When I first started speaking out against circumcision, some of my friends were taken aback; they hadn’t ever really thought about it, and they couldn’t understand why I’d devote so much energy and time to this as a cause. It’s just a flap of skin, isn’t it? Babies don’t feel or remember getting it “snipped off,” right? So what’s the big deal? Men, in particular, rolled their eyes, teased me, and wondered out loud what on earth I was so upset about.
Over the years, as the awareness of circumcision as an issue has grown, many of these same male friends have returned to tell me, upon reflection, that allowing their sons to be circumcised was the worst parenting mistake they’d ever made, the thing they most regret. More men than I can count have told me it’s the one thing they can’t forgive themselves for, even though they’d had no sense of the magnitude of their decision. It breaks my heart every single time I hear, “I had no idea what circumcision really meant, and I had no idea I would regret it.”
Some people, of course, do know, and they make the same terrible mistake. A couple of years ago, columnist Joel Stein wrote an essay for Time magazine in which he questioned whether his son should be circumcised in the Jewish faith. The piece ends with this paragraph:
“So in a few weeks, I’m going to buy some bagels, call a mohel who is also a pediatric surgeon and believes in local anesthetic, and do something that I’m pretty sure is wrong. I have a horrible feeling that all of parenthood is like this.”
Well, I don’t believe that “all of parenthood is like this.” Many mistakes we make as parents are unwitting; they don’t involve clear yes-or-no decisions; you just roll with the circumstances and hope for the best. Circumcision, however, is different. It’s a clear yes-or-no situation. And its consequences are utterly irreversible. Given that Stein’s misgivings were pre-recorded, I can’t imagine he will have a lot of credibility with his own son should he one day say, “I’m sorry I allowed this to happen to you.”
It takes a great deal of courage to look back as a parent and say, “I was wrong.” It also takes courage to resist the pressure from families, faith communities, doctors, and society at large to do something that “everybody does”—and is, at the same time, too embarrassing to talk about. Couple all of this with the fact that many men who regret saying yes are, themselves, victims of parents who were unable to say no.
Bravo to the fathers who have apologized to their sons; and bravo to the fathers who have stopped the cycle of harm, refusing to “consent” to the removal of a part of their sons’ beautiful, normal bodies.
Pass this on, share this post, or just simply start talking about it, because the single most effective way to prevent circumcision is to start the conversation—whether you’re sharing your own experience/pain/regret, or asking pregnant friends if they’ve thought about circumcision. You’ll find that once people really consider it and find out the facts, they’ll realize they are likely to regret it down the road if they allow their sons to be circumcised. (If they’re still on the fence, show them this video by Ryan McAllister, a bioethicist and research professor at Georgetown University. FYI, it includes graphic footage of a circumcision—which is the whole point.)
As parents, we’re often tasked with having to make tough decisions on behalf of our children—but this isn’t one of them. Pass it on.