Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Circumcision: Health Concern? Or Religious Privilege?

An Atheist Woman Cuts into Circumcision?

Circumcision is a fascinating topic and MUCH, MUCH more complicated than I originally thought. (It's taken me forever to finish writing about this...) I decided to cover the topic because, like Santa Claus/Christmas, it's one of those issues that is highly debated among atheists and lukewarm believers -- even though it is based on religious traditions.

I recognize that, as a childfree woman, I have some distance from this issue. However, I might be a parent of a male one day. If I find myself in the position to make this call, I want to have thought about it.

I'm not going to go into the procedure(s). Although, you may have noticed that I've posted pictures of the procedure, partially for educational purposes and partially to make my man-friends squirm (check out How Stuff Works: Circumcision for some of those details, if you're interested).

Here, I have only covered a brief history and short debate about male circumcision, not female circumcision/genital mutilation. I think most (if not all) people reading this agree that cutting girls' clitorises is inhumane and a form of sexual oppression of women...

However, the jury is still out on little boys...

Even if you aren't going to have any kids, there are current events issues on the topic, including efforts to make circumcision of minors illegal. Here in the states, and abroad in countries like Germany, there are groups of activists that call themselves 'intactivists" fighting to make religious circumcision of minors illegal. Accusations have been tossed around about the motives of the activists. Although some MAY be anti-Semitic, I don't think that's a driving force. I think they want to help kids, and the adults that they'll be.  Not surprisingly, I think the other side probably feels the same way. I don't mean to equate pro-circumcision with religion or anti-circumcision with atheism.

I just wanted to make this point: There are exceptions, but most people mean well. On both sides.

I think that's part of what makes this such an interesting topic....

Let's begin, shall we?

Do you have a penis? Is it circumcised?  
Would you circumcise your child? Have you already done so? 
Was it a religious decision? Medical? Social? Aesthetic? 

Religious Origin: 
Numerous culture perform circumcision rituals on infant boys, however, the practice in the US is most directly linked to Judaism. 

I don't want to go into a long history lesson on the practice (check in the references), but it is definitely mentioned in the Abrahamic Religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), as well as numerous other religious/ethnic groups.

God speaking (you know, like he does...): 
"This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised." (The Covenant of Circumcision - Genesis 17:10)

When Christians or Muslims circumcise, it is, first and foremost, an homage to this text and the Jewish rite. I think that is part of my issue with the practice. It is impossible to separate from the religious edict  To that point, an astonishing 98% of American Jews are circumcised. 

One of the more disturbing parts about this ritual is HOW some cultures do it. Memorably (at least to me), Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book God is Not Great about cases where babies actually DIE because the Jewish "mohel" performing the circumcision transmitted herpes to the newborn. I should probably mention that Orthodox Jewish tradition holds that this "mohel" use his mouth to suck the blood out of the baby's penis? I guess that's an important part... Although Hitchens wrote about this disgusting and potentially deadly practice years ago, it still happens. Although, a new New York law requires a written consent form be signed by parents before mullahs can circumcise. And luckily, most people - and most Jews - find this procedure absurd. 

Here are some current events on this issue, just from the past year:  

New York, Orthodox Jews Clash Over Circumcision
-Circumcision ritual under fire in New York due to risk of herpes infection
Judge won't block New York City circumcision law 
2013 ALERT # 1 New case of neonatal herpes infection following ritual Jewish circumcision -
 While the Quran does not say that Muslims must be circumcised, a lot of families opt into the practice because Muhammad (supposedly) was. Interestingly, Muslims make up 2 out of 3 circumcised men on the planet. Source: UNAIDS/WHO Report

These are the largest groups participating in the practice.  Neutral on the issue are Hinduism & Buddhism, the 4th and 5th largest religions (after #1 Christianity, #2 Islam and #3 NONE!). Other religions and ethnic groups perform circumcisions, but make up a small, diverse group outside of the major religions.

According to the CDC, male circumcision is "surgical removal of some or all of the foreskin (or prepuce) from the penis." 

US Prevalence: 56% of infants born in the US were circumcised in 2005. This figure is down from 65% between 1980-1999. Source: Healthcare Cost & Utilization Project (HCUP)  

International Prevalence
"Approximately 30% of males are estimated to be circumcised globally..." -UNAIDS/WHO Report

Social History: Masturbation Prevention: 
There are some interesting social undertones behind circumcision. Most notably, the claim that male circumcision was promoted to prevent masturbation/"self-abuse".  Karen Erickson Paige wrote an article in 1978 called The Ritual of Circumcision, in which she argues: 

"In the United States, the current medical rationale for circumcision developed after the operation was in wide practice. The original reason for the surgical removal of the foreskin, or prepuce, was to control 'masturbatory insanity' – the range of mental disorders that people believed were caused by the 'polluting' practice of 'self-abuse.'"
Women were also subject to this style of thinking. According to Paige, clitoridectomies were performed into the 1930s to remove the clitoris of women so that they would not masturbate either.

Interestingly, John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Kellogg's Cornflakes believed that masturbation was bad -- and that eating Cornflakes would prevent it! Weird one, right?

Reasons FOR Circumcision: 
Medical Claims:
The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) appears to be in favor of the procedure, at least for the moment. They've changed their stance before...and this isn't exactly a strong endorsement.

"...Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it. Specific benefits identified included prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV." - AAP Circumcision Policy Statement (8/27/2012)
While the AAP supports the procedure, there are numerous other medical organizations that do not.
Here's a long (but dated) list of Organizations' Policy Statements on Circumcision
and another that is more up to date:  Circumcision Policies of Other Medical Organizations 

The report cited above by AAP makes medical claims about the benefit of male circumcision. The noteworthy benefits include reduced rates of:
- Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
The average male baby has a 1 in 1,000 chance of getting a UTI in their first year. A circumcised baby has a 1 in 100 chance. 
- Penile Cancer 
An extremely rare cancer, but even more rare in circumcised penises. 

- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) 
This one is interesting. So, apparently uncircumcised penises carry and transmit HPV at a higher rate than circumcised ones. As you may know, HPV is the virus linked to cervical cancer in women. It is an interesting dilemma to consider 
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) - 
- Other Sexual Transmitted Diseases (STDs) / Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

OTHER: There are also some other reasons that I find to be on a scale of odd to creepy, depending. They are of the "I want my son to look like me/his dad" variety... Or the "He'll get teased in the locker room" or "Girls(/guys) won't want to have sex with him" types -- These are all red herrings and signs of the kind of "me-me-me" thinking that leads to BAD decision-making by parents. 
Why do you want your kids dick to look like yours/his dad's again? When is he going to see yours to compare them? If you're a (straight) man, when were you comparing penises in said locker room?? Furthermore, if your son gets far enough with his future love interests to take off his pants and s/he won't have sex with him because he has an intact penis, why should he sleep with him/her?!  And, wouldn't you be feeding into that negative stigma by circumcising? 

These are just some of many return questions for such lines of logic...

Reasons AGAINST Circumcision: 
Contract against a 3rd Party
A newborn child (most often the recipient of a circumcision) has no agency or ability to refuse the procedure. Therefore, a choice to clip off the tip of his genitalia is a decision he doesn't get to make. Like many decisions made for young children, a parent has to make the best decision that they can and hope that the kid understands later. Since you can always remove foreskin but can't easily restore it, there is an argument to err on the side of caution. That is to say, since the boy can't speak for his penis yet, it might not be the worst idea NOT perform an irreversible procedure on it. This is the simplest and most compelling reason, in my opinion. 

-Reduction in sexual pleasure: 
Some men who have had circumcisions report that the head of their penis is over/under sensitive and that it would have been better for them to have their foreskin to protect it. Some complain that they have painful erections or feel they are missing out on activating all of the thousands of nerve endings inside the foreskin. There are also reports from some women who enjoy sex more with an uncircumcised penis, as well as women who prefer the cut variety. 

Since most men are circumcised early in life, those who wish they were intact employ numerous methods, including daily pulling and complicated pulley systems, to stretch the skin of their surgically shortened foreskin (see below and for more info). 

This seems really extreme to me, and probably to a lot of you all. However, if I felt my primary sex organ had been mutilated and/or desensitized, I'd probably try some intense stuff to fix it -- and I bet you would, too. 

My Views..sort of: 
Personally, I'm still on the fence.. However, from my current vantage point, it seems like a great time to use one of my mom's favorite phrases: "When in doubt - DON'T!"  

To be honest, it upsets me that people look at babies (of either gender) and think they need to have their genitalia altered to be fully acceptable by society, or ostensibly, by god. Since I know religion is the root cause of the procedure, it makes it hard to see it separately from that. I feel, to some degree, that the efforts to find it medically beneficial are modern ex post facto justifications for a bronze-age religious mutilation ritual. I guess I'm just saying don't think that this practice would be given nearly as much credence if it were NOT a religious one. That said, there are valid points for and against circumcision, I'm just not sure if the medical benefits outweigh the fact that you're hacking at your baby boy's junk. Nor am I certain that the decision to hack at your junk was made based on science or medicine..

So, what do YOU think??? 

- Should male circumcision be illegal? 
- Should the "oral suction" Orthodox Judaism method be illegal? Or require a parental consent form?  
- Were you circumcised and wish you hadn't been? Vice versa?  
- Is circumcision a question of religious privilege? Or a public health concern? 

Please leave your feedback in the comments! :) 

Sources & Suggested Reading


Camille said...

I find this practice to be utterly brutal and think it ought to be called what it is, genital mutilation. No one should be allowed to elect for unnecessary, and in most cases, purely cosmetic, surgery on a child of any age. The risks greatly outweigh the mostly imaginary benefits.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Camille- nicely said.

But AJ's mom has the best advice, at least when it comes to messing with SOMEONE else's parts.

"If in doubt, DON'T!"

I am -slightly- biased in regards to religion. If it originated in religion, I will likely find it horrid and obscene.