The Final Cut

Now that routine circumcision is discouraged by the medical establishment, will most parents abandon the procedure?

Back when Jenny and Bill Moore of Providence, Rhode Island, were dating, they liked to take long drives in the country and talk about their future together. Eventually, the talk turned to children, and before the pair married, they had already agreed upon names for both a son and a daughter, decided what sort of parental discipline they would mete out, and determined that Jenny would stay home for a few years after having children. Jenny and Bill were pleased that they seemed to be in sync on all of the most important issues involved in raising a family. But several years later, they found themselves blindsided by one very small detail: their newborn son's penis.

"We argued about circumcision from the day my pregnancy test turned up positive until the day we came home from the hospital with the baby," says Jenny Moore. "I told Bill that he would cut off the end of Sam's penis over my dead body. And he told me that no son of his would go around with a 'strange'-looking penis. Eventually I won, because he would have had to literally rip the baby out of my arms to have it done. I also wouldn't have signed a consent form. Really, he is still very annoyed with me about it. It caused the biggest disagreement we have ever had in ten years together. We were both relieved when our next baby was a girl."

The Moores are not alone in their turmoil over the issue of male infant circumcision, one of the most hotly debated of all contemporary American parenting issues. Circumcision--the surgical removal of the "prepuce" or foreskin, the sleeve of skin and tissue that covers the head of a healthy penis, engenders passionate opinion by those both in favor of and opposed to it.

On the surface, the issue of circumcision seems deceptively simple. Why in the world would modern American parents choose to medically or ritually slice off a part of their child's body that science has revealed to house three feet of veins, arteries, and capillaries, 240 feet of nerves, and twenty thousand nerve endings, as well as muscles, glands, and epithelial tissue? As Jewish anti-circumcision writer Debra S. Ollivier has written in Salon magazine: "It doesn't take much to realize that nature didn't intend the foreskin and the penis to be separated at birth. Try retracting the foreskin of a newborn's penis and you are struck by the steadfast, tenacious grip it has on the glans, or head....But it's far more than just a sheath. The foreskin contains thousands of highly sensitive sensory receptors called Meissner corpuscles, which are more abundant than in any other part of the penis. Richly endowed with a profusion of blood vessels, it also has a ridged band of peripenic muscles that protect the urinary tract from contaminants, and an undersurface lined with mucocutaneous tissue found nowhere else on the body....With its frenar ridges and thousands of nerve endings, the foreskin...accounts for roughly one-third of the penis' sexual perceptivity."

Opponents of circumcision claim that the practice constitutes a painful and unnecessary violation of a boy's human rights, in which a significant body part is removed without consent, leading to potential complications and lifelong alteration of his sexual functioning. Proponents, on the other hand, claim that circumcision is a minor, relatively painless procedure, akin to piercing a baby girl's ears. American parents who choose circumcision cite their desire to provide their son with a "cleaner," "more attractive" penis, one with the same look as circumcised fathers. Additionally, for the majority of Jewish and Muslim Americans who circumcise their sons, the practice is viewed as an integral part of their right to freely raise their children according to the tenets of their religious faiths.

Although the percentage of American parents choosing to circumcise their sons has dropped from a high of ninety percent over the past three decades, the operation remains the most common surgical procedure performed on American children, with well over half of all families still choosing to have their son's penis altered at birth. Internationally, however, circumcision is comparatively rare, with only twenty percent of all boys around the world circumcised. Of this number, the great majority are from Jewish or Muslim families.

Despite the continuing American popular support for circumcision, however, major Western medical organizations are increasingly taking a vocal stance in opposition to the practice. In 1996, the Australian College of Paediatrics stated that "Neonatal male circumcision has no medical indication. It is a traumatic procedure performed without anesthesia to remove a normal, functional, and protective prepuce [foreskin]." In the same year, the Canadian Paediatric Society's Fetus and Newborn Committee announced that "[The Committee] does not support recommending circumcision as a routine procedure for newborns." And in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics released an exhaustively researched and strongly worded new policy statement on circumcision, stating: "After analysis of almost 40 years of available medical research on circumcision, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued new recommendations stating that the benefits are not significant enough for the AAP to recommend circumcision as a routine procedure.... The new policy recommendations are based on analysis of all available medical literature on circumcision currently available, including new studies published in the last 10 years."

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