THE OREGONIAN, Portland, Thursday, July 17, 2008.

Circumcision: a painful decision

Health - A religious necessity for many Jews and Muslims, the practice has also attracted vocal opponents

Thursday, July 17, 2008


The Oregonian Staff


A recent Oregon court case focused attention on circumcision, an enduring religious ritual for Jews and Muslims that is otherwise declining as a medical or cultural practice in Oregon.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments from a divorced couple about circumcising their son. The father, who had converted to Judaism after the divorce, favored the circumcision of his 9-year-old son, who had expressed interest in converting. The mother argued that the boy was afraid to tell his father that he didn't want to be circumcised.

In January, a lower court ruled in favor of the father, who has custody of his son. The mother appealed. The Supreme Court decided that the boy, now 12, should have a chance to weigh in. The case is still pending.

Custody rights may be at the heart of the Oregon case, but it has sparked discussion of circumcision -- the removal of all or a portion of the foreskin of the penis. For centuries, Jews have circumcised infant boys. They cite the book of Genesis, in which God commands that Abraham, his son and their descendants be circumcised as a sign of their divine covenant.

Ordinarily, a bris milah, Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," is held on the eighth day of a boy's life, at home in front of family and friends. A trained mohel performs the ritual. In recent years, some Jewish families have had their sons circumcised in the hospital by a specially trained Jewish physician. The family holds a naming ceremony at home on the eighth day.

In Islam, circumcision is a religious rite and usually occurs by a boy's seventh birthday.

In the United States, infant circumcisions are often performed for secular reasons. Parents choose to have sons circumcised so they will look like their fathers or blend in in a locker room, or because they believe the procedure aids with cleanliness or reduces disease.

Some circumcised men argue that the procedure has lessened their sexual sensitivity. Medical studies suggest that circumcision reduces the risk of penile cancer, urinary tract infections and HIV transmission. But the American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed in 2005 that there was insufficient evidence to consider the procedure a medical necessity.

In Oregon, about 26 percent of boys born in 2006 were circumcised in hospitals. The figure, based on state and national statistics, does not include infants circumcised outside of hospitals.

Nationally, the figure for infant circumcision declined from 65 percent in 1980 to about 56 percent in 1997 and has been relatively stable since.

Regionally, fewer boys are circumcised in the West: In 2005, 31 percent were circumcised in hospitals there. The figures were 75 percent in the Midwest, 65 percent in the Northeast and 56 percent in the South.

(File created 18 July 2008)