Circumcision is in the news again, because of a judge in Germany who ruled it was illegal. I'm still not sure how I feel about banning circumcision legally; on the one hand, I believe it is unjust to alter a child's body without his consent without grave need, but on the other I feel the law is a very clumsy tool for getting what you want, especially when opposed by religion. That's the libertarian in me coming out. But on the other hand, libertarianism is about giving liberty to adults, over their own bodies ... not about handing the rights of children over to someone else. I go back and forth; it's a very tough call for me.
But in reading blog posts about this topic, I found myself getting frustrated for another reason. The same myths keep getting tossed around about circumcision, and people just accept them. I guess they assume people wouldn't speak with such assurance if they didn't know what they were talking about. But ... let me just tell you ... they don't know what they're talking about.
Here are a few myths about circumcision that I saw bandied about. [Warning: I do discuss medical details in this post. It's my opinion that squeamishness about circumcision contributes to ignorance about it. If it's too gross to read about, I think it should be too gross to do. But I'm giving you fair warning: if you don't want to know the details, stop reading.]
Myth #1: "Better to get it done when they're younger -- circumcision is so much less complicated when done on an infant."
Fact: Circumcision is much more difficult and complicated when performed on an infant. First, anesthesia is not always given to a baby, and when it is, it is not always effective. It's unsafe to put the baby under, but with a local, you can't be sure the area is completely numb. Think about it -- how do they test a local anesthetic? Normally, touch you with ice and ask you if you felt that. If you're a baby, you can't answer. An adult is normally completely numb for a circumcision.
Second, a baby's foreskin is not yet retractable. It is fused to the glans, in a similar way as your fingernails are fused to the finger. So in addition to the cutting we think of, there is also the extremely painful procedure of tearing the foreskin from the glans. An adult's foreskin is retractable and may simply be cut and removed.
Third, a baby's penis is very tiny -- less than two inches long. It's much easier to make mistakes on such a tiny organ, which is why we occasionally read about baby boys losing their glans or entire penis to a slip of a scalpel. It's not always clear where the foreskin ends and the rest of the penile skin begins -- so there is a lot of variation in how circumcisions are done: some painfully tight and some rather loose. On an adult, the demarcation is clear and a man can choose beforehand how much skin he wants removed.
Fourth, an adult man can spend his recovery period keeping the area scrupulously clean and taking vicodin. He will immediately notice any complication. An infant's surgical site is inside a diaper, which invariably will be wet or dirty sometimes. His parents may not notice an unusual appearance until some time has past. And only a few ounces of bleeding is enough to kill a newborn -- an amount easily concealed in a disposable diaper.
There is no risk whatsoever in delaying circumcision till adulthood -- except, of course, the risk that a man wouldn't do that to himself if the choice were left up to him. In which case it is rather strange to do it on him before he is able to withhold consent, if we suspect he would withhold consent if he could speak.
Myth #2: "Male circumcision is nothing like female circumcision. Female circumcision is much more drastic."
Fact: Actually, it depends. There are three types of female circumcision. The most drastic is indeed a more serious affair than male circumcision: the entire clitoris is removed, and often the labia are as well and the vagina is stitched half-closed. This is extremely brutal and causes pain later in life. However, the more common form of female circumcision is the removal of part or all of the clitoral hood, which is the same basic body part (called the prepuce) as the foreskin on a man. This is not done to destroy all sexual pleasure, but for mainly aesthetic purposes. Some women who advocate it claim it is more hygienic and increases sexual pleasure. The least drastic form of female circumcision is a "ritual nick" which does not leave any permanent change in appearance. ALL of these forms of genital cutting are illegal in the US, even though some religions insist on them. Boys do not have the same protection under the law as girls do.
Myth #3: "Doctors recommend circumcision for health reasons."
Fact: Some individual doctors may recommend circumcision based on their own opinions. But no medical association in America recommends it officially. The AAP's statement on the matter is that there is insufficient medical cause to recommend routine infant circumcision, and that the parents can make the decision for their own cultural reasons.
Myth #4: "Most Christian men are circumcised, even though our religion doesn't require it."
Fact: Worldwide, circumcision is religiously based. In Muslim countries and in Israel, nearly all men are circumcised. In Africa, certain tribes practice circumcision as well. Aside from these countries, hardly any men are circumcised. Rates are low in Europe and are easily accounted for by assuming Jews and Muslims are circumcised, and Christians are intact. Routine infant circumcision among Christians is mostly limited to English-speaking countries, and rates are falling fast even there. Circumcision is becoming uncommon in Canada, Britain, and Australia. Even in America, less than half of baby boys are circumcised now.
Seriously, I have no problem with people debating the role of government and the rights of religious groups. That's a valid debate and I hope to continue following it in the hopes of coming to some opinion myself. But I wish people would stop spouting ignorance about circumcision. The whole internet is wide open -- it's not hard to find this stuff out.