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To Circumcise or Not: Beyond the Health Issues

QUESTION: I am soon going to be the parent of a baby boy. My wife and I are debating the issue of circumcision. I know all the health issues, but health issues aside, why would someone want to circumcise their little boy?

ANSWER: While the vast majority of the world's male population is uncircumcised, the greater majority of parents in the United States opt to circumcise their newborn sons. In the last 20 years, organizations such as The National Organization for Circumcision Information and Resource Center have educated parents to the myths of circumcision and the potential dangers of the operation, resulting in a dramatic decline of circumcision in particular regions of the country.

In parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, the rate of circumcised high school aged male students approached less than 50 percent in the last decade. The American Academy of Pediatrics reversal of its former position, recommending routine circumcision for newborns, has also lent support to the position to not circumcise. Although the Academy does not recommend against the procedure, they no longer recommend routine circumcision due to the potential for complications that can arise during a medically unnecessary operation.

The reason parents cite for having their newborn sons circumcised fall into three major categories:

  • Religious reasons: Many parents are religiously motivated to circumcise. In the traditional Jewish bris, friends and family are present to witness the circumcision as part of the covenant with god. Parents are available to comfort their child, unlike the usual hospital practice where parents are often absent during the operation. Clearly, to be a devout Jew requires circumcision within the context of this perspective.

  • To be like others: Probably the most common reason in the United States that parents choose to circumcise is for the simple reason that the father of the child is circumcised, as well as most if not all other males on both sides of the family. Parents very often feel awkward about making a choice that sets their child apart from others. Many fathers have expressed anxiety about explaining this difference between father and son, should they choose not to circumcise. Frightened about making a mistake and causing their child harm by setting him apart from his peers, and unsure of how to cope with this difference between father and son, they opt for what they perceive to be the "cultural norm."

  • To be "clean": Parents often hear stories that infection is greater if a child is not circumcised. In reality, normal hygiene is all that is necessary. The old adage "cleanliness is next to godliness" may be in operation here. Prejudice can develop due to ignorance and circumcision is no exception.

Parents make their choices based on the information they have available to them and the cultural milieu in which they live. It is often difficult to separate fact from fiction, and even harder to weigh the pros and cons of going against perceived societal norms. Parents must reflect on what is in their child's best interests and make their choices accordingly. In the case of circumcision, persuasive arguments can be made for either side.

Like many parenting decisions, what is right for one child may not be right for another. Many mothers (Jewish mothers included) have confided to me during their pregnancies that they hoped to have a girl, so that she would not be faced with this very difficult decision, so early in their parenting experience.

"Why someone would circumcise their little boy" can be more complex than meets the eye. Keep in mind, that being a parent is often more complicated than it appears from the outside.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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