Circumcision — ten years ago I had trouble spelling the word. I would stumble over the pronunciation of it, had I cause to use it, which I rarely did. Then Marilyn Milos entered my life through our founding meeting of the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children (aTLC). 1 It was her eyes, large and bright and gentle, that first engaged me. Then her generous and ready smile, resonant and contagious laugh, her deep voice. The word circumcision rolled off her tongue with the ease borne of speaking it many, many times each day.
Marilyn’s own sons are circumcised. Her doctor had told her that the surgery was a necessary health measure, it didn’t hurt, and only took a moment to perform. It wasn’t until several years later, in 1979, that Marilyn, as a nursing student, saw the surgery herself.
She recalls filing into the newborn nursery with the other students, to find a baby strapped spread-eagle to a plastic board on a counter top. He was struggling against his restraints — tugging, whimpering, and then crying helplessly. No one was tending him. When she asked her instructor if she could comfort him, she was told to wait till the doctor arrived. When he arrived, Marilyn immediately asked him if she could help the baby. On putting her finger into the baby’s mouth, as the doctor suggested, she found the baby sucked. As she stroked his head and spoke softly to him, he began to quiet.
The silence was broken by a piercing scream — the baby’s reaction to having his foreskin pinched and crushed as the doctor attached the clamps to his penis. The shrieks intensified as the procedure continued. The baby started shaking his head — the only part of his body free to move — back and forth. He began to gasp and choke, breathless from shrill continuous screams. In the final stage of the surgery, the doctor crushed the foreskin against the circumcision instrument and then, finally amputated it. The baby was limp, exhausted.
While the doctor remained passive, ‘professional’, Marilyn was devastated. Even more so when she heard his comment: ‘There’s no medical reason for doing this.’ Eyes filled with tears, sick to her stomach, she questioned how it could be that medical professionals, dedicated to helping and healing, could inflict such pain and anguish on innocent babies unnecessarily. Marilyn made the decision to dedicate her life to bringing an end to this horrendous practice.
As a nurse, believing every parent had a right and an obligation to be fully informed, she told parents what she wished she had been told before her sons were circumcised. Told to keep her mouth shut, she made a video of a circumcision for parents. She was told it was too much for parents to see. ‘Perhaps, then,’ Marilyn responded, ‘it’s too much for a baby to endure!’ The video was censored and, in 1985, Marilyn was fired. Fired from the nursing profession and fired to advocate for the genital integrity of all children. That same year, she co-founded the National Organisation of Circumcision Information Resource Centres (NOCIRC); the first national clearinghouse in the United States for information about circumcision.
Today, my frustration is no longer fuelled by an inability to readily spell or even pronounce the word circumcision fluently, but rather by the fact that this practice continues in the face of an abundance of research revealing, beyond any shadow of doubt, the damage inflicted. For example, while many circumcisers claim that babies do not experience pain, a mountain of published scientific studies prove that they do . In fact, babies feel pain more sharply than adults. Pain is serious. It is not something to be dismissed, ignored, or laughed at. It does not ‘toughen’ little boys. In fact, baby boys who have been circumcised suffer from an abnormally and artificially lowered pain threshold, and their heightened response to pain is consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
… No one is aware of the deep implications and life-lasting effect (of circumcision). The torture is experienced in a state of total helplessness, which makes it even more frightening and unbearable. — Frederick Leboyer
Circumcision is painful and traumatising. In the course of every circumcision, all babies scream, tremble, and/or cry. Many hold their breath, defecate, or vomit. Breathing difficulties can induce choking and apnea. Some infants are so severely traumatis ed by the experience that they fall into a semi-comatose state. (Some circumcisers pretend or presume these babies are falling asleep.) Going into a coma-like state is one way for a baby to distance himself from his agony, but it has dangerous consequences for the brain. Some infants cry for hours afterwards, and remain irritable for days. Post-circumcision stresses increase adrenal corticosteroids (stress hormones), decrease arterial oxygen perfusion, and disturb the sleep-awake cycles. 1
It is difficult to reconcile the awareness that so many people bring to a birth today — that a newborn, in the course of delivery, must be well oxygenated, not sedated, tenderly cared for, and welcomed with love; and the practice of strapping him to a restraining board within a day or two after delivery, if the infant is a male, exposing him to bright lights and cold instruments and, without benefit of anesthesia (which, unfortunately creates additional risks and potential complications for newborns), amputating his foreskin. There is something terribly bizarre and irrational in this, even more so in a climate where current ethical guidelines state that surgical procedures cannot be performed on research animals without using anesthesia.
When they brought him back to me, I could see that he had been crying and had a glassy, wild look in his eyes. I think it was terror… I’ll never forget that look. They probably shattered every bit of trust he had. — C. Miller
Circumcision creates a disturbingly long list of unnecessary surgical risks and complications ranging from lacerations, haemorrhage, infections, penile amputation, and urethral damage to an inordinately large number of badly performed circumcisions with resultant deformed penises. There is no trustworthy data on the true rate of complications. Hospitals are free of any obligation to report circumcision accidents.
The risks of newborn circumcision are an underreported and ignored factor…. Most often a poor surgical result is not recognised until years after the event. — James Snyder
What is normal?
A physician’s entire training is geared to distinguish what is normal and what is abnormal. Disease is a deviation from the normal, which one hopes to correct. The normal needs no correction. The foreskin — or prepuce — is normal and natural. It is the flexible, double-layered sheath of specialised skin that covers and protects the glans — or head — of the penis. The foreskin is a uniquely specialised, sensitive and functional organ of touch, and an integral and important part of the skin system of the penis. Nature designed the glans to be an internal organ. In many ways, the foreskin is like the eyelid. It covers, protects, and preserves the sensitivity of the glans by maintaining optimal levels of moisture, warmth, pH balance, and cleanliness. Genitally intact males know from experience that the foreskin is one of the most sensitive parts of the body. Circumcised males have no idea what was taken from them. Most are surprised to learn that the glans penis is one of the least sensitive parts of the entire body. Circumcision is a disservice to both males and females, especially in later life. A circumcised male can never reach his full birth potential of genital pleasure. The woman can never be a recipient of her lover’s full sexual response.
Intact males can be more tender, gentle, relaxed, and loving during sex because the lightest and subtlest gesture or motion evokes deeply satisfying sensations. — Paul M. Fleiss and Frederick M. Hodges
Faith and culture
Aside from medical persuasion, religious, cultural, and social pressures perpetuate circumcision. Doctors performing circumcision today usually remove far more tissue from the penis than was removed during the period of both the Old Testament and New Testament. During Biblical times, only the tip of the foreskin was removed. Circumcision has suffered an escalation from the original Biblical injunction, with tragic consequences.
When most people think of religious circumcision, they think of Muslims and Jews, for whom this is a deeply sensitive topic. Despite their being subject to tremendous emotional stresses and cultural pressures when considering the issue, a courageous reexamination of circumcision is occurring within both the Muslim and Jewish communities.
Traditional Jewish circumcision is performed by a ritual circumciser on the eighth day after the baby’s birth, at home, in public (females are often excluded from observing the actual cutting). For many Jews, the bris milah is a joyous occasion when friends and family celebrate and welcome the new member of the family. It is difficult for some Jews to consider any information that could appear as criticism of Judaism. For others, freeing Judaism from circumcision is not about criticism; it is about spiritual renewal and affirmation.
No matter how much religious sentiment may have clung to it in the past, today it is perpetuated only by custom and fear, to which we surely do not want to erect temples. — Abraham Geiger
Physicians influence circumcision rates by their attitude towards circumcision and their willingness or unwillingness to educate parents. Most of our male physicians are unaware of how they themselves have been genitally compromised. Additionally, they were likely given little or no accurate information about circumcision in medical school.
Nearly every illustration of male sexual anatomy in medical textbooks, popular medical books, and American-produced pornography portrays the penis as being circumcised, without comment, as if it were naturally so. — Paul M. Fleiss and Frederick M. Hodges
About the foreskin
The foreskin — also known as the prepuce — is the flexible, double-layered sheath of specialised skin that covers and protects the glans (or head) of the normal penis. The foreskin is a uniquely specialised, sensitive and functional organ of touch. No other part of the body serves the same purpose.
Drs. Cold and McGrath conclude that, over the last 65 million years, the foreskin has offered reproductive advantages. It must also be remembered that the sexual selection has refined the external genitalia of every creature, including man. The human foreskin is the product of millions of years of evolutionary refinement, and, as such, the human foreskin represents the epitome of design perfection.
How big is the foreskin?
The foreskin is the largest part of the skin system of the penis. It covers and usually extends far beyond the glans before folding under itself to its circumferential point of attachment just behind the corona (the rim of the glans). The foreskin is, therefore, a double-layered organ. Its true length is twice the length of its external fold and comprises as much as 80 percent or more of the penile skin covering. In children, the foreskin often runs to impressive lengths, frequently representing over three quarters of length of the penis.
If the average adult foreskin were unfolded and laid flat and unstretched, it would be approximately the size of a 3 x 5 index card. Moderately stretched, it would entirely cover a man’s forehead or the back of his hand and fingers. That’s a lot of skin!
Isn’t the foreskin a vestigial (functionless) organ like the appendix?
No. First of all, the appendix is hardly a vestigial organ. This myth was created back in the nineteenth century when medical science was too primitive to figure out the purpose of the appendix. We now know the appendix to be an important part of the immune system. Similarly the foreskin cannot be vestigial. Studies conclude that the human foreskin is an evolutionary advancement over the foreskins of other primates. In monkeys and apes, the glans is more sensitive than the foreskin. In humans, this is reversed, so that the foreskin is more sensitive than the glans. If the foreskin were ‘vestigial’, this advancement would never have taken place and the human foreskin would be either equally or less sensitive than the ape foreskin.
The foreskin is more sensitive than the fingertips or the lips of the mouth. It contains a richer variety and greater concentration of specialised nerve receptors than any other part of the penis. These specialised nerve endings can discern motion, subtle changes in temperature, and fine gradations of texture. This function enables genitally intact males to experience a superior dimension of sexual pleasure, compared to males who were circumcised. Intact males can be more tender, gentle, relaxed, and loving during sex because the slightest and subtlest gesture or motion evokes deeply satisfying sensations. Circumcised males have to work harder just to feel sensations. This is an unhealthy situation for both the male and his female partner.
Excerpted with permission from What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Circumcision by Paul M. Fleiss, M.D. and Frederick M. Hodges, D. Phil
What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Circumcision: Untold Facts on America’s Most Widely Performed — and Most Unnecessary — Surgery, Paul M Fleiss and Frederick M Hodges
Doctors Re-examine Circumcision, Thomas J Ritter and George C Denniston
Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma: How An American Cultural Practice Affects Infants and Ultimately Us All, Ronald Goldman
Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, Ronald Goldman
Invaluable websites include:
1: See www.aTLC.org
Published in byronchild/Kindred issue 10