To Circumcise or Not? The Latest Issue in the Mommy Wars

Sally Farhat Kassab
March 9, 2011

The debate over circumcision.

To cut or not to cut -- that is the decision that many moms of newborn boys face today. Welcome to the latest "choice" that's stoking the fire of the Mommy Wars. If you thought bottle or breast, or to work or not to work, had the blogosphere atwitter, circumcision has now upped the ante spawning vocal anti-circumcision groups like Intact America and Mothers Against Circumcision that are dedicated to eliminating the procedure.

"Babies are born with a foreskin for a reason," says Georgeanne Chapin, founding executive director of Intact America. "We can't be conducting mass surgery on the assumption that someone will engage in high-risk sexual behavior decades down the line."

And it's not just talk. The numbers speak for themselves. The percentage of babies being circumcised has plummeted. Today only 33 percent of babies are being circumcised, compared to 56 percent five years ago and 90 percent sixty years ago, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still among adult males, we're mostly a circumcised nation: approximately 80 percent of American males are circumcised (non-Hispanic whites: 90 percent; blacks: 73 percent; Mexican-Americans: 42 percent).

In the Beginning
So why all the controversy? And how did it get started anyway?

You could say it began with Abraham, thousands of years ago. Jewish people believe that "it is a profoundly significant life cycle event connecting the child to the ancient covenant between God and Abraham and the Torah and its commandments," according to Philip Sherman, a veteran mohel and associate cantor at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. Muslims also circumcise their children.  

But today in America, many people are starting to question the procedure. Should your child's penis look like his dad's? Is it really "cleaner" to have it done? Is it healthier?

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) remains neutral on circumcision. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is still working on a recommendation, while the World Health Organization recommends circumcising because of considerable evidence that it lowers HIV rates.

The Procedure: What Does It Actually Do?
What are we cutting, anyway? When a baby boy is born, his penis is covered by a layer of skin over the rounded head, called the glans. A doctor takes a clamp and removes this foreskin, and boom, you can suddenly see the glans and urinary opening.

The AAP says circumcisions reduce sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), infant urinary tract infections (UTIs) and cancer of the penis. And a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that circumcised males were less likely to be infected with the virus that causes genital warts and their female partners had a reduced risk of cervical cancer. 

But others disagree that circumcision has any real medical benefits that make it worth doing. They believe that it's un-necessarily painful to babies and even equate it to genital mutilation.    

"A brand new baby shouldn't be subjected to having a piece of their penis cut off," says Amanda Johnson, a mom of two uncircumcised boys. "They shouldn't have to go through that pain."

Other moms don't understand what all of the sudden controversy is about.

Johanna Byrne took her son to a pediatric urologist to be circumcised when he was one month old. She remembers being in the waiting room, with all the mothers crying that it was going to hurt. But she wasn't worried at all: "It's sort of a shot; it's so temporary and babies heal so quickly. My son wasn't hysterical. He wasn't even fussy," Byrne says.

Byrne is amazed that so few little boys in New York City, where she lives, are circumcised anymore. She says there were many reasons she chose to have her son circumcised. "My husband said that kids get made fun of if they are not circumcised, so it was sort of a social thing," Byrne says. "He also joked that he wanted his son to have the same face he does. It is what we both know. I didn't even question it."

Circumcision is not covered by many insurance plans, which is why some moms may also be choosing not to get their sons circumcised. And circumcision has recently seeped into politics, too. In 2011, the city of San Francisco attempted to institute a ban on circumcision. It ultimately didn't go through, but the debate that ensued illustrates what an emotional and powerful issue this is for many people. But ultimately, you have to make the choice you believe is right for your son.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan.  Neither nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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