A New Perspective

Why is it that no matter what I’m doing, my head always relates everything to birthing? I’d stop it if I could. Thoughts come unbidden and take on a life of their own.

I’m currently taking a sociology class. Naturally, the assigned reading sets the wheels in motion. This time, it may actually make sense that I’d wonder about what makes people tick, because apparently, that’s what sociology is. It looks for patterns in behavior and tries to determine the societal impact on our decision-making, which is what I’ve been trying to do willy-nilly for years.

So, I’m going to try to apply the ‘sociological perspective’ to something that was in the news recently. Oddly, not birth this particular time. Many ideas are circulating as I read, but this piece relates to a topical subject.

Time ran an article online (January 4, 2008) titled An End to Female Genital Cutting? The article says that there may soon be a law banning Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The author, Nicholas Birch/Arbil, then goes on to briefly explain the ‘who, what, where, when, how’ of FGM.

He tells us that about 90% of girls have this procedure done, that sometimes the reason for going it is based on a religious teaching, but that there are also societal beliefs that play into the continuation of the practice. One mother explains that doing the circumcision when a girl is a baby, as she did with her own daughter, is best because then the child is too young to understand.

So, these are my thoughts on the subject:

In the U.S., infant male circumcision is considered by many to be a parenting decision; a cultural norm. Female circumcision is considered a barbaric human rights issue. I propose that the only difference is that it is the values and beliefs of the cultures that support each procedure see themselves as right. Believe it or not, infant male circumcision isn't the universally accepted procedure we tend to think it is. Worldwide, only about 30% of men are circumcised, according to the World Health Organization. To others, what we do to baby boys is just as abhorrent as FGM is to us.

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 objectionable 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 the attempt to control sexuality is common to both. At one point, circumcision was medically recommended to prevent male masturbation. The reasoning was that it desensitized the penis. Common sense tells us this would be so, as is illustrated by the explanation of the anatomy and function of the foreskin on a page at the NOHARMM site and a very scientific and informative video here.

Here is a slide show on the progression of the medicalization of circumcision:

Circumcision does not prevent masturbation. Men are men. Does it reduce sensation? One study released in April of 2007 says yes. This study says no. However, in evaluating the veracity of the studies, it would be prudent to look at what the anatomy and physiology of the foreskin actually is, as in the above videos, and then use some common sense. From there, I'd take into consideration what men who have been circumcised later in life have said. Many lament the loss of sensitivity after losing the foreskin. From that perspective, I'd wonder if there was some conflict of interest in promoting a non-medically indicated, routine procedure for infant males.

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 elsewhere on the internet (Intact, n.d.). Unfortunately, even though its one of the best out there, that one is a Quicktime video, which not all systems will play and I can't embed it. Therefore, I include two others below. This first one is the 'little snip' version (the procedure is done with a blade) and the one that follows is done with a 'bell clamp'.

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.

I've also seen discussion boards where people insist that because one study suggested that circumcision reduces the incidence of AIDS, that is justification for routine infant male circumcision in the U.S.

First of all, it was one study. As mentioned, studies have said the same type of thing before for both male and female circumcision, and have later been proven incorrect. However, let's suppose for a moment that this study is solid. How is it we can then apply a study about sexually active adult men in a country (Africa) where AIDS is epidemic, to newborn babies in another country? Do we understand exactly why it might lower the risk of AIDS? Are there less drastic means of getting the same results? There are just too many questions to ask before using this study to justify a routine practice.

Cultural acceptance doesn’t make circumcision hurt any less, and it doesn’t restore the functionality of the organ. I've heard fathers dismiss information about the importance of the foreskin in sexuality, saying that since they were circumcised and they are able to have enjoyable sex, the information is obviously wrong. However, women who undergo FGM still function. They still have sex. They still have babies. Depending on the degree of mutilation, they may still even enjoy sex with a loving partner. To suggest that it's exactly the same as it might have been otherwise is simply illogical. Likewise with males who have been circumcised as infants. How would they know what they've lost if they've never had it? Just because they can still function in a way that is acceptable to them (because it's all they've ever known) doesn't mean it's the same. Groups like NOHARMM, INTACT, NOCIRC have many men who made the decision to get circumcised later in life with the understanding that it wouldn't make a difference in their sex life, only to discover it did in ways they couldn't imagine.

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 for both.

Fleiss, P.(1997). The case against circumcision. Mothering, 85(Winter). Retrieved February 2, 2007.

Intact. Circumcision Video. Retrieved February 2, 2007.

Rathmann, W. (1959, September). Female circumcision: Indications and a new technique. GP(XX) 3, 115-120. Retrieved February 2, 2007.

Stang, H., Snellman, L. (1998, June 6). Circumcision practice patterns in the United States.

Pediatrics (101)6. Retrieved February 2, 2007 .

World Health Organization, (2000, June). Fact sheet N°241. Female genital mutilation. Retrieved February 2, 2007.


Joel said...

What a wonderful article. i hope the word gets out there!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with you. Let's hope it has some impact.

Hugh said...

Bravo, Kim! It's good to see that more and more people are getting it. Please visit www.circumstitions.com for more rebuttals of conventional folly.

But you'll find that by starting with the comparison with Female Genital Cutting, you've begun a dance through a minefield - "How DARE you compare our gentle, beneficial, beautiful, quick, painless, healthgiving (etc) medical/religious procedure with their barbaric, harmful disfiguring, protracted, agonizing, unhygienic (etc) primitive/superstitious ritual?" I'm starting to ask, "OK, now suppose FGC has been abolished. NOW how are you going to justify cutting parts off babies' genitals?"