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The circumcision decision should be left to parents

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I have six sons. Circumcision has come up in conversation more than once.

I’m not going to share with the world if they are circumcised. The only thing I will say about the condition of their bodies is they are not all the same, nor do they need to be.

Foreskins are not Christmas sweaters. Matching is not an issue to us.

We made our decisions based on research, consultation with their pediatrician, and our personal feelings. We do not have any religious beliefs that compel us to circumcise our boys, so faith and tradition were never part of the decision-making process.

I am grateful we live in a time and place where we have the right to decide how to care for our children’s bodies. From the food we feed them to choosing the doctor who peers into their ears, how we care for the health and well-being of our brood is our decision. That’s how it should be.

There is a ballot measure in San Francisco which seeks to ban the circumcision of males under the age of 18. To me, this smacks of over-reaching concern. I understand there are individuals and groups committed to decreasing and eliminating circumcision. They have the right to hold these beliefs and pursue them passionately. They do not have the right, however, to take away the parental right to make a valid medical choice for a child—and there are medically compelling reasons for circumcision.

One of our boys falls into this category. He was born with a birth defect which required surgery at the age of 10 months. Part of the surgery entailed circumcision. It enabled him to be able to function normally at the time and in his future adult life.

Proponents of the measure argue that circumcision is purely cosmetic at best, brutally cruel at worst. Parents shouldn’t be able to alter a perfectly normal, functioning body part. Does their crusade extend to minor alterations like ear piercing? Many baby girls have their ears pierced during infancy, before they can consent to the procedure. Their earlobes are permanently altered. It’s not a giant leap to disallow parents from making other decisions regarding their children’s bodies.

Additionally, the ballot measure would take away the right for religions to practice according to their doctrines. Both Judaism and Islam teach the importance of circumcision. There is no religious exemption in the proposed law. This can’t be constitutional. Of course, religions can’t perform rites or rituals that harm or kill. Circumcision certainly doesn’t fit under this umbrella. It’s been performed billions of times safely.

If anti-circumcision activists want to stop the practice, perhaps they should focus on parental education. They should seek to change societal norms so that parents of baby boys will be aware of all their options. Some parents may not know it isn’t mandatory or may feel that every other boy is circumcised so they’ll go along with the perceived norm.

The failure of these activists to spread their message should not be reason for them to criminalize loving parents who only want the best for their sons. When all else fails, impose hefty fines and jail time? Yeah, that’ll teach ’em!

I’m sure anti-circ activists would be horrified if the government decided to require every baby boy to be circumcised. They’d be the first in line to decry this overreach of government control into the lives of citizens.

Parents make choices for their children every moment of every day. Circumcision is one of these choices that should remain firmly in our hands.

You don’t have to like a choice to understand the importance of maintaining the right to choose.

Image: Idea go /

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  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck May 20, 2011

    This just seems like a no-brainer to me.

    “They do not have the right, however, to take away the parental right to make a valid medical choice for a child—and there are medically compelling reasons for circumcision.”


  • comment avatar Kara May 20, 2011

    SUCH a well-written essay. Points well made. And I agree with the author.

  • comment avatar Jennifer May 20, 2011

    I agree with you Gretchen. What a crazy idea for a bill.

    I’m also impressed with your ability to write an essay on circumcism and not once use the word penis.

  • comment avatar nicole May 20, 2011

    Well said. I’m so confused about what people want or what rights are to be protected and those that are not.

  • comment avatar JoAnn May 20, 2011

    Well said, Gretchen!! I’ll be the first to admit that I sighed a huge sigh of relief when I found out I was having a girl. Having one less thing to research, choose, and defend was a huge weight lifted off my mind!

    Great post!

  • comment avatar Heth May 20, 2011

    “Foreskins are not Christmas sweaters.”

    Best thing I’ve read all day. All WEEK. All YEAR! Very well written and well thought out post Gretchen.

  • comment avatar Jaime Swartzendruber May 20, 2011

    I guess I didn’t realize what a big decision it was until the doctor read the release with all the things that could go wrong! Freak me out. As far as the *why* in decision-making – most of my friends go with a “look like daddy” approach – sounds reasonable, but Gretchen is right: not Christmas sweaters, lol.

  • comment avatar Jenny - Sugar Loco May 20, 2011

    This is nuts. Seriously, it is your right to choose!

  • comment avatar Aubrey May 20, 2011

    As a physician, I find it ironic that people are trying to ban circumcision now, when more and more research points out that there are actually benefits to it. Like less risk of transmission of HIV and fewer UTIs. While the benefit is small, it has been shown in numerous studies. Medicaid in SC is actually not going to pay for this procedure anymore, which I also find ironic for the same reasons. They paid for it for years and years when there wasn’t any research to show it was beneficial, and now that there is, they have decided to stop.

    Anyway…all that to say that I definitely agree it should be left up to the parents….

  • comment avatar Daria May 20, 2011

    Amazing essay Gretchen and extremely well written! I too especially like the Christmas sweater comment. 🙂

    Although I don’t consider myself a radical liberal – I personally chose not to circumcise my son (thereby not buying him a matching sweater to Daddy). There wasn’t a medical reason to do so, and without a medical reason, I didn’t feel comfortable potentially reducing sensitivity or just in general making a decision to change my son’s genitals.

    Although I don’t think it’s is quite the same – I also chose not to pierce my daughter’s ears until she is 12 and mature enough to make that decision. I have no doubt she will choose to pierce them, but personally didn’t want to alter my children’s bodies without their consent or medical reasons driving it.

    My husband is circ and I don’t see that it has negatively impacted him at all, so understand it’s not the same thing – but I keep thinking about female circumcision and how appalled we are to hear about it. Are we less appalled about males because we’re just used to it and it’s tradition?

    Just because people have done something for generations, doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking a second look and deciding if something ought to continue. I don’t think parents that choose to circumcise are doing something wrong, but do think that each parent should think about decisions regarding their kids and make a conscious choice rather than just bowing to tradition without thinking.

    It is such a touchy subject and a very personal decision.

  • comment avatar Catherine May 20, 2011

    Well said. I honestly haven’t had to think about this topic because I have a daughter, but in general I believe that it is not the governments place to make medical related decisions for us…or our children.

  • comment avatar Jen May 20, 2011

    I think to make a comparison between piercing ears and circumcising an infant is a bit far reaching. Putting a hole in an earlobe is hardly of the same gravity as removing a piece of flesh from a childs genitals. Regarding the increased risk for STD’s. Research shows that the extra foreskin can harbor virus’ and bacteria for a greater length of time than a circumcised penis. Same goes for the labia on a vagina. Maybe we should start circumcising our daughters to hopefully prevent STD’s in the future as opposed to teaching them safe sex practices. I had a friend in college from namibia who was circumcised (as a young girl) and she found it horrifying that we circumcise our boys.

    Here’s an interesting thought. Let’s take a poll of parents whom circumcised their sons and see who did it for cosmetic reasons. Most friends I have (that are willing to disclose this info.) did so in an effort to make sure kid looked like dad. RIDICULOUS!

  • comment avatar Jen May 20, 2011

    Breast cancer is quite common and very devastating. Should we remove a child’s breast tissue in order to prevent breast cancer in the future?

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz May 20, 2011

    So well said, Gretchen.

    “You don’t have to like a choice to understand the importance of maintaining the right to choose.”

  • comment avatar Tony May 21, 2011

    …They do not have the right, however, to take away the parental right to make a valid medical choice for a child—and there are medically compelling reasons for circumcision.

    The proposed law does not take away the parent right to make valid medical decisions. There are medically compelling reasons for circumcision. However, circumcision is very rarely performed for medical need. Potential benefits are not medical reasons. They are hypothetical, subjective to the parent. They do not validate non-therapeutic circumcision.

    Courts have already ruled that the government may limit parents’ First Amendment rights with respect to their children. Inflicting physical harm, however noble the intent, is included in that limit.

    There is no religious exemption in the proposed law because that is how it can survive constitutional challenge. (That assumes it passes in November. It won’t.) It’s applied neutrally to the entire population and promotes a significant government interest. Legally, all surgery is battery because it inflicts objective harm (e.g. scarring, tissue removal, etc.). Taking your own words, religions can’t perform rites that harm. Thus, circumcision falls outside of what a parent may validly impose on another. Just as FGC receives no religious (or legal) exemption in the U.S. or California.

    Circumcision has been performed many times unsafely, inflicting more harm than is expected. Complications include excess bleeding, infection, skin bridges, excess skin removal, partial penis amputation, full penis amputation, and death. Thankfully, these are rare. But they occur. Do those males suffer harm? Is that risk of complications/further harm also a harm? Do their parents have a right to inflict that on them for non-therapeutic reasons? If so, what are the limits on non-therapeutic surgery by proxy consent?

    If anti-circumcision activists want to stop the practice, perhaps they should focus on parental education. …

    I agree with this.

    The failure of these activists to spread their message …

    This is wrong. In this case, failure is a mutual process. I speak to parents. Many do not listen. They respond with incomplete or incorrect information. They refuse to listen to facts, or assume I’ve said things I haven’t said. At some point, protecting children from harm they may not want matters more than soft cultural change, as much as I agree that cultural change would be better.

    I’m sure anti-circ activists would be horrified if the government decided to require every baby boy to be circumcised. …

    Of course, but that’s not an equal comparison. The current proposal would leave the choice to individual males. Most probably won’t choose circumcision, since statistics suggest that. Some would. They would be able to once they may consent. Under your scenario, no boys would have their choice. That’s not far from the current reality where most boys do not have their choice. What difference does it make if the decision-maker is the government or the child’s parents? His rights have been violated either way. His choice is gone.

    I’m going to use your last line, but apply it to the individual being circumcised rather than the individuals choosing to circumcise: You don’t have to like a choice to understand the importance of maintaining the right to choose.

  • comment avatar Dan Bollinger May 21, 2011

    So Gretchen, you are saying that you’d be OK with your vulva if your parents had decided to surgically modify it without your consent?

    The real issue here is the human rights violation. Currently, men are not permitted to have a say in how their body looks, works, and feels. This is doubly important because it effects their sexuality, too. We protect girls from harm, and rightly so. The Federal female genital cutting law, which has no religious exemption, prohibits even a pinprick to extract one drop of blood. Male genital cutting–aka circumcision–is certainly worse than that. We’ve come a long way with gender rights; let’s not perpetuate this harmful double standard.

  • comment avatar Gretchen White May 21, 2011

    Dan—My parents didn’t surgically modify any of my body parts because they live in a culture where it isn’t on the radar. It’s considered abhorrent because the practice seeks to eliminate the sexuality of a female and is usually done under barbaric conditions by people who are fearful of the autonomy of women in general.

    I doubt that in 1971, when I was born, there was a law on the books specifically banning female circumcision. Was there? It didn’t need to be because I don’t think it occurred to 99% of parents to request it. I’d bet that most didn’t even know the practice exists.

    If you want to rid the world of all circumcision, work toward the goal of creating a society where people hear the word and have to look it up in an old dictionary. We are already heading in that direction, aren’t we? Rates fall every year. Educate parents. Don’t threaten to throw them in jail or levy hefty fines they can’t afford.

    Additionally, parents who have baby boys born in SFO will simply seek the procedure in a neighboring city or county, putting a burden on some other entity’s resources. Or, they may decide to birth elsewhere, again putting a strain on already bursting hospitals and care-providers in other jurisdictions.

    I believe most parents don’t circumcise their boys with the aim of decreasing their sexuality or diminishing their power. I don’t dispute that men are affected by circumcision. The men who honestly feel they have been damaged by the practice weren’t altered because their parents feared their sexuality. I think they did it because it was a societal norm. Societal norms change. They are fluid. The problem is that takes awhile for the pendulum to swing.

    It’s foolish to try to speed the pendulum with a law. When activists become impatient, knees jerk.

    My main issue is I think it sets a dangerous precedent to take away the right for a parent to make a medical decision. Criminalizing circumcision is not the way to eliminate it.

    It used to be very common for all children to have their tonsils removed. Now, they are only removed if there is a compelling medical reason with a documented history of serious and persistent infections.

    It didn’t take A LAW to change the practice. It took educating young doctors and young parents that tonsils are not inherently dangerous.

    Regarding ear piercing (and other piercings in children)—With our oldest daughter, we did not pierce her ears because we wanted it to be her decision. We also wanted her to be old enough to care for her ears and her jewelry. She made the decision and asked to do it when she was 8. I can see someone out there in a position of power deciding it’s terrible that baby girls who are pierced can’t consent. Enter yet another law. Stomp on another cultural/religious tradition. It becomes easier to pass new laws when similar laws are already being enforced.

    Jen—regarding the removal of breast tissue to prevent breast cancer. This, of course, would be incredibly foolish and I believe you are arguing it’s just as foolish to eliminate foreskin in the attempt to eliminate UTIs or STDs. I don’t think the argument would get you very far with the average person. The majority of people feel that foreskin is just that—a little bit of skin. But breasts are understood to be more important than a bit of skin and should be allowed to develop. Until you can convince people that foreskin is important, they will feel no qualms removing it to prevent possible infections.

    Again: education.

  • comment avatar Aubrey May 21, 2011

    I’ll chime back in to say that female circumcision (mutilation) is TOTALLY different than male circumcision. Circumcised females (typically) have essentially everything removed (labia minora and clitoris) that would give them ANY pleasure from sex, and makes sex very painful. It’s actually more like a castration. While maybe there is someone out there who says sex is TOTALLY devoid of pleasure who is a circumcised male, they still have the parts there that would allow them to climax.

    • comment avatar N November 15, 2012

      there are more then one form of FGM
      and actually the most well known kind is the most uncommon. Usually only the clitoral hood (literally the exact same tissue as the foreskin) is removed, occasionally the inner labia as well. And even In the most extreme FGM the woman still retains the nerves on the inside of her vagina.

  • comment avatar Emily May 22, 2011

    Couldn’t agree more. Well said.

  • comment avatar Miranda May 24, 2011

    We live in the suburbs of SF. When we had to make this decision, and I took to message boards and the internet to research, there was so much vitriol I had to stop looking. Regardless of the valid info out there, to be called cruel, disfiguring, mutilating, uneducated, with lots of exclamation!!!!! meant that the point was lost. I was completely unable to find a peaceful conversation about pro’s and cons. Ultimately, we made our choice based on what made sense in our family situation.

    I would liken it to the anti-abortion ads that show the aftermath. Whom does that convince, one way or the other?

  • comment avatar amy May 25, 2011

    Ha ha. It’s funny how it’s always these issues that people living outside of the Bay Area hear about. Of course it would be unconstitutional.

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