by Rosemary Romberg
When children are born and people grow up in this world, we expect each individual to keep all parts of his or her body. All people have hands and feet, fingers and toes, noses and ears. People are unquestionably accorded that basic right. Most people would be aghast at the idea that any individual should be unwittingly deprived of any part of his or her body. People without their expected body parts are usually regarded as unusual.
Our feelings toward tiny babies inspire emotions of tenderness and protection. Babies are to cuddle and hold, to he kept secure in their parents’ arms. Babies should nurse (preferably) at their mother’s breast and sleep peacefully, safe and secure from any harm. Parents want to protect their infants from any unnecessary pain, discomfort, or unhappiness. The idea of cutting, pinching, or tearing the baby’s skin, of injuring that baby, causing him to experience pain, crying, or bleeding, is totally against what most parents want for their infants.
In the United States people make one glaring exception to these “rules” in that the foreskin of the penis of most newborn baby boys is routinely amputated shortly after birth. Most American baby boys undergo the following procedure: The infant is placed on his back in a plastic “Circumstraint” tray where his arms and legs are strapped down. Paper drapes are then placed over him with a hole where his penis is exposed. A hemostat is applied to the tip of the foreskin to crush it and then a slit is made to enlarge it. The operator then takes a small instrument and goes inside to free the foreskin from the glans of the penis – essentially tearing one layer of skin away from another since at birth the foreskin is normally adhered to the glans. A small protective “bell” is placed over the glans and under the foreskin. By one method a metal clamp is placed over the foreskin and left in place for several minutes. Then the foreskin is cut off and the clamp removed. By another method a string is tied tightly over the foreskin and the plastic bell. Then some of the foreskin in front of the string is trimmed away. The handle of the bell is removed and the ring of plastic remains in place around the end of the penis. The remaining foreskin atrophies (dries up) within approximately one week and the plastic ring then falls off.
In most cases this is done to the infant without anesthesia, although when the same operation is performed on an older child or an adult it is considered painful enough to warrant an anesthetic.
As an American middle class woman I had always thought penises were supposed to look a certain way with the exposed rounded “head” at the end. It never occurred to me that anything had been changed or cut off to make them appear that way. As far as I knew males were born with penises that looked like that. I had heard of the term ”circumcision” and knew vaguely that it had something to do with the penis and that the Bible said some things about it. However, this was something that I never questioned, thought about, or really understood.
I am a person who seeks to educate and prepare myself for every experience in whatever way possible. Therefore in 1972, when my husband and I were expecting our first child, I read books, asked questions, watched films, and attended classes in natural childbirth. I believed that I knew everything that I needed to know about pregnancy, birth, and care of the new baby.
I gave birth to our first child, a son, by the Lamaze method, and successfully nursed him. However, I gave birth in a traditional hospital in which the baby was separated from me, kept in a central nursery, and brought to me on a four hour feeding schedule. Therefore I had little knowledge or control over what was being done to my baby.
When the baby and I came home and I first began changing his diapers, I found that he too had a penis in the style and shape to which I was culturally accustomed, with the rounded glans exposed. The end of the baby’s penis was bright red for the first few days, but soon healed. The baby screamed every time his diaper was changed. Being a naive new mother, I had no idea why diaper changing upset him so much. Perhaps all babies did that. I never gave the appearance of my baby’s penis any concern.
Shortly after our baby’s birth I became a childbirth instructor and soon enjoyed the challenges and rewards of educating other expectant parents about pregnancy, birth and infant care.
Two and a half years later, in 1974, our second son was born in another hospital, again by the Lamaze method. This birth experience included several progressive practices such as rooming in. I was also more aware of the baby undergoing circumcision. The morning following his birth the doctor came by, took the baby to another room where he cut off his foreskin and brought him back to me about 15 minutes later. Although I expected that the procedure would be painful for the baby it never occurred to me not to have it done. This baby also now had a penis in the style which seemed normal to me. The new baby’s penis healed within a few days and I forgot about it.
Two years later after our second son’s birth I again became pregnant. During this time I underwent a tremendous amount of change in my thinking about what I wanted for this birth and baby. We made the unconventional and daring (for that time and place) decision to go outside the traditional medical system, seek the services of a lay midwife and give birth at home. I was intrigued with Dr. Frederick Leboyer’s philosophy of Birth Without Violence and wanted to use some of these practices for our baby’s birth. I read that the baby who is welcomed into the world in this manner is calmer and more peaceful than the baby who is born to conventional bright lights, loud noises and rough handling. Our first two sons were fussy and cried a great deal as new babies so I was very much interested in trying a different approach for our new baby’s birth.
We made plans to use only dim lighting when our baby was born. We would hold massage and speak softly to our new baby and welcome him into the world with gentleness and love. We would delay the clamping of the umbilical cord. No silver nitrate or other chemicals would be placed in the baby’s eyes .
During this time I also took additional training as a childbirth instructor in preparation for teaching more technical classes for people planning home births. I did extensive studying in many areas of obstetrics and newborn care. I considered myself more educated and knowledgeable about all aspects of pregnancy birth and baby care than most new parents.
The idea occurred to me that if our new baby was a boy, perhaps he should not be circumcised. However, I knew practically nothing about it. None of our doctors ever gave us any information about the operation – pros, cons, why or how it was done. Although mothers regularly discuss at length all aspects of pregnancy, birth, and infant care, I had rarely heard anyone else talk about circumcision. While I regularly discussed in detail such things as nutrition, breastfeeding, exercises, breathing techniques, and postpartum care in my Lamaze classes, it never occurred to me to discuss circumcision. Despite my extensive knowledge in many other areas, and my wholehearted desire to do the very best for my children, my awareness of circumcision consisted of nothing more than a basic concept that that was the way that penises were supposed to look and a vague idea that it was somehow supposed to be cleaner.
Early one morning in April of 1977, our third little son came into the world in the peace and comfort of our home. He coughed, sputtered, then breathed quietly as he emerged into dim light and was placed on my tummy to be massaged, comforted, and held close to me. Babies do not have to do a lot of screaming to announce their arrival into the world. There is a profound difference in the experience of birth and the nature of the baby when he is welcomed into the world in this manner. During the next few days our new son nursed contentedly, slept peacefully, and rarely cried. He had a peacefulness and serenity that I had never known with my first two babies – something very special and rare.
Another thing that was different about this baby was that he had a penis that was straight and long, coming to a point at the end. While I had always thought that intact penises looked “strange”, this baby’s penis seemed normal and natural the way it was. The first few days of our new baby’s life were peaceful and joyous and our new little son was whole and perfect.
What incomprehensible force brought me from this beautiful, untraumatized birth at home to a strange doctor’s office one week later – sitting there frightened and reluctant, holding my sleeping, peacefully trusting newborn infant? “He shouldn’t be different from his brothers or father.” “I’m afraid he’ll have problems.” “Our relatives would object if we didn’t have it done.” All these thoughts went through my head, while all the while I wanted so much to protect my baby from any harm .
My husband and I found ourselves relinquishing our baby and leaving the building. When we returned about 15 minutes later the office was filled with our baby’s screams! I found our precious baby on the doctor’s operating table with a penis that was cut, raw and bright red! I remembered his brothers’ penises looking that way, but while they, to me, seemed to have been born that way, this baby had definitely been injured, damaged, and traumatized! My maternal protective instincts had been violated! I immediately held and nursed him, trying to relieve his pitiful screams. Soon he mercifully fell asleep and I took him home. I felt like I had brought home a different baby. His tense, agonized little body reminded me of the way his brothers had been as newborns. Within a few days the redness around the end of his penis healed. But this time I was not about to forget! The trauma and torture that was inflicted upon this tiny, helpless little being was to come back and haunt me again and again. From this sprang my quest to do extensive research for my book Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma which was published in 1985 by Bergin & Garvey, S. Hadley, MA.
TrininAs emotionally difficult as my own baby’s circumcision was, I still began my research with a neutral stand on the subject. My sole concern was that the operation was so painful for a baby. My American middle class upbringing had led me to believe that circumcision conferred a number of health benefits on the individual. As a result of my research I have become opposed to infant circumcision. None of the popular myths about circumcision are valid. The startling facts I have unearthed all stack up overwhelmingly against the operation.
The practice of male genital mutilation – of drawing blood from, causing pain to, and changing the appearance of the penis find its origins in prehistoric times. It is not known where, how, why, or with what group of people the practice began. Several possible explanations have been offered as reasons for circumcision. Among these are blood sacrifice, an initiation rite in which it was a test of torture and pain by which young boys “became men”, a fertility ritual, a means of subjection to torture and humiliation on conquered enemies and slaves, a means of purification that accompanied shaving of all body hair, a means of diminishing sexual desires, and an expression of envy of the female menstrual process. For some peoples what has been labeled as circumcision actually consisted of a gashing of the foreskin rather than a complete amputation as we know it today. It is clear that explanations such as cleanliness or cosmetic value had nothing to do with the operation’s primitive origins. Female circumcision, which is repugnant to the Western mind, but is still practiced in other parts of the world, originated in much the same manner as did male genital mutilation. Rarely has circumcision been the personal choice of the individual. However, with the exception of the Jewish culture/religion and the present day American medical profession, extremely few peoples have ever performed circumcisions on babies. (1., 2., 3.)
In Western society, since the time of early Christianity when St. Paul declared circumcision unnecessary to conversion to the Christian faith, it was rare for non-Jewish or non-Muslim people to be circumcised until the late 1800’s. The practice, as an American medical fad arose out of the anti-masturbation hysteria of the Victorian era. (4., 5., 6.) People feared that if a boy had his foreskin he would learn to masturbate while washing his penis. At that time it was believed that masturbation led to insanity. Today most people accept the fact that masturbation is physically harmless and that circumcised individuals certainly do masturbate. Yet American parents continue to accept the operation as appropriate for their infant sons, knowing little or nothing as to why or how the practice originated.
During the 1920’s and 30’s many articles appeared in American medical publications advocating infant circumcision on the grounds that lack of foreskin would somehow prevent cancer of the penis and the female uterine cervix. Since the rates of these diseases are low among Jewish and Moslem people, both of whom practice male circumcision, many authorities concluded that circumcision must prevent these diseases. However, upon comparing the rates of penile cancer among America’s (mostly circumcised) and Europe’s (nearly entirely intact) males, one find that the rates of this disease in Europe are as low or lower than in the United States. (7.) Among American non-Jewish women, when comparing those married to circumcised men and those with intact husbands, studies have found no differences in the rates of cancer of the cervix. (8., 9.,) Clearly other significant factors are related to both of these diseases and circumcision is not justified as a cancer preventative.
There have been many astonishing and tragic complications of the operation. Infants have hemorrhaged and developed severe infections of the circumcision wound. Plastic surgery has been required when too much skin was removed or the glans or penile shaft was accidentally damaged. Occasionally troublesome cysts, fistulas, and keloid formations have developed at the site of the circumcision wound. (10., 11., 12., 13., & 14.) There are documented cases of infants who were born male but were raised as females as a result of total loss of the penis due to complications of circumcision. (15.)
The most common complication of circumcision is called meatal ulceration. The exposed glans, without protective foreskin, develops painful urine burns from contact with wet diapers. (16., 17., 18.) My own sons had this problem. Our doctors never advised us that this was a complication of circumcision. Probably they did not know this.
Many people choose not to believe that the newborn infant feels any pain when his foreskin is smashed, slit, torn back from the glans, clamped and cut off. Circumcision, in its primitive origins, was often deliberately intended to be a means of torture and a test of endurance in adolescent initiation rites. We think of that as Barbaric, yet regularly do the same thing to babies. There have been no documented studies to support the popular assumption that babies have little or no feelings. Curiously, the earliest modern writings on infant circumcision, those that appeared in medical publications around the beginning of the 20th century, were full of concern for the feelings of the helpless infant. (19., 20.) The belief that infants feel no pain came about years later during the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, during an era that advocated bottle feeding instead of nursing, rigid schedules, separation from mother and baby following birth, and rigid toilet training. Parents were warned not to rock, hold, or cuddle their babies for fear that they would “spoil” them. Popular attitudes and practices during that time totally ignored the baby’s feelings and needs in many different areas.
Recent scientifically controlled studies on the reactions of newborns to being circumcised have revealed that the infant characteristically lapses into a deep, semi-coma, non-rapid-eye movement type of sleep which is an abnormal sleep pattern for newborn infants. This is clearly a stress-withdrawal reaction. (21.) Because some babies do not cry out in response to being circumcised, but instead lapse into this deep sleep, some observers have falsely believed that the operation is not painful for infants.
Another study, attempting to evaluate gender differences among newborn infants, found that boy babies were generally fussier and more restless than baby girls. However, it was found that the greater fussiness on the part of the baby boys was due to recent circumcision – not gender When the study was repeated, using only non-circumcised newborn boys, no behavioral differences between girl and boy babies were found. (22.)
Today, many American parents and doctors are becoming aware of these facts. There is a growing trend against choosing infant circumcision, which is following the recent trend towards natural childbirth and breastfeeding. Many parents do not wish to have their infants experience such a painful ordeal as circumcision. Also there is a growing acceptance of the fact that the body is designed correctly as it normally comes into the world and does not need to be surgically made different. Another facet of the issue is that of individual human rights. Many are questioning the ethics of altering another person’s body in this manner without his permission, especially in the absence of medical and even religious indications. Many parents are realizing that their child’s foreskin is rightfully his, and by consenting to circumcision they are causing the destruction of a valuable and useful part of his body. Parents should be aware that there are a substantial number of men who do resent the fact that a part of their body was cut off and that they had no say in the matter .
Some parents still do choose circumcision for their infant sons. Usually these reasons are vague and uninformed. Many have accepted it as an automatic medical procedure when giving birth in a hospital or have believed that they had to have it done. Some believe that circumcision is important for cleanliness just as people in other countries believe that female circumcision somehow makes women cleaner. Some people are turned off when they hear that smegma collects under the foreskin and must be washed away. However, smegma is the same substance that collects on the genitals of women and girls and normally gets washed away on a regular basis. In our society we have running water and bathing facilities unparalleled to any other time or place in history. Like all other body parts, cleanliness of the intact penis is not difficult or complicated. In contrast to the myriad dirty diapers, runny noses and spit up that all parents must attend to regularly, care of the baby’s penis is an extremely minor concern.
Some parents worry that their son will be different from other boys if he is not circumcised, or feel that he should match his already circumcised father or older brother(s). However, with the growing trend to choose against circumcision, the intact boy born today should have plenty of peers who also have foreskins. Many intact males have enjoyed their individuality. There are many families in which the father and son or different brothers don’t match. This does not appear to cause problems within the family.
Some parents fear that if their infant son is not circumcised he may have to have it done at a later age. Many people believe that the operation is more painful for someone who is older than it is for an infant. This belief is unfounded, and the likelihood that he will have to undergo circumcision for a medical reason is small. Undoubtedly some doctors prescribe circumcision for problems that can and should be corrected by less drastic means. Newborn babies do heal rapidly and do not normally require stitches for circumcision. However, older children and adults are given anesthesia for the operation, and most importantly are able to understand what is being done to their bodies. If a boy or man chooses circumcision because he would simply rather be that way, then it is his body and he has made that decision for himself. Therefore, although he will certainly experience soreness, the operation should not be emotionally traumatic.
Certainly people’s religious beliefs must be respected. The majority of devout Jewish people believe that circumcision of their infant sons is an expression of their “covenant with God.” Yet today even many Jewish people question this aspect of their faith, considering it merely a tradition, or like the other American parents, simply accept it as a medical procedure. There are Jewish parents who have chosen to leave their sons intact.
Many people, doctors included, do not understand the normal development and correct care of the infant’s foreskin. We have been led to believe that circumcision is cleaner and therefore believe that the care of the intact child’s penis is very difficult and complicated. Frequently doctors forcefully retract the infant’s foreskin during the hospital stay or at one of the baby’ s office visits. Parents are sometimes instructed to retract and clean under the baby’s foreskin every day. This practice is more traumatic to the baby than circumcision (since circumcision happens only once) and is what causes such problems as infections, phimosis (foreskin attached to the glans of the penis) and paraphimosis (foreskin retracted and cannot be replaced). We are having to be educated to leave the normally tight and non-retractable foreskin of the infant alone until it gradually loosens of its own accord which can take up to three or four years. (23., 24,)
Jozua – born in 2000 (after his parents read my book)
In 1980 I became pregnant with our fourth child. This time, based on my learning through all of my research, there was absolutely no question that if this child were a boy, he would keep his foreskin. In January of 1981 our daughter was born. Today as I care for my baby girl who is so sweet, pretty, and perfect, the idea of anyone cutting up her genitals, making her bleed, or hurting her in any way is totally repugnant to me! I am thankful that our society has not developed any medical fads that cause pain and anguish to baby girls! Perhaps some day soon American people will accord that same protection and respect to our boy babies as well.
- – – – – – – -
Update: In 1985 I gave birth to our fifth child and fourth son. He has been left intact. Even I, after years of research, activism, and writing my book, was surprised to learn how ridiculously simple the whole matter truly is. Correct care of an intact son requires virtually no thought or action at all.
When Kevin was four I gave birth to our sixth and last child, another daughter. Why this baby did not have a penis required considerable explanation to a perplexed four year old boy.
When he was 7 years old I explained to him what circumcision was all about and why his penis was different from his Daddy’s and his brothers’. (He had never asked about it, and I don’t think he had ever even noticed.) As opposed as I now am to circumcision, I left open the option for my son that he could have the operation done if he felt that he wanted to “match” the other males in our family. As I was telling him how some guys have the foreskin cut off, Kevin’s face took on a horrified, frightened expression! His eyes grew big and his hands were cupped over his genitals as he shouted emphatically: “No!! That is NEVER going to happen to ME!!!”
Children grow up so fast! My son is now an adult, so now any matters concerning his personal space are no longer things for his mother to know (much less share over the internet!) Suffice it to say, he is a content and successful person who has inherited his mother’s penchant for deep thinking and pouring out his soul in written words. I feel wonderfully connected to each one of my children, but my youngest son and I do share a certain connection of intense soul sensitivity and awareness (a gift and a curse in one package!)
Sadly, our society glorifies athletes and ridicules intellectuals. While growing up I endured the agony of woeful deficiency in simple athletic skills while easily excelling in academic classes. Add shyness and social awkwardness qualifies one as an official “nerd” (hence “bully magnet!” – Here’s another potential book of mine that may be brewing.) Now I’ve raised a family of “nerds.” (Isn’t that every mother’s dream? That’s what all of us mothers set out to do! :-) !!) Kevin has needed glasses since age 4. His glasses wearing has been somewhat of a mark of “differentness” in our family and out in the world – but the state of his intimate parts has never (to my knowledge) been any issue.
When my son was 15 I approached the issue with him once again, asking him if he was okay with not having been circumcised like his older brothers and his dad. His response brought me a look from him like I had suddenly lost my mind as he responded “Why on earth would anybody care what my genitals look like?!!!” Apparently through years of scout camp excursions, overnights and gym class he has never paid any attention to the penile conditions of his friends. And despite the inevitable teasing that our family’s heritage of brains, glasses, and athletic ineptness brings, foreskin status has never been an issue.
1. Bryk. Felix
Sex and Circumcision: A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in
Men and Women
Brandon House, North Hollywood, CA., © 1967
2. Loeb. E.M.
“The Blood Sacrifice Complex”
American Anthropological Association Memoirs, 30, p. 3-40 .
3. Bettelheim, Bruno
“Symbolic Wounds” p. 230-240.
from Reader in Comparative Religion
Lessa, William A., & Vogt, Evon Z.
Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 2nd Ed., © 1965
4. Remondino, P.C.
History of Circumcision from Earliest Times to the Present
Ams Press, New York, © 1974
(original ed.) F.A. Davis Co. 1891
5. Marcus, Irwin M., M.D., & Francis, John J., M.D.
Masturbation: From Infancy to Senescence
National Universities Press, Inc., N.Y. © 1975,
Ch. 16, “Authority and Masturbation”, p. 381-409,
by Spitz, Rene A., M.D.
6. Barker-Benfield, G.J.
The Horrors of the Half Known Life
Harper Colophon Books, New York, © 1976.
7. Persky, Lester, M.D.
“Epidemiology of Cancer of the Penis”
Recent Results of Cancer Research, Berlin, 1977, p. 97-109.
8. Aitken-Swan, Jean, & Baird, D.
“Circumcision and Cancer of the Cervix”
British Journal of Cancer, Vol. 19, No 2, June 1965, p. 2 1 7-227 .
9. Terris. Milton, M.D.; Wilson, Fitzpatrick, M.D., & Nelson, James H., Jr., M.D.
“Relation of Circumcision to Cancer of the Cervix “
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 117, No. 8,
Dec. 15, 1973, p. 1056-1066
10. Gee, William F., M.D. & Ansell, Julian S., M.D.
“Neonatal Circumcision: A Ten-Year Overview: With Comparison of the
Gomco Clamp and the Plastibell Device.”
Pediatrics, Vol. 58, 1976, p. 824-827.
11. Grimes, David A., M.D.
“Routine Circumcision of the Newborn Infant; A Reappraisal”
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 130, No. 2,
Jan. 15, 1978, p. 125-129.
12. Kaplan, George W., M.D.
“Circumcision – An Overview”
Current Problems in Pediatrics, Year Book Medical Publishers, Inc.,
Vol. 7, No. 5, March 1977.
13. Limaye, Ramesh D., M.D. & Hancock, Reginald A., M .D.
“Penile Urethral Fistula as a Complication of Circumcision “
The Journal of Pediatrics, Vol. 72, No. 1, Jan. 1968, p. 105-106.
14. Shulman, J., M.D., Ben-Hur, N., M.D.; & Neuman, Z., M.D. (Israel)
“Surgical Complications of Circumcision”
American Journal of Diseases of Children, Vol. 107,
Feb. 1961, p. 149-154.
15. Money, John, Ph.D.
“Ablatio Penis, Normal Male Infant Sex-Reassigned as a Girl” *
Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1975, p. 65-71 .
(*The full story of this experience is related in detail in the recently published book:
As Nature Made Him
HarperCollins Publishers, NY., © 2000.)
16. Mackenzie, A. Ranald, M.D.
“Meatal Ulceration Following Neonatal Circumcision”
Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 28, No. 2, August 1966, p. 221-223.
17. Freud, Paul, M.D.
The Ulcerated Urethral Meatus in Male Children”
The Journal of Pediatrics, Vol. 31, No. 2, August 1947, p.131-141.
18. Brennemann, Joseph, M.D.
“The Ulcerated Meatus in the Circumcised Child”
American Journal of Diseases of Children, Vol. 21, 1920, p. 38-47.
19 . DeLee, Joseph B., A.M ., M.D .
Obstetrics for Nurses
W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, PA., 7th ed. 1924, (1st ed. 1901 ) p. 436-440.
20. Valentine, Ferd C., M.D.
Journal A.M.A., March 16, 1901, p. 712-713.
21. Emde, Robert N., M.D.; Harmon, Robert J., M.D.; Metcalf,
David, M.D.; Koenig, Kenneth L., M.D.; & Wagonfield, Samuel, M.D.
“Stress and Neonatal Sleep”
Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 33, No. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1971, p. 491-497.
22. Richards, M.P.M.; Bernal, J.F.; & Brackbill, Yvonne
“Early Behavioral Differences: Gender or Circumcision?”
Developmental Psychobiology, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1976, p. 89-95 .
23. Gairdner, Douglas, M.D.
“The Fate of the Foreskin – A Study of Circumcision”
British Medical Journal, Dec. 24, 1949, p. 1433-1437.
24. Reichelderfer, Thomas E., M.D. & Fraga, Juan R., M.D.
reprint from Care of the Well Baby
by Shepard, Kenneth S., M.D. (ed.)
J.B. Lippencott Co., 1968, p. 10.