As my first pregnancy progressed, so did the conversation surrounding whether my husband and I would have our son circumcised.
My husband — being from the U.K. where foreskin is the norm — was troubled by the idea of "snipping his son's manhood." Recent figures estimate that only about 3.8 per cent of male children are circumcised by age 15 in the U.K.
But we were living in New York City, building our lives in North America. And we were under the impression that the majority of baby boys in our culture were being circumcised. We didn't want our little guy to be in the minority. So we decided our son would have the procedure, too.
But we were still apprehensive. And like no decision before it, friends and family weighed in with their opinions. Comments such as, "You're not going to snip, are you? His penis will be ugly…" and "How barbaric and awful to take a knife to a baby…" trickled in.
It reminded me of when we surveyed friends and family about potential names for the baby. People held very strong opinions about each name and expressed their thoughts freely. But now we were talking about a surgery that, practically speaking, was strictly cosmetic. We aren't part of a religion that requires it, and it wasn't medically necessary.
Circumcision is only insured by OHIP when deemed medically necessary — not when performed for "ritual, cultural, religious or cosmetic reasons." And the Canadian Pediatric Society does not recommend routine circumcision for every newborn boy. However, they have updated their position on the issue, noting that there are potential benefits for circumcision. For example, circumcised boys are less likely to get UTIs, develop (rare) penile cancer, or contract an STI (HIV, HSV and HPV in particular).
Nevertheless, there are still risks associated with the procedure.
Last year in Ontario, the circumcision debate was reignited after a newborn bled to death from a circumcision gone wrong. The parents of the boy reportedly didn't want the baby circumcised, but were advised to by their family physician. Although this was an incredibly rare occurrence, and blame cannot be placed wholly on this physician, his advice to circumcise was for "medical reasons." This was a healthy baby boy with no established medical condition.
In North America, circumcising is still viewed by many as the "normal" thing to do. This view led one father to take his son's mother to court, in order to circumcise their 4-year-old son. The mother refused to sign a consent form, even though she had initially signed off on the procedure in a parenting agreement years earlier. She was jailed for nine days and eventually consented to the procedure.
My husband and I were not so heated in our debate. He was willing to conform to what we thought were North America's cultural ways, and I was content with my son fitting in. That was until we stopped a midwife in the hallway of a hospital and asked her how many circumcisions she'd witnessed in the last year. "Nowadays, definitely less than half," she said firmly. My husband's eyebrows shot up. She continued, "It's just not medically necessary. Regardless of what the father has had done, parents are starting to lean towards not circumcising, it seems."
As it turns out, the current average neonatal circumcision rate in Canada is at 32 per cent. And in recent years, about 55 to 57 per cent of U.S. boys were circumcised in the hospital. According to the WHO, about 30 per cent of males are circumcised globally.
From that point on, our discussion about whether we were going to circumcise shifted to a question of why we ever would. My husband was now comforted knowing that our son (and now three sons) would not look different in the locker room, and I was happy to avoid what seemed like a harsh procedure for cosmetic reasons.
As a society, we get accustom to certain ideas and eventually they are deemed "normal." Circumcisions have been performed for more than 4000 years and for many it is completely conventional.
How a little piece of skin became such a topic of religious, medical and cosmetic debate is fascinating. Regardless of what people deem as unnecessary or attractive or compulsory, parents must remember that as long as we are informed, cultural perceptions should never drive our parenting decisions.