Being from England, I reached adulthood without even knowing that there was such a thing as the routine circumcision of newborn boys. In Europe it is rare, and it is estimated that between 80 and 95 percent of men worldwide are uncircumcised. But when I married an American and gave birth to a boy in the Hudson Valley, I learned that most boys are circumcised as a matter of course in the US. I informed my husband that I was against it for our child and he agreed. A few decades ago this would have been a radical choice: 85 percent of American boys in the 1980s were routinely circumcised. But that has fallen to an average of 55 percent nationwide, with just 23 percent in the western states. This decrease is partly a result of immigration from countries where it is not practiced but may also be due to factors such as a gradual change in our perception of the custom and a greater awareness of medical facts.
Ninety percent of circumcisions in the US are done electively for nonreligious reasons, and it is these nonreligious ones that this article largely addresses. Still, it is worth noting that this ancient practice is often entwined with culture, ritual, and emotion. For Jews and Muslims, it represents a covenant with God. Traditionally, these faiths interpret the Bible to require boys to be circumcised, whether as infants, or later as a rite of passage.
J.P. of New Paltz (who asked that we use only his initials) is of Jewish heritage, yet he decided that he would “never allow” his son to be circumcised either for religious or medical reasons. “For me it was a no-brainer” he says. “I encountered a lot of protest from my family and in-laws. But to me, circumcision is a hold-over from less enlightened times.”
Circumcision in the United States
Circumcision first appeared here during the puritanical Victorian era, often within the context of Christian fervor, as an attempt to curb masturbation. The aim was to create postoperative soreness and tight skin to make manipulation more difficult, and erections uncomfortable. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a prominent medical doctor, wrote in 1888: “A remedy [for masturbation] which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision...without administering anesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if connected with the idea of punishment.” And in a time before the causes of disease were understood, doctors of the 1800s claimed it could prevent all manner of conditions, from bed-wetting and asthma to epilepsy and even polio. Gradually, other reasons to circumcise came into vogue. Today’s rationale for circumcision (other than religious ones) includes fears that an intact foreskin makes a penis difficult to clean and more prone to infection.
Paul Mark Baker, MD, a pediatrician with Hudson Valley Pediatrics in Middletown observes that, of the parents who have their sons circumcised, “usually it’s cosmetic, and Junior is to have it because Daddy did.” Indeed, a father may be very resistant to a son who does not resemble him. In any case, in America we have grown accustomed to the appearance of a circumcised penis and as a result many people seem to prefer its aesthetics. For reasons such as these, many parents in the United States take it for granted that a son will be circumcised. As such, they may not investigate what the procedure entails and assume it to be a quick “snip,” attended by little discomfort and no side effects. In reality, it is an invasive, painful operation.
More Than a Snip
With the advent of YouTube and anticircumcision websites, parents can easily see the procedure for themselves. It is not pretty. To summarize a common hospital method: The baby is strapped to a board for the duration of the procedure, which lasts up to15 minutes. The foreskin is clamped and a probe is repeatedly forced between it and the glans (head of the penis) to break the secure bond that, in infants, attaches the foreskin to the glans. Once loosened, the foreskin is cut open to expose the glans. A bell-shaped instrument is fitted over the glans while the surrounding foreskin is finally cut off, removing at least 50 percent of the penile skin system (the foreskin being a continuation of the shaft skin and not merely a small flap at the end). The wound is cleansed, covered with Vaseline and gauze, and usually heals in one to two weeks.