On Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a meeting in Atlanta as part of a four-day conference on HIV prevention to discuss how to urge non-circumcising communities in American to circumcise. At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has long remained neutral on the subject, is currently revising its guidelines in favor of circumcision. Growing up Jewish in America, I never questioned circumcision. But now, after having children and seeing how grown men in my life continue to suffer psychologically because of a procedure done to them as infants, I've come to believe that circumcision is not only unnecessary, it's a painful and traumatizing procedure that should not be done in infancy, if at all.
Deciding whether to circumcise is a decision that every American parent of a boy faces, though the majority simply choose to follow the doctor or hospital's recommendation.
According to an Aug. 24 article in the New York Times, approximately 79 percent of all adult American males are circumcised. According to Intact America, a nonprofit organization trying to stop routine circumcision in America, circumcision is the most common surgery performed in America and it happens to more than 1 million newborns a year, more than 3,000 times a day, or once every 26 seconds.
Before my brother Zach's wife gave birth to their third child, I started receiving frantic emails from a 28-year-old male relative whom I'll call J. "Do you know if they are planning to circumcise?" J. wrote me. "Could you find out about it? Could you tell them not to? Could you talk to them?" As the due date approached, the messages become increasingly desperate, as if J. felt that circumcision were a matter of life and death. At the same time, J. was ashamed for being so worried. He asked not to tell anyone that he was inquiring; he said he felt embarrassed and couldn't talk to my brother directly. He begged me not to mention to his mother, especially, how worried he felt about Zach's baby.
J. himself is circumcised. Circumcision is part of my family's cultural heritage. All of my relatives, including my father, my uncles and my grandfathers, have been circumcised. In the Bible, God actually commands Abraham to circumcise his male descendants. Practicing Jews hold what is usually a festive ceremony, called a bris, on the eighth day of a boy's life during which his foreskin is removed either by a doctor or a mohel, a rabbi trained in circumcision. Even in countries where circumcision is not the a norm, the majority of Jews choose to circumcise.
Yet it is not for traditional reasons that health officials want to see an upswing in American circumcisions. Recent health studies in Africa suggest that circumcised heterosexual men are less likely to get an HIV infection than their non-circumcised counterparts. Circumcision proponents also argue that urinary tract infections are less likely among circumcised men, and that it is necessary for cleanliness. They discount the pain involved in the procedure and argue that it creates no lasting damage.
Those in favor of circumcision for medical reasons are wrong. First of all, the procedure is painful, even with the administration of anesthesia. Anyone who has ever witnessed a circumcision (you can watch one on the internet if you don't believe me) and heard the high-pitched scream of a newborn having the tip of his penis cut off knows that this surgery causes terrible pain. For the week that the cut is healing, a baby is peeing and defecating on a raw, open wound. Circumcision is also dangerous. Just this past March a jury in Atlanta awarded $1.8 million in damages to a boy's parents after a seriously botched circumcision.
It's also a procedure that causes lasting regret in some grown men. J. feels so badly about being circumcised that he is on a campaign to stop all of us having children from circumcising. Other men I know wish their parents gave them the option to choose instead of forcing them to undergo a painful procedure as one of their earliest life experiences. If there really is a correlation between circumcision and HIV prevention, then we should let adult men choose to have the procedure done once they are sexually active.
My brother's baby turned out to be a girl. But my own son is not circumcised and if the baby I am carrying now, due in October, is a boy he will not be either. Forced circumcision of newborns is wrong. Let's not impose trauma on newborns and instead give adult men the right to choose.