DESERET NEWS, Saturday, October 6, 2001.

Is circumcision outdated ritual?

By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret News religion editor

The vast majority of Utah parents would never think of intentionally hurting a child, yet they don't think twice when it comes to circumcising their newborn baby boys.

That painful procedure has become an ingrained "social ritual" rather than a necessary medical procedure, agreed panelists discussing the ethics of circumcision at Utah Valley State College on Tuesday.

Steve Scott, director of "No Circ of Utah" and outreach coordinator of the national organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, said the first historical record of circumcision was recorded in hieroglyphic form in 2,300 B.C. and that the practice had been performed at least 1,000 years before that.

The Bible describes circumcision as a covenant between Abraham and God, he said, noting the continued prevalence of the practice among devout Jewish families. Almost 90 percent of Utah parents circumcise their newborn boys, he said, a rate substantially higher than the national rate of about 58 percent. Yet the vast majority are under no religious mandate to do so. Most Christian faiths, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have no formal position on the procedure. In fact, the Book of Mormon specifically states that the law of circumcision "is done away" in Christ.

The practice is not medically necessary or even recommended, Scott said, citing four different statements by the American Academy of Pediatrics in recent years that emphasize the increased risk of cancer in uncircumcised men is inconsequential and that circumcision should not be recommended as a routine procedure for newborns.

The reason its prevalence persists, according to Dr. Richard Later, has much more to do with tradition and concern over "not wanting to look different in the locker room" than it does with medical necessity. Later, a 20-year pediatrician with Utah Valley Pediatrics, said while he does perform circumcisions, he always counsels parents against the procedure.

"The potential medical benefits do not really warrant any type of routine recommendation," he said. Yet tradition is a powerful force to contend with.

"It is kind of a ritual thing. When I suggest to parents that it's not necessary, my competence is immediately called into question. When we do get them to forgo it (initially), almost all of them come back and want it done" after talking with other family members, Later said. "It's such an ingrained thing."

Peer pressure drove a 15-year-old Latino boy to Later's office two weeks ago seeking a circumcision, he said. After explaining that he was concerned about possible health problems, Later explained they weren't really an issue. The boy then confided that, "I just don't want to be different. It's hard enough being Latino."

"It's a tough thing for a doctor, because we're told to do no harm." Yet as legal guardians of a newborn, parents are the ones who make the ultimate choice, he said. "It's difficult to convince people. The rates are declining, but not as much as they should be." Jeannine Parvati Baker, an author and former midwife, said as a Jewish mother she came under intense pressure from family members to have her infant boys circumcised. She refused.

"I grew up in a family where this is a celebration, a way to show our love for God," she said. As she attended psychology classes at a university when she was a teen, she began to understand the "immense trauma" that babies undergo during circumcision and decided to further study the issue.

Because there is no medical rationale to make it a routine procedure, she said, "what you have is a big person hurting a little person for no good reason" based on an ancient religious ritual. Yet even doctors who profit financially from performing the procedure are beginning to ask parents why they are seeking it for their babies, she said.

The questions need to be considered by parents in an informed way before the child is even born, she said.

"It's been a real long time coming to even have this discussion. I think 6,000 years has been long enough to wait so welcome to this moment."


Cite as:
(File prepared 16 October 2001)