In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that decreed circumcision an elective surgery. Since then, the number of male babies undergoing circumcision has been in sharp decline. Many HMOs no longer cover the in-house hospital procedure, and the cut once done on 85% of males is now performed on less than half of American born boys.
Many read this trend as a reflection of a growing social and environmental consciousness regarding the ways humans unnecessarily alter nature. Circumcision is not only seen as painful to the child, but as a violation of the natural human form.
Simultaneously, another seemingly opposite trend is also taking hold--natural childbirth is in decline. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, nearly one in every four children born in America is delivered via surgical methods. Advocates of natural childbirth who used to hope that it would be possible to lower the C-section rate under 15% by 2000, are now worried that in fact it will rise above 25% in 2002. Many doctors prefer their patients of all ages to deliver by C-sections; for women over forty, the rates of birth by C-section have doubled in recent years.
What might these two trends suggest about the future of parenthood? If they seem like trends that run counter to each other--back to nature and away from it--I would suggest that in fact both reflect a similar acceptance of the idea that parents do not need a dramatic physical bond with their newborn child. In an age of genetic determinism, this seems a somewhat strange attitude, but maybe it is precisely because these days we imagine ourselves as so linked to our biological offspring through our chemical codes that we downplay the power of cultural processes--experiences we ourselves must go through--that teach us about how our children's bodies came from our own and are intimately and deeply connected to us.
Of course, I realize that I am talking about something that is extremely gendered and not applicable to the many parents who adopt children. For women, breastfeeding and childbirth can be a direct experience of physical connection with a newborn. What might such a thing be for men? Circumcision, I believe, is a ritual that has always tried to express this kind of bond, one that is both highly symbolic and intensely physical.
I say this as a father who has established a strong bond to his children in part because I circumcised my two sons.
I cut my [twin] sons even though I knew that the procedure had been declared medically unnecessary. I knew that I was causing them pain. I had heard that the lack of a foreskin might diminish their sense of sexual pleasure. I say all this, and yet when I stood above my boys, scalpel in hand, I experienced an unparalleled sense of connection to and responsibility for life. The birth was pure wonder. The circumcision was primal and mysterious, connecting me to flesh and blood in a violent and careful moment of father-love.
I'm not a doctor. I got the idea of doing the "final cut" from a friend of mine in Philadelphia who did his sons. Here's how it was done--the mohel, ritual surgeon, sets up the procedure by using a scissors-like device that slips between the penis shaft and the foreskin. Then the mohel places the foreskin into a stainless steel clamp. The clamp allows the father to remove it with a single cut of the scalpel. The whole procedure takes less than two minutes.
Circumcising my firstborn son was harder than I thought it would be. Not the emotional challenge, but the physical part, the actual slicing involved. It took more elbow grease than I had imagined. It was easier five minutes later with my second son.
So, am I a child abuser? Should I be locked up?
Every parenting book or magazine I read told me to leave them alone. The video at the birthing center showed how to clean a foreskin. Our Lamaze teacher talked about the natural beauty of an "intact" member. But with over fifty people watching, I quickly uttered a blessing and did my first surgery. I surprised myself--I was more calm and focused than I could have imagined. Thankfully, the boys didn't cry much--their eye exam a few days earlier was twenty times worse. And, to be honest, there wasn't much blood.