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Circumcision is in the air! I received two emails recently asking for my thoughts on the procedure, both from fathers who are making the decision soon for a newborn son. Then yesterday I came across a very thoughtful post about it on the Domestic Father blog. He says most of what I would say, but I’ll go on the record here as well.
We had our son circumcised, and I wish we hadn’t. The question just snuck up on me in the form of a nurse and a clipboard when I was exhausted. “Most people do,” she said. Baaaaaa, I replied.
It was originally a religious ceremony, a (quite strange, if you think about it) symbol of faithfulness to God. But interestingly, circumcision was not common outside of Jewish and Muslim practice until the 1890s, when a few religious enthusiasts, including the strange character JH Kellogg, recommended it as a cure for “masturbatory insanity.” Kellogg spent much of his professional effort combating the sexual impulse and helping others to do the same, claiming a plague of masturbation-related deaths in which “a victim literally dies by his own hand” and offering circumcision as a vital defense. “Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as this pernicious habit,” warned a Dr. Alan Clarke (referring to masturbation, not circumcision).
Given these jeremiads by well-titled professionals, the attitudes of American parents in the 1890s turned overnight from horror at the barbarity of this “un-Christian” practice to immediate conviction that it would save their boys from short and insane lives. It was even reverse-engineered as a symbol of Christian fidelity and membership in the church.
(Isn’t it a relief that we’ve left this kind of mass gullibility so very far behind?)
The supposed health benefits and other red herrings were created after the fact, in the early 20th century, to undergird sexual repression with a firm foundation of pseudoscience.
Anyone interested in the non-pseudo variety might look to the Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Medical Association, and dozens of similar organizations around the world who have issued statements calling the practice of circumcision “not recommended” because of associated risks. Others, including the British Medical Association, have articulated a slight possibility of slight benefits. Even so, The U.S. is the only remaining developed country in which the practice is still somewhat common — though many American HMOs no longer cover it.
The practice almost completely ended in the UK with the publication of a 1949 paper noting that 16-19 infant deaths per year were attributable to complications from the procedure.
One of my correspondents told me that “all the doctors we talk to say that it doesn’t matter one way or the other.” This seems to answer the question. No invasive medical procedure should be undertaken that does not have demonstrable benefits.
Add to that the strong possibility that sexual sensitivity is diminished, and I’d advise against it. It’s a form of genital mutilation, after all — just a more familiar one.
There’s also no rush. The boy can choose to go under the knife at 18 if he wishes. Considering just how likely that is should give any parent serious pause before greenlighting a pointless ritual relic when he’s an infant.