The Circumcision Wars: What's a Parent to Do?

Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information

The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised.  I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.

“We’re not?” he asked.

Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said.  “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”

Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”

But we didn’t.  We avoided the conversation until a full week past our little boy’s due date, and it seemed like our little boy might never arrive until we made a decision.

When we finally started talking, we quickly realized that neither of us had any rational reason to feel strongly about the subject. We hadn’t done any research, nor did we have any current medical information. This is just an emotional topic, in which opinions tend toward the extreme.

To begin working our way towards agreement, we consulted the professionals. Our pediatrician was impossible to read and exasperatingly diplomatic. Either decision would be fine, she assured us. We also learned that the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends circumcision, but not enough to assert that it should be a routine procedure.

In fact, we got the impression from the AAP’s website that it was actually trying to talk us out of its position. According to the AAP, circumcision only “slightly lowers” the risk of urinary tract infections for baby boys, which are already “not common,” and while the procedure does prevent penile cancer, they note that that form of cancer is “very rare,” which I read as “not worth worrying about.”  They also present a lot of cons to consider, such as pain and a belief that the procedure can affect sexual pleasure later in life.

Other medical organizations aren’t more definitive. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for example, supports the AAP’s recommendation, but also notes that the benefits are only “modest.” To fully support the idea of cutting my son’s penis, I was looking for convincing arguments and significant benefits. These lukewarm endorsements only complicated our decision. Still, I was willing to accept that if multiple groups of medical professionals say that removing the foreskin is reasonable and preferable, I should stop putting up so much of a fight.

This was good news to my husband, who in return committed to a good-faith second phase of research.  He looked at numerous photos of the medical procedure online. They were much bloodier than he expected, and he came away confident that there are less intrusive ways to protect oneself from STDs and HIV, two of the major arguments for circumcising.  Next, he tried to assuage a personal concern by watching a few “adult” movies to see how an uncircumcised penis “worked.” Not surprisingly, this critical investigation revealed that (as 80% of European men could have told us) bedroom mechanics tend to “work” for uncircumcised men just as “naturally” as they do for circumcised men.

We were now united in complete uncertainty, so we decided to do something a little unusual. We polled our friends about their sons’ penises, and as you might guess, we learned a lot of interesting things.

First, I learned that the little “we don’t recommend routine circumcision [as an after-birth procedure]” clause in the AAP’s position is there for good reason. Back in the 1970s, my friend Brad was wheeled out of his parent’s hospital room for “routine” tests and came back a foreskin lighter. This happened without notifying or getting permission from his parents. As an adult, Brad based the decision to not have his son circumcised partly on this experience. “I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it,” he said.  “But it is a little annoying that the decision was made for me at all…and the fact that my parent’s didn’t get a say is also frustrating.”    

Our second realization came from the parents of twin boys who told us that not all doctors are equally talented artisans when it comes to genital whittling. “One of our sons has a much better circumcision than the other, which really annoys me,” the mother said.  “If we have another boy, I seriously might consider getting a mohel (even though I’m not Jewish).”

I’d never thought about circumcision quality control—asking to see examples of previous work seems pretty awkward, but it looked like that’s one more thing we’d need to do.

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Shawnee Barton is a writer and artist based in Austin, Texas.

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