INFANT MALE CIRCUMCISION AS A MEDICAL PRACTICE
IN 20TH/21ST CENTURY UNITED STATES
Foreskins have been cut off in tribal initiation rites since prehistoric times. Jewish infants have undergone ritual circumcision for thousands of years. But until the late 1800s, few non-Jewish people of Western civilization have ever practiced this rite. Within the past century, circumcision of newborn males has become a popular practice in American hospitals, and to a lesser extent in other English-speaking countries that have come under our influence. Today, most American males lack their foreskins.
Circumcision has no part of the ancestral heritage of the Caucasian, European backgrounds of most white, non- Jewish, middle class Americans. Some Americans of African, Middle Eastern, or Polynesian descent may have had a tradition of ritual circumcision among their predecessors. However, the medical procedure performed on their infants today bears no relationship to any tribal initiation rite that their ancestors may have practiced. Most non-Jewish Americans had grandfathers or great-grandfathers who had intact penises.
How and why did the amputation of infant foreskins become a popular practice among our medical profession? The answers have been difficult to find. Most medical textbooks and medically oriented books for lay people give only vague, brief information on the subject. Most doctors can easily cite the common pro and con arguments for the operation. Many are experts at doing circumcisions. But few know any more than the average lay person about how neonatal circumcision became a popular medical practice today.
The Recent History of Infant Circumcision
Puritanism has been described as ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time!’ Americans have a strong Puritanical heritage. Included in this is an obsessive fear of masturbation.
An 18th century writer describes the common beliefs about masturbation during his time:
“…One of two men who indulged in excessive masturbation became insane; the other dried out his brain so prodigiously that it could be heard rattling in his skull…. The effects of masturbation range from impotence to epilepsy, and include ‘consumption, blindness, imbecility, insanity, rheumatism, gonorrhea, priapism (painful continuous erection due to disease), tumors, constipation, hemorrhoids, female homosexuality, and finally lead to death.’ ”1
However, until the mid-1800s, treatments for the “evils” of masturbation were mild, basically consisting of dietary measures and baths. 1
During the latter half of the 19th century, more surgical, punitive, sadistic, and bizarre anti- masturbatory therapies came into being:
“By about 1880 the individual … might wish [to] … tie, chain, or infibulate sexually active children … to adorn them with grotesque appliances, encase them in plaster, leather, or rubber, to frighten or even castrate them … masturbation insanity was now real enough-it was affecting the medical profession.”2
The medical profession at that time believed that the unnatural loss of semen weakened both mind and body, thereby leading to the above-described disorders.
Another writer also comments on the barbaric methods used to prevent this:
“Some doctors recommend covering the penis with plaster of Paris, leather, or rubber, cauterization, making boys wear chastity belts or spiked rings, and in extreme cases, castration.” 3
Circumcision of males as a medical procedure originated as yet another of these measures to cure or prevent masturbation.
“In 1891, James Hutchinson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons (in Great Britain), published a paper ‘On Circumcision as Preventative of Masturbation’. In it he not only advocated circumcision for the treatment and prevention of this ‘shameful habit,’ but proposed that ‘…if public opinion permitted their adoption … measures more radical than circumcision would … be a true kindness.’ (Dr. Hutchinson’s paper is generally credited as being the instigator in British and American routine infant circumcision.)” 4
“…Another British doctor wrote ‘Circumcision: Its Advantages and How to Perform It,’ which listed the reasons for removing the ‘vestigial prepuce.’ Evidently the foreskin could cause ‘nocturnal incontinence,’ hysteria, epilepsy, and irritation that might ‘give rise to erotic stimulation and consequently masturbation.’ ” 3
“Until its 1940 edition, one of the standard American textbooks on Pediatrics, Holts’ Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, condemns the practice of masturbation as medically harmful. In earlier editions, the treatment recommended is mechanical restraint, corporal punishment in the very young, circumcision in boys … because of the moral effect of the operation. 4
The same book similarly:
“…advocated female circumcision, cauterization of the clitoris, and even blistering of the vulva and prepuce for recalcitrant (female) masturbators.” 3
In 1891, Dr. P.C. Remondino, M.D. published a detailed textbook entitled History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present: Moral and Physical Reasons for its Performance. His title lists:
“Member of the American Medical Association, of the American Public Health Association, of the San Diego County Medical Society, of the State Board of Health of California, and of the Board of Health of the City of San Diego; Vice- President of California State Medical Society and of Southern California Medical Society.” 5
Despite his impressive title and position, his writing is hardly rational or scientific. His phobia of foreskins is summed up as follows:
“…The prepuce seems to exercise a malign influence in the most distant and apparently unconnected manner; where, like some of the evil genii or sprites in the Arabian tales, it can reach from afar the object of its malignity, striking him down unawares in the most unaccountable manner; making him a victim to all manner of ills, sufferings, and tribulations; unfitting him for marriage or the cares of business; making him miserable and an object of continual scolding in childhood, through its worriments and nocturnal enuresis; later on beginning to affect him with all kinds of physical distortions and ailments, nocturnal pollutions, and other conditions calculated to weaken him physically, mentally, and morally, to land him, perchance, in the jail, or even in a lunatic asylum. Man’s whole life is subject to the capricious dispensations and whims of this Job’s-comforts-dispensing enemy of man.” 6
Remondino echoed the anti-masturbation beliefs of his time, blaming this abomination on the “evils” of the prepuce. He advocated circumcision, not only as a cure for masturbation but as a preventive measure for all infant males:
“There is not much doubt but that, if one of the cases reported by Dr. Price had not been circumcised, the expressionless, listless infant would have grown, in time, into a masturbating, feeble-minded, idiotic creature as many others so situated, have done before it.” 7
One section of Remondino’s book covers the history of castration and other genital mutilations. He favors some of these other practices with enthusiasm similar to that he exhibits for male circumcision.
For example, his comments on the Australian practice of subincision. (Although in truth subincised males can and do father children, and there is no evidence in historical sources that the practice was ever intended to be a birth control measure, Remondino believed that was its purpose):
… It is certainly an operation of the highest merit, and it should be introduced, by all means, in the United States…. Whenever the writer sees the poor anemic, broken down victim of many miscarriages, he cannot help but feel that if the laws of the Damiantina River savages were enforced on their husbands, it would be a blessing to the poor women without materially injuring their husbands….” 8
Elsewhere he describes and advocates a horrifying practice that took place in Soudan:
“…The very peculiar and unmistakably painful gait was due to the fact that each woman carried a bamboo stick, about eight inches in length, three inches or more being inserted in the vagina so as to effectually fill the opening, the balance projecting beyond, between the thighs of the person; this bamboo stick, or guardian of female virtue, was held in place by a strap with a shield that covered the vulva, the whole being held in an undisplaceable position by a padlock. This was affixed to the woman whenever she was allowed outside the harem ground, being placed in position by the eunuch, who carried the key at his girdle. In such a harness virtue can be perfectly safe; … In Soudan there are no divorce courts, hence the probable necessity of the apparatus, and, as the woman is not obliged to wear it unless she chooses to go out unattended, it can hardly be considered as a compulsory barbarity. In the United States such a practice might do away with considerable divorce proceedings’ [emphasis mine – R.R.]” 9
Remondino also, in all seriousness, advocated the ancient practice of employing eunuchs:
“…I have alluded to the very appropriate arrangement which formerly existed when music teachers were eunuchs.
…. our higher circles of society would do well to employ eunuchized coachmen, especially if possessed of susceptible and elopable daughters……” 10
Fortunately no one else took up Remondino’s other suggestions, But, this is the same type of mentality from which our current medical practice of infant circumcision originated!
There is a certain “mystique” about surgery. Some people do take a certain masochistic enjoyment out of being medical patients, gladly suffering the pain involved for the attention received. Of course, what is choice for an adult becomes victimization for infants and children.
It has only been within the past little more than a century that surgery could be done with antisepsis and anesthetic. Modern surgery is truly a new art. The field of medicine has struggled with growing pains, and trial and error adoption of new procedures. New ideas and techniques are constantly presented. Many later become disproven or outdated. Types of surgery and other medical treatments have often been fads. Carter comments:
“With the discovery of anesthesia in 1846 and a new antiseptic method of treatment about 21 years later, the whole face of medicine was changed. The hazardous and painful undertaking of surgery became fashionable, and large numbers of beginners poured into the medical schools to study surgical methods…. As time went on, more courage, better facilities and better trained staffs, plus more comfort, safety and operative skill contributed to the surgeon’s art … it became exceedingly easy, for the first time in history, for patients to have an operation …. fashions in surgery began to develop…. Unfortunately, the public often adopts a surgical craze and runs with it, as it were, the result being that insistent patients rush to the surgeon’s door demanding an operation rather than simply asking for advice about a medical problem….” 11
“There is a certain ‘mystique’ about surgery. Some people do take a masochistic enjoyment out of being medical patients, gladly suffering the pain involved for the attention received. Of course, what is choice for an adult becomes victimization for infants and children.”
While infant circumcision as a medical practice began during the late 1800s, it became increasingly widespread during the earlier part of the 20th century. The practice went hand in hand with another phenomenon — routine hospitalization of all births.
In 1900 less than 5 percent of American women delivered in hospitals. By the 1920s between 30-50% of births in most larger U.S. cities took place in hospitals. By the early 1930s between 60 and 75 % of the births in various cities were in hospitals.
In Lying In, a revealing book on the history of childbearing customs in the United States, Wertz & Wertz comment:
“Some commentators have suggested that doctors sought to centralize all medical care in hospitals because of the model of industry, which had taught them that control of a work space would make them a new elite, like the ‘captains of industry.’ Perhaps doctors were aware that institutionalizing medicine would bring them power and prestige, [as well as having] immediate practical reasons for centralizing care.” 12
It is no coincidence that routine circumcision of infants became widespread during the same time that nearly all normal births, for the first time in history, took place in hospitals. Parents who have given birth at home — whether in previous ages when this was the accepted norm, or today for the few who choose this as a “radical” alternative — have had to think about whether or not to take their infant to a doctor to have his foreskin cut off. But the new mother who is recovering from birth at one end of a hospital maternity ward, and the father who is outside in the waiting room, have had little awareness of what is being done to their infant who is hidden away in the hospital nursery.
Unfortunately, “progress” in the form of medical advances in obstetrics, has been gained at the expense of the emotional well-being of parents and infants. Wertz & Wertz comment:
“Hospital delivery had become for many a time of alienation – from the body, from family and friends, from the community, and even from life itself. The safe efficiencies had become a kind of industrial production far removed from the comforts of social childbirth or the sympathies of the proverbial doctor-patient relation. A woman was powerless in the experience of birth and unable to find meaning in it, for her participation in it and even her consciousness of it were minimal. She was isolated during birth from family and friends, and even from other women having the same experiences. She had to think of herself instrumentally, not as a woman feeling love and fear or sharing in a creative event, but as a body-machine being manipulated by others for her ultimate welfare. She played a social role of passive dependence and obedience.” 13
Within recent years we have striven to re-humanize birth. Childbirth Education classes have endeavored to familiarize expectant parents with the birth experience and their choices. The movement has brought about such things as father participation and rooming in within hospitals. Alternative birth centers and services for home births have been made available. Unfortunately through the decade of the ’70s and into the ’80s and the ensuing decades, birth has become a battlefield. Professionals have often been reluctant to change or listen to lay people. Factions within childbirth education have different ideas. Expectant parents have been caught in the middle. Medical practices which surround birth and babies have been questioned and attacked. Among these have been fetal heart monitors, unnecessary Caesarian deliveries, episiotomies, enemas, pubic shaves, and routine separation of mothers and infants. Somehow, circumcision of infant boys has been one of the last things for us to question.
“During recent years parents have been striving to ‘relearn’ the ‘art’ of breastfeeding, ‘relearn’ such things as rocking and cuddling their babies, and answering their hungers and emotional needs. It is now time to view infant circumcision as yet another vestige from an era that totally disregarded the needs and feelings of babies.”
Infant circumcision was also a concurrent trend with some peculiar and uncompassionate practices in other aspects of infant care. Although virtually all mothers have nursed their babies since the beginning of human existence until the past few decades, suddenly during the 1920s and ’30s mothers were being told that artificial formula was “best” for their infants. Breastfeeding went “out of style.” Mothers were told to feed their infants with “scientific” rigidity, following 3 or 4 hour schedules with total disregard for the infant’s needs or hungers. Mothers were admonished “not to give in,” “let him cry it out,” “crying is good exercise for their lungs,” or “let him know that you are the boss and not him.” Parents were admonished not to cuddle or rock their babies, or handle them any more than necessary for fear of “spoiling” the child.
While the turn of the century advocates of circumcision did express concern over the obvious pain felt by infants undergoing this operation, later, as neonatal circumcision became increasingly widespread and routine within hospitals, the belief that infants feel no pain took over. Soon doctors became no more concerned about strapping the infant down, and clamping and slicing off his foreskin, than they were about cutting the umbilical cord.
During recent years parents have been striving to “relearn” the “art” of breastfeeding, and “relearn” such things as rocking and cuddling their babies, and answering their hungers and emotional needs. (It seems absurd that such things should even be questioned or that there have to be organizations devoted to this!) It is now time to view infant circumcision as yet another vestige from an era that totally disregarded the needs and feelings of babies.
Like other trends, circumcision has followed social and economic class lines. During the early decades of this century, upper and middle class parents were usually the first to have their babies in hospitals, to bottle feed their babies, and to have their infant sons circumcised. Soon only the poorer, less educated people were not following these practices. Therefore “stigmas” became attached to the “old” ways. Birth at home became “uncivilized,” breastfeeding “old fashioned,” and foreskins “dirty.” Soon the lower classes became aware of the “stigmas” and also followed the trends. Paradoxically, today parents with more education and higher incomes have been more likely to choose breastfeeding, to take classes in natural childbirth, to give birth at home or in alternative settings, and to leave their sons intact. The college educated young mother may nurse her baby while her neighbor who never finished high school bottle feeds with the idea that only “ignorant” people breastfeed! The 1970s saw a reawakening to natural childbirth, father participation in birth, birth alternatives, and breastfeeding. Hopefully in the future we will see a similar reawakening to leaving our sons as they came into this world.
Are the Jews to Blame?
Until neonatal circumcision became a common medical practice in the United States, Jews were one of the few ;peoples who circumcised infants. In other times and places this has &brought ridicule and persecution upon the Jews. In the United States today, the Jew does not stand out as different for having a circumcised penis.
Have Jews been the cause, directly or indirectly, of the widespread popularity of routine infant circumcision in the United States? There are many Jewish doctors in the U.S. Has there been a conscious Jewish plot to deprive the rest of America of their foreskins? To make Gentile males “match” Jews? Or to “give” non-Jewish males the supposed benefits of circumcision?
In an article on anti-Semitism a psychiatric patient is quoted as saying:
” ‘I can’t understand why so many Gentiles are circumcised. That’s what the Jews did to America. Their mission is to circumcise every Christian in the country…. The Jews try to judeify the Gentiles….’ [There is a] belief that a defective person is defective because someone has taken something back from him; hence defective people will retaliate by trying to get back what has been taken from them. This fantasy is another in a series of such projections onto the Jews of the anti- Semite’s own feelings and desires.” 14
The writers who advocated neonatal circumcision during the late 1800s, such as Remondino and Hutchinson, were not Jewish. Remondino, however, does expound at length about the high moral character and generally good health enjoyed by Jews, compared to other peoples-somehow concluding that all this is related to their lack of prepuces:
“There is … a less tendency to criminality, debauchery, and intemperance in the race; this, can in a measure be ascribed to their family influence…. Crimes against the person or property committed by Jews are rare. They likewise do not figure in either police courts or penitentiary records; they are not inmates of our poorhouses, but, what is also singular, they are never accused of many silly (!) crimes such as indecent exposures, assaults on young girls…” 15
“The weight of testimony is evidently convincing that the Jew has a greater longevity and stronger resistance to disease, as well as a less liability to physical ills, than other due to social customs is evident; how much circumcision may have to do with inducing these favorable conditions can be better appreciated by a consideration of how circumcision affects those of other races, and more particularly how its performance works changes in the individual in his general health and condition, and in doing away with many physical ailments that the individual was previously subjected to. So that the Jew cannot be said to be a loser by his observance of this rite, and he and his race have been well repaid for all the sufferings and persecutions that its observance has subjected them to.” 16
If the Jews indeed have been a healthier, longer-lived people than their Gentile counterparts, it seems more plausible that this could be attributed to their highly moral, regulated, and family oriented lifestyle, and their careful inspection of meats, rather than their lack of foreskins. It is also possible that a “survival of the fittest” principle has operated with Jews, since they have endured many centuries of hardships, starvation, suffering and persecution.
There is no evidence that Jews have deliberately conspired to take away the foreskins of their Gentile brothers. However, circumcision’s Biblical origins have caused it to be more readily accepted by non- Jewish people. If infant circumcision had not been a part of our Judaeo-Christian heritage, it is highly doubtful that it would have ever been presented as a medical procedure. If suggested, the operation would have seemed strange and abhorrent.
Once the practice was established, it is certainly understandable that most Jewish physicians would be in favor of routine infant circumcision. The Jewish doctor has been likely to conclude “God was right all along, and the medical profession just learned what our people knew for centuries!” (However, there are some Jewish doctors who oppose routine circumcision — realizing that ritual justification is very much different from the purported medical reasons.)
The Jewish practice of infant circumcision has been an indirect influence on the widespread medical fad. However, there has been no organized “Jewish conspiracy” to amputate the foreskins of the rest of America.
The Medical Profession as a “Pseudo-Religion”
“What more resembles an esoteric religious ritual than an operation? It’s done behind closed doors, with the anxious relatives waiting in an anteroom until the surgeon, still wearing his robes of office, comes out and shakes his head sadly or beams wisely before he says, ‘Well, we’ve done what we could.’?” 17
We have made a false religion out of the medical profession. We treat hospitals like “sacred temples” and have turned doctors into false “gods.” Medical people, institutions, and practices are more difficult for us to question or defy than are other aspects of society. Lay and medical people alike must become aware of this “false religion,” for it strongly affects the way we interrelate with all facets of our health care system. Doctors, however much they may enjoy their elevated status, must awaken and seek to change this as well. For much of the anger and attacks that have been leveled against doctors and medical practices stem from people’s realization of the truth, that doctors are not infallible gods, but are people who can make mistakes. Medical procedures are not sacred rituals, but are often trial-and-error fads which frequently do fall into disfavor.
In primitive societies the role of healer and Priest was usually the same. Attending the sick involved calling upon the gods, as well as dispensing medicines and treatments. Probably health, curing of diseases, and worship are meant to be interconnected. People naturally place in awe those who have the knowledge and skills to cure disease, save lives, perform surgery, assist with birth, or deal with death. Perhaps the artificial separation of the institutions of religion and medicine in our complex society, with its resultant fragmentation and compartmentalization of different areas of life, is the real problem, rather than our tendency to revere doctors.
Just as many people believe that birth has to take place in a hospital, we have come to believe that the newborn infant must go through a number of rituals and ablutions to be “official” and survive in society. Weighing, measuring, putting ointment in the eyes, washing the baby, putting on identification bands, putting him in a special warming crib, bundling him in blankets, and keeping him in the hospital nursery are all hospital rituals imposed upon the newborn. How different are we from the primitive who believes that his illness will be cured from his Shaman shaking rattles and dancing? In this respect, infant circumcision in hospitals has become a “ritual” of its own accord – a product of our tendency to regard all medical practices as “sacred.”
In his extensive study of the history of circumcision Bryk observed:
“…We have found no circumcision that was not performed amid special rites.” 18
Is medical circumcision the exception, or is it too a special rite? Paige comments:
“The practice developed differently in modern industrial nations than it did in pre-industrial societies. But circumcision was no less a ritual for all its scientific trappings.” 19
A doctor adds:
“I cannot accept that the parent is primarily responsible for their performance [of circumcision]. The prime mover is the physician, who has come to be regarded in modern society almost as a high priest, Flower’s superior, or revered person. The natural inclination of the parent is to defer to the judgment or his or her medical advisor…. [Routine infant circumcision] became overlaid with mystical rites as a means of ensuring its observance. The original reasons have been forgotten and the meaning transferred to the actual rite, this applying in a modern civilized society like a primitive one ….” 10
The point is best made in the following anthropological satire. (Reversing the spellings of “Nacirema” and “latipso” reveals the identity of the people described):
“The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses.
“The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm….
“The medicine men have an imposing temple, or ‘latipso,’ in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge [working of magic] but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.
“The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because ‘that is where you go to die.’ Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained admission and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift….
“… Excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants .” 21
The Perspective of Medical Professionals
Although infant circumcision was introduced as a medical procedure during the late 1800s and became widespread during the 1920s and ’30s, relatively little was written about it until the late 1940s. In the
1950s a number of articles, most favoring circumcision, appeared in medical publications. In the 1960s a veritable barrage of letters and articles on the subject were published in medical journals. Some condemned the procedure. Others defended it. Some were quite emotional. Others were neutral and weary of the subject. As examples:
One doctor denounces it:
“It’s high time we stopped performing the mutilating operation known as circumcision…. It is a leftover from the barbarous ages. It is a custom. It is not a medical need. It is a traumatic procedure usually done without anesthetic, on helpless newborn babies. Done at the parents’ request or the doctor’s insistence, for no disease or deformity, with no informed consent, it is truly unique among surgical procedures.” 22
Another doctor defends it:
“With so many advantages to the operation it is difficult to understand why so many doctors in this country work themselves up into such an emotional frenzy at the mention of the word circumcision. Our medical world generally favor [sic] the operation, yet the anti-circumcision school would have us believe that doctors in these countries are all either barbaric savages or sordid money grubbers.” 23
Dr. Foley, an avid anti-circumcision crusader, states:
“Circumcision provides a convenient and socially acceptable outlet for the perverted component of the circumciser’s libido. I have had personal experience with the psychopathology that underlies the wish to circumcise. The pitiful wails of the suffering infant are all too often the background for lewd and obscene commentary by the obstetrician to his audience of nurses.” 24
Yet another doctor cites its supposed advantages:
“Many wise physicians having performed routine newborn circumcisions have saved innumerable young men countless hours of having to perform the constant task of retracting their foreskins and extracting their smegma. Perhaps some of these young men have used this time in more profitable and pleasurable pursuits!” 25
This is a tiny sampling of the numerous articles and letters on the subject. Few of these expressed any concern about the feelings of the helpless baby undergoing the operation. Fewer still expressed any awareness of the basic human right of keeping all parts of one’s body — the lack of choice and therefore victimization of the infant who loses his foreskin. None expressed any concern or awareness of the sensual or protective function of the foreskin itself. Rarely did any of these articles reach lay people, especially expectant parents. Yet most doctors continued to circumcise babies, claiming that parents insist upon it. Rarely have doctors given parents any intelligent information about the decision. Do they forget that young parents do not usually read medical journals?
Some doctors refuse to circumcise babies. Some strongly oppose the operation. Others have strong feelings that all baby boys should be circumcised, and will attempt to talk any reluctant parent into it. Most doctors fall within the range of “ neutral”, with attitudes varying from “I think circumcision should be done, but if you really don’t want it I won’t do it,” to “I don’t believe in it, but if you really want your son circumcised, I will do it.” Most doctors want to go along with what their patients want. (Of course circumcision is not what their little patients want!) Probably some fear that they will lose business if they refuse to circumcise babies.
Most give the operation very little thought, even though they circumcise babies regularly. Virtually no doctor specializes in doing circumcisions. The operation is easy to perform, usually takes only a few minutes, and is but a sidelight in his or her knowledge and skills. Most medical professionals develop a certain amount of callousness to the pain and suffering that surrounds them. Much of this is necessary for their own mental health, because they have to deal with so much trauma. From their perspective, as they regularly deal with serious surgery, fatal diseases, and severe injuries, infant circumcision seems trifling. While most lay people react with shock and horror upon witnessing or hearing detailed descriptions of infant circumcision, doctors perform this operation regularly without a second thought.
There has been a tendency for pediatricians to be less in favor of infant circumcision and for obstetricians to favor it. Technically the obstetrician is “finished” with the baby once it is born, yet he is often the one who performs circumcisions.
“Most doctors want to go along with what their patients want — of course circumcision is not what their little patients want! Probably some fear that they will lose business if they refuse to circumcise babies.”
Perhaps because of their choice of specialty, pediatricians are more likely to have compassion for infants. Or perhaps pediatricians favor it less because they are usually the ones who see and treat the complications of the operation. In 1971 and 1975 the American Academy of Pediatrics officially announced that routine circumcision of the newborn infant lacks medical justification. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, at that time declined to endorse that statement. 26 Later, in 1978, they chose to support the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Ad Hoc Task Force on Circumcision that “There is no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn.” This statement, however, was only released in the ACOG Newsletter. It was not made known to the public until it appeared in Edward Wallerstein’s book Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy in 1980. 27
Routine circumcision of infants was a well-established practice before almost all of today’s doctors entered medical school. Most male American doctors themselves have been circumcised and therefore are likely to want to believe that the circumcised state has some benefits. All of us – doctors, parents, and babies – have found ourselves caught up in a process that none of us created.
Is Profit an Important Motive?
When my own sons were circumcised as infants, the operation cost around $30. Today, the fee for the procedure is usually over $100. This is for a procedure that is simple to learn, can be done with relatively little skill, and normally takes only about 5-10 minutes. Circumcising babies does give doctors extra “pocket money.” For example, if a doctor were to circumcise 100 baby boys in one year, at $75 each (both low estimates), this would add $7,500 to his annual income. Doctors have been repeatedly accused of promoting infant circumcision out of “profit hungry” motives.
One writer states:
“Chronic remunerative surgery, although a declining specialty, still plays a role in the economic life of many of the medical profession. In this specialty, before an operation can qualify as suitable for inclusion in the established repertoire, certain criteria have to be fulfilled. Firstly, it should require a minimum of skill; secondly, it should have few immediate complications — delayed complications can always be attributed to other factors; and lastly, and above all, there should be a fee attached. Circumcision, while certainly not the answer to a maiden’s prayer, is the procedure par excellence for the chronic remunerative surgeon .” 28
It would be preposterous to say that routine neonatal circumcision deliberately began simply as a scheme to generate extra money for doctors. Nor are all doctors intentionally promoting circumcisions out of greed. Most doctors are “drifting along with the tide” in their willingness to perform this established medical procedure. Nonetheless, the factor of extra income cannot be overlooked. The doctor who does believe that infant circumcision is wrong, who will not perform the operation, and attempts to talk new parents out of it (often only to see them turn to another doctor for the operation!) is certainly an individual with strong principles and admirable character. Such a doctor is forfeiting several thousand dollars per year for the sake of his convictions.
From a different perspective, another doctor points out that the costs, time and effort presently being put into infant circumcision, represent money and personnel taken away from more health-essential areas of medicine.
“Routine newborn circumcision constitutes a health program of large proportions, for newborn circumcision is probably the most frequently performed operation in the United States. With the assumption that 80 percent of the 1,608,326 male infants born in 1973 were circumcised, approximately 1,287,000 newborn foreskins were excised during that year….
“With a physician’s fee of $25 and an instrument fee of $15 per case, the cost of circumcising 1,287,000 babies would be approximately 51 million dollars.
“…Mass campaigns such as wholesale circumcision, draw money and personnel away from other areas of medicine; if these other areas of medicine are more important, then the campaign has a negative effect on the public’s health…. At a time when health care resources are limited and demands are great, investment each decade of a half a billion dollars to trim foreskins appears injudicious.” 29
Neonatal circumcision used to be popular in Great Britain for many of the same reasons as in the United States. However, during the 1970s the rate of infant circumcision in that country reached nearly zero. The change has come about with England’s switch to socialized medicine. With the absence of a profit factor, British doctors apparently lost their motive to circumcise babies.
“Routine circumcision of English boys remained rampant until the start of the Second World War, when it is estimated that 85% of the upper class was circumcised and 50% of the working class was circumcised. During the first three decades of this century anti-masturbation was medical excuse enough for the mass destruction of British prepuces. In the thirties the medical profession began to search for other excuses to continue cutting away at English cocks, which, after all, provided them with a financial bonus! Then came the blitz, loss of Empire, socialized medicine, and the end of the financial bonus. Routine circumcision became ‘officially discouraged’ in 1941, and soon after the war it waned. ” 29
The Factor of Insurance Coverage
Many insurance companies pay for infant circumcision. Their choice to cover this procedure, but not other types of medical procedures is curious. When our second and third sons were born we had insurance that mainly paid for treatment of accidents and surgery. It did not pay for prenatal care, or any other hospital expenses associated with birth, nor did it pay for routine immunizations, well baby care, prescriptions, or medical treatments for illnesses. It did, however, pay for Jason’s and Ryan’s circumcisions. Why do insurance companies pay for this provenly unnecessary operation when they do not cover other services which offer greater medical value?
I wrote to a well-known insurance company which had re-evaluated its policies and chose to continue covering routine neonatal circumcision:
“Babies have become severely retarded from undetected PKU. Babies have had severe bleeding problems that could have been prevented by vitamin K. People can die from diseases such as polio and diphtheria that are preventable through immunizations. But nobody has ever died or become severely retarded from having a foreskin! Why do you consider circumcision worth paying for when it is at best “cosmetic surgery?” I’m sure you do not pay for ear piercing or body tattooing. . .” 32
“…Routine neonatal circumcision had been considered, but rejected, as a procedure of questionable usefulness…. “The analogy you attempt to draw between routine immunization services and routine neonatal circumcision is an interesting one. Basically … the position in regard to these services is dictated by our contracts. Immunizations and well baby care are generally outpatient services, which are seldom, if ever, covered under the terms of our agreements. Additionally these are unequivocally preventative in nature. Alternatively, circumcision is a surgical service, which is covered under most agreements. Its need is controversial among the medical authorities.
“(We do] not attempt to dictate the nature of services rendered to a patient. That is a matter best left to the patient and the physician. On the other hand, it is our responsibility to establish the level of benefits and services to be covered under the terms of our agreements. Although these issues may appear to be merely alternative sides of the same coin, please be assured that they are, in fact, quite different.” 33
They must have considered me “some kind of a nut” for they obviously did not answer my questions accurately. For PKU tests, vitamin K shots, and other routine hospital nursery procedures are also clearly “in-patient” services. Conversely, my third son’s circumcision took place in a doctor’s office, and therefore was definitely an “out-patient” service. Thus the location of the service rendered is not the criterion. Furthermore, if their choice is to pay for surgery, then they should also pay for the mother’s episiotomy which has more medical justification than infant circumcision.
Obviously insurance companies do not provide services for what is going to save lives or protect the health of their clients, so much as for what is going to sell insurance. Individual insurance companies undoubtedly fear that if they drop coverage for infant circumcision, they will lose business. (In actuality, I seriously doubt that many people give consideration to infant circumcision when purchasing insurance coverage.)
Meanwhile a “vicious circle” has been created. The naive expectant or new parent, upon learning that their insurance pays for infant circumcision, is less likely to question the operation than they would if they had to pay for it themselves. Insurance companies continue to cover circumcision because they claim that parents insist upon it. Unknowledgeable new parents conclude “It must be important to the baby’s health because our insurance covers it.” If more parents and doctors questioned the procedure, insurance companies would be more likely to drop coverage. On the other hand, if insurance companies were to cease coverage for circumcision, more doctors and parents would question the operation.
Delivery Room Circumcision
The flurry of debate over the optimum time to perform infant circumcision has been a controversy within a controversy. When circumcision first began as a medical practice, young boys and infants of all ages were brought to doctors for the operation. When the hospital became the standard place for birth and newborn circumcision became routine, foreskins were usually cut off a few days after birth. During the 1940s and ’50s “delivery room” circumcision became popular. This came about due to shortages of medical personnel brought about by the “post- war baby boom.”
The rationale used to justify immediate newborn circumcision are incredible:
“Safety … healing … by the time the mother takes her child home there is no dressing on the penis, healing is well advanced, and the dangers of infection negligible…. Convenience … the obstetrician finishes his [?] episiotomy, walks across the hall and circumcises the infant, and is finished with the whole business (!)…. Observation in the nursery, redressing, and the handling of any complication that might develop are easily expedited in the hospital…. Sterility – at birth the newborn is as near to absolute sterility as he will ever be…. Stimulation of the baby – Frequently following a general anaesthetic the newborn is depressed and various stimulants are employed; circumcision unfailingly produces an excellent response in a sleepy baby [!] …. Physiology – hemoglobin averages between 19 and 23 gm., and maternal antibodies are present in fetal serum which are soon lost. This suggests less possibility of infection and hemorrhage…. Although the pain sense is present at birth, it is much less intense than in later infancy…” 34
The writer of that article assumes that an infant will get more attention and care in a hospital nursery by the impartial nurses than he will at home by his own mother. He assumes that there is less danger of infection in the notoriously germ-ridden hospital than there would be at home. He cites the all-too- common, but unfounded opinion that newborn infants feel less pain. The reference to the obstetrician being “finished with the whole business” upon repairing “his” [!] episiotomy and doing the circumcision reflects the impersonal approach too often taken by the medical profession. And slicing off the foreskin to awaken a sleepy baby is an attitude nothing short of incredible! Is this how the men of today experienced their entrance into this world?…arriving in an anesthetized stupor to awake into consciousness by having their penises tortured?! Could there be a connection between this and the fact that so many people today have serious problems related to drugs and sex?
Within recent years there has been a trend away from delivery room circumcision. During the 1970s articles discouraging this practice have appeared in medical journals. The main objection was that the infants became chilled due to their longer stay in the delivery room.
“This statistical study of 1,047 infants in 1968 indicates that the percentage of chilled infants in the circumcised group was significantly greater than in the uncircumcised group.” ‘The following is the routine care given to infants in the delivery room: An infant who is born in this hospital is received from the delivery table by a nurse who carries him wrapped in a dry towel, to the resuscitation unit where he is wrapped in a warmed cotton blanket and resuscitated. Infants who are not to be circumcised are then taken to the regular nursery. Infants who are to be circumcised remain in the resuscitation unit until the obstetrician finishes with the mother; the infant then is placed on the circumcision table, still covered except for the genital region, and is circumcised. He is then carried to the nursery. There is a warmer beneath the infant in the resuscitation unit but none on the circumcision table. On arrival in the nursery the infant’s rectal temperature is taken immediately and recorded.’ ” 35
The article concluded that some circumcised infants were arriving in the nursery with low temperatures, and they recommended that circumcision be delayed until the baby’s body temperature was better established.
The Report of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Circumcision by the American Academy of Pediatrics includes:
“The procedure is also contraindicated in the immediate neonatal period or until complete neonatal physical adaptation has occurred (usually 12 to 24 hours.) The avoidance of circumcision in the delivery room immediately after birth is particularly important because neonatal disease is not always apparent at birth. In addition it entails protracted exposure of infants to significant cold stress.” 36
It is true that newborns do experience a rapid loss of body heat at the time of birth. They should be quickly dried off and warmed. Over-chilling of a newborn can be dangerous. Hospital delivery rooms are commonly kept at around 65 degrees F. Most hospitals have sophisticated, expensive baby warming equipment in which babies are placed after birth. Mothers who have pleaded with the doctors that they might nurse, hold, and touch their babies immediately after birth have been countered with the argument that the baby will get chilled unless he is quickly taken to the nursery and put in a baby warmer. Today, many hospital personnel are learning that the mother’s body is an excellent “baby warmer” and the baby’s body temperature is usually easily maintained by immediate, uninterrupted contact with the mother.
It is highly debatable whether immediate circumcision or circumcision a few days later is more traumatic for the baby. Those of us who are concerned about the baby’s emotional well-being usually suggest waiting a few days to allow the baby to adjust to life in this world before circumcising him, (if circumcision must be done). But probably the operation is equally painful regardless of the time in relation to birth. Immediate circumcision is unquestionably totally disregarding of the infant’s feelings during his introduction into this world. It constitutes the absolute antithesis of non-violent birth. However, welcoming the baby into the world with non-violent birthing techniques, only to subject him to circumcision a few days later, is nothing but hypocritical!
The current rationale against immediate circumcision is unfortunately too typical of the medical profession’s non- emotional, “scientific” approach. The risk of loss of body temperature or undetected medical problems are the only issues they find worthy of consideration. They express NO concern for the baby’s feelings. They apparently have no awareness of how the operation, not to mention his subsequent stay in the nursery, will affect the mother-infant bond! Also, the need for resuscitation of infants at birth is a curious reminder of a largely bygone era when parturient mothers were often heavily anesthetized during labor and birth.
Coercion and Unauthorized Circumcision
In the past parents who desired natural birth often had to plead with doctors and fight with nurses who wished to give medication during labor. Mothers desiring to breastfeed have often been given erroneous information persuading them to bottle feed. Despite mothers’ protests, nursing babies have been given bottles of formula in hospital nurseries. In a system geared for medicated births and bottle feeding, parents giving birth naturally and breastfed babies were often “oddities” that inconvenienced the hospital staff. Today much of this has changed. But in similar fashion, sometimes new parents have had to fight the system in order to leave the hospital with an intact baby boy. Usually mothers in labor upon admittance to the hospital are bombarded with many routine procedures. Amid haste and excitement she signs a number of papers, including a consent form for circumcision. Sometimes consent for circumcision of newborn boys is written into the general admission form. Usually she signs it without thinking. The fact that a consent form is required makes obvious the fact that parents have the right to refuse the operation. However parents have frequently been harassed when they have decided against circumcision.
“When my wife was pregnant the OB-GYN people would not listen to her when she insisted that if it were a boy we would not tolerate his being circumcised under any circumstances. The doctor stopped badgering her only when I spoke to him and told him that I would take him to court and sue him if there were the slightest “slip-up” and he were “accidentally” to be circumcised. When she was admitted to the hospital I wrote boldly on the admission slip that I would sue the hospital if my child were a boy and they permitted him to be circumcised. My child was a girl….” 37
Another father writes:
I was circumcised in the service and I didn’t want my son to go through life without a complete organ as I am doing. When we realized that it might be a boy, “I told the doctor that I forbade circumcision. He just laughed and said, ‘Don’t you want him to be like other boys?’ I kept reminding him but I don’t think he took me seriously. Then I told him that if my son came home circumcised he would have a lawsuit on his hands. Even that didn’t seem to bother him, so we changed doctors just in time. Now my son is going through life with a beautifully formed foreskin … a pleasure of which I have been deprived.” 38
A less fortunate father reports:
“Prior to our son’s birth his European-born mother and I discussed the question of his circumcision if we had a male child. We decided that if it were not necessary the child would not be circumcised. I was planning to tell the doctor when he asked me. My wife was also prepared to tell him ‘no circumcision.’ The question was never asked. Because of complications during childbirth, my son’s mother was confined to bed for two weeks after his birth. I was the first to change his diapers and was shocked to see the circumcision clamp on his penis. I confronted his mother who told me she never authorized it. I confronted the doctor. He told me it was ‘routine’ at that hospital.” 39
A similar experience:
I told the doctor that if the baby was a boy I would refuse to permit a circumcision. Yet, when the child came home he was circumcised. When I confronted the doctor he made all kinds of excuses, including that the delivery section was so busy they couldn’t be bothered. He agreed to take the cost of circumcision off our bill.” 38
An unauthorized circumcision is grounds for a lawsuit. Court settlements have taken place for this reason.
The U.S. Army’s “Military Law Review” describes a case in which the Army paid the parents a compensation of $500 for the unauthorized circumcision of their baby. This was not a botched or later infected circumcision, but simply a case in which the parents were opposed to unnecessary circumcision and had withheld the required consent to have the baby subjected to such trauma. 40
In 1979 an Orthodox Jewish couple gave birth to a baby boy in a Los Angeles Hospital. Because they had planned a Bris, they did not want a hospital circumcision.
“… Hospital employees had tried ‘at least twice’ to get her to sign consent forms allowing a circumcision there, but she refused. Just after the last request, she learned that the child had already been circumcised…. The family had made arrangements to have a Bris ceremony for the child, but the Mohel, upon finding that the child had already been medically circumcised, refused to perform the ritual…. Since there was no permission, the mother considers the circumcision an assault and hopes that her lawsuit will help prevent the same thing ever happening again to another Jewish child.”41
The Perspective of Expectant and New Parents
Most expectant parents, especially those having their first babies, are extremely naive about everything concerning pregnancy, birth and babies. Even highly educated, sophisticated people usually have to learn their new calling from the beginning. Some expectant parents make commendable attempts to read and learn as much as they can, while others drift along with very little preparation, trusting the medical profession to make their decisions for them. But even parents who have sought to inform themselves in every possible way are still incredibly “green” when faced with the reality of birth and the new baby.
Our highly mobile, affluent society is largely to blame for the discontinuity in the education of young parents. In primitive societies a young girl grew up caring for younger siblings, nieces and nephews. When she bore her first child she had extensive personal experience in infant care and the constant companionship of her own female relatives. Commonly a woman would bear her last children after becoming a grandmother.
The small families, delayed age of childbearing, isolation, mobility, and constantly changing values and beliefs of today’s society have virtually obliterated such continuity between generations. Twenty to thirty years may span the time between the birth of a woman’s youngest child and that of her first grandchild. Styles and philosophies change and the grandmother may have little knowledge or help to give to her daughter or daughter-in-law.
The expectant mother of today may have never been around another pregnant woman. She may never have seen another woman breastfeed. Perhaps she has never seen or held a newborn baby.
Books, childbirth classes, La Leche League groups, doctors, and midwives have all served as attempts to fill this gap. Women’s heritage, the art of birth and infant care passed from mother to daughter from time immemorial, has now fallen into the hands of substitutes.
Expectant and new parents are bombarded with advertisements for products. Babies and birth is a lucrative consumer industry. Toys, gimmicks, furniture, photographs, insurance, etc.– some useful, most harmless, some damaging, most unnecessary — all exploit new parents’ naivete and desperate desire to do what is best for their infant. Infant circumcision is, in a sense, yet another of these “products” that new parents are being sold.
The conflicting viewpoints and well-meaning advice with which expectant parents are barraged is enough to drive anyone to distraction! “Breastfeeding might tie me down. Bottle feeding is unnatural and will give the baby allergies. Cloth diapers might give the baby a rash. Disposable diapers are a threat to the environment. Commercial baby food is full of additives. Homemade baby food might spoil. Natural childbirth might hurt too much. Medication during birth might harm the baby. If I go back to work I’ll be neglecting the baby. If I stay home I might stagnate. The hospital seems impersonal. Home birth seems dangerous. Start solids early or late? Follow a feeding schedule so he’ll be ‘regulated?’ Feed him on demand to ‘answer his needs?’ Pick him up whenever he cries and risk ‘spoiling’ him? Let him cry it out and be a cruel mother? … aaggh!!!”
“Babies and birth is a lucrative consumer industry. Toys, gimmicks, furniture, photographs, insurance, etc. – some useful, most harmless, some damaging, most unnecessary – all exploit new parents’ naivete and desperate desire to do what is best for their infants. Circumcision is yet another one of these ‘products’ that new parents are being sold.”
It is little wonder that concern about circumcision has been shoved to the background. Despite all that has recently been written and said about parents’ choices, most parents trust their doctors about medically related matters. Perhaps the “dilemmas” over cloth versus disposable diapers or homemade versus commercial baby foods are confusing enough to the expectant parent, without even attempting to question medical issues!
The ‘medical world’ is usually a mystery to first-time expectant parents. They have probably been healthy all their lives and have never before had to visit a doctor on a regular basis or be a hospital patient. Often common obstetrical terms such as “Caesarian,” “placenta,” “episiotomy,” or “meconium” are foreign even to the educated lay person.
Classes, books and articles have been of immense value to expectant and new parents. Parents learn exercises, relaxation and breathing techniques for comfort during pregnancy and use in labor. They are taught what to expect during the hospital stay, and are usually given information about nutrition, breastfeeding, and infant care.
But circumcision has rarely been mentioned. Most books on infant care say nothing. A few give brief, neutral, usually forgotten advice. Most childbirth instructors have not informed expectant parents about circumcision. Doctors also rarely advise people about the operation. Usually expectant mothers are simply asked by their doctors whether or not they want the baby circumcised – without discussion. That is the total amount of attention given to the subject.
Some have called this a “conspiracy of silence” in not informing parents about the painful and unnecessary operation that is being performed on babies. But in fact, childbirth educators, and even doctors have rarely known any more than parents about this matter. The childbirth education movement is still young. Too many other concerns have had to be aired, such as medication during birth, father participation, breastfeeding, and maternal-infant bonding before we could get around to questioning circumcision.
A significant number of expectant parents, especially mothers, are not familiar with the &term “circumcision,” or if they know the word, have no comprehension of what it means.
Wynder and Licklider’s study, investigating the alleged relationship between circumcision and cervical cancer, questioned men about their own circumcision status and women about their husbands’ circumcision status. Among the female patients, 36% of those in Los Angeles and 38% of those in New York, either did not understand the term “circumcision” or did not know the circumcision status of their husbands. Of the men, 5 % in Los Angeles and 17 % in New York did not understand the term circumcision. 14 % of the men in Los Angeles and 6 % of those in New York stated that they were circumcised but upon examination by a doctor it was learned that they were not. 42
Amidst a barrage of hospital admittance procedures mothers in labor are handed permission slips for circumcision. If the above study is representative, it is possible that one out of three of these mothers has no idea what circumcision even means. Other slightly more informed mothers, who do know the difference between the circumcised and the intact penis and understand that the foreskin is cut off, are not much more knowledgeable. yet they sign away their sons’ foreskins without thinking. They are naive and anxious to please their doctor and go along with all the hospital’s practices on the belief that they are doing what is best for their baby. Medical patients are in such a position of passivity, cooperation, and gullibility, that most would accept any medical practice that their doctor suggests. It would be an interesting experiment for someone to make up a medically sounding name for a non- existent procedure and present it to a sampling of hospital patients. It is my guess that over half would unquestioningly agree to it.
Who is insisting upon circumcision? Accusations have been hurled in many directions. Parents claim that doctors push them into it. Doctors claim that parents demand it. And despite women’s proven naivete about the matter, men have accused women of wanting to perpetuate it. In the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1965 Dr. W.K.C. Morgan posed:
“Perhaps not the least of the reasons why American mothers seem to endorse the operation with such enthusiasm is the fact that it is one way an intensely matriarchal society can permanently influence the physical characteristics of its males.”43
The statement is ludicrous, if not infuriating, for the medical profession is unquestionably a male dominated establishment. Few of us “matriarchs” even read the Journal of the American Medical Association!
Suzanne Arms has expounded upon the routine, unnatural, dehumanizing, and potentially dangerous practices within our male dominated medical establishment:
“It was man who moved in on normal birth to baptize the baby and mother that he himself may have damaged; man who spread disease, man who cured disease, man who institutionalized birth in the hospital. Man placed woman on her back in labor, then devised metal tools to pull her baby out, then knocked her senseless with anesthesia. And it was man who, throughout history, did it all in the name of ‘saving’ woman from her own body, from the curse of her gender, from the ‘pain’ of her travail, and from her own ignorance. Today the male obstetrician with his kindly paternalism comforts woman by advising her to leave everything to him, to simply place herself in his hands and abide by the procedures of his institution, the hospital. And woman, that docile, ignorant, cursed, weak, and dependent victim of deception, willingly agrees.”44
Today’s mother does not make an intelligent decision to have her son’s foreskin amputated any more than she makes an intelligent, rational decision to have her own pubic hair shaved, an I.V. stuck in her arm, a fetal heart monitor wired to her body, or to be confined to a labor bed, to deliver on a delivery table, or to have her baby separated from her after birth. Circumcision is but one more routine, questionable hospital procedure to which she passively, unthinkingly agrees.
Many men appear not to realize that most women simply have not seen very many penises. The male organ is not normally on view in public. Males, of course, grow up seeing each others’ bodies in restrooms and locker rooms. Therefore, most are aware of foreskins or the lack of them. But unless a woman has either worked in a hospital, lived among nudists, or had a large number of male lovers, she has probably not seen very many penises. Therefore the American woman assumes that the appearance of the circumcised penis with the “head” exposed is the way they are “supposed” to look and has no awareness that something was ever cut off.
If parents do think about circumcision, their concerns may be as follows:
Most young American fathers today have been circumcised. Frequently, perhaps for want of any other reasons, fathers decide that their sons should “match them” in this respect. (How come our intact grandfathers didn’t worry about their sons matching” them?)
If new parents do see their infant son’s penis before he is circumcised (and in many cases they do not!) this may be the first time that at least the mother has ever seen an intact penis. To American middle-class eyes, the long pointed foreskin may tend to look “strange.” Nurses are sometimes asked to explain why the baby’s penis looks so “funny.” Looks are in the eye of the beholder. Americans often perceive the foreskin as “something that needs to be cut off.” Perhaps there is some confusion with the concept of cutting the umbilical cord.
A common “reason” given for circumcision is concern that their son will “look different” from his peers or other family members, if he keeps his foreskin. Today, however, as increasing numbers of parents are choosing to leave their sons intact, this concern is lessening. Parents readily explain to their children the anatomical differences between children and adults, and males and females. If he is circumcised, they may have to explain to him why his foreskin was cut off. Furthermore, “styles” of circumcisions vary because some doctors take off more skin than others. Therefore, circumcised brothers or friends may still “not match.” Most children give the entire matter very little concern. Explaining to an intact boy why he has his foreskin is not normally a difficult problem.
People have been led to believe that circumcision somehow makes a male cleaner-although few could explain how. Some people have the idea that smegma must be a horrible substance. They think of circumcision in the same light as routine immunizations. Shots prevent the baby from getting polio, diphtheria, measles, etc., and circumcision keeps him from having “smegma” which must be just as bad!! Who would want a baby that had “smegma!” The new mother probably does not realize that she regularly washes smegma out of her own genitals, and if she has a baby girl will clean it out of her labia. Additionally, circumcised males do have smegma, although to a lesser extent than their intact peers. Smegma is simply a build-up of dead skin cells that tends to stay moist because it is in a closed space. In contrast to the dirty diapers, spit up, and “snotty” noses that parents will attend to, smegma is an extremely trivial concern.
The new mother sometimes chooses circumcision for her son, fearing that otherwise she would have to handle her son’s penis while retracting his foreskin. However, she will quickly learn, usually with the first dirty diaper that she changes, that she must handle and wash all parts of her baby regardless. She soon matter-of-factly accepts all parts of her child’s body. Besides, retraction of the foreskin should not be done during infancy.
“The new mother sometimes chooses circumcision for her son out of fear that she would have to handle her son’s penis while retracting his foreskin. (Note – doing so is unnecessary and can be harmful during infancy and early childhood.) However, she will quickly learn, usually with the first dirty diaper that she changes, that she must handle and wash all parts of her baby regardless.”
Parents usually have no idea how the operation is done. Rarely have they ever actually seen it. If they think of it at all, they imagine a momentary trimming of a little piece of skin (perhaps like some strange little membrane). Perhaps they have been told that it is painless. Or it may occur to them that it might hurt the baby — but then shots and many other medical procedures are painful — so what? During pregnancy “the baby” is an abstract concept to most expectant parents. He is not yet a person that they have grown to love. Rarely have parents ever been presented with the idea that circumcision might not be a good idea.
An oft-cited belief is that it is “so much more painful” if circumcision is done to an adult. This is refuted in many other places in this book, so it will not be expounded here. But where did we ever get the idea that “Circumcision is so painful that a grown man cannot take it, so inflict it on a helpless newborn baby instead?!”
An additional consideration is that a woman who has just given birth has been through a major emotional and physical upheaval. She usually has been through hours of challenging labor contractions. She is probably sore from an episiotomy or Caesarian incision. She may be having painful after- contractions as her uterus involutes. Her nipples may be sore from her first attempts to breastfeed. In other words, her own body is in a state of great pain and trauma! The new mother perceives of her baby as an extension of herself. So if she thinks about her baby being cut and his genitals being sore, it may not seem inappropriate. It is not hostility to the child, but simply a sense of “everything is blood, soreness, and pain right now and what’s a little bit more?” She has not yet begun to think of him as a separate individual.
The general appearance of the newborn baby is usually surprising if not alarming to new parents. The baby’s head may be molded from birth. His skin may appear quite red or blotchy. He usually has skinny little arms and legs with his head and body seeming strangely large in proportion. The umbilical stump is almost always a startling experience for new parents — a strange, sticky, bluish piece of tissue, later becoming shriveled, hardened, and brownish before it falls off. In addition to all this, their baby boy’s penis may be reddish around the end or may have a plastic clamp around it. Upon being confronted with so many unfamiliar things about their new baby, the appearance of the newly circumcised penis may not stand out as any more alarming or unusual than these other features.
“The new mother is probably sore from an episiotomy or Cesarian incision. Her nipples may be sore and she may be having painful after-contractions. Her own body may be in a state of great pain and trauma. So if she thinks about her baby being cut and his genitals being sore, it may not seem inappropriate.”
One of the most important factors in the widespread acceptance of routine neonatal circumcision has been the delaying and hampering of the bonding process between parents and babies. The traditional routine in hospitals has been to take newborn babies to the nursery immediately after birth, and bring them to their mothers several hours later. In the past many mothers were unconscious during delivery and learned about their babies several hours after birth. Mothers who were conscious or even unmedicated for birth often got only a brief glimpse of their babies before they were whisked off to the nursery. Even in “progressive” hospitals, where mothers have been “allowed” to hold their babies in the delivery room, the baby is almost always wrapped in blankets before he is given to her. The lack of skin-to-skin contact is definitely an impediment in the bonding process even if the baby is held by the mother right away. Usually when babies are brought to mothers for feeding they are bundled up in blankets and mothers are not allowed to unwrap their own babies. The only part of her baby that the mother is able to see or touch is his head. Rarely is the newly delivered mother in a hospital given the opportunity to explore all parts of her baby’s body. Therefore, if her baby is circumcised, she will probably not ever see his penis before his foreskin is cut off. She also may not see it immediately after the operation when it is freshly red and sore. By the time she takes him home and is changing his diapers his circumcision wound is nearly healed. For the amount of involvement the mother is given in the event, the baby boy may as well have been born circumcised. (My own mother, who gave birth to four children, had never before seen an umbilical stump until she stayed with me after my first son’s birth.)
When a mother has immediate, skin-to-skin contact with her baby at birth and as few interruptions as possible thereafter, she develops stronger feelings of attachment and protectiveness towards her baby. Mothers have known from the beginnings of time that we should not be separated from our babies at the time of birth. But in recent times our voices have not been heard. It took two male doctors, Marshall H. Klaus and John H. Kennell, to convince the medical profession of the importance of bonding. They have researched and made in-depth observations of the interactions between mothers and their infants, and have taught us much about the emotional bond that is formed and how it is affected by separation and other interferences. They state:
“This attachment is crucial to the survival and development of the infant … after birth [the mother] insures his survival while he is utterly dependent on her. The power of this attachment is so great that it enables the mother or father to make the unusual sacrifices necessary for the care of their infant day after day, night after night changing dirty diapers, attending to his cry, protecting him from danger [emphasis mine], and giving feedings in the middle of the night despite a desperate need to sleep…. This original mother-infant bond is the wellspring for all the infant’s subsequent attachments and is the formative relationship in the course of which the child develops a sense of himself. Throughout his lifetime the strength and character of this attachment will influence the quality of all future bonds to other individuals.” 45
In a traditional hospital birth setting, the parents have not yet developed feelings of intense love or attachment towards their baby. Therefore, they are likely to be unconcerned about the prospect of his foreskin being cut off. If parents were truly in control of birth, or if the medical custom were to circumcise babies at a later time in their lives, few parents would choose to have it done. Maternal and paternal protective instincts would intervene to prevent such pain from befalling their baby! So who is responsible? Roger Saquet summed it up by saying:
“…Mothers blame the doctors for advising them to circumcise … doctors complained that the mothers insisted on having the operation done! To the reader it may sound like a pair of criminals caught red-handed, each one accusing the other of coercion. It would seem most probable that both groups share equal responsibility.
“Point of fact: no doctor is obligated to perform an operation which he deems unnecessary. He is at liberty to refuse to operate and have the parents go to another doctor. Point of fact: virtually all hospitals require the written permission of at least one parent in order to circumcise the child. The buck must stop right here.”46
It is true, however, that infant circumcision would not take place if hospitals did not have the equipment for the operation and if doctors were not trained and willing to perform the operation.
“If parents were truly in control of birth, if parents were totally knowledgeable about what genital cutting entails, and if the medical custom were to circumcise babies at a later time in their lives, few parents would choose to have it done. Maternal and paternal protective instincts would intervene to prevent such pain from befalling their babies.”
Parents rarely read medical publications. Few parents have ever seen circumcision performed. Most have no idea how circumcision is done. Little information has appeared in publications that reach lay people. However doctors have ample opportunity to read medical publications. They know full well how the operation is done. They should be expected to be knowledgeable about the matter. Yet rarely do they inform expectant parents about it. Too few doctors have been willing to take a stand against infant circumcision, even when they have personal feelings opposing it. Most doctors today agree that infant circumcision is unnecessary. The next step is to deem it unethical. (For example, if a parent wanted his baby’s ears cut off-no doctor would do it. Will the foreskin ever be given equal consideration?) Some parents who have looked for medical leadership about circumcision have received mere passivity from their doctors (“The decision is up to you.”). Many parents of intact sons owe the decision to the advice of their doctors.
Doctors have more influence on the matter than anyone else. Sylvia Topp quotes the results of a study by Patel (in Canada), which revealed that
“…doctors opposed to circumcision performed the operation on only twenty percent of their male patients, those who felt the decision was up to the parents circumcised fifty percent of their male patients, while those doctors who believed circumcision was necessary managed to convince one hundred percent of their parents.”47
“Two thirds of the mothers I interviewed said they would not have had their sons circumcised, if their doctor had advised against it. So please, at least give it a try.”47
Doctors must become open to the importance of the human factors involved in birth and health care. Too often the medical approach seems akin to that of auto mechanics working on engines of cars. There truly are many doctors who are warm, understanding human beings. It is the structure of the entire system, not the individuals, wherein the real problem lies.
Parents must take a position of responsibility about every type of medical procedure — surgery, medication, injection, heart monitoring, etc.– that may be done to themselves or their babies. They must become informed about the matter, and if the procedure in question is not beneficial they should refuse it. For the medical world is not a sacred institution with unbreakable taboos and rituals. It is supposed to be a service to the public. New medical practices are constantly introduced, tried out for some time, and then, more frequently than not abandoned when found inadvisable. Unfortunately this is usually at the pain and expense of the consumer. Therefore it is extremely dangerous to one’s health and well-being to passively, unquestioningly accept whatever medical practices are currently in vogue.
- Marcus, Irwin M., M.D., and Francis, John J., M.D. Masturbation: From Infancy to Senescence New York: International Universities Press, Inc., c.1975, p. 386-387.
- Excerpt from an underground newsletter (Bud Berkeley)
- Paige, Karen Ericksen “The Ritual of Circumcision” Human Nature, May 1978, p. 40, 42.
- Excerpt from an underground newsletter (Bud Berkeley)
- Remondino, P.C., M.D. History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present Ams Press, New York, c.1974 (original edition, F.A. Davis Co., c. 1891), Title Page, p. 1.
- Ibid., p. 254-255.
- Ibid., p. 269.
- Ibid., p. 59.
- Ibid., p. 52-53.
- Ibid., p. 102-103.
- Carter, Nicholas Routine Circumcision: The Tragic Myth Londinium Press, London, England, c. 1979, p. 29.
- Wertz, Richard W., & Wertz, Dorothy C. Lying-In; A History of Childbirth in America Schocken Books, New York, c. 1979, p. 132, 159-160.
- Ibid., p. 173.
- Glenn, Jules, M.D. “Circumcision and Anti-Semitism” Psychoanalytical Quarterly, Vol. 29, 1960, p. 395-397.
- Remondino, p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 181.
- Tushnet, Leonard, M.D. (quoted in) The Consumer’s Guide to Successful Surgery by Isenberg, Seymour, M.D. & Elting, L.M., M.D. St. Martin’s Press, New York, c. 1976, introductory page (quote originally printed in The Medicine Men, St. Martin’s Press, N.Y.)
- Bryk, Felix Sex & Circumcision; A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in Men and Women Brandon House, North Hollywood, CA., c. 1967, p. 157.
- Paige, p. 41.
- St. John-Hunt, D. “Circumcision and Tonsillectomy” (letter to the editor) The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 281, No. 11, Sept. 11, 1969, p. 621.
- Miner, Horace “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” Reader in Comparative Religion by Lessa, William A., & Vogt, Evon Z. Harper & Row, New York, 2nd Ed., c. 1965, p. 414-416.
- Fitzgerald, W.D., M.D. “Circumcision is Barbarous” Northwest Medicine, Vol. 70, October 1971, p. 681-682.
- Newill, Robert “Circumcision” (letter to the editor) British Medical Journal, August 14, 1965, p. 419.
- Foley, John M., M.D. “The Unkindest Cut of All” Fact, Vol. 3, Issue 4, July-August 1966, p. 6.
- Freedman, Lawrence D., M.D. “Circumcision” (letter to the editor) JAMA, Dec. 21, 1970, Vol. 214, No. 12, p. 2194.
- Grimes, David A., M.D. “Routine Circumcision of the Newborn Infant: A Reappraisal” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 130, No. 2, Jan. 15, 1978, p. 125.
- Wallerstein, Edward Circumcision; An American Health Fallacy Springer Publishing Company, New York, c. 1980, p. 218.
- Morgan, W.K.C., M.D. “Penile Plunder” The Medical Journal of Australia, May 27, 1967, Vol. 1, p. 1102.
- Excerpt from an Underground Newsletter (Bud Berkeley)
- Jolly, Hugh, M.D. “Circumcision” The Practicioner, Vol. 192, February 1964, p. 257.
- Bernal, J.F.; Richards, M.P.M.; & Brackbill, Yvonne “Early Behavioral Differences: Gender or Circumcision?” Developmental Psychobiology, Vol. 9, #1, p. 91.
- Romberg, Rosemary, personal correspondence to an insurance company.
- Insurance company (Identity withheld) personal correspondence.
- Miller, Richard L., M.D., & Snyder, Donald C., M.D. “Immediate Circumcision of the Newborn Male” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 65, No. 1, Jan. 1953.
- Spence, George R., M.D. “Chilling of Newborn Infants: Its Relation to Circumcision Immediately Following Birth” Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 63, March 1970, p. 309.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Fetus and Newborn Report of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Circumcision Pediatrics, Vol. 56, No. 4, October 1975, p. 610.
- W. C., New Jersey “What They Say” INTACT Educational Foundation – reprint, Wilbraham, MA.
- Excerpt from an Underground Newsletter (Bud Berkeley)
- U.S. Army “Military Law Review” Vol. 75, (Dept. of Army, Pamphlet 27-100-75.)
- Policzer, Milt “Jewish Parents Sue Hospital Over Circumcision” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 18, 1979.
- Wynder, Ernest L., M.D., & Licklider, Samuel D., M.D. “The Question of Circumcision” Cancer, Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 1960, p. 442-443.
- Morgan, W.K.C. “The Rape of the Phallus” JAMA, July 19,1965, Vol. 193, No. 3.
- Arms, Suzanne Immaculate Deception Houghton Mifflin Co., San Francisco, c. 1975, p. 22.
- Saquet, Roger “Circumcision in Social Perspective” Reprinted from “The Country Lady’s Daybook,” March 1976.
- Topp, Sylvia “Why Not to Circumcise Your Baby Boy” Mothering, Vol. 6, January 1978, p. 69.
Dr. Howard Marchbanks, M.D.
[Dr. Marchbanks is a natural childbirth oriented doctor. He has delivered thousands of babies at home. He now practices in a birth center in Orange County, California.]
Dr. Marchbanks: I have had so much experience doing circumcisions that I consider myself an expert. I have circumcised almost all of the baby boys that I have delivered until the last few years. Since 1976 1 have begun to question it. I discovered that some people were having their babies circumcised because they thought it was the law! So I started explaining to people that there’s no law that says you have to be delivered by a doctor, and there’s no law that says the baby has to be circumcised. My feeling is that it is a traumatic experience and I am opposed to traumatizing the baby. I’m also opposed to inflicting an operation on an individual without his permission.
R: Yet you’ve done this so many times.
M: Yes, and I continue to do it. I tried to stop by pricing myself out of the market. I raised the price from $35 to $125. The parents objected. They still said, “I want my baby circumcised!” So I said, “All right, I will circumcise him, but it takes $125 to salve my conscience.” (Author’s note: This interview took place in 1977, thus it reflects the appropriate prices of that time.)
R: Often insurance pays for it so the cost doesn’t matter. What do you tell parents about circumcision?
M: I try to explain to them that it is not something that has to be done. I feel that if you want to have little boys circumcised, then we should circumcise little girls too. They have foreskins!
I know that the circumcisions that I have done, without exception, have been painful for the baby. In medical school I was taught that the baby’s nervous system is not developed sufficiently to be aware of the pain of circumcision. But my experience in doing it and observing the baby’s reactions tells me otherwise. My feelings became more concrete when I talked to Dr. Leboyer and saw his birth film. It seemed so incongruous to have a non-violent birth and then immediately do violence to the baby by circumcising him. Anyone who has a foregone conclusion that it was not painful for the baby and therefore one should not hesitate to do it only has to listen to the baby while it is being done!
R: What method of circumcision do you use?
“In medical school I was taught that the baby’s nervous system is not developed sufficiently to be aware of the pain of circumcision. But my experience in doing it and observing the baby’s reactions tells me otherwise…. Anyone who has a foregone conclusion that it was not painful for the baby and therefore one should not hesitate to do it only has to listen to the baby while it is being done!”
M: I have used the Gomco clamp. For the past ten years I have been using the Plasti-bell. You have to stretch the foreskin and break the adhesions between the foreskin and the head of the penis. You make a dorsal slit. With the Plasti-bell you slip the little bell inside and tie a string around it. The tying of the string is extremely painful! This method is probably more painful than the other methods because it stays on for several days. It is also possible to get a mild infection around the area where the string is. But I believe it is much safer as far as hemorrhage is concerned. About one in fifty to one in seventy-five babies will hemorrhage following circumcision by the Gomco clamp. That is because it just depends on the tissue cement. The edges are cut and you put a piece of Vaseline gauze around it. The only thing that’s holding it together is the faith and hope that those little tissues will hold.
R: Why do they sometimes have to take stitches?
M: Maybe the baby had an erection. That could cause it to come apart. If it pulls apart then the doctor would have to sew those two edges together.
R: Do you use any kind of anesthesia for it?
M: No. Since it is a circumcision, a circular thing, in order to anesthetize the penis you would have to inject novocaine or xylocaine into the foreskin all around the penis. This would be more traumatic than just doing the cutting.
R: What about a topical anesthetic to numb it?
M: But the most painful part of circumcision is when you break the adhesions to free the foreskin from the head of the penis. There isn’t any way to anesthetize that. You can’t spray it down in there. What I prefer is to let the baby nurse while the circumcision is being done.
R: How do you go about that?
M: It’s very difficult. You have to have the mother hold the baby’s legs and bend over and get her boob in the baby’s mouth. The mother is crying and the baby is crying. It doesn’t work out too well.
R: If a boy or man needs to be circumcised he is given anesthesia for the operation. Why can’t they give babies this consideration?
M: Because they’re not big enough to complain about it or do anything about it. If they had to be anesthetized the doctor would certainly think twice about doing it. It’s a very inhumane thing to do without an anesthetic. But it only takes a few minutes. They heal quickly. There’s no way to know whether they remember it or not.
R: What do you think about waiting until the child is older so that it can be done under an anesthesia?
M: I feel that you should wait until the child has an awareness and you can explain it to him – maybe when he is twelve years old. This is another concern. If an individual has never been circumcised, when he gets older, if he doesn’t like it he can always choose to be circumcised. But the person who has been circumcised in infancy, if he decides when he is older that he doesn’t want to be circumcised … it’s too late. There’s no way of putting it back on.
I have nothing against circumcision, but I think the individual should have a say in the decision.
Paula Coleman, R. N., Camarillo, CA.
[Mrs. Coleman worked as an obstetrical nurse for five years prior to the birth of her first child. She now teaches classes for the American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth (Bradley Method). She and her husband, Bernie, have two daughters, Shelly (Rachel) and Becky (Rebecca). Their second child was born at home.]
Paula: In the hospital where I worked circumcisions took place in the nursery on the first, second, or third day of the baby’s life. The babies were put on a “circi” board in which their arms and legs were restrained with little Velcro strips. The baby was awake, not anesthetized. We’d put a sterile drape over his body exposing only the penis which we would spray with Merthiolate. The doctor would pick up the foreskin with a little “mosquito” hemostat and clamp down at the “12 o’clock” position. The hemostat has little teeth-like grooves which clamp down completely and smash the foreskin. The doctor leaves that on for about one or two minutes. When he takes it off the skin is flattened out and he snips it with scissors. It bleeds very little because all the blood has been smashed out of the foreskin. In my experience, the Gomco clamp was always used. It has a base. It has a part that screws down. There’s the bell that covers and protects the glans. The base has a ring on it and you pull the baby’s skin between that and the bell. Then the top part helps tighten up the bell against the hole in the base by screwing it down. The Gomco clamp comes in different sizes for different sized babies. There’s a very small size that is used for tiny, premature babies.
R: I didn’t know they would circumcise a preemie.
P: Sure, they can circumcise a preemie. They don’t do it until he’s out of trouble. Usually when babies reach 5 pounds they can go home and 5 pounds is still very tiny.
Back to the procedure, they tighten the screw of the clamp so that the foreskin between the base and the bell is completely smashed and clamped off all the way around. The doctor waits about five minutes and then takes a scalpel around where the foreskin is up on the Gomco clamp and cuts it off. Then he unscrews the clamp and releases it. There’s usually not any bleeding at all. It makes for a neat, even circumcision.
R: What have been your observations about the babies being traumatized?
P: Some babies appear to be traumatized the minute you put them on the board. You strap their legs and arms down and they start crying and complaining. There are some babies that don’t cry until the doctor actually starts doing the circumcision. And some babies don’t cry at all.
Now I’ve only seen the Plasti-bell procedure a few times. They still have to slit the foreskin to make room to get the bell on. Then this plastic, bell-shaped gadget fits over the glans. Instead of a clamp they tie a piece of string around the bottom of the bell. There’s a little handle on the end of the bell that they use to place it on. They break this off and the baby goes home with this plastic ring in place over his penis. [Also, some of the foreskin in front of the ring is trimmed away-R.R.] It’s a matter of waiting for the foreskin to atrophy and drop off. If a baby has an extra finger or toe they tie it off with a piece of string and it will go gangrenous and drop off. The Plasti-bell is based on the same idea. With the Plasti- bell there’s no problem of bleeding, while with the Gomco clamp occasionally a circumcision will bleed. Sometimes too much of the foreskin gets pulled through and taken off so that the cut area is down on the shaft of the penis. That can result in a lot of bleeding. Sometimes they either put a silver nitrate stick to it, or cauterize it, or put a hemostatic gel foam on it.
R: Have you seen any bad complications from circumcisions?
P: I’ve seen some that have bled quite a bit. These have been ones that were done far down on the shaft of the penis or on the rim where the glans meets the shaft. Some doctors take off more skin than others. I’ve heard of cases that have gone to court because the tip of the baby’s glans got cut off. The bell is supposed to protect the glans from being injured. Possibly the bell and base don’t fit properly. If several Gomco clamps were washed and sterilized and then the right bell doesn’t get back with the right clamp then the bell doesn’t fit into the hole. That wouldn’t be the doctor’s fault. That would be the fault of whoever was working in central supply and washing up the instruments.
R: What are some other methods of doing circumcisions?
P: One of the older methods is to take the foreskin and stretch it up over the glans and clamp a hemostat down on it and then wait for about five minutes and then cut along that line where the skin has been smashed. Then they would pull the remainder of the foreskin back under the glans and sometimes suture underneath to hold it back.
R: How traumatizing do you think circumcision is to the baby?
P: Most of the babies that I’ve seen cry for the first five to ten minutes. They cry more if you just put them back in their beds. If you take them out to the mother, it seemed that they cried less. I used to always take the babies out to the mothers regardless of what time it was. If it was visiting hours I’d have the mother come into the nursery. Usually the babies were circumcised before feeding times. It’s a good idea for his stomach to be empty before the operation so that he won’t vomit. Usually the doctors would come in in the mornings and do them around discharge time. The operation usually only takes about 10 minutes.
R: Would they tell the parents when the circumcision was going to be done?
P: They didn’t make a point of telling the mother exactly when they were going to do it. We’d tell the mother in the delivery room that they would do the circumcision before the baby went home. Of course they knew after we brought the baby out to them and explained that the baby was circumcised. The doctors just did it, charted it, and left. They left it up to the nurses to tell the mothers.
R: Did the hospital where you worked have rooming in so that the mothers were changing diapers?
P: We had both rooming in and regular schedules. When a baby was circumcised, even with rooming in, we’d check every ten minutes for the first hour to make sure that there was no bleeding.
R: Circumcision and other routine hospital procedures have become a big concern when parents want to have a Leboyer birth and have everything be right for the baby.
P: It doesn’t make much sense, does it?! I’ve heard doctors mention that. Parents are so concerned about silver nitrate burning the baby’s eyes or a vitamin K shot being uncomfortable and then they turn around and circumcise the baby!
R: Parents have been kept ignorant about circumcision. They are rarely able to make an informed decision about it. What is the rationale for not using any medication when circumcising a newborn?
P: The old theory was that babies didn’t feel very much pain. Also it’s not good to give anesthesia to a newborn who may have already gotten some during labor and delivery.
R: I think that the trauma is more than just pain. It’s the trauma of being strapped down and worked over.
P: It’s scary. It’s an emotional thing.
R: What reasons did the doctors you worked with usually give for circumcision?
P: Most of the doctors have said it really doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of personal preference on the part of the parents. The older reasons were out of cleanliness.
R: Did almost all parents have it done?
P: Mexican-American parents almost never chose it. Among the “white” parents, approximately 75% chose circumcision. I think that rate is lower today because people are becoming aware of the fact that it is a trauma for the baby. We are seeing fewer parents choosing circumcision.
R: What can you tell me about caring for the infant’s foreskin?
“Mothers are always so sensitive to their babies’ cries that when you have a situation like that happening mothers will get very, very upset. We used to have mothers who would come and look through the examining room window. Sometimes I saw some very scared looks on their faces.”
P: If the baby isn’t circumcised it’s important to know that they’re not going to be able to retract the foreskin during the first year [or often longer-R.R.] One doctor where I worked insisted, for every baby under his care that wasn’t circumcised, from birth on he instructed the parents to retract and loosen the foreskin every day…. Now talk about trauma!! That was more traumatic for the baby than a circumcision!! And you have to do that every day! The foreskin is very tight on a newborn and the opening is just a tiny little hole! When that baby got his foreskin pulled back he howled! Sometimes it took more than just five minutes to work on it and get it to go back!
R: Parents and doctors have to learn to leave it alone.
P: Back to circumcisions … mothers are always so sensitive to their babies’ cries that when you have a situation like that happening mothers will get very, very upset. We used to have mothers who would come and look through the examining room window. We didn’t tell them to come look, but sometimes they would see it because it was right there across from the postpartum rooms. Sometimes I saw very scared looks on their faces.
R: There are a lot of couples in which the father wants it done, probably because he thinks his son should match him, but the mother doesn’t want it done. It can cause real conflicts.
P: I am glad that we had girls. I’m certain that we would have had that conflict too.
R: If you ever have a boy would you have him circumcised?
P: That’s a bridge that we never crossed.
R: Did you talk it over?
P: Sort of. Since he was, he thought it would be a good idea if our boy would be also. I think if he ever saw one done it might change his mind. He just figures “Well, I don’t remember anything! I had it done when I was a baby and it didn’t hurt me any!”
R: They are finding now that people do have these subconscious memories about early traumas.
“Sometimes when you get into your everyday work at a hospital you don’t look upon anything as traumatic. You see so much that you get calloused to it all. You forget that patients are not exposed to hospital routine every day the way we are.”
P: I think the worst trauma would be to circumcise the baby in the delivery room. That used to be pretty common. They figured they could get it over with all at once. It’s convenient and they’re in a sterile room. But the child has just had so much trauma from just being born. His circulatory system is changing and his lungs have to start working. Do you have to do a number on the kid’s penis too? Welcome to the world! What a welcoming committee! Doctors really seem cruel-hearted sometimes.
R: I’m sure doctors and nurses see so many things that are much worse than circumcision. They see people that are dying or have been mangled up in accidents.
P: Sometimes when you get into your everyday work at a hospital you don’t look upon anything as traumatic. You see so much that you get callused to it all. You forget that patients are not exposed to hospital routine every day the way we are.
R: So when you saw babies being circumcised you sometimes would tune it out and not think about it?
P: Well I still used to feel sorry for them when they cried. There ain’t nothin’ like a baby’s cry to turn your heart over! I used to pacify them with a nipple or pat their heads or stroke them. Some of them would respond by calming down, but with some there was nothing you could do but take them out to the mothers and let them nurse. One thing I never did was to turn the babies on their stomachs after being circumcised. I always laid them on one side. I always thought, boy I’d sure hate to lie on that!
But you do get into a rut when you work in a hospital, especially if there’s a lot of hurriedness. You get so busy with the whole darn system trying to get it to work. You get new babies being admitted to the nursery and discharges and feedings and keeping recordings and chartings of everything. It can be very hectic. Sometimes you just don’t have time.
Nancy and Frank Ring
( Nancy and Frank are the parents of Joshua, Jason, and Gabriel, who were all born at home and subsequently circumcised in doctors’ offices. Nancy is an instructor for the Association for Childbirth at Home, International. Nancy was present at my home birth when Ryan was born. The Rings lived in Thousand Oaks, California at the time of this interview.)
Rosemary: What motivated you to have your babies at home?
Frank: I guess we both figured “Why not?” We’d both seen a lot of animals giving birth without difficulty. We were in tune with each other. We thought it would be nice if we were at home, quiet and still, just to lie down and have the baby. We were living simply and raising a lot of our own food. When Nancy was in early pregnancy we went to the clinic of a nearby medical school. We got put through this big procedure, orientations and meetings, and different rooms for labor and delivery.
Nancy: You’d get a little credit card that you used.
R: You felt like you were being processed on an assembly line.
F: It was the opposite of the way we liked to live.
R: You had Joshua by yourselves, didn’t you?
N: Yes. We had a good doctor but we didn’t want him to deliver our baby. We were very naive! We had a long labor. It went really well. There were things we did wrong. I ended up hyperventilating. I got overwhelmed by pain. We just sort of endured it. I pushed very hard. The baby crowned and the next thing I knew he was out to his knees and Frank caught him! I tore very badly. But the baby was healthy with good coloring, beautiful, clean, eyes open and looking around. He nursed really well.
R: After Joshua was born you had him circumcised. How old was he when you took him to the doctor?
N: He was eight days old. The only guideline we had was the Bible. We didn’t know when people ordinarily did it. That seemed just about right. It was the first time we’d taken him out. We asked the doctor “How necessary is this?”
“It seemed to be a good healthy thing to do. I thought it might be a social stigma (not to be circumcised). We went along with it. And it turned out to be extremely painful for the kids. It was hard for us.”
F: He explained that he was not circumcised, nor were his sons. He asked us to think about it.
N: That was the first time we’d ever heard of anybody who wasn’t circumcised. We hadn’t given it much thought. It seemed like all boys should be. I don’t think we even realized we had a choice in the matter.
F: I thought about him growing up, his first encounter in junior high school, taking a shower with the other guys. I thought it might be a social stigma (not to be circumcised). It seemed to be a good healthy thing to do. It seemed to make sense the way it was described in the Bible. We went along with it. And it turned out to be extremely painful for the kids. It was hard for us. The doctor let me hold Josh and he took his time. He took a little metal round piece of doweling and went in and loosened the skin over the penis.
N: First he sprayed it with antiseptic.
F: And then he took a plastic cap and inserted it to protect the head of the penis, and cut off the skin.
R: How did the baby react to it?
F: He screamed. But after he was cut he stopped screaming. It seemed like that was pretty much it.
“With Jason he took a plastic cap and a string and tied it. He said that in a few days it would all fall off. And that method was traumatic and distressful for him! Any position that I put him in for the next two days, he screamed a very high-pitches ‘ouch!'”
N: He covered it with gauze and petroleum jelly and handed him to me without diapering him. I nursed him right there. The gauze fell off with the first diaper change and we never heard a whimper from him. It did not seem to us to be that traumatic.
R: Then you had Jason a year and a half later. You had him at home but with a doctor.
N: Jason was born very quickly. He was a little bit distressed when he was born. He was sort of gray-blue, but he turned pink right away. The cord was wrapped once around his arm and once around his neck. But he was fine.
R: When did you have him circumcised?
N: I think it was the 12th day.
F: He used the string method instead. He took a plastic cap and a string and tied it. He said that in a few days it would all fall off.
N: And that method was traumatic and distressful for him! Any position that I put him in for the next two days, he screamed a very high-pitched “ouch!” He wouldn’t move his legs or move around. You could tell that it really hurt him.
Again this time we had asked the doctor “Just how necessary is this?” He gave us an answer that we weren’t totally satisfied with, but I think … because we’d done it with Joshua, we figured we should do it with Jason too.
F: It seemed that what we had experienced with Josh hadn’t been that traumatic. It seemed that we should have Jason circumcised also because they would always be taking baths together. I’d hate to have Josh, being the older one, use it against Jason, and make him feel that he was different.
R: Then two years later you had Gabriel at home with a midwife.
F: I thought it was the best birth experience of all. It was nice for me because she was there to take the responsibility of delivering the baby. I could just be with Nancy and enjoy it. Things happened fast. We all just sat there with the baby on Nancy’s stomach. About a half hour after the birth the placenta was delivered.
R: It was a peaceful birth.
N: It was really casual. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. The weather was nice. I felt fine. I put Gabriel to the breast about ten minutes after he was born and he nursed for an hour. He was very alert.
F: By six o’clock that night we had all our friends and folks over for a barbecue and to see our new baby.
R: Did it seem that you should have your third son circumcised? How much did you think about it?
N: I knew that it wasn’t necessary. I had bad feelings because of the experience with Jason. I didn’t know which way to go so I left the decision up to Frank. Our pediatrician had retired so we had to find a new doctor to do the job. We found a man and we talked to him about it. We didn’t have bad feelings about him, but we didn’t have good feelings about him either. I remember the morning when we took him in, I felt like this wasn’t right. He was 14 days old. I was really nervous about it. The other two times it had seemed right. But this time I felt like the only reason we were doing it was because the other two were. At the time I felt that I was the one who wouldn’t be able to deal with it.
R: You mean if Gabriel had not been circumcised?
N: Yes. I didn’t feel that I had the strength at that point. I still felt that there was something basically unclean about an uncircumcised male. The only way I can explain it was that I didn’t feel brave enough not to circumcise.
R: Even though you could have your babies at home?
N: I felt wrong about it because it was my hang-up and not the baby’s. It was for social reasons, and I knew those weren’t strong enough for the way that we live our lives. The only thing that tipped the scales was that the other boys were and we didn’t feel that Gabriel should be different. So we went to the doctor expecting that Frank would hold the baby again. But the doctor said, “Absolutely not!” He not only did not want Frank to hold the baby, he did not want us in the room!!
F: I told him I had held the other two boys and that I’d like to hold Gabriel too, and he just said, “No, this is the way I do it.”
R: So you waited in the waiting room while he operated on him?
N: Yes. That’s not like us to accept something like that being done to our child and then have us excluded.
F: I didn’t know what to think. Gabriel was in there and was laid on the table and the doctor was ready to do it and … I didn’t have enough time to make a decision. He had a problem with Gabriel bleeding. The doctor had to cauterize him. He had to burn him to stop the bleeding. The baby screamed for about 30 minutes!!
N: In the waiting room we could hear the baby screaming far more traumatically than the other boys had! After about 40 minutes the doctor came out and explained that there was one spot that would not stop bleeding. He said this was normal, a lot of babies hemorrhage. We weren’t aware that there could be complications. The doctor had to get a cauterizing iron and cauterize one spot. By this time there was no doubt in our minds that this was wrong … knowing that it wasn’t necessary in the first place … especially since he had not, from the very moment of his birth, ever experienced any kind of trauma. We totally meet our babies’ needs, we don’t put them on schedules or anything.
R: You said that you were crying by this time?
N: I was crying! Frank was swearing! All we wanted was to get the baby and run!! The doctor cauterized it. He stitched it. He put this black, tarry substance over the head of the penis.
F: It looked like the end of a cigar.
N: It was really swollen. We couldn’t even see what he had done because of all the black stuff that was on it. It must have been just torture for him. By this time my whole being was pushing into the room! I couldn’t stay out any longer. And all they were concerned about was scrubbing him up. He had been screaming for 45 minutes. They wanted to get a diaper on him. They wanted to wash the blanket. They were being all cheery and happy like this was all quite normal. I was so upset that I took him in the bloody blanket and went out to the car to nurse him.
The doctor didn’t even come out and talk to us! He didn’t explain how to take care of it. He left the responsibility to his nurses and receptionist which just infuriated us! We paid them. They wanted us to bring him in in a few days but there was no way we were going to bring him back. We didn’t know the extent of the damage that he had done. I made an appointment with another doctor as soon as I got home. I felt that the doctor had done something terribly wrong.
The day that Gabriel had been circumcised I didn’t diaper him all day. He constantly cried and sniffled and went back to sleep and would wake up crying and sniffling … this went on all day. I left the kids at the sitter’s and I held Gabriel the whole day. I couldn’t move him. I felt horrible. I felt like I had just killed him!! I can’t explain the guilt that I felt! It was the most traumatic experience that I’d ever been through with my children. I was angry. I hurt all over for my baby! I knew that either I wouldn’t have any more children because if I had another boy I’d die. Or if I did have another boy I would definitely not have him circumcised!
R: Did Gabriel heal right away?
N: It took him longer to heal. It was a week before it looked fairly normal. I took him to another doctor three days later. He didn’t understand why the doctor had stitched it. He said it was a little bit infected. He cut the stitches out. He scrubbed it with Phiso-hex to get the rest of the black stuff off. Then he said, “It’s okay and should heal fine.”
R: It seems like Gabriel has been a good baby ever since. I’m sure the nursing and comforting you gave him made a lot of difference.
N: I honestly don’t know how the trauma affected him. One of the reasons that we have chosen home birth was because it would be the least traumatic for the baby. It was important to us who caught the baby and how he was handled right after the birth. The way that babies are handled after birth in the hospital is very much wrong … to have the baby separated from you, taken off to a nursery and weighed and measured and put in an incubator … that’s repugnant to us! So having all that be so important to us, we really wondered how the trauma of his circumcision would affect him. We just don’t know.
R: So both of you have decided that if you should ever have another son you will definitely not have him circumcised.
N: Unless there was a true medical justification for it, I would definitely be against it.
F: I would be willing to take the time to deal with the problems that he might have with the other children, about not being circumcised and being different.
N: I think I would be able to explain to his brothers the reason why he was different. Just because his penis would look different from our other sons’, I don’t think it would bother me.
“The day that Gabriel had been circumcised I didn’t diaper him all day. He constantly cried and sniffled and went back to sleep and would wake up crying and sniffling. I held Gabriel all day. I couldn’t move him. I felt horrible. I felt like I had just killed him!! I can’t explain the guilt that I felt. I was angry. I hurt all over for my baby!”
( Nancy and Frank have since had a fourth son, Seth, born in November 1979, three years after Gabriel’s birth, He has been left intact.)
LETTERS FROM PARENTS
Our son Kristopher Andrew was circumcised. It was something we debated about all through my pregnancy. We even hoped we’d have a girl so we wouldn’t have to make the decision. Our doctor doesn’t do them routinely. When Andy was born we still hadn’t decided. I guess we basically figured we would not. When Andy was four days old my husband said he really felt he wanted their penises to look the same. He felt it was important for Andy’s identification with him. I felt, not being male, maybe it was important for them. He is both of ours and even though I had decided it was not necessary, Rick had a say. Even if we would have decided before his birth, we would never have had it done when he was born. Birth is traumatic enough.
On the eighth day we met the doctor at the emergency room. We stayed with Andy the whole time. They strapped him down which I hated. I had asked if I could hold him! We massaged his head, stroked him, and talked to him the whole time. It seemed to only really hurt him a couple of times. He was more upset about being exposed and strapped down. My husband said it was the most awful thing he’d ever seen or done. It was gross! How and why did this barbaric custom have to start? As soon as it was finished I put Andy to the breast and he was fine. He seemed to have handled it really well.
My feelings now are, if we ever have a second boy, then all the males should look alike. But how do I know I’ll stay with Rick and not be with a man who isn’t circumcised?! Now that I think about it, identification was a lousy reason.
I guess we were trying to do what we thought was best for his entire life.
Paula and Richard Sloun, Trinidad, CA
My husband and I decided to have a home birth. We read stacks of books about birth and babies but never found any information about circumcision. We asked my doctor and he said circumcision decreased the incidence of disease and infection later in life. I didn’t believe him but didn’t argue either. We questioned our male friends and found that almost all were circumcised. The few who weren’t never had any complications. Everybody liked the way he was. We decided to go ahead with circumcision because we didn’t want our son to be laughed at in the school locker room because he was different from the other boys.
Five days after Ben was born we took him to the doctor’s office to be circumcised. My husband held the baby to the table while the doctor performed the operation. I found the screams unbearable and retreated to a chair in the waiting room. The doctor told my husband that at that age a baby’s penis isn’t that sensitive and he was screaming out of fright and not pain.
Immediately after Ben was bandaged and dressed, the nurse left the three of us alone so I could nurse him. Nursing was the only thing that would quiet his cries (and mine). We left the office with instructions to soak the bandage off in his bath the next day and bring him back in two weeks for a check-up.
When we took Ben in two weeks later we discovered he had an adhesion. His (remaining) foreskin had grown over the head of his penis. The doctor tried to pry the foreskin away with a metal instrument. One small section wouldn’t come apart so he had to cut the skin. I nearly fainted from the sight and sound of my son screaming! The doctor told us the whole problem could have been avoided if I had retracted the foreskin every time I changed him. I didn’t know this was necessary. Everything I had read about circumcision had said to leave it alone.
Within a few weeks my son’s penis healed completely. There is still a scar to remind me of the incident. We realize now that we made the wrong decision and our reasoning was ridiculous. I feel even worse for putting Ben through it twice. Any other male children born to us will not be circumcised.
Maggie and David Seastrom, Morgantown, IN.
My fathers, brothers, nephews, and husband were all circumcised. As far as I knew, every man had to be circumcised. When I was in labor with my first baby they brought me the paper to sign to have it done and without a second thought I signed it. The baby was a girl. With my second baby the same thing happened. This baby was a boy. When he was born the doctor called it some name and then said he just didn’t have enough skin to be circumcised. *
You cannot imagine all the things that went through my head! I thought he was deformed! I thought he wouldn’t be able to have sex when he grew up. I asked, “Couldn’t it be done later?” Everyone I knew must have felt the same way because they were feeling sorry for him. One guy told my husband it was terrible not having it done because the Bible said a man was unclean if he wasn’t circumcised. **
On our first visit to the pediatrician the doctor took an instrument that looked like a crochet needle and pushed his foreskin back. He screamed and cried and it bled and looked horrible. The doctor also snipped the skin under his tongue because he was almost tongue tied. I wonder if that visit left a mark on my son which he will never get over!! The doctor said to be sure to keep the foreskin pushed back every day. I tried to do what the “good” doctor said to do. If I let it go for a day, the skin would try to heal back up and then I would have to break it loose again! My baby would cry every time I did this to him. He has just turned two and when I try to push it back he says “No! Hurts!” and cries until I quit! I don’t do it as often now, but I’m still afraid that since the foreskin has been pushed back already, I may cause harm by not keeping it up.
I have since read some articles about circumcision and now my husband and I have decided against ever having it done. During the past four years my husband and I have been “getting back to nature.” I am also a member of La Leche League. My oldest is four and she nursed through my second pregnancy and is still nursing along with the baby who just turned two. I want only the best for them. Now I believe circumcisions are unnatural and I will never, never have one of my sons circumcised nor let another doctor push the foreskin back unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Carolyn Miller, Lakeland, FL
(*This condition of having a naturally short foreskin is known as aposthia. There has been speculation that circumcision may have originated in prehistoric times because some highly revered leader had this condition.)
(**The Bible says nothing about circumcision being important for cleanliness. -R.R.)
“I heard the nurse coming with my little bundle who was wailing louder than I’d ever heard him! She gave him to me and assured me that it was ‘only his feelings that were hurt.’ I tried to nurse him, to calm him, but he’d have no part of it. I told him how very sorry I was that he’d been hurt like that, and that I thought it was for him I did it, and that no one would ever mess with him like that again.”
While pregnant, my husband and I discussed circumcision quite often. We knew very little about it and wanted to do the best thing. There was no reference to circumcision in any of the books I read, save Spiritual Midwifery by the Tennessee Farm Midwives. They told their reasons for doing it. We respected the opinions of these folks so we decided to have our little boy circumcised.
The morning after he was born in the hospital, a nurse came in and asked me if I wanted him circumcised and if so to sign this piece of paper. Later that night when my obstetrician came to see me I asked him if they’d done it yet. I was going home in the morning and wanted to make sure everything was in order. He said no, but that he would do it before leaving after making rounds and then have Jacob brought to me.
About 20 minutes later I heard the nurse coming with my little bundle who was wailing louder than I’d ever heard him! She gave him to me and assured me that it was “only his feelings that were hurt.” I tried to nurse him, to calm him, but he’d have no part of it. I still remember how the only way I could keep him from crying was to hold his head right up to my heart beat, very closely, and rock back and forth. I told him how very sorry I was that he’d been hurt like that, and that I thought it was for him I did it, and that no one would ever mess with him like that again. The sound of my voice seemed to ease his tense little body. I kept talking to him, rocking him, and holding him close to my heart. I felt very good that he was able to be with me right after instead of stashed back in the nursery where there wouldn’t be anyone to love him and make him feel better. I never wanted the nurse to come back and take him away. I wanted to go home and be with my husband where the three of us could begin our life together and let our love for this new little one grow. That must have been the beginnings of my motherly feelings toward this small creature.
We did go home the next day. I’ve learned not to regret the decision I made. That only gets one in trouble. I wouldn’t have this operation performed again should I ever have another boy and possibly wouldn’t have with Jacob if there had been more information on the subject.
Emydee Hannon, Bowling Green, KY
Willy was circumcised three days after birth. 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 what the hell I had let them do to my baby. Since then I have asked myself that a million times. Everything was all right until he was one year old when he developed a cyst on his penis where he had been circumcised. The urologist said that the cyst*** was caused by the circumcision. He also said that cysts such as this were quite common.
So Willy had to go to the hospital. At least they gave him anesthesia this time. What the doctor did was re-circumcise half the penis where the cyst was. I’m sorry I did it in the first place. I hope Willy has no more trouble because of it.
The strange thing about circumcision is that it’s supposed to make things better. If Willy hadn’t been circumcised, he wouldn’t have had any trouble at all.
Jacque Dyer, Oakhurst, CA
(***Please see- Chapter 11 on “Complications” for discussion of this occurrence.)
“People tell me that my second and third babies were content because I was more experienced and because they were girls. I believe it was because they developed a sense of trust and security from the beginning, whereas Derek’s first day of security was shattered by his second day of circumcision. It has taken him a long time to feel safe again.”
I have three children. Our first is a son whom I did have circumcised. Before his birth I had worked in a nursing home and saw problems the uncircumcised men had.**** I decided that any of my boys would be circumcised to avoid these problems in later life. My husband (who is intact) only went along with me because of my insistence. I was very stubborn.
Our son was born in 1976. On the second day in the hospital the other three women in my room had their babies brought to them, but they did not bring mine. When I asked the nurse why, she said, “Oh, he was circumcised this morning.” I was so upset. It was me who had requested it be done but I wanted to be with him. When I went up to the nursery to get him I was told he couldn’t leave. He had to be under observation. I felt so bad for him, but I didn’t think I could press them into giving me my baby.
For his first five months Derek cried almost continuously. During his first two years he was very dependent on me. His sleep and emotional patterns had no real pattern at all.
My next two babies, both girls, were very peaceful, happy, and content. Our second baby was born in a hospital, but we stayed only 12 hours and were only separated a short time. With our third we had a beautiful home birth. People tell me that my second and third babies were content because I was more experienced and because they were girls. I believe it was because they developed a sense of trust and security from the beginning, whereas Derek’s first day of security was shattered by his second day of circumcision. It has taken him a long time to feel safe again.
No son of mine will ever again go through the torture of being tied down and having his body cut (and of course it hurts more than we can imagine!) and then being placed in a huge, noisy room in a plastic box for hours to be observed like someone in a cage. I realize now that when those men in the nursing home were circumcised they didn’t go through half the agony that a tiny babe does.
Deana and Steve Ives,Fulton, N.Y.
(****Elderly, senile individuals sometimes become unable to care for even their most basic personal needs. If and when this happens they usually have difficulties with many parts of their bodies. Still, the wisdom of routine amputative surgery to prevent eventual foreskin problems must be questioned. Similar arguments could be offered for permanent amputation of fingernails at birth to prevent lifelong need for cleaning and attending to one’s fingernails, or routine amputation of toes to prevent lifelong need to clean out the dirt between one’s toes. The “difficulty” lies in people’s squeamishness about genitals that they rarely have for other body parts. A hospital attendant probably would have no difficulty cleaning the fingernails or brushing the teeth of a patient unable to do this, but may have qualms about similarly attending to the patient’s genitals. – R.R.)
My son Aaron was born in April 1976. His penis was so small that the doctor said he couldn’t circumcise him at birth. He was a normal sized baby, but had a lot of fat around that area which prevented his penis from coming out like it normally does.
My husband is Jewish and I am not. I always thought circumcision was a necessary health advantage. Now I am sorry I ever had it done. If I have another son I do not want him circumcised.
Aaron was circumcised at age 2 months. I can still remember his chilling screams!! My husband had to hold me back. How could I ever have let them do that to my poor defenseless child?! Every mother tries to do her best for her child, and I thought I was doing the best thing. If I had thought more about it I would have realized it [the foreskin] was there for a reason. I don’t think God intended for us to mutilate our children this way! I pray that Aaron will understand when he grows up that I didn’t mean for him to be hurt.
Aaron was so small that the skin grew back over his penis. He had to be re-circumcised at age 4 months. This time they put him in the hospital and used anesthesia. I was a nervous wreck. I was nursing Aaron and he got comfort only from this.
Some of Aaron’s skin has still grown to the penis. The doctors said to keep the skin pulled back 2 times a day and put petroleum jelly on it. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I grew up thinking the doctor’s word was law, and am finding out most don’t know half the time and guess the other half. I know several wonderful doctors who are trying their best to do right but they are few and far between.
I have talked to other people and they were as in the dark as I was before I had Aaron circumcised. We all just believed our doctors who said circumcision was right. I hope more doctors and lay people start speaking out that this operation is unnecessary and inhumane!!
I just hope my realization is not too late for my son. I realize I have made a decision that should have been his when he is old enough to make it. The doctor did not make me aware of all the facts. I should have asked more =questions. I think my doctor would have suggested I not circumcise him had he not known I wanted it done.
Sheila Soslow, Dallas, TX.
“When he was six hours old they had asked whether I would have the operation done and I said no. But now they said he needed it because he hadn’t urinated yet and this was very dangerous. I went to be with him, but was told I couldn’t be there. I did hear him scream. After this the nurse who was there when my son was born came on duTy. She told me he had urinated as he was being born.”
During pregnancy we had planned a home birth, but as labor began my doctor and midwife realized that my son was breech. Neither felt good about helping us at home, so after traveling to two hospitals (because the first would only perform a Caesarian for a breech baby) I delivered in the latter. I was advised to stay 24 hours after the birth. As I was preparing to leave the next morning a doctor came in and said my son hadn’t urinated since birth and because his foreskin was long, he needed a circumcision. Earlier, when he was six hours old they had asked whether I would have the operation done and I said no. No mention was made at this time about anything being wrong with his penis. But now they said he needed it because he hadn’t urinated and this was very dangerous****. So I said okay. I went to be with him, but was told I couldn’t be there. I did hear him scream. After this the nurse who was there when my son was born came on duty. She told me he had urinated as he was being born. I am so sorry now for not knowing better.
Ann Conceicao, St. Petersburg, FL
*****(During prenatal development a fetus regularly swallows amniotic fluid and urinates into it. If he were not able to do so he would not survive to term. Any medical person should know this.)
“I had tears running down my face, listening to the screams of someone who was being murdered coming from the delivery room. I sobbed and sobbed until it was over. Then they brought Michael to me. His little face and eyes were red and closed to the world. The doctor said, “See, that didn’t hurt … he’s asleep.”
We had our first son cut because the doctor said it was “medically necessary” and so he wouldn’t “look different.” He used a Plasti-bell on him and got it on crooked and now the end of Matthew’s penis is slightly deformed (so he “looks different!”) He stands in front of a tree to pee and misses the tree to the left. He has to stand slightly sideways to hit the tree.
We had our second son done because we were still ignorant. He was born in a labor bed 10 minutes after I crawled up on it. I picked him up, birthed the placenta, wrapped up the baby and came home. We weren’t admitted to the hospital. We were never separated and the bonding was absolutely beautiful. Five days later I took him back for the PKU and circumcision. When I walked in carrying him and my purse I requested to get the papers signed and payments made before the procedure so I could just concentrate on the baby afterward. A nurse said, “Here, let me hold him for you while you sign the papers.” So I gave him to her, and at that instant he looked at me, and he knew he was about to be sacrificed. He said with his eyes “Why are you betraying me? I trusted you. I turned back to sign the papers and write out a check and when I turned around to get him, the nurse was gone with him. At that moment I heard a blood-curdling scream and knew it was Michael getting cut. I dropped my purse and ran back to the delivery room (that’s where they did it) and was fully prepared to kill whoever was hurting my baby. A male nurse stopped me at the door and told me to wait outside, that I was not allowed in during the surgery. I had tears running down my face, listening to the screams of someone who was being murdered coming from the delivery room. The nurse escorted me outside the hospital where I sobbed and sobbed until it was over. Then they brought Michael to me. His little face and eyes were red and closed to the world. The doctor said, ‘See, that didn’t hurt … he’s asleep.”
When we got home, Michael “woke up” and looked at me with pain and betrayal in his face. He forgave me when he nursed, but I have never forgiven myself.
(Julie has since given birth to another son, Joseph, who was born at home in December 1980 and has been left intact. She has provided the following update:)
Julie Butler, Lewis, KS.
I am convinced that baby boys’ penises are not completely developed at birth. Joey’s penis was so tiny when he was born, and now that he is 9 months old it has grown much bigger. If we had had him circumcised after birth I think it would have been traumatic not only for the usual reasons, but also because he wouldn’t have had much to work with. Also, the surgeon might have cut too much off so he would have had trouble as he grew. That is what I am afraid has happened to our oldest boy. He is almost 9 years old and there is so little skin on the penile shaft that as it grows it is pulling the glans downward and to the left.
Joey’s foreskin does not retract yet at 9 months but I don’t expect it to. We’ve had no problems whatsoever with it. It stays clean and the hole in the end gets bigger as he grows. If only I’d known – famous last words!
I have three sons who have all been circumcised. With our first son, Ian, circumcision was the only way to go. He was two days old and everything was fine.
With our second son, Joshua, the minute he was born the doctor asked me if I wanted him circumcised. I said yes, and he circumcised him right there! I didn’t realize he was going to do it right then! I was upset about the fact that it was done so soon after birth, but it was done before I had a chance to say anything.
When they brought him to me I noticed that his penis looked a mess! It looked like they cut too much of the foreskin off. As he got older the skin loosened up but it was still tight just under the penis. The doctor kept saying it was fine until he was a year old and he said it did look kind of tight. The doctor also said that if his penis bent pointing down when he had an erection then they would have to operate. Can you imagine that?!
When he was eighteen months old I took him back to the doctor, still concerned. He had erections but not real strong. The penis did not bend at all, so there was no need to operate. I am still concerned but I think he will be all right.
With my third pregnancy I was hoping it would be a girl and I wouldn’t have to worry about circumcision. Well, it was a boy, and there was the question … should I or shouldn’t I? My sons are close in age and I was afraid he might feel different from his brothers if he weren’t circumcised, so I had it done. I made sure to let the doctor know about Joshua’s problems. Nathan was one day old and the circumcision was fine but it was very painful for him.
If I had a chance to start all over again I wouldn’t have had any of them circumcised. If I ever have another son he will not be circumcised. I don’t think I could stand to have him go through the ordeal my other sons went through.
I chose circumcision because I felt it would be easier to keep clean and avoid infection. Also, at the time, as a typical American woman I thought an uncircumcised penis was funny looking. My husband Larry was circumcised and preferred that our sons be circumcised. However, he is very flexible and would agree not to have any more of our sons circumcised.
If I have any more children they will be home births. When I gave birth in the hospital they stressed circumcision so I went right along with it. If I had been given a chance to see both sides I could have made a decision with my eyes open.
Linda Pellegrin, Sylmar, CA.
When my first son was born in October of 1980 I was apprehensive about circumcision. I sought advice from my obstetrician, my family-practitioner, and my family. Though no one was insistent about its necessity, no one advised against having it done. My family doctor admitted it was not a medical necessity but thought it should be performed so that the boy would “be like his father.” My in-laws said that it should be done for medical reasons (?) and for cleanliness. I was hesitant but gave in to the opinions of others.
Whether I did something wrong or the surgeon did something incompletely I do not know. My little boy’s foreskin became adhered to the rest of his penis and healed up thoroughly. My family doctor and I discussed the situation and he advised me that when Curt was about two years old he would need surgery again. He said that it was now worse than if he had never been circumcised.
In June of 1982 the doctor decided it was time to take care of the foreskin adhesion. My sister accompanied us and the doctor instructed my sister and me to each pin down one of Curt’s arms and legs. He then — using no anesthesia — tore the foreskin from all around the glans. It was minutes of horror!! Perhaps it was worse than his original circumcision, for now he could recognize exactly what was happening. Here were three adults, two of them close love-figures, restraining him and putting him through this agony!! He screamed, “Mamma, Daddy, Lola … I’m sorry, I’m sorry … Mamma…” over and over again. My poor baby, sorry for what!? I was the one to be sorry. I cannot express how I feel that I put my precious baby through that torture.
After the doctor was done with Curt he had us put ointment on the wound until it healed. This took two adults just to pin him down again to get the ointment on. For weeks after this ordeal Colin wouldn’t allow anyone near his penis.
When our second son Alex was born in July of 1982 my husband and I decided to forego a circumcision. I considered that this boy would not “be like his father” or his older brother. I think I will be able to explain this to him when he is older.
I am glad that there is now more information available about circumcision. I hope that more and more people will break out of their ignorance and see what they are doing to the ones they love so much.
Rebecca Conrad, San Rafael, CA
Next Page: Circumcision Techniques