So, a new randomized control trial comes out showing that circumcision in adult males can dramatically reduce HIV infection rates, and all my friends who opted for circumcising their baby boys are holding up the dozens of national news accounts of this saying to me, "See?! See?!" Like I just condemned my son to die of AIDS because I let him keep his foreskin.
Meanwhile, the subset of those friends who are Jewish keep hinting I might be anti-Semitic for suggesting that the Jewish ritual of neonatal male circumcision probably ought to end. Oy!
First things first:
To state the obvious, circumcision doesn't prevent HIV infection. A circumcised penis may be less effective at transmitting HIV, but it can still manage it. Anyone who thinks they are protecting their son from HIV by preemptive circumcision probably should also consider castration, since that significantly lowers the libido, and heaven knows libido is a serious risk factor for sexually transmitted diseases. Or you might just consider good sex education.
No one seriously thinks HIV risk is the reason to circumcise infants. This is just latched on to by folks who are looking for a reason to justify a preexisting desire to circumcise perfectly healthy baby boys. Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out that judges tend to know how they want to rule, and then they go on to figure out how to justify the ruling. Routine neonatal male circumcision seems to be a lot like that. People want to do it, and they fish around for a good reason.
So let's consider the other reasons I've run into, besides HIV infection risk:
- "I want to reduce the risk my son will get urinary tract infections." Solution: Treat urinary tract infections when they arise. I mean, do we have urologists widen the urethras of baby girls in order to preemptively avoid UTIs in women? I have the same response to all other claims that circumcision is justified because it reduces medical risks; if a problem arises, then treat it.
- "I think it is important for my son to look like his father." Yes, believe me, some women really say this. Okay, then you might also consider shaving off some of the hair on top his head and gluing it to his chest and feeding him foods that might give him the appearance of a beer gut. Come on! You want your son to look like his father? A few tips: Sleep with the guy you want your kid to look like, buy some cute matching outfits, and limit the use of sharp appearance-altering equipment to barbers. If it turns out your son doesn't want to look like his father, he can always grow back his hair.
- "Uncircumcised penises look funny." Agreed. And frankly, I appreciate the honesty of this argument. But you can get used to them, just like knees. (Face it; knees look funny.) It is true, as I've learned, that you have to explain to uncircumcised boys why their penises look different than most. My husband had to explain this to my five-year-old son recently; since my husband was circumcised as an infant. My son's reaction to his father's explanation showed some good critical thinking: "Why would Grandma have done that to you?!" My husband, who is an internist, sensibly answered that parents and doctors do a lot of unnecessary things out of bad habits. For a while I considered introducing my son to others with foreskin intact. In fact, shortly after I gave birth, I asked my older brother (who was not circumcised) to someday show his penis to my son, so my son would know he's not alone. My brother responded, "Isn't that the bad kind of uncle?" Good point. Instead I'm just answering my son's questions and assuring him that his is the once-and-future penis. With love and understanding, boys can survive the stigma of having a penis that wears what looks like a little turtleneck sweater.
- "It makes our son part of the Jewish tradition." I just think there are so many better ways to teach your son that he is Jewish. A very smart, thoughtful, politically active, lesbian Jewish woman who worked with me on intersex rights told me defensively a while back that, if the child she was pregnant with turned out to be a boy, she'd have him circumcised. I asked her if she'd done any ritual cutting on her daughter, who was born a few years before the conversation. "No!" she answered, but she noted that they did have a ceremony for her. Why not just have a ceremony for the boy and skip the cutting? She said the circumcision would impress upon her son the meaning of Jewish culture and history. I countered that I thought there were perfectly fine ways of teaching children this culture and history-including a history of horrific oppression-than taking it out on a boy's penis. Why not respect his genitals as much as her daughter's?
This essay originally appeared in Bioethics Forum. My thanks go to Susan Gilbert of the Hastings Center for editing this essay.