Tuesday, June 7, 2011

To snip or not to snip?

This year, the cities of San Francisco and Santa Monica will ask voters to decide whether to ban the circumcision of male children. Such measures, once dismissed as unfeasible, appear to be gaining momentum among the voting public.

I get it and I don't.

First, a note to my Jewish and Muslim readers: If circumcision is a necessary rite of your religious observance, I respect that, and I would oppose any ban that doesn't include a mohel exemption.

Second, I don't understand the fervor displayed by some of the San Francisco activists. Pursuing a circumcision ban when so many kids go hungry and uneducated strikes me as a waste of precious political capital. While I believe the procedure is unnecessary, I don't think it rises to the level of child abuse.

Why not? Unlike female genital mutilation, a successful male circumcision is a cosmetic procedure that won't affect urinary or reproductive function (although it does decrease male sexual pleasure - a fact that was no doubt obvious to those crafty authors of Leviticus). Unlike female circumcision, male circumcision in the U.S. is undertaken in clean conditions by trained professionals.

Activists who seek to equate the two procedures reduce themselves to the ranks of the ridiculous.

As for non-observant me: I happen to believe that the procedure is needless, brutal and a great way for doctors to make easy money for what it usually a simple and quick operation. Maybe insurance companies should simply stop covering circumcision. It's not like they spring for other cosmetic surgeries.

And frankly, if I was searching for a person to perform an infant circumcision, I'd certainly hire a mohel before I'd let an obstetrician who's been up all night slice up my kid. (If you think pediatric surgeons perform the surgery in America's best hospitals, you are mistaken.)

Anecdotally, I know enough firsthand cases of botched hospital circumcisions, where the young patients had to go in for repeat operations, to crystallize my opposition to the practice.

And what reasons did these non-observant parents give for choosing circumcision in the first place? So the boy's parts could look like his father's? Um, just because your mother-in-law allowed someone to mutilate her child doesn't mean you must do the same. To match some soon-to-be outmoded aesthetic? Less than half of all male infants in this country now undergo the procedure. Junior's future sexual partners will see for themselves that snipped and un-snipped male equipment looks the same when it's ready to perform.

I've never understood why the procedure became popular with non-religious Americans in the first place. The best information on Google suggests that male circumcision caught on Stateside sometime in the early part of the last century, probably as a measure intended to combat venereal disease.

Certainly, male circumcision has been credited in several legitimate studies to decrease the rate of HIV infection in third world populations. But frankly, not even the poorest Americans live in conditions endured in places like Lesotho, the war torn Congo, or the shantytowns outside Johannesburg. Those without access to sanitation can and should take whatever steps they can to try to to avoid AIDS.

In the first world, however, I believe you'd be hard pressed to find a parent who would say, "We circumcised Junior, so we don't care if he uses condoms or not."

Back here in the States, I don't believe we need a ban on the procedure. We don't need to create demand for back alley baby-cutting quacks inside the San Francisco city limits. But I do think that doctors should be more forthright in telling expecting parents that the operation serves no medical purpose, and is never without risks.

In my experience, and in that of the dozens of moms I polled, such inquires were only answered when the obstetricians were pressed; the costs and benefits of the surgery weren't outlined in detail before the new mom was asked to decide whether to snip her son. The default towards the procedure smells like a racket for the hospitals and doctors, and seems worthy of further discussion.


  1. Interesting post. Having lived in Europe for over a decade, I can safely say that the lack of systematic, medical circumcision of baby boys there works out just fine, thanks. And when boys do develop a related problem, well, they just get surgically circumcised whenever that comes up. (And yes, this happens too.) Even though I'm Jewish, I've always been unpleasantly surprised by the way circumcision has been institutionalized here in the states. But I suspect it has more to do with saving insurance companies money over the long term by implementing a quick, relatively cheap procedure systematically than risking the surgical option later on than with individual physicians looking to make a quick buck.

    That said, (and yes, I'm biased), mohels do rule!

  2. Sharon, Interesting observation and hypothesis on the economics of the procedure. Though I can't imagine hordes of un-circumcized adults queuing up for the procedure.