A Case Against Circumcision

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. Many swear that having foreskin helps prevent premature ejaculation and can lead to longer lovemaking.
  4. God doesn’t make mistakes — and the body was made with foreskin.
  5. Most countries do not circumcise their boys. Why should we?
  6. A person should have the right to choose whether they undergo a purely cosmetic surgery that cannot be undone.
  7. 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.

Related Links:
Making the Cut: The Circumcision Quandary
Stop Male Genital Mutilation

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.

421 comments

ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA SOMLAI2 years ago

thank you for sharing

Ireelvant Kommentaytr
Janez Novak2 years ago

Yes, it should. It's no different than female circumcision.

Amandine S.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Phillipa W.
Phillipa W.2 years ago

there's NO evidence circumcision offers any protection against HIV. However, there IS evidence that having a foreskin does. Worldwide statistics certainly support the clinical evidence that circumcision increases the spread of HIV, just as it does for all infections which can afflict genitals. On top of that there are skin conditions which can only occur in circumcised penises. As far as health goes, circumcision is a disaster.

Lynn Mason
Lynn Mason3 years ago

Circumcision is wrong unless you are removing someone's foreskin 1) because of cancer or gangrene or 2) because they are an informed adult of sound mind who has decided he wants his foreskin removed.

Joe R.
Joe R.4 years ago

Thanks.

Charles Wallace
Charles Wallace4 years ago

@Megan Z: "There is strong evidence that circumcision reduces HIV infections"

I read your article, Megan, and it hardly qualifies as "strong evidence". Nothing is said about the correlation of HIV to number of sexual partners for either circumcized or uncircumcized men, for example. But even if this is true, that doesn't mean that circumcision is a good or preferable way to avoid HIV. Abstinence is a FAR more effective way of avoiding HIV. As is amputating the entire penis. The end does not justify the means. Circumcision is mutilation of the human body. It's not necessary to avoid contracting HIV. There are better and more humane ways of doing so. That's where our efforts are best placed. NOT in promoting the mutilation of half the human population.

Even your "study" states that the HIV infection rate in uncirced men was less than 3%. So 97% of the men would be circed UNNECESSARILY! Not only that, but circing would not eliminate the risk of HIV, just reduce it. So half of that 3% would get HIV anyway. This "study" was pushed by people with a religiuos agenda, and was not scientific at all. If someone wants to circ their own body, fine. But no one should be allowed to circumcize another person without their consent. Period.

Paul S.
Paul S.4 years ago

Megan Zehnder, you state that there is "strong evidence" that circumcision protects against HIV, supporting your claim by referring to studies performed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
You are from the USA, right? Yet you use findings designed and performed in the Sub-Sahara as a reason to justify subjecting baby boys (who can't have sex!) in the USA!
Why do you think that findings from third world countries are projectable onto developed nations? Since the HIV pandemic is of 30 years' standing, why don't you have any evidence from your own country - or any developed nation - that circumcision offers some protection?
The AFAO of Australia (a branch of the Australian Public Health), following due research in Australia, stated in 2008: "Circumcision has no part in the Australian HIV epidemic". A similar position is taken by health authorities in Europe. As the AFAO mentioned in its report: The USA has the highest incidence of male circmcision in the industrialized world (about 80% of U.S. men are circumcised), yet ALSO has the highest incidence of HIV transmission in men!

Conversely, in Europe circmcision is very uncommon. Yet Europe has the LOWEST incidence of HIV! A large study on circumcision involving over 60,000 US men recruited from San Francisco STD clinics was undertaken by Mor et al. in 2008. It found NO DIFFERENCE in HIV infection between the circumcised and uncircumcised men

Paul S.
Paul S.4 years ago

Megan Zehnder, you state that there is "strong evidence" that circumcision protects against HIV, supporting your claim by referring to studies performed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
You are from the USA, right? Yet you use findings designed and performed in the Sub-Sahara as a reason to justify subjecting baby boys (who can't have sex!) in the USA!
Why do you think that findings from third world countries are projectable onto developed nations? Since the HIV pandemic is of 30 years' standing, why don't you have any evidence from your own country - or any developed nation - that circumcision offers some protection?
The AFAO of Australia (a branch of the Australian Public Health), following due research in Australia, stated in 2008: "Circumcision has no part in the Australian HIV epidemic". A similar position is taken by health authorities in Europe. As the AFAO mentioned in its report: The USA has the highest incidence of male circmcision in the industrialized world (about 80% of U.S. men are circumcised), yet ALSO has the highest incidence of HIV transmission in men!

Conversely, in Europe circmcision is very uncommon. Yet Europe has the LOWEST incidence of HIV! A large study on circumcision involving over 60,000 US men recruited from San Francisco STD clinics was undertaken by Mor et al. in 2008. It found NO DIFFERENCE in HIV infection between the circumcised and uncircumcised men

Megan Zehnder
Megan Zehnder4 years ago

There is strong evidence that circumcision reduces HIV infections: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-20/circumcision-reduces-hiv-infections-76-in-south-african-study.html