Nothing feels creepier than saying to your good friend, “Hey, can I see your son’s penis?“ But that, friends, is exactly what I recently did. Because I just had to see a certain flap of skin that has been the source of so much controversy.
Just a few years ago, circumcision was something I fully expected to do if Daniel and I had a son. Like many families, we have since changed our minds.
Disclaimer: It makes me sick to think I would write anything that would create offense rather than promote dialogue. I’m not sure that my words communicate my feelings on this subject properly, but I just want to state one more time that this is MY OPINION, humbly offered. I am the judge of no one and apologize if you are offended by this post.
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
It wasn’t an easy break. My Judeo-Christian background teaches that circumcision is something God commanded Israel to do. How could a good and loving God command a traumatic and unnecessary procedure? I have since learned that circumcision as it was practiced then was very different from what’s now common.
What we now call ‘circumcision’ was not performed in the same manner in antiquity (or among many Jews the world over today). At that time it was a ‘cutting of the blessing’ – a very, very small slit made at the end of the penis to allow a few drops of blood to fall.
“Cutting the Blessing” in antiquity was VERY different than today in modern N. American culture where we amputate the entire prepuce organ. Hebrews and early Jews made a very tiny slit in the tip of the prepuce to allow for a few drops of blood to be shed as the blood sacrifice of the covenant. The Hebrew words used for the practice are “namal” and “muwl”. In Hebrew, namal means ‘to clip’ – like one would clip the ends of our fingernails. Muwl means ‘to curtail, to blunt’. Neither of these words mean “to cut” “to amputate” “to remove” “to cut off” etc. There were very different words in Hebrew to represent ‘the cutting off’ or ‘the removal of’. The difference was obviously clear to people at the time.
After all, you could not possibly amputate the prepuce organ in antiquity and expect the child to live! Even today we deal with a 1-in-3 rate of complications associated with prepuce amputation. At that time, babies would have hemorrhaged if this organ were removed, and if they lived through the blood loss, they would have died of disease.
Comment left by Dr. Momma on Dr. Cindy’s blog, “They Don’t Remember.“
The Trend is Changing
More and more families are opting out of this procedure. In my opinion, we are only one or two generations away from pretty much abandoning this practice.
The procedure of routine circumcision became commonplace between 1870 and 1920, and it consequently spread to all the English-speaking countries (England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). None of these countries now circumcise the majority of their male children, a distinction reserved today for the United States (in the UK, in fact, nonreligious circumcision has virtually ceased).
Still, I understand why many families go through with it. For me, it was difficult to break with this perceived tradition. The knowledge that modern circumcision is radically different from ancient Jewish practice made it easier, as did New Testament scriptures that clearly discourage circumcision for gentile converts.
In preparing for this post I came across a much more disturbing fact. Circumcision as it is now performed in the U.S. was promoted by doctors John Harvey Kellogg and Sylvester Graham as a preventative measure for masturbation. What??? According to Dr. Kellogg:
A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.
Motivations for Medical Circumcision
Carbolic acid on young women? How many families are going along with this because they think they are respecting some time-honored Judeo/Christian ceremony when in fact they are submitting their sons to a procedure advocated by men that came up with THAT? The reasoning (decrease the capability for sexual pleasure to increase chastity) is the same that is currently used to justify horrifying female genital mutilation practices in parts of Africa. Blech.
The Undeniable Importance of Fitting In
Neither tradition nor the desire for our child to “fit in” are compelling enough reasons for our family to circumcise, so I’m at peace with our choice. I do want to say, however, that I do not judge parents who have had this procedure done. These parents love their sons and did what they felt was best for them. In a culture that views circumcision as something healthy and hygienically necessary their choice is not surprising. Except for two, I actually don’t know which of my friends sons are intact and which are circumcised. If someone tells me that their son is circumcised it isn’t going to change my opinion of them. I won’t love them any less, and that’s the truth.
I am not an expert on circumcision. There is a lot I don’t know. For instance, some rabbis may perform the tiny cut version of circumcision rather than removing the whole foreskin. For those to whom the tradition is very important that might be an option. Please leave a comment and tell me what I don’t know!
All I’m saying is: The more we learn about the history of modern circumcision, the risks of complication, and the long-term effects of pain during infancy on the adult brain, the more we need to reconsider this procedure.
Third Party Resources on Circumcision
Dr. Momma: Are You Fully Informed? Great article plus a list of links, books, and other resources