Should We Circumcise Our Son?
Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik – www.NeilChethik.com
I know it's wrong to take a newborn child, strap him down so he cannot move his arms or legs, and then, without anesthesia or a compelling medical reason, slice off a perfectly healthy and functional piece of an extremely sensitive body part.
I know it's wrong. Yet I still may do it to my child.
That's the power of the cultural pressure to circumcise infant males.
These days, many American parents barely give circumcision a second thought. Sometime during the pregnancy, they decide that Junior should look like Daddy, and so they give the go-ahead to "get it over with" before the baby leaves the hospital.
As a writer on male issues, however, I bumped into the other side of the circumcision debate long before my wife became pregnant. And now, two months before delivery, still not certain if it's a boy, I find myself torn between my instinct to protect my child from physical harm and the pressure to conform.
The decision to circumcise wouldn't be so difficult if there was a decisive medical reason to do it.
While religious and ritual circumcision started thousands of years ago, it wasn't until the mid-19th century that U.S. doctors began doing medical circumcisions, proclaiming them a cure for masturbation, laziness, alcoholism and a host of other "ills."
Nonsense, the American Academy of Pediatrics finally said in 1971, when it deemed circumcision medically unnecessary. By then, however, about 80 percent of male infants in the U.S. were having their foreskins removed (compared to about 20 percent in the rest of the world).
Studies in the past few years have found that circumcision may reduce urinary tract infections and some sexually transmitted diseases, but the Academy still does not recommend the procedure routinely. Neither does baby doctor Benjamin Spock, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and TV-radio doctor Dean Edell.
Why not? Because, they claim, it's a painful and unnecessary operation. (In most cases, anesthesia is not used because it can cause complications in newborns.)
Their argument goes something like this: If we removed all healthy body parts because they might someday become diseased, we'd be pulling healthy teeth to prevent decay, amputating healthy breasts to reduce cancer. We don't do these things because teeth and breasts serve a purpose.
And so does the foreskin. It exists to protect the head of the penis from becoming injured or desensitized. There is even evidence that men with foreskins experience a more intense sexual response.
So why would I even consider circumcision for my son?
Because, frankly, the pressure's on. Our doctor recommends that a father and son "look the same." Almost all of our friends have circumcised their sons. And, while circumcisions in the U.S. have steadily decreased in the last two decades, most Jews still carry out the practice, even if they don't do it in the traditional ceremony. (I'm Jewish; my wife is not.)
So going ahead with circumcision would seem to be the easier route for us. Yet if there's one thing we've learned about parenting, even before the birth of our first child, it is this: Don't confuse our needs with the needs of our child.
Circumcising might be easier for us, but what about him? Is it really "no big deal," or does it have subtle, long-lasting effects on a boy's psyche? Is being different from one's father really damaging, or can problems be overcome by openly discussing sexual issues? And what's worse: losing the chance to be initiated into a religious tradition, or losing a body part without one's consent?
There are no right answers for these questions. No study has been developed that can isolate the impact of circumcision on a boy's future life.
But it seems to me that if my wife and I choose to circumcise our son, we should do so only after carefully answering these questions ourselves, and not simply because it's the easiest thing to do.
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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at email@example.com or at www.NeilChethik.com .
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