You may be fine, your son may be fine, but it is morally wrong to circumcise your son just because you want to.
By Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
[I have spent the past ten years thinking, reading, talking and writing about circumcision. When I began, I thought circumcision was normal and beneficial, but as I learned more about it, I became confused as to whether it was a good idea to circumcise infants, and then sure it was a terrible thing and angry at those who promoted it or chose to circumcise, despite being given information. I suffered through some painful personal experiences because of my intactivism, and I may have even lost out on a job and grad school because of my “peculiar” interest (when you Google my name, it is penises all the way down.) Though I now can talk about circumcision without instantly becoming furious, I still believe the routine infant circumcision of babies to be a terrible thing, and that is why I keep this blog up. Over the past two years, I have written about many aspects of routine infant circumcision, including debunking the myths that lead people to circumcise, the hidden cultural and psychosocial history behind it, and the anthropology of circumcision, but many of these arguments require deep exploration of complicated scientific and sociocultural issues. Now I would like to tell you why circumcision is morally wrong in plain and simple language.]
1. Even though many circumcised men are just fine, some are not, and since you cannot know that your son will be one of the ones who is just fine, you should not risk it.
It is true that most of the men you know are likely fine, and have fine sex lives, and are fine being circumcised. However, some circumcised men are not fine. Babies can and do die because they were circumcised. It’s not common, but it happens. Some children require repeated surgeries because of complications of their circumcisions. Some men have sexual problems because of their circumcisions. The thing is, the people with circumcision problems aren’t sharing their problems over Facebook or the water cooler, so you think it doesn’t happen, but it does. The odds are, your son will be fine if he is circumcised, but there is a real chance he won’t be fine, so you shouldn’t take the risk.
2. The foreskin has a purpose, but you don’t have to hate your own (or your partner’s) penis to accept that circumcision is wrong.
The foreskin protects against infection, but it also plays an important role in sex. The nerves in the foreskin and frenulum are the most sensitive on the penis, but in an entirely different way than the head of the penis. Circumcised men cannot imagine this feeling, and so quickly discount it as unimportant for sex, but men who are not circumcised see those sensations as the most important part of their sexual feelings. If you have been circumcised since birth, you simply do not know what you are missing, and so you are not in a position to judge that another person would be fine without those sensations. However, this does not mean that you have to feel bad about your penis. There are many sexually satisfied circumcised men out there, including my husband. The way my husband and I see it, we love his penis, but we also see that there could have been more had his parents not circumcised him. We chose not to circumcise our sons, and yet this decision has not diminished his sexual self-image.
3. Circumcision might reduce the risk of some problems, but you could prevent those problems without cutting off part of the penis, and only the person attached to the penis is in a position to judge whether or not it is worth it.
People who say that circumcision is good often say that it will reduce the risk of various infections, including minor ones like UTIs and yeast, and major ones, like various STDs, or that it makes cleaning the penis easier. The evidence for these arguments is not entirely clear, and the debate over it can get very confusing. This one area tripped me up for a long time when I was learning about circumcision, and I understand that parents only want to protect their children, but if you stop to think about it logically, circumcision doesn’t make sense. Cleaning an uncircumcised (intact) penis is super-easy: you just wipe it off. You never have to clean under a baby’s foreskin because the skin cannot pull back, and older children and men who can pull back their foreskins only need a quick swish in the shower or bath to get clean. All of the minor problems like bladder or yeast infections can be easily cured with basic antibiotics and creams, and girls get them more anyway. Why do surgery for something that hasn’t happened yet and could be cured with a simple prescription?
As for STDs, even if circumcision reduced the risk (which it likely doesn’t, seeing as the other Western countries that don’t circumcise have lower STD rates than the circumcising U.S.), you would still have to wear a condom or practice monogamy or abstinence to be sure to not get an STD. If you’re going to have a wear a condom anyway, why get circumcised? Would you tell your son, “Hey, you don’t have to wear a condom because you’re circumcised?” Of course not. Only the person attached to the penis is in a position to judge whether the minor benefits of circumcision are worth the risks and sexual changes, because he is the one who is going to have to live with the consequences. The decision is his alone. Sometimes parents say, “Well, you have to do it as an infant, because no one would choose to do it in adulthood.” Isn’t that actually an argument against circumcision? If a man wouldn’t choose to do it, then why should you force it on him?
4. The original motive for routine circumcision was anti-sexual, but we know now that sexual desire is normal and healthy.
Most parents who choose circumcision for their sons do so because they are circumcised, and their relatives are circumcised, and they think it is normal and traditional and healthy, but routine circumcision actually started as a way to prevent boys from masturbating. It’s weird, but true. In the 1800s, people thought that too much sexual feeling and excitement would hurt you, and so they circumcised boys (and girls, though this never was as popular) to get their minds off sex. This became a fad that spread down through society, and after a while, the original motives were forgotten, but we can read the words of the doctors from the 1800s to know the truth. In the 21st century, we see sex quite differently. We want to have good sex lives and we spend a lot of time and money to make ours even better. Whether you believe that sexuality is a gift from God to bind spouses together and produce children, or a product of evolution to make sure that the species continues, you know that sexual feelings and desire have an important purpose. It is wrong to continue this practice whose original purpose was to reduce sexuality.
5. Though they mean well, people who promote circumcision have their own biases.
It is true that some doctors recommend circumcision. In other modern countries beside the U.S., though, circumcision is very rare, and most doctors do not recommend it. Bodies and penises are the same the world over, so why do doctors disagree? Because doctors are human, and we all have our own biases. A circumcised doctor is also a man who loves sex and his own penis, and who doesn’t want to think that he is missing out on something. That is why he can look at all the same evidence as a European doctor and come to the opposite conclusion. Sure, those European doctors might also be biased against circumcision because they are not circumcised, but they still have the opportunity to change their minds and get circumcised if they feel the weight of the evidence has shifted. The circumcised doctors are more likely to hold onto their opinions even if the evidence changes, because they cannot go back in time and be un-circumcised, nor can they undo the circumcisions they performed on babies. This alone makes them more likely to be biased, though it does not make them bad people, nor does my caution mean that I am anti-doctor. They are very smart and very hard-working, but they are also human beings whose advice is not entirely disinterested. The ancient fable of the fox without a tail shows this quite nicely:
It happened that a Fox caught its tail in a trap, and in struggling to release himself lost all of it but the stump. At first he was ashamed to show himself among his fellow foxes. But at last he determined to put a bolder face upon his misfortune, and summoned all the foxes to a general meeting to consider a proposal which he had to place before them. When they had assembled together the Fox proposed that they should all do away with their tails. He pointed out how inconvenient a tail was when they were pursued by their enemies, the dogs; how much it was in the way when they desired to sit down and hold a friendly conversation with one another. He failed to see any advantage in carrying about such a useless encumbrance. “That is all very well,” said one of the older foxes; “but I do not think you would have recommended us to dispense with our chief ornament if you had not happened to lose it yourself.”
Distrust interested advice.
6. It doesn’t matter if your son’s penis looks like yours or anyone else’s.
People get hung up on this idea of penises “matching.” They say that the son’s penis should look like the father’s, or like the other children’s. But why? Little children who see their father’s penis mainly notice the size and hair. Only older children will notice the lack of foreskin, and even then, all you have to say is, “When Daddy was born, they thought it was a good idea to cut off the foreskin, but now we know that it is not.” That’s it, and it is the truth. Even the “locker room” argument fails now, as only half of babies born in the U.S. today are circumcised. People are aware of the controversy surrounding circumcision, and by the time these babies are in a locker room, it will be impossible to ignorantly mock the half that are not circumcised. Your child will not want to cut off part of his penis and will not suffer.
7. Circumcision is wrong because it is unjust.
Parents want to do right by their children, and it can seem like circumcision is the right decision: the son will “match” the father, he will be protected from infection, he will be part of a family tradition, his penis will look like what you are used to seeing. These reasons are powerfully attractive, and the motives are good, but all of them are incorrect. Unfortunately, it can be hard to change your mind about circumcision. Your spouse or family may object, or you may have already had one son circumcised, or you might just think that uncircumcised penises look weird. Overcoming these obstacles can seem difficult or impossible, but many other parents have faced them and succeeded. It is possible to leave your son intact, stay married, keep relationships with your family and friends, and get over how your son’s penis looks to you.
Though it may seem tempting and easy to ignore this new information on circumcision and say, “He’ll be fine,” and have your son circumcised, it is morally wrong to do so. The goal of parenting is not that your child be “fine.” Many things turn out “fine” that would have been better avoided. You are your son’s parent, but you do not own him. Parents and children have duties to each other, but one of them is not that the child serve to provoke only positive feelings in the parent. In fact, becoming a parent is the beginning of a long series of decisions in which you have the responsibility to do your best by your child, even when it is not easy or comfortable. It is wrong to have your son circumcised in order to avoid being uncomfortable or pretend that you do not know what you now know. If you choose to circumcise your son, that decision cannot be undone, and your son may not be happy about it, and he may suffer problems. Putting your emotional discomfort above his right to his whole body and health is wrong.