by Kim Wildner
The circumcision debate seems to me to be one of ethicality. In the United States, female circumcision, also often referred to as “female genital mutilation” or FGM, is vehemently denounced, while infant male circumcision is just as adamantly defended. I would suggest that it is only cultural perception that allows a person to view one a violation of human rights, the other a rite of passage or acceptable religious imperative.
The two procedures are really not as dissimilar as one might think. Both remove a part of the reproductive anatomy of a child who is too young to give informed consent. In both cases, the parts removed reduce sexual sensation and to one extent or another impair normal physiological function. The parts remove existed for physiological purpose, but were removed due to ignorance of these functions, or due to aesthetics and/or collective cultural or religious beliefs. Both are painful. In neither case is anesthetic usually used. What makes it abhorrent in one case should argue against the practice in both cases. However, infant male circumcision is still one of the most common surgeries in the U.S. (Stang & Snellman, 1998).
Where FGM is practiced, in Africa and the Middle and Far East, defenders insist that Westerners just don’t understand. Women will not be marriageable if they are not circumcised, as they will be unclean and no husband will want a wife that looks different from the cultural norm. They are indignant that arrogant Americans would try to stop something that is required of them in accordance with their understanding of their religious practices (World Health Organization, 2000).
When routine infant male circumcision discussion occurs between parents in the States, the debate is often heated. Defenders of the practice, usually parents who have circumcised or plan to, accuse anyone who opposes circumcision to be unfairly biased. The same people who might consider FGM barbaric consider the same procedure on a baby boy a ‘parenting option.’ Yet the most common reasons for choosing circumcision for a baby boy are essentially the same:
· I want my son to look like his father
· I think uncircumcised penises are ugly
· It’s cleaner
· It doesn’t hurt; babies can’t feel pain. Even if they did feel pain they won’t remember a ‘little snip’
· Religious reasons (oddly enough, often by Christian, not Jewish, parents)
Are not the first two simply variations on the argument for conformity with the cultural norm? The circumcised penis as ‘normal’ is so ingrained in our society that many anatomy textbooks don’t even show natural penises; they show circumcised ones as ‘normal.’
Even so, this is not justification for what amounts to baby’s first plastic surgery. We don’t reconstruct a baby’s nose if it doesn’t look like his father’s. If his father has an accident that results in amputation of a finger, we don’t remove the baby’s finger so they match. Surely, more people are likely to see his nose or hands than his penis.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, routine circumcision has no medical justification, although at one time it was recommended as was female circumcision, and for the same reasons (Rathmann, 1959). A natural penis is no harder to clean than the female labia (Fleiss, 1997). To suggest that boys cannot be taught personal hygiene of the body they were born with is, in my opinion, insulting.
The argument that amazes me the most though, is that babies cannot feel pain, or that if they do, they don’t remember it so it doesn’t matter. For those that insist it doesn’t hurt, I offer a video that is available on the internet (Intact, n.d.). Some say, “I don’t think I could stand to watch that.” It is too painful for them, as adults, to watch, but not too painful for their son to experience when he’s just hours old? If babies do feel pain but can’t remember, are other sources of unnecessary pain acceptable? I would argue that lit cigarette butts to the feet of a newborn certainly are painful. While the incident may not consciously be remembered it is still a repugnant and vile abuse.
Cultural acceptance doesn’t make circumcision hurt any less, and it doesn’t restore the functionality of the organ. The inconsistency in attitudes is simply not justified. Either it’s an abuse of little girls and boys, or it’s a simple parenting option.
Fleiss, P.(1997). The case against circumcision. Mothering, 85(Winter). Retrieved February 2, 2007, from http://www.mothering.com/articles/new_baby/circumcision/against-circumcision.html
Intact. Circumcision Video. Retrieved February 2, 2007, from http://www.intact.ca/video.html
Rathmann, W. (1959, September). Female circumcision: Indications and a new technique.
GP(XX) 3, 115-120. Retrieved February 2, 2007, from
Stang, H., Snellman, L. (1998, June 6). Circumcision practice patterns in the United States. Pediatrics (101)6. Retrieved February 2, 2007 from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/101/6/e5 World Health Organization, (2000, June). Fact sheet N°241. Female genital mutilation. Retrieved February 2, 2007, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/
My name is Kim Wildner. I am the author of Mother's Intention: How Belief Shapes Birth.