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The Other Side Of The Circumcision Debate

By Ronald Goldman
Religion News Service

BOSTON (RNS) The ballot question in San Francisco to ban infant circumcision has stimulated a wave of discussion about religious liberty and parental choice, but the more general question of the advisability of circumcision is mostly avoided.

It's time to start talking, however uncomfortable that might be.

I started thinking about this question more than 25 years ago when I attended my first bris, or ritual circumcision ceremony. As someone who is very sensitive to the pain experienced by children, I was reluctant to go. The event is indelibly impressed on my mind.

When the circumcision began, the infant screamed, and I can't imagine an infant crying any louder or with more agony, pain, and sense of urgency in his voice. A few people were crying quietly, including his parents.

Using every bit of energy he had, the infant protested vehemently what was being done to him with the best of adult intentions. I resolved to do something about what I had witnessed.

My subsequent years of reflection, study, conversations and experience with this issue have convinced me that there are extremely important aspects of circumcision that are unrecognized or not talked about. Small group meetings with circumcised men, clinical experience, and independent surveys have contributed to a greater understanding of the deep feelings some people have about circumcision -- even if they, too, had trouble talking about it.

In 1995, I founded the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, which represents Jews around the world who question ritual circumcision. We want Jews to know that if you question circumcision, you are not alone.

Jews have contributed books, films, research, and other work to bring attention to the harm of circumcision. Consequently, numerous articles in Jewish periodicals have debated circumcision, and the practice is no longer universal among Jews in the United States, South America, Europe, and Israel.

Jews have organized groups to oppose circumcision here and in Israel, and a growing number of Jews recognize that they actually have a choice about circumcision, such as opting for a welcoming ceremony without circumcision for baby boys.

While questioning circumcision may make some Jews uncomfortable, the continuing intellectual, emotional, and ethical conflicts about circumcision also make us uncomfortable. And it's time to talk about it.

Some mothers have revealed great distress about permitting and watching the circumcision of their sons and have regretted their decision for years. "I will go to my grave hearing that horrible wail," one mother told me.

Recent information supports their feelings. Studies show that infants experience significant pain and trauma during circumcision, which can result in behavioral and neurological changes in infants. The behavioral changes can disrupt mother-child bonding, and circumcision carries some two dozen surgical risks including (in rare cases) death.

Some dissatisfied circumcised men report wide-ranging physical, sexual, and psychological consequences, partly because they are aware that the foreskin has significant physiological and sexual functions. Circumcised men have reported decreased sexual sensitivity and even erectile dysfunction.

Psychological effects can include anger, sense of loss, sadness, sexual anxieties, reduced emotional expression, and avoidance of intimacy. Such adverse effects of circumcision on men and infants are changing how some Jews feel about circumcision.

When Jewish-American parents choose circumcision, many procedures are done in hospitals without any religious ritual. Without a strong religious belief, many Jews circumcise because of cultural conformity and belief in medical or religious myths.

Yet consider these facts. Jewish circumcision has never had anything to do with health concerns, and neither is circumcision a requirement of Jewish identity. No national medical organization in the world recommends routine circumcision of male infants. No experimental anesthetic has been found to be safe and effective in preventing circumcision pain in infants.

It's our responsibility as Jews to welcome new information and thoughtful inquiry on this or any other question. Because of the growing evidence of the harmful effects of circumcision, more Jews are trusting their feelings -- applying ethics, reason, and experience, and resolving their conflicts with a decision not to circumcise.

Perpetuating the pain of circumcision is far greater than the pain that comes with confronting the issues we and others have raised. Based on our contacts with hundreds of Jews who do not circumcise, there is growing support for this view.

We recognize the difficulty of questioning circumcision, but the traumatic cries or silent shock of circumcised Jewish infants have been ignored far too long.

(Ronald Goldman is executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center and author of "Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective" and "Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.")

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It cannot be emphasised that we intactivists do not want to stamp out circumcision. We do not want to force devout or unaffiliated Jews to live out their adult lives with intact penises. We do not wish to force Jewish women to marry intact husbands. We are simply saying that circumcision should be the informed choice of the person concerned. Parents do not have the right to determine, at the start of a man's life, what style of penis he will have throughout life. That decision is rightly the man's alone.

It is unconscionable to take advantage of a newborn's small size and helplessness to alter his sexual body irrevocably. That is an abuse of power. It is even more unconscionable that this surgery is customarily performed as part of a social gathering, so that a family's opting for no bris becomes public knowledge.

The circumcision of Jewish men in their early 20s will be a private ceremony, done under anesthesia. The likelihood of surgical errors will be lessened. Most of all, the man will know what it means and stands for, and is prepared to accept any adverse consequences.

In my opinion, delaying circumcision from the 8th day to the early 20s is less radical than giving up animal sacrifice and the stoning of adulterous women.