’t we just not have any of this stuff done!”
Monday morning arrives. My mother comes over to watch the older boys. “Too bad he has to be hurt,” she says sympathetically, as I leave the house with little Ryan. I sigh, resignedly, and say to him, “But we have to make you match your Daddy and your brothers.”
Steve meets me at the doctor’s office. We go into an examining room. Ryan is sleeping peacefully and trustingly in my arms. My stomach feels like a lump of lead. Nothing has ever felt so wrong! Silently I communicate to him, “I would rather die than let anything hurt your precious little being. And yet this has to be.”
The nurse tells me to undress the baby. I say to the doctor, “They showed me the clamp device that they use when our last baby was born in the hospital. Is that what you use?”
“Yeah,” he mumbles. He acts as if that is something that parents should not know about. Then suddenly he ushers Steve and me out of the room. I had assumed that I would stay with him!! He tells us to leave the building and suggests a nearby hamburger stand where we could go and eat. This baby has never been separated from me from the moment he was born!! How could you expect me to eat at a time like this??!!
“We use a topical anesthesia on the baby’s skin, but it will be painful,” he says honestly.
We leave the building and sit on a bench. My baby is inside there! I have no idea what is going on! My maternal, protective instincts are totally violated! It is as if we were helpless children. Steve reminds me of the joke about a “Jim Dandy” being a guy who was circumcised with a pinking shears. Finally enough time has passed that I say, “Let’s go back in.”
The baby’s screams fill the entire building! The nurse leads us back into the room. Ryan is lying on the table. A diaper is half around him. The end of his penis is bright red!! There is blood on the diaper!! He is crying pitifully, a high-pitched wail that I have never heard out of him before. I pick him up and embrace his tiny body close to mine. “Oh, no! Don’t hold him like that!” the doctor warns me. I shouldn’t put pressure on his wound. So I cradle him in my arms as the doctor leads us into another room. As soon as we sit down I start to nurse Ryan.
“Right now you are doing the very best thing you can for him,” the doctor assures me. “Sucking will really help ease the pain.”
He gives us advice about various aspects of baby care. Between attempts to nurse Ryan continues to wail frantically! I hear very little of what the doctor says.
Steve leaves and I sit in the waiting room, continuing my attempts to nurse and comfort Ryan. Vaguely his tense, anguished little body reminds me of the way Eric and Jason had been as newborns. A nurse comes by and says, “Hey, it will be all right.”
“I know, this is my third baby.”
“You just look so upset.”
I take Ryan out to the car. He no longer wants to nurse. Mercifully he drifts off to sleep and I drive home. I feel like I am taking home a different baby. He wails in pain again as I carry him back into the house. My mother adds her sympathy to his traumatized condition. I place him on his side in his buggy where he falls asleep again. About three hours later he awakens with another painful wail. I change his diaper and put petroleum jelly on his circumcision. He nurses again and from then on no longer cries about it.
That evening we go out to the “class reunion” of my midwife’s childbirth classes. Ryan seems content and peaceful again. I keep him in my arms most of the evening. “I’ll never let anything hurt you like that again, I promise.”
Weeks later, Ryan was to start cooing and smiling like all normal, healthy babies. But I was never to see those beautiful, mystic, Leboyer newborn-baby smiles again. Ryan was past his pain, But my own heart was to ache about this for a long time. Again and again I was to ask myself, “Why?”
Why did I have the courage and resolve to go outside the medical system and have a home birth, but was unable to question this?!
Why was it so important to me to have his birth be totally peaceful in so many ways, with dim lights, soft voices, and no silver nitrate, and then turn around and do this?!
Why, when I had been a childbirth educator for several years, when I have gone out of my way to educate and inform myself about so many things concerning birth and babies, when I am probably more knowledgeable about most of these matters than 99% of all parents, did I still know virtually nothing about circumcision?!
Five months after this experience I awakened out of my feelings of torment, guilt, and horror, to my decision to write this book. It is my profession, as a childbirth educator, to educate expectant parents about all matters that concern their babies. Why aren’t people being educated about circumcision?
I did not know where to begin. The many books in my personal childbirth education library said little or nothing about the subject. A visit to my local library yielded little more. Even books on surgery gave only a sentence or two to circumcision. I approached many of my friends about their experiences with the operation, and conducted many of the interviews that appear in this book.
However, despite Ryan’s heartrending experience, I did not start my research being anti-circumcision. I was even undecided over whether or not I would choose circumcision again should I ever have another son. I fully intended to write a book that was neutral on the subject. I had planned that this book would present the pros and cons of both choices, guiding parents to either direction as best suits their lifestyles.
I began this research with the American middle class belief that male circumcision surely conferred many benefits. Therefore I did not skew the results of my research nor the personal accounts herein to conform to a pre-conceived anti-circumcision bias. Instead, it has been the personal accounts and facts that have educated me.
The personal accounts in this book tell many stories. Some are from parents of circumcised sons, all expressing remorse over their decision. Some are from parents of intact sons, all expressing peace and satisfaction with their choice. I have not received any letters from parents of circumcised sons who were happy about their decision, nor any letters from parents of intact sons who were unhappy about it.
These personal accounts, along with the facts I have uncovered, have led me to a strong stand against routine infant circumcision. If the facts supported cutting off the foreskins of infant males as a beneficial, justifiable operation, I would have presented that in this book. Instead, I have learned that none of the medical arguments for circumcision are justified, and while I believe that people’s religious beliefs require a certain degree of careful consideration and sensitivity, have found that the other so-called “social” reasons have little solid basis.
Three significant concerns surround the issue of infant circumcision:
First, the operation is painful to the newborn infant. Feelings of tenderness and protection surround most of our attitudes about tiny babies. Why then have we considered it okay to strap the baby down and proceed to pinch and smash his foreskin, tear it away from his glans, and then clamp and cut it off? Usually this is done without anesthesia. Circumcision was often deliberately intended to be a means of torture of slaves and in primitive initiation rites. Today, if an older child or adult is to undergo circumcision, anesthesia is used. Why do we believe that infants either feel no pain or that their feelings are unimportant?
Secondly, is the foreskin a useless piece of tissue an “anomaly” in need of surgical correction? Is the human male body made wrong the way it normally comes into the world? Or does the foreskin serve a purpose? Can we improve on the body by cutting part of it off?
Thirdly, do we have the right, in the absence of true medical need, to alter another person’s body without his permission? Does a person have the right to keep all parts of his body? Isn’t each person’s foreskin rightfully his? If so, aren’t parents who consent to circumcision and doctors who perform the operation taking something away from that child?
These concerns and many more will be examined in the following chapters.