Thinking about circumcision can make you wince. But talking about it is often even more painful — express a strong opinion and out come the daggers. Nationwide, the practice of circumcising male infants continues to decline, but the reasons for and against the procedure vary widely among peer groups and across wide regions of the U.S. Why do we do it? Why have we stopped? Romper looked into the issue with a neutral lens, speaking to real moms across the country about their approach when the issue landed in their lap.
As of 2013 (the most recent year for which national statistics are available), the national rate of newborn circumcision fell to about 58 percent in the U.S., dropping by about 10 percent from 1979 to 2010 (CDC). Within that same period, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its position on the necessity of circumcision three times. So it’s no wonder people are all over the map in their approach to a parenting decision that’s as informed by tradition and taboo as it is science and statistics.
So how do parents face this complicated decision? For some, it may depend on the norms in their community. In some parts of the country, circumcision is still going strong — like in the Midwest, where the CDC reports rates have held steadily higher than anywhere else in the nation, and in the South, where circumcision is on the rise.
“It seemed like the thing to do”
Ashley, Midwest: “With my first son, it wasn't something that was even brought up until after he was born. The pediatrician that was on the maternity ward the day after his birth came into our hospital room and asked us if we wanted it done. At the time, it wasn't a hard decision, but we did feel pressured to make a decision quickly.”
Lindsay, Midwest: “My partner and I never really went into detailed discussion about circumcision when we fell pregnant at the time. When I questioned my partner if we would circumcise, he told me ‘absolutely.’ (I ultimately left the decision to him as he’s the one with the penis and knows how to care for it). I never really had an opinion on circumcision before becoming a parent as most penises I had encountered were circumcised and I figured that that was just the way it was.”
“It didn’t seem necessary”
Other parents, though, see that “norm” shifting. West Coast parents are less likely to choose circumcision than parents in any other part of the country. And some who thought of the practice as ubiquitous have reconsidered. (The latest recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to make their own choice, pointing out that there are risks and benefits on either side.)
Beth, California: “Once my husband and I started talking about circumcision, I asked a few of my friends who have sons what they did. I was surprised at how few of them decided to circumcise, and how even the ones who did seemed very accepting of the idea to not do so. I also think due to the large Hispanic community in my city, the rates of non-circumcision may be slightly higher (but that's conjecture on my part). When we finally did have the discussion, I realized that assuming we'd circumcise because it was ‘normal’ wasn't really the case.”
Lauren, Northeast: “Circumcision seemed like such a given for most men that were born in my generation, so it just seemed like the norm to me. Once I really read up and thought about circumcision from a strictly medical perspective, it just didn’t seem necessary to me. And if it wasn’t necessary, I didn’t want to subject my child to it. Then I saw that there was an uptick in young boys not being circumcised — seemed like it was going to be very common in my sons’ generation. In my groups of friends, no one circumcised their son.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
For some parents, the decision seemed like a simple one at first, but the reality of circumcision seemed anything but.
Aurora, West Coast: “I talked to my OB-GYN and my husband and it was something we all agreed on. I thought that most of the world did it and that it was a ‘do what you think is best’ choice. But when I saw my son go through that pain and then struggle with issues from it after, I went from ‘it’s a parents choice’ to ‘no way should any child get a cosmetic surgery on their genitals.’ This is a tough topic and I encourage people to look into it and not just blindly do what they know.”
Morgan, Texas: “After recovering from childbirth and the chaotic months postpartum, I read more about people's decisions and, having also had the day-to-day experience of dealing with the circumcised penis — having to constantly monitor and pull back the skin to avoid (worry about) adhesions — I really regretted the decision. Had I just known I'd have to, daily, fight nature and manipulate my kid's body to make the circumcision hold, I definitely would have advocated more strongly against it and stood firm. (Why didn't my midwife (or ANYONE) tell me about this beforehand?!?)”
“Truly a range of health benefits”
While there is debate over the potential health benefits, some parents find the evidence in favor of circumcision to be compelling — especially when other medical complications are present.
Melanie, Texas: “My husband relied on me to make the decision because I am the health professional between the two of us. I have now read over 600 studies on circumcision and am extremely confident that the health benefits of circumcision vastly outweigh the very minor risks. I now am very firmly of the opinion that circumcision is the better health choice, though there may be a range of completely valid religious or sociocultural reasons why parents choose not to. Among some of my friends, circumcision seems to be considered normal, acceptable, and beneficial. However, among my ‘crunchy,’ anti-vaccine friends, the norm seems to be anti-circumcision.”
Quincee, The Rockies: “What tipped our decision was all the medical benefits that being circumcised had. The reduced risk of infection, cancer, diseases. We also learned that there is a large number of men who need to be circumcised later on in life and that their healing time is much longer and it’s also a very painful process. Once we had done all our research it was a very easy decision to make.”
Lindsay, Michigan: “After my first son was born, we (the doctor, my husband and I) realized there was something wrong with our son’s penis and that it didn’t look like the normal uncircumcised one. Upon further discussion with the pediatrician and a pediatric urologist, we came to find out he was born with hypospadias. Hypospadias is where the urethral opening isn’t formed at the tip of the penis like normal but somewhere along the underside, ranging from mild (slightly under the tip) to severe (under the scrotal sack). From there our doctors told us the benefits of having that corrected along with being circumcised all at once. That right there was enough to make our decision final.”
“You don’t cut your baby if you don’t have to”
But for others, choosing circumcision on behalf of a child who’s too young to consent to or understand the procedure doesn’t feel right.
Katherine, Midwest: “I always felt like cutting a part of someone's body off was weird, unless it was consensual or completely medically necessary. I think parents should have a lot of choices when it comes to their kids, but the idea of framing cutting off part of an infant's genitals as a matter of parental choice upsets me. I think the ‘pros’ have been vastly overstated, and a good look at the history of why circumcision was popularized in the U.S. in the first place is helpful. For me, it's a no-brainer, you don't cut your baby if you don't have to. And when it comes to their genitals, you don't have to.”
Holly, Mid-Atlantic: “My husband and I discussed circumcision a little bit, but it was never seriously on the table for us. My sons are their own people, and their bodies belong to them. I can't imagine making such a huge decision for them, choosing to cut off a healthy, functional part of their genitals simply because I thought it'd look better or be cleaner or somehow reduce their risk of future problems. They deserve to have full bodily autonomy, to make their own decisions about things like this. It's not my right.”
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