Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What About Circumcision ?

There's a local angle, here, which provides a tag-line for this post: On May 18, 2011, The City of San Francisco Elections officials confirmed that an Initiative that would ban the circumcision of males younger than 18 had received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The practice would become a misdemeanor.

This is apparently the first instance of a local or state jurisdiction putting the question of the legality of circumcision to the voters.

Full disclosure: I was circumcised at birth, and have never had any reason to regret that this was done. There are, however, serious scientific studies which have been conducted to try to determine whether this very painful, and unnatural, procedure--which has been practiced for millennia, in many different cultures--may cause deep psychological scars for those subjected to it as infants, or somewhat later in life--as children, teenagers, or adults.

Not being a medical expert, I read a little bit about the history of circumcision, to familiarize myself with the issues it raises, and what my own position might be with respect to the potential outcome of the San Francisco initiative.

Statistically, circumcision in America, as a "medically advisable procedure" grew in popularity between 1920 and 1965, at which point, it seems to have begun a slow decline, as a percentage of males subjected to it as infants.

When I was growing up, the idea was that it was a traditional, customary thing, practiced primarily for hygienic reasons, to prevent infections and sanitary inconveniences as a result of the enclosure of the penis in uncircumcised foreskin. No one seemed to question its efficacy, or whether its possible negative side-effects might outweigh its supposed advantages. Birth certificates routinely report a 1-2% silver nitrate aqueous solution administered to infants' eyes, along with the administered circumcision.

The question of circumcision is a complex one, with long historical roots, and it remains a hot topic. Medical science is a relatively new discipline, having grown up over the last 500 years, accelerating to our present highly health-conscious world of today. Procedures such as circumcision, then, were introduced and codified as desirable or routine, long before there had been any empirical studies done to determine whether they served any useful purpose. Wikipedia's long article details the religious, ethical, legal, and health issues which surround it, and how different societies have employed it, and why; so I won't go into all that here, except to note that there is no overwhelming scientific evidence, other than anecdotal, to support the notion that circumcision is "necessary" for the health of boys or men. Studies conducted to determine whether circumcised men suffer fewer infections, or are more prone to complications such as venereal disease, or even AIDS, are generally neutral. As with most other primitive prejudices and superstitions, good hygiene and sensible behavior usually neutralize any statistical evidence of the "risks" of not being circumcised. In "primitive" cultures, where poor hygiene is common or prevalent, circumcision may indeed constitute an effective "prophylactic" against genital problems, including serious infections and disease transmission, but again, those test samples founder on the anomaly of cultural context.

Historically, many of the reasons for circumcision in fact had nothing whatever to do with health or hygiene, but were practiced as superstitious rites of esteem, passage, and so on. Our inheritance of customs like these says more about our tendency to be guided by presumption and conformity, than our desire to consider rationally, practices and beliefs originating in pre-historic times, or before any science had been applied to them, or because some institution--such as the church--had incorporated them into its body of ritual and prescription.

Why, then, if there were no demonstrable benefits to being circumcised, would some people require or demand a barbaric surgery upon their infant children? The reasons, again, are historical and religious, for the most part. Both Jews and Muslims--including those who follow in their footsteps but may not be "devout"--practice circumcision, and it is among these groups, most noticeably, that loud and strident objections are now being heard against the San Francisco initiative. Cries of religious persecution, even anti-Semitism, have been heard. Exaggerated applications of the "rights of the individual" are perceived as being pitted against all other considerations--the rights of parents, of the family, of ethnic groups. In Judaism, it's regarded as a holy commandment (the bris), literally a covenant.

One man's covenant is another man's superstition. In America, where we value the freedoms which protect our independent way of life, it's not easy to separate the rights and welfare of the individual, from the rights and demands of religious doctrine. Is allowing parents to circumcise their children--to perform a barbaric, medically unnecessary procedure--an irresponsible, uncivilized position?

We once in this country, routinely removed the tonsils of pre-pubescent children, believing that these glands were the potential site of infection. We once encouraged people of all colors and skins to get lots of sun, because of the presumed benefits of vitamin D etc. We once told people that butter was bad, and margarine was good. In our public schools, recalcitrant children are now routinely given powerful psycho-active drugs to quiet them down and make them tractable. Dentists once routinely filled cavities with mercury alloy, which was cheaper than gold, and "just as good."

We know, though, that these practices turned out to be wrong. Well-meaning people accepted bad advice, based on no or inadequate science, and put themselves at risk. The "experts" turned out to be mistaken.

Who are the experts today? What do they tell us about circumcision? That it's medically unnecessary, and as such, a cruel example of religious superstition--of hocus-pocus. Were I to have any male children in future, would I choose to have them circumcised? Probably not. In much of Europe, Canada, and Australasia, circumcision has already been, or is being, phased out.

How much longer will we cling to this hoary old custom?


Anonymous said...

un-circumsized penises will ruin porno films
as we all know

pornography is one of the top five industries driving our
teetering economy

I think that it is third behind War
or fourth behind Education

Kirby Olson said...

It's alright to murder the baby, though, right? You just can't touch his willie while you do it.

Curtis Faville said...

Well, golly, Kirby, do you think anyone would try to perform a circumcision while the baby was still in the womb? I mean--whew!--then we could be sure, successful birth or not, that baby was "clean" in preparation for his entry into God's country.

I think you pegged me wrong. I think kids belong to their parents, not to the state. The state should never have to take responsibility for them. It should facilitate contraception and leave abortion to the parents.

Want to step in and manage those unwanted babies?

I thought not.

I think everyone who promotes anti-abortion should take in a stray, just to be morally consistent. Free-range adoption. What a concept!

Anonymous said...

how many

Border Babies have you and your
right-wingers recently adopted ?

& certainly doubt that without googling "Border (or Boarder) Babies

that you don't even know what one is

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

If you read this blog with any regularity, you would know I'm not a right-winger. Are you, then, a "left-winger"--do these labels make any sense, applied to anyone?

I regard people who sneak over the border to bear their babies in American emergency rooms with contempt. If that makes me a "right-winger" then I guess we'll have to put all the majority of Americans who hold that opinion into the "right" camp.

You're so dumb you couldn't find your way out of a carnival tent. You probably belong there, anyway, so it would probably be for the best.

Anonymous said...

not referring to you OR those coming across the BORDER for a better way of life

was referring to Kirby Olson and his attiude AND to

here is a 2005 article

you remember carnival tents ? Barnum & Bailey ?

Curtis Faville said...

Sorry, anon, not clear on what the concept is, here.

What has this to do with circumcision?

Probably nothing.

Abandoned babies.


Anonymous said...

having difficulty these
understanding anything

or what anything has to do with anything else

must be due to getting my information from ... blogs.

sorry for the ... divergence

Craig said...

Generally, circumcision is simply a sign that one was born in a hospital. It was a standard part of the hospital delivery package and didn't become an issue until feminists started arguing that female circumcision, particularly clitorectomy, constituted genital mutilation.

Curtis Faville said...


I wouldn't argue about this, since I'm not an expert on the subject.

I know that there's been growing awareness of genital mutilation to women on the African sub-continent.

From our perspective, it's hard not to feel sympathy for these poor women.

Is there any legitimate science that supports the need for this stuff?

Among those for whom circumcision is a religious or customary command, the hospital angle isn't really the key. Among Jews, as I understand it, the operation is done "privately"--not in hospital.

Regardless of where it's done, there is a change in the current of opinion about this. I remember when as a boy, I was first told about what had happened--I realized that I had visible scars on my foreskin. It gave me the willies. I thought: Goodness, did I remember anything like that? Few people remember these post-natal events. The earliest thing I think I can remember is waddling around in the kitchen at about age 3 1/2, being silly, pretending to turn off the washing machine as a joke, teasing my mom.

Kirby Olson said...

The hippies claimed that if your foreskin was lost you lost some of your sensitivity in sexual pleasure. San Franciscans are just trying to maximize that. It's their only value now. Nothing else matters to that population. That's what's driving this. It's their ultimate concern.

Curtis Faville said...


The reason we're even here is the infallible response of our nervous system.

Denial and prohibitions and abstinence have been shown--over and over and over again--to be unhealthy and hypocritical.

I can't imagine who you're talking about here. Do you think Texans and Montanans and Floridians are less sexually aroused than Californians? That's a really funny joke, and I'm sure we could get some laughs on the Tonight Show.

The issue is circumcision. Do you have an opinion about this? What's the Lutheran view?

If it's true that the loss of your foreskin reduces your sexual pleasure, then I'd like to know who to sue for damages. Actually, since I'll never know how much I've missed, I'd have no legal basis.

I knew there were reasons my contemporaries showed less self-control. It must have been their foreskins!

Craig said...

What would you say if I told you that male circumcision reduces the effective range of the male appendage by about three quarters of an inch, substantially reducing the quality and sometimes even the possibility of direct contact with the female cervix?

My wife worked as a nurse practitioner for four years in the Mississippi delta with the U.S. Public Health Service and spent another ten years training nurse practitioners to work at community clinics for underserved populations in the Seattle area and throughout the Pacific northwest region before we moved overseas. Many of her patients were boat people, refugees from Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, in the decade or so after the end of the war in Viet Nam.

My wife worked alongside an obstetrician who for ten years we thought was Ethiopian until he and his wife, a nurse, turned out to be Eritrean. They returned to Eritrea shortly after it was granted independence from Ethiopia. He opened a practice as the only licensed obstetrician in war torn Asmara, a city of about two million people, and died of a heart attack less than six months later.

Kirby Olson said...

Curtis, Orson Bean's book "Me and the Orgone" was very popular in hippy circles, and he advocated for no more circumcision because it reduced the pleasure of the penis by half or more, or so he said. Lutheran Finland doesn't have circumcision. It was strange in showers after badminton to be the only circumcized person. I had lots of stares in the sauna, too.

San Francisco has a gigantic sexual disease rate. I think I've read that over 50% of the population has herpes in San Francisco. The numbers aren't even a tenth of that in Salt Lake City.

Kirby Olson said...

San Francisco might as well be renamed Sodom: it could be a rider to this new law they are trying to pass.

Curtis Faville said...


Again, it's not useful to generalize in these matters.

Back in the 1980's, when AIDS was first being noticed, it was understood that sexual promiscuity obviously had contributed to the plague of venereal diseases, which included AIDS. That brand of promiscuity was not limited to the Gay community, but that kind of sex and its frequency were big factors. I knew Gay men who claimed to have had dozens of sex partners a month.

Would pointing out that most of the multiple partnering and bad practices were concentrated in the homosexual community, suggest that other segments of the community were also to blame? This idea of yours that certain regions of the country are "evil" while others aren't is poppycock. There are Gay "scenes" in every community; there are Gays living in your town, too, and there are child molesters and prostitutes and murderers and corrupt cops and guys beating off to computer screens. Does that make your community an "evil" place? Obviously, you don't like to think so. Large urban precincts may be breeding grounds for diverse behavior, but I'd sooner live there, than in a two-horse town inhabited by nosey Tea Partyers toting guns, looking for trouble.

In South Africa, now, most transmission of AIDS occurs between heterosexual partners--the widespread practice of prostitution among traveling working men, for instance--so the idea that God is punishing Gays is simply nonsense. Viruses don't have ethical guidelines.

As I say in one of my poems--"viruses don't 'want' to kill you, but they do."

I question the advisability of anal intercourse. Attempting to attack it as a misuse of the body, however, founders on the concept of sex as pleasure, which heterosexuals share. For my part, I believe that overpopulation is the scourge of humanity, and this leads me right into the contradiction of recreational pleasure.

If sex is not a rehearsal for reproduction, then what's it for? Oscar Wilde could certainly put it more delicately.

Bo Pawluk said...

Great Job Curtis Faville!
Finally, someone that has made some sense out of why the majority of our medical profession is still recommending and performing circumcisions. The status-quo! My experience has been a little more positive; after a high risk pregnancy at a prestigious teaching Hospital in Philadelphia, my son was born on May of 2007 8 pounds 11 ounces and we were told that they do not perform circumcisions in the neonatal unit as it is an unnecessary procedure. That was good enough for me, as he is intact to this day. So credos to you! Absolutely! Stop this hoary old custom!

J said...

Ed-Anny's probably correct--un-circ. could be bad for PornCo. But it is happening in Fog City, which is to say San Francrisco--and the proposed law's probably due to some of those Folsom st. freaks who have some uncut fetish.

Where's one of those Silliman poetess gals to offer some input into ...cut or uncut? Or perhaps Kirby, like before he sort of went str8.

It was done for health reasons, originally , Curtis---whether that was justifiable or not another matter. The nasties get in the foreskin, like out in the semitic desert... uncut, and locust hordes appear, say some old rabbical sorts. There's actually like a special ...dude, rabbi-in-training or somethin' who does it. But some type of psychological probably does occur. Hitchens was writing about this a while back.

Kirby Olson said...

I prefer the status quo in almost everything. People just change everything now to try to make the world different. I wish nothing would ever change ever. I don't think any of us remember the operation, and I don't see what's the big deal. I wish we were still using bleeding techniques to cure personal hangups. It was as good as anything else, but people have to constantly innovate. It's irritating.

Curtis Faville said...

Kirby Olson:

High-five, my man, well said !!