Pomp and Circumcision

No one thinks circumcision is a day at the beach – but should it really be outlawed?

There is a movement afoot in San Francisco to outlaw circumcisions for anyone under the age of 18. The idea behind this proposed bill is to limit this procedure to those who are old enough to decide on it for themselves. But this ballot, if successful, would probably eradicate circumcisions altogether, since very few adult males will voluntarily let someone take a knife to their business. I am not here to address the medical or ethical pros and cons of this situation – I am just going to say that having experienced this event firsthand, I am not a big fan of the in-home, ceremonial circumcision.

Why do I have this antipathy? Picture this: you have given birth to your first child a mere eight days ago. You still look pregnant, your body is doing all sorts of shocking and repulsive things, you haven’t slept in over a week, and post-partum hormones are kicking your ass. The absolute last thing you need right now is to have everyone you have ever known cram themselves into your home, all of them cheerfully expecting whitefish and a somewhat grisly floor show. Still, you think that a party may be just what you need – a welcome diversion from what you’ve been doing all week, which is sobbing uncontrollably while trying to read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. But this particular party is going to have a couple of stunning drawbacks, the most notable of which is that part of your newborn son’s penis is going to be lopped off, on the dining room table that your Labrador retriever licks clean every night after dinner. This procedure will not be performed by a doctor, but by a mohel – a freelance practitioner whose credentials are somewhat murkier and more ceremonial than you might prefer, given the task at hand. The emotional wallop of this event will at some point cause you to break down and cry, while your friends and family pat you gently on the back and discuss your mood swings right in front of you. Meanwhile your husband is cheerfully welcoming  people from his office to the schmecklectomy.

This shindig has been mathematically pre-ordained to occur at the very peak of your post-partum looniness, but the emotions you feel are not purely hormonal. If you are crying, it is probably because a man without a medical degree is going to perform a surgical procedure on your newborn son, in a room that not only isn’t sterile, it hasn’t even been adequately dusted since your second trimester. As an added bonus, there won’t be any anesthesia involved, but you’ve been told not to worry since the mohel is going to give your son liquor. Apparently, this isn’t minor surgery after all – it’s Baby’s First Frat Party.

Looking back, I wish I had insisted that my son’s circumcision take place in nice clean hospital, instead of my somewhat grimy home – and I definitely should have passed on the bagels and lox after-party. But I still can’t bring myself to join the circumcision ban-wagon. The medical implications are inconclusive and controversial: The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly stated that there is no “absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn.” On the other hand, circumcision may protect men from certain cancers and infections; and some evidence shows that circumcised men are 60% less likely to transmit HIV to their sexual partners. They are also less likely to transmit the human papillomavirus, which is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women. For parents, this raises an unwelcome Sophie’s Choice: should we routinely expose boys to a controversial surgery as a way to protect girls? For me, this decision comes under the imperfect, but useful, heading of “choice” – conscious, informed, and not always popular – parental choice.

I find it surprising that this procedure may be banned in San Francisco, the international headquarters of “anything goes.” And circumcision isn’t the only thing currently at risk in San Francisco. McDonald’s Happy Meals have already been outlawed, and another local movement seeks to prohibit the sale of shark fins – an integral ingredient in many Chinese delicacies. It seems to me that despite its laid back, laissez faire reputation, the City by the Bay is actually kind of a control freak. And this gives me a renewed appreciation for my own hometown. New York may not be known for its tolerant, loosey-goosey ways, but the fact is, not much is prohibited there – except for right-turns-on-red. And common courtesy.

Image: Shelley_Ginger