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Circumcision: Don't, Just Don't

The night I learned I was pregnant, my unsuspecting then boyfriend, now husband, was out with a colleague of his whose wife had just learned she was expecting. They toasted this news into the wee hours, and my boyfriend spent that night dreaming about babies, specifically that he had twin daughters.

Upon learning the next morning that I, too, was pregnant, he continued dreaming about having twin girls, one dressed in blue and one in yellow. The dreams were detailed and recurring, and we began to believe in the girls, and had picked out perfect names for them.

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An eight-week ultrasound eliminated the possibility of twins, but we still leaned very heavily toward "girl." It wasn't a preference—just a feeling.

When we went for the 20-week ultrasound, the first image we got was that of our baby yawning. It was incredible to see. The technician, who was Dutch but speaking English, took us on a 30-minute gray/blue grainy tour, pointing to and measuring the skull, the lips, the hands, the feet. "Here are the lungs," she beamed, "and the heart, and the stomach, and here is the liver, and here—" she drew an arrow onscreen—"are the balls!"

And indeed, there were the balls. This meant we had to rethink our names, but it also meant, for me, anyway, that we had to talk about something else.

In the States, although the practice is increasingly questioned, circumcision is still the norm. It's not something I had made up my mind about, but it's something I thought we should discuss. But because my Irish husband is "unsnipped," I assumed his answer to the circumcision question would be absolutely not.

"Absolutely not," he said, "and don't be Googling it."

But I'm a Googler, so of course I Googled. The United States, I learned, is the only country in the world that circumcises the majority of its male infants for non-religious reasons, and I was curious to know why so many parents opted for this.

One woman wrote in an online forum that she once saw an uncircumcised penis, and it looked like Darth Vader in a turtleneck.

Many members of the parenting discussion groups I visited online seemed to believe it was better for the baby. But as far as medical benefits, when I was pregnant with my son I could find no report of any, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has been saying as much since 1971. At the time, in 2010, no national medical organization in the United States was recommending circumcision.

Recently this has changed, when the CDC published a report citing benefits to circumcision, which included lower risk of getting HIV from an infected female partner by 50 to 60 percent, reduced risk of genital herpes and certain strains of human papillomavirus by 30 percent or more, and lower odds of urinary tract infections during infancy and cancer of the penis in adulthood.

But when I was doing my research, most of the reasons given in favor of circumcision had little to do with health. One woman in a pregnancy forum said she was going to circumcise her son because she didn't want to have to handle his bits in order to wash them. The improbability of avoiding touching your son's privates while caring for him in the early years aside, this is misinformed.

The penis in its natural form is a self-cleaning mechanism, much like a vagina, and it is not true that an uncircumcised penis is more difficult to clean—not in adulthood and not in infancy. In fact, the baby books are very clear on how to care for a newborn's foreskin: leave it alone.

What I've found, both online and in speaking to mothers of sons, is the overwhelming majority of parents lean in favor of circumcision so the baby will "look like daddy." This seems widely accepted, but it doesn't hold for me.

I suspect that we, meaning Americans, circumcise because it's what we're used to doing and because the majority of boys in the States get the snip.

These are well-meaning parents, as I believe most are. But the "look like daddy" argument is a self-perpetuating one that ensures the continuation of circumcision while negating medical research that not only dismisses any benefits of the practice, but that actually points to the potential damage—physical and psychological—that can result from it.

I understand that children are wonderfully inquisitive and observant and will notice and ask about the differences between their bodies and their daddy's (and mommy's). But on hearing something like, "people used to cut the skin off because they thought it was safer, but now we know that is not true so we didn't do that to you," I think most little boys will accept this simple truth rather than have confusion instilled about their masculine identity.

I've spoken to friends of mine who had sons in America, and they felt that circumcision was just assumed. In some cases, they were really encouraged to do it. In the Netherlands, nobody ever brought it up—not the midwife or the OB who had to deliver my son in then end.

I suspect that we, meaning Americans, circumcise because it's what we're used to doing and because the majority of boys in the States get the snip. A circumcised penis is what we are more accustomed to seeing.

One woman wrote in an online forum that she once saw an uncircumcised penis, and it looked like Darth Vader in a turtleneck. She said it was ugly and worried that girls wouldn't be attracted to her son. I can't imagine society accepting elective surgery on the genitals of female babies, because we prefer how it looks.

The bottom line is that every parent should choose what they think is best for their child. Inform yourself and weigh the pros and cons.

And of course circumcision is not the norm worldwide. According to some statistics, about 60 percent of infant boys are circumcised in the U.S., and Australia is not far behind. Only about 30 percent are snipped in Canada, and figures drop to less than 20 percent in countries elsewhere in the world.

I mentioned these numbers to an Australian friend of mine, a circumcised male, who immediately fell into a fit of insecurity about whether Dutch girls think he looks like a freak.

It reminds me of the Dr. Seuss story about an island inhabited by two breeds of Sneetch: some have stars on their bellies and are considered vastly superior to those without. The star-less Sneetches obtain a large and fabulously Seussian machine that puts stars on their bellies, prompting the original star-bellied Sneetches to acquire a machine that removes their stars. Chaos ensues: nobody knows anymore whether it's preferable to have a star or not to have a star.

Of course a star is not a foreskin and a baby is not a Sneetch. The bottom line is that every parent should choose what they think is best for their child. Inform yourself and weigh the pros and cons.

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My son was not circumcised, not because he's growing up in Europe and not because he'll look like his daddy if we leave him intact, but simply because it is not necessary.

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Photo via Twenty20/Tara

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