An analysis of what truly motivates parents to circumcise their children
The United States has had a number of absurd medical fads, from the Rango Fruit to grape diets. But one of these fads, infant circumcision, has stood the test of time.
However, this operation isn’t performed for medical reasons; it’s done for social ones.
The procedure started in ancient times, with records as far back as 2300 BCE in Egypt. Eventually, however, the practice was adopted by the Jews.
The practice shows up in the the Book of Genesis as a commandment from God to his followers. In a 2007 article published in the Journal of Reproductive Health Matters, Peter Aggleton discussed how the procedure performed today is not the one the Bible referred to.
“Until 300 BC, the ritual is recorded as calling only for the removal of the tip of the foreskin,” Aggleton said. “However, when Jewish athletes travelled to Greece to compete in athletic events, they imitated their Greek hosts by pulling their remaining foreskins over the glans penis and tying them closed with a ribbon or piece of string. Over time, this stretching is reported as resulting in a fully-functioning foreskin.”
Jewish elders were upset by this, so they changed the procedure. The new version, which is performed today, involves the removal of the entire foreskin and the frenulum, which is a connective tissue.
For centuries, circumcision was practiced in religious communities, but it became more prevalent in the Victorian Era. In this time period, sexuality was frowned upon, and it was believed that masturbation caused diseases.
John Kellogg, the creator of Cornflakes, believed that circumcision could prevent self-stimulation. In his 1887 book, Plain Facts For Young and Old: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life, he said that “A remedy which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.”
As this way of thinking spread, the practice became widespread. Aggleton, however, believes that the surgery isn’t performed for medical reasons.
“Male circumcision – like its counterpart female genital mutilation – is nearly always a strongly political act,” he said. “(It is) enacted upon others by those with power, in the broader interests of a public good but with profound individual and social consequences.”
After the surgery became commonplace, parents began circumcising their children because of conformity. Online, a mother named Marilyn said “I feel like I wasn’t given informed consent or options… I though circumcising was something I had to do.”
However, the incidence of the procedure has been dropping for decades, and as of 2012, the national rate was 55%. Regionally, it is lowest in the west at 25% and the state of Nevada has the lowest rate, which is 12%.
Another belief that motivates parents is that if they don’t circumcise their child, he will be teased by his peers. However, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Urology tells a different story.
According to Siobhan E. Alexander and others, only 10% of boys are teased in middle and high school locker rooms for penile appearance. Of these, 83% are teased for size.
Assuming that the only other reason boys are teased is for circumcision status, then a boy has an overall 1.7% chance of being laughed at for this reason. Of these boys, half are teased for having a foreskin, and the other half are made fun of for not having one.
Overall, this means that a boy has a less than one percent chance of being teased, regardless of whether or not he’s circumcised.
It is also worth noting that the social forces that led to the My Lai Massacre, which were authorization, routinization, and dehumanization, allow circumcision to continue today.
According to Herbert Kelman, “That such acts are authorized seems to carry automatic justification for them.” Because someone else gives permission, the blame doesn’t fall on the person carrying out the act.
Doctors are some of the biggest authorizing forces. They claim that circumcision is medically beneficial, so parents should have it performed on their children.
These claims include a reduced chance of getting urinary tract infections, HIV, and various cancers. However, these claimed benefits are still widely debated both inside and outside medical communities.
Also, some religious leaders say that the procedure is required. Although the Old Testament of the Bible says that the procedure is a necessary covenant, the New Testament is sprinkled with verses that go against this idea.
The New Living Translation of Galatians 5:6, for example, says “For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love.”
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have scriptures that share a similar message, including Moroni 8:8 and Doctrines and Covenants section 74:2-7. In addition, the procedure is not commanded by the Qur’an, and Jews are increasingly turning to Brit Shalom (“Covenant of Peace”), which is a non-surgical alternative.
The second thing that encouraged the My Lai Massacre, as well as circumcision, is routinization. The surgery has been common in America for almost a century.
However, the incidence of the procedure has been falling for decades. If parents circumcise to conform, they will soon have to stop circumcising for the same reason.
Some parents say that their child needs the surgery so that he will match his father. Unless a family is living in a nudist colony, however, differing circumcision statuses will likely go unnoticed. Hair, skin, and eye color, tattoos, and scars are much more visible differences.
Finally, circumcision is able to continue because, like sanctioned massacres, the victims are dehumanized. When parents say “it’s for his own good,” they devalue their child’s opinion.
Although the infant can’t communicate his view, it is possible that when he grows up, his religious and social beliefs will be different that those of his parents. Also, he may not have a problem with nonconformity.
Regardless of the man’s views as an adult, he can’t consent to the procedure and it’s impossible to know what he would want while he is still an infant.
This medical procedure, which is performed for non-medical reasons, can have serious implications.
“First and foremost, male circumcision is an act linked to deep-seated beliefs and ideologies about the social order,” Aggleton said. “Far from being a trivial or routine operation, male circumcision is an act that has profound social connotations and long-lasting physical and psychological consequences.”