A Case Against Circumcision
By Lissa Rankin
When I was an intern, just starting my OB/GYN residency, someone handed me a list with a dozen names on it and said, “Go. It’s your job to circumcise these babies.” My mouth flung open. Say what?
Do you know what you just made me do to your son?
Sure enough, as it turns out, it’s the intern’s responsibility to wake up sleeping newborns, strap them down to a board that looks not unlike the electric chair (called a “circumstraint”), clamp their unanesthetized foreskins with the sterilized Gomco or Mogen instrument, and cut away the foreskins from the tips of the poor baby penises while they scream bloody murder, turn beet red, and pee in your face. I hated it. It was just awful.
The nurses would line them up, one after the other — then, after wrapping their little post-operative pee-pees in Vaseline gauze, I would deliver them back to their Mommies. The whole time, I wanted to say, “Do you know what you just made me do to your son?”
Before doing the procedure, I always had the Mommy sign a consent form that basically says that this procedure is completely unnecessary, that it’s purely cosmetic, and that the baby might bleed, get infected, or have its penis accidentally lopped off. And they would sign away on the dotted line without blinking. It baffled me.
All in the family
During my residency, I performed at least a thousand circumcisions, many of which left me blubbering like a child because it just broke my heart to have to hurt these poor babies. When I complained about having to do them to my physician father, he said, “I’m so glad nobody ever did that to me.”
Until he said it, I had never thought about whether my father was circumcised. My family grew up pretty open about bodies and sexuality, so yes, I had seen my father naked. But I guess I’d never really scrutinized his genitalia. Then it occurred to me. I had also seen my brother naked — and he was circumcised. If Dad was happy to be uncut, why did he choose to circumcise his son?
When I asked him, Dad said that he didn’t want Chris to feel different, and at the time, everybody was circumcising their boys.
I thought back to the Somali women I had cared for, all of which had been victims of female genital mutilation. My job as their doctor was not only to care for them but to help educate them in order to prevent them from putting their daughters through the same disfiguring surgery. When I asked them why they would want to do something so traumatic to their daughter’s genitalia, they all said, “We don’t want her to look different than the other girls.”
So we don’t feel… different?
Listen to us! Why are we cutting our children so that they don’t feel different? I just don’t understand. Why did my parents feel the need to cut my brother when his own father wasn’t even circumcised? What is wrong with our bodies the way they’re born? Why do we feel the need to mutilate our bodies in the name of religion, cosmetics, or societal acceptance?
Contrary to some reports, there’s no proven medical reason to circumcise a boy (or a girl, for that matter). Pediatricians agree that, as long as a child is taught to clean under the foreskin, penises are perfectly healthy and beautiful just the way they’re made, and there’s no health benefit to surgically altering the penis.
So why do we do it? I understand that there’s a long cultural history in Judaism around circumcision, so I can cut them some slack (although there’s also a long history around cutting a woman’s genitals in Africa — does that make it right?). As for the rest of us, why are we even doing this? Do we think God made a mistake by creating penises with foreskins? And if we’re doing it for purely cosmetic reasons, don’t you think we should allow the child to make his own decision when he’s old enough to choose? What message are we giving our newborns? Why are we whisking them off hours after birth to have surgery — usually with no anesthesia? What kind of welcome to the world is that?
Loving yourself exactly the way you are
If you’re a parent who chose to circumcise her sons, I’m not trying to make you feel bad. What’s done is done. You made the best decision you could at the time, with the guidance of those who were helping you make this decision, and I fully support you for doing what you thought was right. But if you don’t have kids yet or are pregnant and have to make a choice soon, please consider allowing your boys to keep the bodies they were born with.
The website I founded, Owning Pink, is all about encouraging you to be authentic, to love yourself exactly the way you are, to appreciate and honor your bodies — imperfections included — and to live life with loads of mojo. Why not raise our boys to Own Pink as well? So what if your son looks different in the locker room. Encourage him to embrace his difference, to celebrate his wholeness, to honor diversity. And if he decides later on that he wants to undergo an elective, cosmetic surgery, support him in his autonomous decision but remind him that he’s beautiful and perfect just the way he is.
7 Reasons Not To Circumcise Your Baby
- There’s absolutely no medical reason to do so. Contrary to popular belief, circumcision does not make the penis cleaner — it just crosses off one more area that needs attention in the shower. It doesn’t reduce the risk of STDs, bladder infections, penile cancer, or penis infections.
- The surgery carries risks — and yes, while I have never been personally responsible for pulling a Lorena Bobbitt on a poor, defenseless baby, I have seen little boys get the ends of their penises cut off as the result of circumcision. And remember, if you give birth at a hospital that has residents, it’s often the intern performing the circumcision!
- Many swear that having foreskin helps prevent premature ejaculation and can lead to longer lovemaking.
- God doesn’t make mistakes — and the body was made with foreskin.
- Most countries do not circumcise their boys. Why should we?
- A person should have the right to choose whether they undergo a purely cosmetic surgery that cannot be undone.
- Circumcision HURTS! While some swear that babies cannot feel, I have watched them when I cut their little foreskins. And they definitely feel pain. Maybe they don’t remember it, but somewhere in their little budding psyches, they might. Do we really want a child’s first experience in life to be this pain?
My colleague, best-selling author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom Dr. Christiane Northrup (who also wrote the foreward to my book!), agrees with me. We need to stop circumcision. We just do. It has to start somewhere. Please spread the word.
What do you think? Did you circumcise your sons? Are you glad you did? Do you wish you hadn’t? As a lover, do you prefer circumcised penises? Uncircumcised ones? Do you think we should be promoting this procedure? Banning it? Speak up — and feel free to disagree with me! This is worth talking about.
Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician, founder of Owning Pink, and author of the forthcoming What’s Up Down There: Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin’s Press, September 2010).
Our Compass Related:
- FGM: Additional Information and How You Can Help, US Cornell University Practicing FGM
- Female Genital Mutilation at Cornell University, PAVE Response