The Newborn Circumcision Decision
Why we chose to leave our sons intact
Prior to our first son being born, we didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl. We skipped the gender reveal party and wanted to be surprised. Early in my pregnancy, our nurse midwife encouraged us to discuss circumcision. Our decision would be key in selecting a pediatrician, as some doctors at the hospital performed the procedure, while others refused.
Our son was born at the end of 2007. Throughout my pregnancy, the circumcision decision had crept into the mainstream news in the U.S. Circumcision rates had been declining and were at an all-time low of 55%.
Circumcision certainly wasn’t a given for us, and the declining rates encouraged us to think things through. We wanted to make an informed choice, so we talked through some of the reasons parents decide to circumcise their infant sons.
#1. “I want my son to look like his dad.”
This consideration bore little weight for us. We are raising our kids to appreciate the full spectrum of the human body, and that includes genitals that may look different from someone else's.
And even though my partner is circumcised, we felt no compulsion to circumcise our son.
#2. “An uncircumcised penis is difficult to keep clean.”
Just because a statement is repeated over the years doesn’t make it true. This is a huge myth, and I wish more uncircumcised adult men would speak out about it. As a baby, my son’s feet and toes were harder to keep clean than his penis!
Taking care of your baby's uncircumcised penis is easy. At bathtime and diaper changes, wipe the penis from shaft to tip. Avoid using harsh soaps. The foreskin should never be forced back by caregivers or doctors. The first person to retract a boy’s foreskin should be the boy himself.
Some infants have retractable foreskin, while others will not be able to retract until they are well into their teens. Unretractable foreskin, in and of itself, is not a problem.
#3. “Circumcision reduces HIV rates.”
First and foremost, being circumcised does not give a man carte blanche to skip using a condom. Condoms protect women, reduce the transmission of other STIs, and help prevent unwanted pregnancy.
Most importantly, the research regarding HIV and circumcision is actually mixed. Being circumcised should not give men and their partners a false sense of security.
While many people are familiar with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) findings that male circumcision in parts of Africa reduces HIV infection, other studies show the opposite. The Harvard School of Public Health found that rates of HIV in circumcised men were higher than expected.
Furthermore, it’s important to understand that the men involved in these studies were (a) adults who (b) chose to be circumcised.
I’m not one of those parents who thinks their kid is never going to have sex. My son is now 13 and we’ve talked about sexual intercourse and reproduction. As he gets older, we’ll talk more about safer sex, condom use, and being tested for STIs. As an adult, if our son decides to be circumcised for any reason, that’s his choice to make.
#4. “I’m following my religion.”
This didn’t pertain to us. However, I do understand the pull to follow certain customs, especially if elder family members are weighing in on the decision.
Parents are speaking out and saying "No" to circumcision, even when it is customary in their religion.
Parents should feel free to take a step back and look at the big picture. How will you respond if your son asks why he’s circumcised? Don’t let fear or intimidation make you blindly follow tradition.
#5. “Infant circumcision reduces UTIs.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), circumcised infants have fewer UTIs than their non-circumcised counterparts. However, UTIs are rare in newborn boys to begin with. An uncircumcised boy has a 1 in 100 chance of developing a UTI. For a circumcised boy, that number is 1 in 1,000.
The AAP stops short of recommending routine circumcision, stating:
“Although health benefits are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision for all male newborns, the benefits of circumcision are sufficient to justify access to this procedure for families choosing it and to warrant third-party payment for circumcision of male newborns. It is important that clinicians routinely inform parents of the health benefits and risks of male newborn circumcision in an unbiased and accurate manner.”
As parents, we chose to assume that our child would be born healthy. There was no reason for us to think otherwise. Neither my partner nor I had any hereditary urinary conditions. We decided that if we had a son and he had chronic UTIs or other related problems, we would consider circumcision at that time.
When performed by a doctor, complications in newborn circumcisions are very rare, but they do happen. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), injury to the penis occurs in 4/10,000 circumcisions. The fact that our son could be injured for what was basically a cosmetic procedure didn’t sit right with us.
In the end, our decision boiled down to this: Once the foreskin is gone, it’s gone forever. We believe that parents should support their child's right to body autonomy. We did not feel like we should be making that decision for our son.
I’d encourage parents to carefully think through routine infant circumcision. It is your choice, but it’s also an irreversible one.