To snip or not to snip? Considering the circumcision debate

March 14, 2012

Sometimes all it takes to get the day started right is an upbeat headline about circumcision.

Yesterday, it was: “Circumcision Tied to Lower Prostate Cancer Risk: Study.”

Goddamn, I love an upbeat circumcision story!

Like most American males born in the early 1970s, I was circumcised. For our generation, it’s “normal.”

My penis wouldn’t look at all out of place in a biology textbook over the caption “The American Penis.” (But … that textbook should probably be removed from schools and burned.)

Now, my family is Jewish, but my parents held no bris, aka no ceremony. A doctor in the hospital, rather than a mohel with a long grey beard and hopefully not questionable eyesight, performed the procedure.

In the eyes of whoever decides these things in Judaism, it still counted as adhering to the covenant God made with Abraham, even if there wasn’t a nice deli spread afterward.

And so, I grew up, well, whole in both the eyes of my religious community and my secular one.

But over the years, the tide in society at large (though certainly not in the Jewish world), has turned. The presumed health benefits of circumcision have been questioned. Anti-circumcision groups like Intact America have grown in number and power, and their own knives are out. (You can buy Intact America baseball hats and Teddy bears here!)

Meanwhile, fewer newborn American males are getting snipped. One study, in 2010, showed that the rate of in-hospital male circumcision “slid from 56 percent in 2006 to fewer than a third of boys (in 2009).” Other studies still have the number above 50 percent.

Either way, this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

The central anti-circumcision argument — and, look, it makes sense — is: God or no God, why cut a piece of your body off that you were born with? It’s not like you can use the lopped-off foreskin to plant penis trees in Israel. I don’t think.

It’s a question I thought a great deal about when my first son was born — before, during and after the mohel showed up at our home and did his thing while laughing like a raging maniac the whole time.

(No, no, he was great and also had no beard. He also told us to pay what we could, contrary to those who claim circumcision continues to exist so people can profit.)

Another argument — namely, that male circumcision is akin to female circumcision (or, as one commenter below has since corrected me should really be referred to as "female genital mutilation") — doesn’t hold any weight with me. Why? Because . . . it’s absolutely ridiculous.

It’s also insulting to the thousands of women around the world who were and still are mutilated. (So, please, please, don’t leave a comment here about how male circumcision amounts to torture. If you absolutely must, leave it underneath DeRogatis’ review of the new Springsteen CD, OK?)

Lastly, there’s the “Does sex feel better with an uncircumcised penis?” question.

Obviously, I have no idea. It sounds like an impossible thing to study, unless a statistically significant sample of uncircumcised, sexually active adult males want to make mohel appointments and compare the before and after. That’s not gonna happen, though I’d love to see the subway ad trying to get people to sign up.

What I can say is that sex without foreskin has always seemed pretty fantastic, and the works of Philip Roth back me up.

Still, why would anyone these days have his or her newborn son circumcised?

If you’re Jewish, you’ve got either a religious conviction or a guilty one. Sometimes those are one in the same. And sometimes, in a world too often disconnected from the past and from where we came, it just feels like the right thing to do.

For Jews and non-Jews alike, there’s also, of course, evidence (though people argue about it!) that a circumcised male is less likely to contract AIDS. It’s the reason the World Health Organization started advocating circumcision in 2007.

That said, The New York Times noted a couple years ago, “Even advocates of circumcision acknowledge that an aggressive circumcision drive in the United States would be unlikely to have a drastic impact on H.I.V. rates here, since the procedure does not seem to protect those at greatest risk, men who have sex with men.”

Still, wait, cutting off the foreskin can reduce the chances of getting one of the worst viruses known to man?

If you could carefully explain to any male newborn what sex was and that he’d someday would want to have lots of it,  and then explained what AIDS was, I'd put money on him cooing, “Where’s the knife?”

Finally, there’s another, largely unvoiced reason that people have for circumcising their children. Basically it’s: I don’t want my son’s penis to look different than mine. More importantly, I don’t want my son to think he’s weird for having a significant part of his body look different than mine.

Is this a ridiculous argument?

Again, I can see the anti-circumcision folks ready to pounce. I’ll save them the trouble: It may well be a ridiculous argument. I'm honestly not sure. But I know it's a very human one. And sometimes we’re ridiculous creatures. Are you ever ridiculous about anything? Is it ever something that others — but not you — think is a big deal? Do you wish they’d shut up? OK.

But that brings us back to the headline.

“Circumcision tied to lower prostate cancer risk: Study.”

The study has its flaws, or rather open questions.  One of the studies’ leaders himself says, “We see an association, but it doesn’t prove causality.” Meanwhile, the people vehemently opposed to circumcision certainly aren’t at all convinced, to say the least.

But — and obviously I’m betraying my own ambivalence about having my sons circumcised — the headline pleased me.  

The world’s full of past medical treatments and procedures that are now laughed at. But then plenty of us return to certain ancient remedies and ideas because . . . it turned out they work. (I don’t know which category my mother-in-law’s belief that cabbage — eaten or rubbed on the body — can heal all ailments belongs to.)

Now, I, of course, wouldn’t wish prostate cancer on anyone, circumcised or not. But I also can’t hide my pleasure that wisdom can lie behind my family’s particular tradition.

Ultimately, I’m not in the business of telling any other parent what to do. That seems like a terrible business. I can only speak for myself and say I hemmed and hawed (mostly to myself) about circumcising my first-born but then felt the bris was special, the results (a circumcised son) right for my family and the deli spread delicious.