Tuesday, June 20, 2006

the circ wars

We're in the middle of an ongoing conversation about whether to have our son circumcised. It's a tough one. We didn't know how controversial an issue this is until it came up in our childbirth class last week. Now we've been going back and forth about it. I've been looking at Web sites (some of which are VERY biased) and blog discussions, such as this one, this one and this one; and we've been talking about what either decision could mean for our son, his well-being, his locker room reputation and his future sex life. Not something I imagined we'd be talking about two months before he was born.

On one hand, we have learned:
  • The United States is the only country in the world that routinely circumcises baby boys for non-religious reasons. And rates are going down, although they're highest in the Midwest. Statistics I've read are along these lines: Nationally, about 56 percent of newborn males were circumcised in 2003, down about 7 percent from 2001 and even more from previous decades, according to the National Hospital Discharge Survey. The Midwest led the country with about 78 percent, followed by the Northeast with 65 percent and the South with 58 percent. The West trailed with 31 percent. (In Great Britain, in comparison, it's more like 10 percent.)

  • There is no medical reason that a baby needs to be circumcised, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which does not find enough benefits to recommend it as a routine procedure except for religious reasons.

  • There can be complications as a result of the procedure — bleeding, infection, damage to the penis.

  • The foreskin contains some of the most sensitive nerve endings in the body and provides a lot of sexual pleasure. Why cut it off arbitrarily? We don't cut off any other part of the body that way.

  • It's an incredibly painful experience, and unlike adults, babies don't know that the pain won't last forever, so it could be very traumatic for them. Even when the penis is numbed, it doesn't remove all the pain, and the residual effects can last for days, if not weeks. Some opponents of circumcision say this can interfere with bonding with a new baby and getting him to breastfeed.

  • On the other hand:
  • What if he gets teased in the locker room for being "different"? Let's face it — our son is probably going to be a little on the geeky side. Why give him another source of ammunition for the bullies? Especially when it involves the very definition of his manhood? (Maybe that won't even be an issue, though. Maybe he'll even develop a sense of confidence about it: MY parents didn't cut off part of my body. Why did yours?)

  • Circumcised penises are cleaner, less prone to infections and easier to care for. (Teaching good hygiene virtually eliminates that problem, though.)

  • Some studies point to a (miniscule) decrease in urinary tract infections, penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases in males who are circumcised.

  • Circumcisions are a lot more complicated and painful later in life, and sometimes (thought not often) they are necessary. Wouldn't it be better to get it done when he's a baby?

  • Will being uncircumcised interfere with his sex life? Will he be rejected or ridiculed by women who prefer their men "cut," or will the right woman love him for who he is? (As his parents, we don't want him sleeping around anyway!!)

  • Circumcised men supposedly "last" longer in bed because they don't have all that extra sensitivity in the foreskin.

  • Some uncircumcised men say it's harder to keep a condom on. Does that interfere with safe sex?

  • Ugh. What to do? Should I leave the decision up to Steve and let go of it? As the Lemmondrop's mother, I don't want him to go through such pain. And I don't want a part of his body cut off for no reason, either. And it's becoming more common to leave babies uncircumcized. ... But not so much in the Midwest. And I don't want to set him up for possible emotional pain, teasing or sexual rejection later in life on account of not being like everyone else.

    Whatever we decide, I have a feeling this is just the first of many tough decisions that will inspire our urge to protect him and keep him from harm ... just a glimpse of what motherhood will be like.


    liz said...

    I know this is a serious subject, but I can't help but think of an episode of "Sex and the City" where Charlotte refers to her uncircumcised boyfriend's "turtleneck"... ;)

    Anyway. I have been hearing more about this lately! I never gave it a thought, but now I've been wondering what we'll do about this if we have a boy; I don't envy your decision. I have to wonder about the trauma this supposedly causes, though. I certainly wouldn't want to expose my child to pain, and even the thought of it makes me shiver. Still, an awful lot of men get circumcised. Would they really all be better adjusted and trauma-free if they weren't? I'm not sure...

    What does Steve think about all of this? I'm tempted to call Seth at work and randomly ask him his feelings on circumcision. I'm not sure if he'd love that right now, though...

    Emilie said...

    Liz, LOL about SATC ... I had forgotten about that episode!

    As for Steve's thoughts, he initially figured we'd do it because that's what's done. Once we started seeing the arguments on each side, he started to feel more on the fence. I think right now he's leaning toward it, mostly for the protection-in-the-locker-room factor. Which I have to admit is a compelling reason, as much as I wish it weren't. I think he also figures, it hasn't traumatized him (that he knows of) or decreased his sensitivity, so why not ...

    Liz P. said...

    There are some things I've never even stopped to think about. Maybe because I only have a sister :).

    I don't envy your decision, I don't have a clue what we'd do.

    Monkeymama said...

    I'm a little embarrassed to say that we never really finished the circ conversation. We didn't know if we were having a boy or girl, but figured we'd decide the time came. I was on the fence, leaning toward not and Greg figured we'd just do it because that was normal. I would have followed his wishes, since he's the one with a penis! We dodged the bullet with a girl.

    Now I'm leaning more toward not and I think Greg is on the fence, leaning toward not, but I'm sure we have more to talk about if we're blessed with another pregnancy.

    liz said...

    Okay, I'm reporting back from my conversation with Seth. He's pretty pro-circumcision, it turns out. (But he had not been exposed to any of the anti-circ rationales before, so I didn't think he would change his mind just like that.) Among his comments:

    * "I think our son would look at me and say, 'Why don't I look like Daddy?'"

    * "I don't think I've been traumatized."

    And my personal favorite...

    * "I'm glad I don't have any more sensitivity in that area than I already do!"


    I played devil's advocate and we had a (very unnecessary) 2-hour discussion about it... after which we joked that now we'll probably only have girls. :)

    All kidding aside, good luck with your decision. It certainly seems to be a difficult one.