Monday, March 21, 2011

Who am I? Why am I so against circumcision?

I am but a citizen concerned for the rights of minors and the individual. I am against circumcision, specifically the circumcision of healthy, non-consenting minors because it is wrong on so many different levels. Nevermind the ethical repugnancy behind reaping profit for performing elective, non-medical cosmetic alterations on healthy, non-consenting minors; circumcision is a permanent, irrevocable alteration that changes the way a person's genitals appear and function for the rest of his life. Because it is performed on healthy individuals who are unable to speak for themselves, it is abuse. It is abuse of a child who is unable to fend for himself, and it is the abuse of parents who have given doctors their trust. I am against infant circumcision because it is nothing less than genital mutilation. It is a violation of basic human rights.

When Did I Take This Position?
Coming to the conclusion that I have was a long, drawn-out process. I wasn't immediately against circumcision; it didn't happen overnight. Actually, I myself am not circumcised, and I came to learn about circumcision out of a desire to get circumcised. I grew up in America, and when I was in highschool, I was brought under the impression that all American men are circumcised at birth. I didn't know then what I know now. I started reading on the internet about all the medical "benefits" that circumcision is supposed to afford the owners of circumcised penises, how it's much more "prettier-looking," and how most (American) women prefer it, and I felt short-changed. Back then, I started feeling a sort of disdain for my parents. "Why wasn't I circumcised as a baby like all the other boys, so I wouldn't remember?"

I'm 29 today, but back when I was maybe about 15, 16, the first websites that came up when you typed "circumcision" in say, Altavista, were those pro-circumcision websites who talked about circumcision like it was the best thing since sliced bread. That's how I started to learn about how most men in this country are circumcised, and that if you're not, you're doomed to a life of ridicule and rejection by women. At those websites, they talk about all the virtues of being circumcised. It's cleaner, "prettier" (to WHOM, now that I think of it?), and anyone who's anyone is circumcised. I was exposed to nothing but "positives." I also started reading about those "awful anti-circumcisionists" who had nothing better to do than infringe on "religious freedom" and "parental rights." Whenever I would read about people against circumcision, there would be this unexplained hateful, disdainful tone. But why? Why would anyone be against circumcision with all these positives? Why would anyone go as far as to condemn a religious practice, and why shouldn't parents have this right to "choose" what they want for their children?

You can't just read up on one side of the argument and have a "fair and balanced" conclusion; you need to read on what BOTH sides have to say. There's got to be a reason. People don't just wake up one day and think to themselves "to day is a good day to hate Jews and meddle in parental choice." Are those even the reasons people oppose circumcision? What is it about circumcision that these people euphoric about cutting babies' genitals aren't telling me? What is it they don't want me to know? Why do they warn me about not listening to "the other side?" I decided I was going to find out.

Little by little, I was beginning to see WHY people are against circumcision. Look on pro-circumcision websites and there is absolutely no mention about the ethics of circumcising a healthy, non-consenting newborn. No one talks about the fact that circumcision changes the way a penis functions and its appearance for the rest of a child's life. A circumcised child must grow up with an altered organ; a "beta penis." When you give a gift to someone, say a box of chocolates, do you open the box and take a couple of bites off the chocolates you like? How do you feel if you get a toy, and you realized your older brother opened it and played with it first? Just the same, how is it right that a child has to live with mutilated organs for the rest of his life? If a man grows up to like his organs that way, hey, more power to him. But what about those men who wish they would have had a choice? They must live with a scar that serves as a constant reminder that their bodies are not their own. Day to day, they are reminded that their bodies were mutilated every time they take a piss.

That's when I began to move away from a position of "WHY wasn't I circumcised?" I stopped having disdain for my parents and I started to appreciate not having been mutilated at birth. Still, the realization that 1.3 million boys a year, about 3,000 a day, get circumcised in hospitals across the country is something you can't quite get out of your mind. The cat's been let out of the bag, so to speak. I began to try and reason it out.

"Well, circumcision just might have all these benefits, and I guess even though it's not medically necessary, I guess it's each parent's choice then. Others chose to have their children circumcised, mine didn't, and that's just the way it is." Or so I thought to myself. I tried very hard to stay in a "neutral" position for the longest time, but I just couldn't. Every time I thought I had it all figured out, some new realization kept bothering me. For example, for the longest time the idea of inflicting unnecessary pain on a healthy, non-consenting child bothered me. I tried very hard to reason "well, at least babies won't remember." But then, is "not remembering" what is supposed to make circumcising healthy children OK? If a man uses a drug to have his way with a woman, does it make it OK if she "can't remember?" Does this rationale work in any other context? Would we ever advocate circumcision in a girl if it were done in infancy when she can't remember? With pain killers? Is stealing from a blind man better than stealing from a man that can see because "what he doesn't know can't hurt him?" Or is stealing wrong in principle?

One thought lingered in my mind; if there is no medical necessity, how is it parents can even be allowed to "choose" this for their children? There's no medical condition in a healthy child, so how is it even a "choice?" Can doctors even be performing circumcisions in healthy minors, let alone pander to a parent's sense of entitlement? Are doctors obliged to perform medically unwarranted procedures in children if parents asked for it? What's the limit? What other parts of the body are doctors obliged to chop off to honor a parent's wishes? To protect against some rare disease that a child isn't even likely to get, and that is already quite preventable by other less invasive means? Or is a doctor's duty to perform only that which is medically necessary in a child with a legitimate problem?

No. I arrived at the conclusion that doctors that perform circumcision in healthy, non-consenting children are getting away with medical fraud. They only get away with it because it isn't perceived as such by the American general public; it is perceived as "parental choice," even though it is quite clear that there is no "choice" to make in healthy children. Doctors have no business performing circumcisions in healthy children anymore than parents have any business asking for a doctor to do this. Doctors have a duty to refuse to perform these procedures because it is medical fraud to be reaping profit for performing elective, non-medical procedure; because performing circumcision in healthy newborns is not only outright charlatanism, it is a violation of basic human rights. There is no way around it; circumcision violates the same principle in boys as it does in girls. That one is more "severe" than the other is irrelevant.

It's Not That Simple
Arriving at this conclusion didn't end the conflict in my head regarding circumcision. I was raised in a very old-fashioned, very conservative, very pro-Israel Christian church. Since I was a child, I was taught that Jews were "God's people," they were the smartest, most intelligent people on earth, and they could do no wrong. I was taught about the holocaust, and I was shown Hitler movies from a very young age. I was taught that the Jews were the most oppressed people on earth, and governments through-out time did what they could to limit the practice of their religion. Our church would often invite rabbis to speak. We would hold menorah lightings for Channukah, and we were taught about many Jewish customs. We learned about the metzuzah, kosher food, yarmulkas, dreidels, Purim, Yom Kipur, Rosh Hashanah, you name it. Every one at my church wanted to be Jewish! It's funny, thoughout that whole time, we were never taught about that one little procedure around which Judaism is centered around.

I was torn. I AM torn; on the one hand, I think that doctors shouldn't be circumcising children, that since there is no medical necessity, parents don't have this "choice" to make. But on the other hand, I don't know how to reconcile my position against the circumcision of infants with a culture with which I was very close to in the past. It is hard to be against circumcision when it's easy for others to label you as "anti-Semite." I kept reasoning to myself, "Well, it's an important tradition for Jews. Doctors have no business performing circumcisions on healthy infants for sure, but what about Jews and their traditions?"

When Did We Decide What Is "Tradition" and What Is "Torture?"
This is where female circumcision comes into the picture, because as a nation, we have decided that in no way shape or form will we tolerate female circumcision, or "female genital mutilation" as we so brazenly call it, in this country. In May of 2010, the AAP tried advocate for a "ritual nick" for girls, on the premise that "it might deter parents from taking their daughters to other countries to have more severe procedures done." This caused an uproar across the globe. The month of May didn't pass before the AAP had retracted their position; under no circumstance was the West to accept a position from a professional medical organization that advocated female genital "cutting," not even a "ritual nick." A "nick," mind you, wouldn't remove anything. In this case, it would be MALE circumcision that would be "worse." So when people argue "well, female circumcision is WORSE," what do they really mean? In countries where girls are circumcised, it is thought of as an important religious and/or cultural "custom." But isn't it a double-standard to be advocating for "freedom" for one ethnic group and their traditions, but denying it in another? Why are cultures that circumcise girls less important than cultures that circumcise boys?

(For those of you interested, not all female circumcision is the same. In Malaysia and Indonesia, girls undergo a procedure that doesn't remove that much flesh, and where they don't sow up the vulva as often described. You can read up on these traditions in a NYTimes article called "A Cutting Tradition." Please google it and educate yourselves.)

The Catalyst
I think the experience that actually pushed me over the edge was actually watching a video of circumcision being performed. Never again will I think of male infant circumcision as "just a snip." Male circumcision isn't a "snip," anymore than female circumcision is just a "nick." People who keep insisting that circumcision is a "harmless snip" either don't know what they're talking about, or they honestly think people are really that stupid.

"Do nothing secretly; for Time sees and hears all things, and discloses all." ~Sophocles

So there you go. I went from a completely "for" position, to a gradual, but complete "against" position. I have tried to reason this out every which way possible, and I always manage to arrive at the same conclusion; circumcision is unnecessary in healthy children. Doctors have no business performing non-medical procedures on non-consenting individuals, and parents have no business asking doctors to perform them. Male circumcision may be an important religious tradition for some peoples, but if we respect and protect "religion and culture," why is it we protect only male circumcision on those grounds? When did we decide that cutting the genitals of one sex was "tradition", but cutting the genitals of the other sex is "mutilation?" It's a double-standard that I think this country needs to do some soul-searching on.

The Bottom Line
The foreskin is not a birth defect. Nor is it a congenital deformity or a genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. The foreskin is normal, healthy tissue found in all males at birth. Circumcision in healthy boys is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue. It permanently alters the appearance and mechanics of the penis, and it puts a child at risk of infection, disfigurment, complete ablation and even death. Thanks to research and modern medicine, we now have better, more effective, less-invasive ways to prevent disease, so that circumcision is not needed anymore (actually, it was never needed). Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of healthy, non-consenting individuals is by very definition infant genital mutilation. Doctors have no business performing it in healthy, non-consenting individuals, much less giving his parents any kind of "choice."

Lingering Ambiguity
I'm still kind of on the fence when it comes to the "religious" circumcision of infants as performed by Jewish families, but there is not a doubt in my mind that reaping profit from it by disguising it as "medicine" and performing it in hospitals on children whose parents aren't even Jewish is medical fraud. Circumcision may be an important "religious ritual," but doctors have absolutely no business performing magical blood rituals for anyone, especially children. Their duty is to medicine, not cultural custom or religious superstition.

It gives me heart to know that this day in age, there are Jewish groups that are viewing circumcision as the violation of basic human rights that it is, and deciding to abandon the custom. Prominent Jewish figures are speaking out against the practice and calling for it to end.

In closing, it must be made clear that I am not against circumcision when actually medically indicated. I'm also not against circumcision if that is what a fully consenting man wants to do with his body.

Furthermore, I do not judge parents that have gone ahead and agreed to have their children circumcised; it is my belief that deep down, all parents really want is the best for their sons, and if they knew any better, they would have decided against it. Circumcising American doctors dispense misinformation either inadverdently or deliberately, and parents can't be blamed if they're asked to make a decision not being given the full picture. Being told that circumcision prevents HIV, penile cancer, and a myriad of other diseases, and that not circumcising guarantees a man a life full of disease, what parent WOULDN'T choose circumcision for their sons? Would that doctors adhered to the first dictum in medicine, "First do no harm," circumcision wouldn't even be this "choice." It is my hope that through education, this country becomes enlightened, and I live to see the end of this mutilation, this medical fraud, this deliberate and blatant violation of basic human rights.


  1. Hi there! If you read this whole article, it should clear up the remainder of your ambiguity about Jewish circumcision:

    (I know it focuses on Christians, but trust me, the Jewish thing is thoroughly covered.)

  2. Well said, Joseph! I really appreciate how you approached the Jewish tradition aspect because I, too, am part of a Christian congregation that honors our Jewish roots. I quoted you in some recent musings on the subject: