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Is Circumcision Genital Mutilation?

I was having dinner with an old friend from college and the last thing I expected him to ask me over dim sum was, "Are you planning on circumcision?" I answered without a thought, "Yes, we are." My dear old friend became quite animated and adamant that we should absolutely not circumcise our child. In that moment, I got my first taste of what it feels like to have someone try to tell you what to do with your child and it infuriated me. After I got over my initial rageful thoughts of "Have your own damn baby!" and "I can't believe you're saying this to me." I decided to let him go on, because he is after all, a very good friend.

"It's mutilation! They have no choice! It's awful how they do it! They strap them down—it's terrible. It's traumatic. It robs them of sensation for the rest of their lives!" He grabbed my hand and told me to touch the center of my palm with my fingertip, then to feel the back. "See the difference? How much more sensitive? That's what it's like." I really wanted to go to the bathroom at this point in the conversation—one, because I always have to go to the bathroom, I'm pregnant; and two, because I wanted to escape. He finally ended it with "I just want you to think about it." So I have been. I've been thinking and talking about circumcision this past week more than I ever have in my life.

RELATED: To Circumcise or Not to Circumcise?

I started the discussion with a female friend who is an naturopathic doctor, asking her if she considered the practice mutilation. She told me she didn't think the procedure itself was a big deal—it's short and she's been to many—but that if she were to have a child she wouldn't do it, because she feels it is mutilation. I spoke to another friend who is a nurse and has witnessed circumcisions; she described the procedure as "terrible" but still feels it is hygienic and would circumcise her own child. I discussed it with a Jewish friend who was planning to circumcise her son but due to health complications was unable to do it right after birth and has since decided to forgo the procedure unless it becomes medically necessary.

The jury is still out on the subject of permanent psychological damage—there's no evidence that babies remember the pain or that it has lasting effects on the psyche.

A lesbian couple told me they thought long and hard about it for their son—since they didn't have penises, they really wanted to do research. They spent a lot of time looking up information—pros and cons, what the stats were like, circumcised or uncircumcised, in their area—but found that the information was pretty balanced on both sides. They didn't feel pressured one way or the other but ultimately decided to circumcise because all of the male members in their family were circumcised. Another friend of mine with two boys did not circumcise because she didn't feel it was medically necessary and they had no religious reasons and she'd heard it gave them more sexual staying power.

A family practice doctor friend who has performed many circumcisions (but did not want to do it on her own son) told me that, as a medical professional, she gives families the information on the pros and cons and lets them make the decision—even though she herself is opposed to the procedure because it's not medically necessary. She wanted her husband to make the final call and he chose not to circumcise, in part, because he'd heard horror stories from his wife while she was in medical school. It is very common for medical residents to perform the procedure. A neurologist friend of ours also said that the inexperience of the person doing the procedure is probably the greatest risk. However, I think it should be noted you can also have your pediatrician perform the procedure if this is a concern for you. The jury is still out on the subject of permanent psychological damage—there's no evidence that babies remember the pain or that it has lasting effects on the psyche.

It is a decision that each family should make on their own with their doctor.

After hearing all of these opinions from friends and family members, I decided to see what the Internet had to say. I went into the research with a fairly open mind. I knew my husband wanted to circumcise but I wasn't opposed to finding information that may have changed our minds. What I found was a lot of information on intactivism. The "intactivists" appear to be a fringe group that have taken any thoughtful discussion on the subject and made it into a screaming match with very little or no scientific evidence to back it up. They call circumcision mutilation, a violation of human rights and say that it will ruin a man's sex life (which seems to be the most important piece of the intactivist agenda). However, in a systematic review of the scientific literature the conclusion is: "The highest-quality studies suggest that medical male circumcision has no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation or satisfaction."

From all of my Googling and talking to medical professionals on the subject, I've come to the conclusion that circumcision is not medically necessary. The American Academy of Pediatrics current stance on the issue is that while there are benefits to circumcision, they are not enough to recommend the procedure universally and that the decision is up to the parents. My husband and I have decided we are in favor of the procedure for our child. My husband feels very strongly that a circumcised penis is a cleaner, more hygienic penis. I think it is also worth noting that my father had a circumcision as an adult due to infections and irritations—which happens to about 10% of adult males—and I would spare my future son that operation.

RELATED: A Dad Begs His Wife: 'Don't Circumcise My Son'

Most uncircumcised males do not have problems associated with their foreskin and while the procedure does prevent UTI infections in male babies, one can argue that they can simply take antibiotics. I realize that I am opening myself up to a lot of potential vitriol from from the intactivist community for what is a personal decision for our family. I'm OK with that. It is a decision that each family should make on their own with their doctor. I do not feel that this is a human rights issue. I do not think of it as mutilation or that it will have an adverse effect on our son, or that he will long for his foreskin so much he will try to have it replaced as an adult. I'm sure people will argue that I can't know that, but I know enough circumcised men who are not concerned with their lack of foreskin to feel confident in our decision. They may choose to not circumcise their own sons now that the procedure is not as common (the CDC reports that circumcision rates are down to 10% overall in the U.S., from 64.5% to 58.3%) and I think that is also a totally valid choice.

If you are deciding whether or not to circumcise your newborn, I strongly urge you to do your research and talk to your doctor. This is not a decision that should be based on an activist group screaming in your face. Do your research, find the facts amongst the propaganda on both sides and consult with your physician. Then you can make an informed decision based on what you think is best for your child.

Image via Twenty20/13twentythree

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