The Circumcision Debate or Why I Can Finally Pull My Head Out of The Sand

My husband and I are immeasurably relieved to have had two girls. And no sons.

Yes, that’s 100% true.

(Is your mind racing to tell me how wrong I am yet?)

Ok, now I’ll tell you why that’s 100% true.

It’s because I did not have to decide whether or not to circumcise – a decision I would have agonized over, were I to have given birth to a son.

Another study has come out, once again, that is sure, once again, to incite a whirlwind of activity among the debaters of the question of circumcision. And now that my own husband has been genitally mutilated for the benefit of our reproductive freedom and the universe is certain that I will not be having a son, I am no longer afraid to think concretely about the subject.

I am accused, all the time, of being a hippie – or at least, of being pretty crunchy. I homebirthed. I babywore. I breastfed each of my girls for more than two years. I cook organic, healthy meals. I co-slept, and still do when the girls feel like they cannot possibly rest unless one of their feet is lodged in my ribs. I don’t trust the drugstore to supply anything that has to touch my children’s skin. I have been a vocal opponent of cry-it-out and sleep training in general.

I used to judge other parents, maybe a lot. I can’t anymore. The longer I am a mother, the better I feel about the decisions I make, and the more I empathize with the decisions that other parents make.

Yet, my feelings on circumcision are not clear, and I dealt with those feelings by praying I would never have to make a decision about it one way or another. And as I said, and as you know, I never did. Phew.

Because even though I am kind of a hippie, I am also a Jew. One who supposes herself more of a cultural, than religious, Jew, but a Jew nonetheless, used to matzo ball soup and loud (loud!) family get-togethers and circumcised penises. But like I said, I am not religious, and willing to bend or ignore rules to suit my family and my values. So of course, just as I have chosen to be a Jew that has tattoos and eats bacon, I could also be a Jew that joins a growing movement of those that do not believe in circumcising their baby boys.

But here’s something else – I’m not sure I think it’s so horrible.

I mean, it is – it is horrible to inflict pain on my child and alter the appearance of a body part for no discernable reason, and I didn’t even like it when a nurse tried to stick my newborn daughter’s heel for a blood test.

But I might just have circumcised my son.

Because I am a Jew. And it’s normal to me. And I married someone who is not a Jew. And I am concerned, all the time, about passing on the things I think are important about my background – their background – to them. And I worry about diluting our background, yet do not want, ever, to force them on a path that is not right for them. I want them to choose who, what they want to be, how they want to live, and I want only to open, not shut doors for them.

So I might just have circumcised my son for this very reason. What if I had had a son, and I did not circumcise him and that closed off a path to the Jewish religion that he might have wanted, might have needed, to pursue?

Like I said, I do not want to push my children in any direction; merely give them the security and the knowledge and the support they need to head off in whatever way they choose. But I feel, in my heart of hearts, that had I a son and not circumcised him, I would have closed a door to him before he ever had a chance to decide if he would have preferred that door remain open.

And please don’t offer the argument that by not practicing, say, Buddhism or Sufiism or Marxism that I am already closing doors that a child of mine might want to walk through, left, right and centre. I don’t think that, as a parent, I’m supposed to know everything, but I do believe I should teach them who they are and what I know about that.

Maybe you see my struggle by now, or maybe you think I am nuts or just plain wrong. I see all of those things when I allow myself to think about it. I guess I am pleading religious tolerance or simply trying to work through guilt I carry over something that hasn’t – and won’t ever – even occurred. I am Jewish, after all; I wear guilt like others wear cute scarves.

Where is my husband in this, you may ask. He was always standing right beside me, assuring me that he would support whatever I decide, for he saw that the struggle was mine. I will not tell you what he ‘looks’ like, only that he would not have tried to persuade me one way or another, knowing how tangled the decision is with my (cultural) identity in general. He’s a good man.

And I am a mother to two girls, who refuses to judge or jury any other mother over whether or not they circumcise their son.



  1. I was so sure that circumcision was wrong before I had my kid and we didn't circumcise our son and now both of us parents TOTALLY wish that we had. We know SIX little boys - SIX! - who've had to be rushed into surgery to have their foreskins removed once they were school-aged. They say that it's an uncommon thing to happen but NOT IN MY EXPERIENCE.

  2. I have known two people who have had to have their foreskins removed much later in life, and I don't think it was at all pleasant for them. It's short-sighted of me, but I almost never think of the 'health' implications one way or another regarding circumcision - I guess because the struggle in my heart is more of a cultural one.

  3. While we never had to worry about the cultural implications, this was a worry for us also. Thankfully we never had to deal with it because I'm not sure what we would have done.

    Thoughtful post (as always :)

  4. As a mom of three boys, I did have to think about it, and didn't want to, simply because I didn't see why I should do any medically unnecessary surgery on my kids, ever. And we aren't Jewish, so no issues there.

    My husband was adamant we not do it, because all the arguments he heard were cosmetic, like "you want your sons to look like the Dad" Meanwhile, he is missing a toe. So should we cut a toe off of each our sons?

    Obviously not.

    Over the years since, I've gotten to know several Doctors, and there are actually some serious risks to circumcision and complications, just as there are with all surgeries. I'm not going to elaborate here, but there are many cases that happen. It's not completely risk free. Pain, for example, does exist, and that's why Women's College and Sick Kids now refuse to do circs without freezing and tylenol afterwards.

    The circs done later in life after kids have problems are different, they cut less skin away, and usually are needed as a result of a congenital defect and some surgery would have been needed at some point anyway.

    As for the African studies? Umm, I'm not really convinced on that evidence. Turns out that the circumcized men who did get HIV (40%) were dramatically more likely to give HIV to their female partners at home. It seems that uncirced penises cause less tearing in the vaginal walls. Circed men need more lubricant to avoid doing that to their partners. The african ABC program worked a lot better. Abstinence, Be faithful, and use condoms.

    In the end, I think people who are religious have the right to do whatever they feel is right, but I do think that a sterile room and painkiller should be mandatory. For the rest of us? I just don't see any medical reason.

  5. Aurelia - just as I don't put too much stock into the 'medical' reasons to circumcise, I also don't put too much stock in the claims that a circumcised penis is more apt to hurt a woman during intercourse, or even that sensation is lessened for a man. That certainly hasn't been my expereince. (ahem) But I too wondered about the claim that circumcising would somehow reduce the spread of HIV. Sounds like a dangerous thing to convince people of in areas where the spread is still rampant.

  6. We didn't circumcise - we aren't Jewish, and it hasn't been normal practice in the UK (where one son, and their dad, was born) for a very long time.

    I'm happy with our decision still. There might be benefits but hopefully they can get protection through other methods.

    But I'm also happy for others to make their own personal decision on this one. As I've said to you before, I don't stand on platforms, too risky to preach when things change & inconsistency happens!!

  7. This was so hard. I mean - wham! One minute we were joyously told we had a baby boy, and the next: So do you want to circumcise?

    I'd just finished reading about some other African studies, too. And I'd never seen an uncircumcised penis.

    And we went back and forth and what if? and why not? and why? and had just about decided that 'a son should look like his Dad' (although, yes, a very weak reasoning, I see that now) and the day came and my husband drove to the hospital and came home and said "I couldn't let them do it."

    And I blew out a big breath and was very happy.

    Then I had to go to my (Jewish) doctor and ask him how to take care of an uncircumcised penis. THAT was fun.

    I don't understand why it's such a debate. (Not you, specifically, just generally.) But an awful lot of people asked back then.

  8. One of the VERY big reasons I'm Soooo glad we had a girl.
    we would debate and agonize about it before she was born all the time.
    It's a tough one that's for sure.

  9. We would have most likely done it for religious/cultural reasons. What surprised me last week was a discussion at a birthday party with a group of non-Jewish moms who mostly had had their sons circumcised. I didn't think many did it anymore nowadays unless it WAS for religious reasons.

  10. I did not circumcise either of my sons. I'm not vehemently against it, but I was against it for my children.

    My younger brother was not circumcised (my older one was) because he was a very ill baby and it was not advisable. Turns out he DID need to be circumcised as an adult, which was not fun, clearly.

    I still think I did the right thing by my children. After all, foreskin is there for a reason, I think. But I think that there is a lot of room for different opinions, and I am not judgmental of those mothers who do circumcise. I just could not do it.

  11. Nicole, thanks for your perspective, and I totally agree with you that we, as parents, just have to do what we think is best for our children.

  12. I was a little bit on the fence, though leaning towards not bothering with circumcision when I was pregnant. Huz was vehemently opposed to circumcision, and I was relieved he felt strongly about it so I didn't have to hum and haw. On most things I successfully avoid judging other parents' decisions, but I have a hard time with this one. I think religious/cultural reasons are fine reasons not to do it - I have no qualms with that. But it's the parents who don't have those reasons and just do it just because...

  13. Just want to say that everything you've said here seems right to me - that under your particular circumstances, these are exactly the feelings you should have, mixed in exactly the right proportions.

  14. I am not Jewish, and I did not circumcise my son. For me, there was no compelling religious or cultural reason to consider it.

    However, I will tell you that while I ultimately decided not to, I still feel sort of ambivalent about it for a variety of reasons. And I'm pretty sure that if I had a religious reason to circumcise, I probably would have.

    Parenting is complicated and hard. The longer I do it, the less equipped I feel to judge others. Advocating for a considered choice in circumcision seems reasonable. But condemning someone else's considered choice is not.

  15. Well, I have a son and he's not snipped. I just didn't see any need for it. That's all.

  16. Bea - Thank you.

    Kate - but is it any less barbaric of a practice if it is done under the veil of a religious or cultural belief? Or am I still silently being judged (perhaps even more harshly) for cloaking it in such? I'm not suggesting that you think this way, just wondering out loud.

    Amber - well said.

    Den - good to hear from a dude.

  17. I have one son, it was never a question for me. He was circumcised. My reasons were completely selfish. My nephew was not circ'd, and there were issues, my BIL is english so none of the boys in his family were circ'd, two of them had to be done later in life. Seeing what they went through was enough for me.

    Also I was the one who would be taking care of this child for the first few years of his life. So I did what I wanted, and what I was comfortable with. Like I said, I had completely selfish reasons, and do not feel the least little of guilt for it.

    My dr was Jewish, so I knew he was in good hands, he left sleeping, he came back sleeping and has never had any ill effects from it.

    I don't generally weigh in on the circ debate, b/c quite honestly whether or not someone circ's their child is none of my business, although I have had many women weigh in on my decision to do it. I hold my head high and let them say what they need to, to make themselves feel better and then I walk away, with my head still high.

  18. gah, I remember when I used to have opinions about such things, now I'm just too tired. I will probably comment on this in a couple of years, hopefully then I will be well rested and will have the energy to drag out my soapbox once again. And when I do, G20 watch out! (another great post by the way)

  19. I have two daughters, too, and all I can say is 'Phew.' One less thing to have agonized over.

  20. Mombshell - yes, let us curse the bitches that are well-rested enough to form opinions ;)

    Kelly - Bullet, dodged. Agreed.

  21. When I was pregnant with Scooter, an aunt and uncle on the Jewish side asked if we were going to raise him Jewish. I explained that he'd have an upbringing like mine, exposure to multiple religions and their traditions, but the ultimate decision left to him. Their follow up question: But you will circumcise him, right?

    Neither boy is snipped. As barely even a cultural Jew, I didn't feel an imperative there. It's possible to argue health, etc, on either side, and I suspect that we tend to hear more of the side we want/need to. (On my side, my nurse at the hospital when I had Thumper mentioned that when she worked at another hospital, it seemed that the non-critical children's ward was nearly always populated by circumcised boys who had stenosis. And there are many ways in which the African studies do not transfer well to what is likely to be my sons' situation.)

    In the end, I find that there's definitely a similarity in my attitude to religion and circumcision both. I am leaving both decisions to my sons while secretly hoping they will make the same choices I would.

  22. I always hear this argument that kids should be left to make their own decision in terms of religion, which is all fine and good, except most times I think a person will choose what makes him fit in the best. Unless you are living in a big city where there is much diversity, chances are the child will never get exposed to it. So, I assume that very few children of a Jewish parent who is given the option of becoming whatever they choose on their own will choose to remain Jewish. Why would they? It's not human nature to choose the harder road. But that is life. And maybe it isn't that big a deal. If a group loses most of their followers, the problem may lie with the tenets of the group.

    As for the circumcision issue, I've always found the arguments a little hysterical. People are actually glad they didn't have a boy because of this issue! That is crazy! If you don't want to circumcise your child, great. Who cares? Boys see both kinds in the locker room. But if it is part of your religious tradition -- in fact, one of the key religious traditions -- I think people should let the religious do it without crying mutilation. It's really not that big of a deal.

  23. This is one of those issues I rarely wade into because people really do get hysterical about it, and I just can't take the hyperbole and drama. People here though, seem to be sane! (How did you find such friends?)

    So when we found out The Bun would be a boy, I realized that yes, I needed to sort this out ahead of time so I started doing what I do - reading stuff. And what I found was there are about equal arguments for either side, healthwise, and that new studies also seem to come down on either side fairly equally.

    One of the arguments against that drives me nuts (heh) comes in the form of speculation that you are diminishing a man's sexual experience - how would they know? Who can measure this, and would they have both cut and uncut experiences to compare? Pretty unlikely, so I discard this.

    The argument that you are choosing for your child? We choose lots of important things for our children, it's part of parenting, and few of them can truly be undone. What I think is most important is that we make those choices with thought, not off the cuff. If people are putting thought into it, then who are we to condemn, really?

    So as for us, I was fairly on the fence, but there were two small things, one from each of us, that made us decide to do it. First, we know people who had to be done later and were fairly traumatised by it (and this is apparently not all that uncommon, I have heard of lots of stories of that), and avoiding that seemed desirable. Secondly, Misterpie made the point that little boys are NOT known for their hygiene practices, and he felt that making that simpler would be a good thing. (He obviously does not feel robbed of his, so isn't worried about that in his son, either!)

    The other thing is, of course, that we asked around for a doctor who came recommended, and who used topical freezing and tylenol and then a local anaesthetic, and who used a procedure that closes the skin on releasing it after the cut is made, so healing is fast and easy. This was important, because I'm not signing my baby up for suffering, but it seemed that every precaution was being taken, and none of the babies that came before us seemed upset, nor was The Bun. All clear! (so if that vasectomy doesn't hold, and you need the name of a good local doc... heh.)

  24. See...I'm Jewish. Traditional, I'd consider myself; not religious. But, I had a bris for my son, and I really don't regret it for a single second.

    My son was born Jewish, and he will be Jewish forever, not matter how he chooses to live his life..be it a practicing one or a nonpracticing one. Circumcision is a big deal in Judaism. So, truthfully, it wasn't even something I thought about.

    And I'm kind of glad.

  25. We struggled with circumsion too. We didn't really like to do it, but as you said: we are not religious but we are Jewish, and deciding not to circumsise was making a decision for our child not to be Jewish. And maybe that will change in the next generation and maybe it won't. But although we are atheist, bacon eating jews, we are Jewish and in deference for the millions who died for the same reason we chose for our sons to have a choice.
    That said, we did screw our families over and did not have a Bris (the first time), and capitualated the second. (though we did insist on the female Moyel -- the Moyelette, rhymes with moist toilette)

  26. slaterbabyJuly 19, 2010

    My husband and I struggled with this very question for almost two years. In fact I've often wondered if he refused to pop the question until all the details of what religious jewish traditions we would adhere to were addressed. My husband is not jewish and he’s philosopher to boot making the discussions quite thoughtful and lively. We polled my relatives and talked and talked circumcision trying to determine whether it was mutilation and wondered how painful it was at 8 days old.

    During this time my nephew was born and my husband made us stand front and centre to make sure this was something we could live with should we have a male child. I stood and quietly cried my heart out and knew all the same that if I had a male child I would do it. I would do it for two main reasons one of which you cite kgirl. I would do it because I could not make a choice for my child. In making this choice I was giving him choice later in life - to be a jew, a religious one should he wish. My second reason was family. I have a very large extended family in Israel and we asked ourselves if my family would treat my son differently if he were not circumcised. The answer, much as I love them, was yes, they would - in fact I believe my father would which was unacceptable to me.

    So we circumcised him and when we did I sat in the next room bawling my eyes out while my ‘gentile’ husband helped. I have to admit I was incredibly grateful I had a daughter next. However, I would do it again and in fact I am pregnant again and there is a big part of me that feels this is a boy and I will go through this again. This time I hope to stand stronger than I did last time though.

  27. My wife and I were talking about this issue recently after a friend mentioned she was considering not circumcising if she has a boy. My personal experience was not being circumcised as an infant. The first time I pulled my foreskin back to clean under it in the bath tub, my foreskin swelled up and wouldn’t go forward, constricting the head of my penis. We had to go to the emergency room where it took them about fifteen minutes of shots and pulling with forceps to put myforeskin back over the head.
    After that trip I was always washing under my foreskin with soap and water, but in college I got a yeast infection under my foreskin which also resulted in tearing the which attaches to the foreskin. The doctor said that the foreskin creates a moist, warm environment where bacteria can easily grow.
    I ended up being circumcised in college to prevent any more infections. Sex was actually more pleasurable after the circumcision because the head is always uncovered and in contact with the vagina, whereas before circumcision the foreskin would cover the head for a little over half the time, preventing the contact with the vagina.

  28. Awesome discussion here. My father and two brothers are circumcised, my husband is not. We're not Jewish. We didn't circumcise our son -- and really, it didn't matter what I thought because my husband is adamantly against it.
    But I did baptize my kids as Catholic even though I really don't follow any of the rules and am basically agnostic. Passing on whatever religious/cultural traditions to our kids and giving them the chance to reject them on their own is important to me. I don't need to believe in the trinity to love the rituals and bask in my Catholic guilt.


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