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Is Circumcision Correct for Newborn Boys?

Louanne Cole, Ph.D.
S.F. Examiner
p. B-7, Wednesday, August 11, 1993

Q: I'm 38 and will be giving birth to a baby boy soon. My husband is circumcised, but I'm thinking about not circumcising our son. It seems painful. Our friends didn't circumcise their son and say the practice is decreasing. What's your opinion?

A: The United States is one of the few countries where infants are routinely circumcised unlike England, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Peru, Greece and Spain - and more than 40 other countries. Even here it is decreasing. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that 59 percent of U.S.-born males in 1990 were circumcised, down from the estimated high of 80 to 90 percent in the 1970s.

In 1972, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology stated there was no legitimate medical reason to circumcise every newborn male. The American Academy of Pediatrics in 1975 stated: "A program of education leading to continuing good personal hygiene would offer all the advantages of routine circumcision without the attendant surgical risk." Some parents are realizing that the "reasons" typically given don't add up. Witnessing this "benign" unanesthetized surgery has changed the minds of many others. This column will address only the most commonly raised health issues surrounding circumcision. Please send your additional questions about it for a future column on sexual functioning, pleasure, etc.

Also available is "Say No to Circumcision!" by Thomas Ritter, M.D. (Hourglass Book Publishing, 1992) available at Solar Light Books or A Different Light (both in San Francisco) or send $13 to the publisher at P.O. Box 171, Aptos, CA 95001. Much of this column is based on Ritter's well-reasoned book.

Isn't it insulting to the average male's intelligence to think that surgery is preferable
because he can't be entrusted with washing his genitals

Hygiene is the most commonly offered reason to circumcise. Isn't it an extreme decision to substitute surgery for habitual cleaning with soap and water? Isn't it insulting to the average male's intelligence to think that surgery is preferable because he can't be entrusted with washing his genitals when somehow he manages to brush his teeth, clean his ears and blow his nose?

Female genitals are far more complicated to clean and (fortunately) no one in this country is advocating removal of those folds of skin!

Some say circumcision promotes cleanliness, which protects against cancer. Yet, the penile cancer rate in Europe (where circumcision is rarely done) is no higher than in the United States (where it's routinely done).

More U.S. deaths occur each year from circumcision than from penile cancer! Less than two men in 100,000 ever get penile cancer. If the penile cancer argument had validity, it would show up among men born before 1940 who are, as a group, more intact genitally than later generations. But it has not.

Another reason offered: the infant penis will be safer. Sadly, the opposite is true. The foreskin is a protective covering of the glans (head) against excrement that collects in diapers. With circumcision, this protection is gone like a camera without its lens cover.

At birth the foreskin is not retractable, but it will be by about six years, due to natural secretions that separate the foreskin from the glans and due to the child's explorations.

In the late 1800s physicians circumcised to dull penile sensation and thus discourage masturbation (a practice they thought led to mental and physical disorders). A man without a foreskin was less likely to masturbate because he wouldn't discover the pleasures associated with cleaning his penis.

Back then John Kellogg "researched" the diseases caused by masturbation and found more than 30. He also "identified" masturbators by tell-tale signs: poor posture, acne and insomnia. Kellogg recommended a nutritional cure for masturbators: his breakfast cereals. Sylvester Graham prescribed his crackers as the antidote!

Physicians took it a step further, circumcising as a preventative measure. As time passed, society realized that masturbation caused no illness. That's when reasons about hygiene and cancer prevention emerged.

Circumcision as religious expression is another matter completely. However, for 2,000 years, until about 140 A.D., Jews did not cut off the entire foreskin, rather just the tip of it as an act of faith to fulfill the Commandment of Circumcision. The complete removal was later introduced by rabbis because the tip-removal procedure made it very easy to pass as a non-Jew. Since hygiene isn't really an issue and circumcision no longer is a sign of a man's religion, some Jewish parents - even if they want circumcision - are considering returning to the original practice.

If you're concerned that your uncircumcised son "won't look like other men," remember that 41 percent in the United States aren't circumcised. Also know that he'll have good company: Vida Blue, Johnny Carson, Francis Coppola, Tony Danza, Erik Estrada, Frank Gifford, Hugh Hefner, Ron Howard, Don Johnson, Eddie Murphy, Elvis Presley, Robert Redford, and Mr. T - to name a few.

Louanne Cole, Ph.D. is a board-certified sex therapist with an office in San Francisco. Send your questions for Sex Matters to: Sex Matters, Style, San Francisco Examiner, P.O. Box 7260, San Francisco, 94120 or you can e-mail to:

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