To Snip Or Not To Snip: The Circumcision Question

When I was pregnant with my first child, we chose to stay “Team Green”. That means we didn’t find out if our child would be born with a penis or a vagina. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter to us. Genitals don’t change the basics you need for a newborn, nor do they need to dictate what color their walls or clothes “should” be. However, I understand the reasons why others want to find out - and more power to them! If knowing the state of your baby’s genitals will give you peace of mind or help you plan ahead, then go ahead and find out!

Our waiting paid off when my husband told me our firstborn was a boy - that is, it was a baby who had a penis. And immediately, our OB asked if we would like to circumcise our son. We’d discussed it in advance and made our choice. But how were we so sure? Because we had researched all the pros and cons of leaving your child’s foreskin intact or circumcising instead.

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What Is Circumcision?

In medical terms, circumcision is a simple outpatient surgery where doctors remove the foreskin that covers the tip of the penis. Most people who have been circumcised experienced this surgery in the first few hours or days of life. The surgery itself has historically taken many different forms. Some cultures circumcise by tying the foreskin tightly to encourage tissue death. After 7-10 days, the foreskin falls off on its own and the process has minimal bleeding. Other doctors prefer excision (cutting the foreskin with a scalpel) or a “shield and clamp” method. In the United States, 70% of penises are circumcised, most at birth. While circumcision can be performed at any age, the common recommendation is to do the procedure while the child is still a newborn.

What Does It Mean For A Penis To Be “Intact”?

Recent years have seen a change in the terminology around penises; we used to refer to penises as circumcised or uncircumcised. But a cultural shift has led many parents to prefer the term “intact”. The thought behind this phrasing choice is that children are born anatomically correct, and any surgery to remove body parts is a form of mutilation. Many “intactivists”, or parents who are passionate about preventing routine circumcision, assert that the foreskin protects the tip of the penis (called the glans) from becoming desensitized. Intact individuals claim to have higher levels of sensitivity that make sexual activity more pleasurable.

Controversy Around Circumcision

Intactivists have taken to social media to spread awareness about the perceived downsides to circumcision. The primary cons include decreased glans sensitivity, the potential for surgical error, and the claim that penile circumcision is equivalent to female genital mutilation. Underlying all of these arguments is the core belief that parents should not make decisions about altering their child’s body because it erodes the child’s autonomy and violates consent.

RELATED: Why You Should Teach Your Kids The Real Word For Body Parts

In fairness, scientists do not support some of these claims. For example, the best studies about sexual satisfaction find no significant difference between circumcised and uncircumcised penises. Many refute the comparison of penile circumcision to female genital mutilation, calling it a false equivalence. In female genital mutilation, the most sensitive sexual organs are destroyed and the vaginal opening is artificially cinched. The act causes severe sexual dysfunction and pain and difficulty in intercourse, menstruation, and childbirth. Penile circumcision does not destroy the most sensitive parts of the sexual organ, nor does it diminish sexual pleasure or the ability to procreate.

However, many doctors agree that routine circumcision is an unnecessary procedure and can violate the principles of autonomy and consent. As with any surgical procedure, circumcisions does have its risks; about 1% of circumcisions experience complications. Not all of these complications result in permanent disfigurement, as those numbers include risk for post-surgical infection or hemorrhage. 

Why Do Parents Circumcise Their Children?

Circumcision is a deeply personal choice; for some parents, it’s even a matter of religious observance. Jewish parents circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life in a special religious ceremony called a bris. Their ancestors were commanded by God to circumcise their sons on the eighth day specifically, as a sign of obedience to God and spiritual cleanliness. Interestingly, the human body has its highest level of clotting factor ever on the eighth day after birth! It would seem this holy command coincides with the safest day of a person’s life to perform surgery (in terms of preventing excess bleeding).

Via My Jewish Learning

Islam and Judaism both practice routine circumcision. In addition to religious observation, some cultures are more receptive to circumcision. The procedure is relatively common in the United States, South Korea, Australia, Israel, and parts of Southeast Asia and Africa. However, it’s far from universal! Only one in three penises are circumcised worldwide.

What Are The Benefits Of Circumcision?

The World Health Organization reports that three randomized controlled trials revealed a significant benefit of circumcision. People with circumcised penises have a notably lower risk of contracting HIV. Earlier this year, The Lancet published a study that confirmed circumcision also prevents the spread of other sexually transmitted infections as well. The American Academy of Pediatricians asserts that circumcised individuals are less likely to develop urinary tract infections in early childhood.

RELATED: Circumcision And UTIs: AAP Reports

But circumcision doesn’t just help people with penises! Female sexual partners of circumcised men have lower rates of cervical cancer, HPV, syphilis, and chlamydia. It also reduces the penis-haver’s risk of penile cancer and produces a significant decrease in their risk for prostate cancer. In fact, one study showed that the majority of men who develop prostate cancer are uncircumcised.

Uncircumcised penises are easy to clean, according to parents and people with uncircumcised penises. However, remaining intact does coincide with a few significant health drawbacks. For example, uncircumcised penises are more likely to transmit sexual infections and develop urinary tract infections. They’re also prone to conditions called balanitis and balanoposthitis: inflammation of the glans and/or foreskin caused by a bacterial infection. Often these bouts of inflammation are caused by yeast overgrowth and can be treated with over-the-counter medications. Still, it’s an extremely common condition - more than one in ten intact penises will develop these infections.

Do No Retract The Foreskin

To properly care for an uncircumcised penis, wipe it clean just like you would a finger. No one but the person who has the penis should ever retract the foreskin. This is because especially for the first three years of life (though sometimes into adulthood), the foreskin is attached to the glans. Once the foreskin separates from the glans, the glans should be cleaned by retracting the foreskin, rinsing with non-irritating soap and water, and then putting the foreskin back over the glans. Retracting the foreskin before it is fully unattached to the glans can cause pain and bleeding, and can sometimes create scar tissue or infections.

So what’s the right decision? It’s up to you! Each side of the debate has its points - the question is not about right or wrong, but about which argument you find more valid and compelling.

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