Heart of the Issue
by Rosemary Romberg
Many concerned individuals believe that infant circumcision is child abuse. In any other context, if someone were to forcibly restrain a child and do something to hurt his genitals, most people would consider that child abuse. Yet we have legally and socially sanctioned that same act when performed by our nation’s medical profession.
Organized groups that deal with recognized child abuse, however, have (so far) refused to take on infant circumcision. Certainly they encounter situations that are much, much worse. But perhaps many of their leaders are themselves parents of circumcised sons, or even doctors who perform the operation on infants, and therefore are shocked to hear of infant circumcision considered in that context.
It is jarring and difficult to step out of one’s own cultural context and really look at what we are doing. It is so much easier to gloss over reality with cultural justifications and apathy. After all, the intent on the part of the adults is not the same. We consider ourselves loving, concerned parents – nothing like “them.”
But the baby, strapped down to a board, knife to his genitals, knows nothing of the adults’ intent.
“Child abuse” labels turn into angry accusations hurled every which way. Doctors, parents, and society in general react defensively. The choice: be an ostrich and refuse to see, or face the issue squarely and accept the pain of wrongness. For some that inner pain is too much to face. Better to hide the issue. If the pain is only the baby’s, that is okay for he cannot speak.
Perhaps the term “child abuse” raises too many hackles to ever resolve the issue. Instead, we must temporarily set that matter aside, take a step back, and view the entire issue on a spectrum of an overall philosophy of how we treat our children. How do we truly view the parent-child relationship in our society?
My initial concern was that circumcision inflicted severe pain and trauma on a helpless infant – a glaring, hideous contradiction to any beautiful, sensitive philosophies of treating a child with love, gentleness, and non-violence. But my American middle-class upbringing left me with a deeply ingrained belief that males were somehow, better off circumcised. (Hence the “dilemma.”) Months of intensive research found myth after myth debunked by clear-cut, documented fact. With great pain and difficulty I had to admit that what I had chosen for my own sons was wrong. (How I admire others who can come to that same place through their own inner resources, or after reading just an article or two.)
My earliest writings strongly emphasized the pain and trauma inflicted on an infant through circumcision. But as deeply as this alone has torn my heart, infant pain is actually a side issue. Doctors who have heard the uproar over infant pain have pulled out their hypodermics with local anesthesia and considered the problem “solved.” Of course it isn’t. There is still great trauma in being forcibly restrained, and much pain in healing for the infant. And the other issues have simply been swept under the rug.
What about medical risks versus benefits? It seems that we can go on and on and on. I have covered each in depth in my book. All of the common arguments such as prevention of cancer and sexually transmitted disease have been found unsubstantiated. The complications of the operation itself are shocking and devastating. Health risks of staying intact? Over and over again we must emphasize their preventability. Leave the baby’s foreskin alone!! Attempts to retract a baby’s foreskin are the cause of virtually all of the purported “problems” associated with non-circumcision – including the latest, urinary tract infections.
How did anything so utterly simple become so horrendously complicated? Entire populations have survived for thousands of generations with foreskins intact. Anything as horribly health hazardous as some pro-circumcisionists imagine would have been biologically selected against eons ago. Similar arguments over purported health hazards of other body extremities could easily be proffered. Amputative surgery of ears, toes, fingernails, etc. could come into vogue. Medical risks versus benefits too are but a side issue that could keep us busy indefinitely.
We expound on the preferred “natural state of the body.” There are benefits to having a foreskin. It has a protective role and function. This is the outcry from the men involved. The foreskin protects the more delicate glans from urine and abrasions. There are sensitive nerve endings in the foreskin itself. It has advantages for variations during masturbation and intercourse. But these are realities much, much too painful for most American circumcised adult males to hear. Here is where so many hearts and minds close and dismiss the whole matter as “nonsense.”
Maternal protective instincts – exquisitely sensitive, yet powerful – almost always motivate informed mothers to refuse circumcision for their babies. But circumcised fathers so often want their sons to be “like them.” Is this the only way a father can make his own circumcised state “okay?” He cannot allow his son to have something that he does not have himself? Otherwise he might have to come face to face with the painful reality of his own lack of foreskin? Some families have intact sons because the mother “won.” Other families have circumcised sons because the father “won.”
But even our claimed benefits of the natural state of the body, the advantages of having a foreskin, – these too are not the heart of the issue.
In a recent magazine article on battered children the following comments jumped out at me
“Why is physical abuse of children by their own parents allowed to go on in this country, even after it has been detected and documented? Why does it happen in the first place?
To answer those questions, the best place to begin might be with another question: Does a parent ‘own’ a child?” ……. ” . . . there’s a feeling that, even when parents do go too far and even if some parents don’t love and protect their children, it’s nobody else’s business.
‘We still think of children as their parents’ private property —– and that is the heart of the problem,’ says Donald Bross, a lawyer and medical sociologist who is an advocate for abused children through Denver’s Kempe Center, which treats and researches child abuse.” *
The article was addressing deliberate, recognized, types of child abuse, and not infant circumcision. But again, the entire issue exists on a spectrum of how we view and treat our children.
My first three sons were born during an era in which infant circumcision was something that seemingly everybody did and no one talked about. But today the issue is in the air. People do talk about it, and many are vociferously against it. Childbirth educators attempt to talk parents out of it. Some doctors refuse to perform the operation.
But many others are taking a “nice”, neutral, non-committal stand of “present the facts and whatever the parents decide is okay.” Most disturbing of all are the many doctors who claim to agree with our views, yet still will circumcise babies if the parents insist upon it. I suppose this is the “safest” way out since the baby cannot speak for himself. It sounds good in theory. Activists are dismissed as obnoxious for not being more “understanding.” We are admonished not to try to “influence” parents’ decisions. “It’s none of your business what they choose! It’s their baby!”
Underlying all of this is the very frightening philosophy that the child is “property” of the parents. Parents are therefore free to surgically alter his body or not as they so choose. Society’s sanctioning of this act opens the door a little farther for other types of more severe, deliberate child abuse.
But if we are to consider the child as a human being, with rights, needs, and feelings of his own – where does that leave us?
This then – not pain, not medical issues, not even the advantages of the natural state of the body – but the child’s individual rights to all normally occurring parts of his body – is the true heart of the issue.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
* Weller, Sheila
“Battered Children: How We Can Save Them”
McCall ‘s, Vol. CXV, No. 9, June 1988, p. 57.
by Rosemary Romberg,
Author of Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma
©1985, Bergin & Garvey, S. Hadley, MA.
© 1988 (Revised – 2013)