Circumcisers: What drives their knives?
by Michael Glass
October 14, 2000

Circumcisers: What drives their knives?

Unlike America, circumcision is not a big issue for most parents in Australia. Unlike 40 or 50 years ago, when most Australian boys were circumcised, only about 10 per cent of boys are now circumcised as infants. However, it's an issue that doesn't go away. There are always people who push circumcision.


Fashion or Medicine?

Everyone knows that Jews and Muslims circumcise their boys, but for the rest of us, it's largely a matter of time and geography. Americans usually do, while Continental Europeans generally don't. In Scandinavia it is rarely done at all for any reason, and the same is generally true for Russia, Latin America, India, China and Japan. In Egypt, virtually all the boys are circumcised, whether Christian or Muslim, and many African tribes also practice circumcision. In Korea, circumcision rates have risen, while in Britain Canada, New Zealand and Australia they have declined.

This suggests medical fashion rather than medical necessity.

Of course, there are fashions in medicine. Fifty years ago, tonsils were whipped out by the million. Then it fell out of fashion. Depending on fashion doctors either resisted caesarean births, or performed them more and more. Hospital birth rates are also affected by fashion and culture. In Australia and the United States, babies are most commonly born in hospital while in the Netherlands, home birth is common.

Reasons for Circumcisions:

If circumcision rates vary wildly between countries, or even within countries, so do the medical reasons given for using the knife. In the Nineteenth Century, circumcision was promoted as a surefire cure for masturbation - because it dulled sexual sensation. Later, doctors promoted it as an aid to cleanliness, to prevent cancer of the penis, or of the cervix, and when it became unfashionable to say that circumcision dulled sexual sensation, doctors reassured us that it did not dull sexual sensation. Then, doctors said that circumcision prevented urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted disease, including AIDS.

Over the same period, doctors also said that circumcision did not prevent masturbation, was no more effective than soap and water for cleanliness, made little or no difference to cancer rates, did not prevent sexually transmitted diseases and was more prevalent in the USA where AIDS was rife than in Western Europe.

Occasionally, doctors and lawyers pointed out that circumcisions could cause sexual mutilations, infections, disfigurements and even deaths. It all depended who was pushing which barrow.

Infant Circumcision - agony of the newborn

Australian practice has largely turned against circumcision. The Australian Association of Paediatric Surgeons' view is that routine male circumcision should not be performed prior to the age of 6 months. It considers:

"Neonatal male circumcision has no medical indication. It is a traumatic procedure performed without anaesthesia to remove a normal and healthy prepuce."1

The reason is clear from a nurse's description of circumcision. It does not make pleasant reading:

"I have assisted with about 200 [circumcisions] and I have seen sleeping babies not wake up as I gently strapped them to the table. One even slept through the betadine and that is cold stuff. So it is not the restriction that is the problem.

"They take a metal probe-- similar to the one the dental hygienist scales teeth with-- and separate the foreskin from the glans. Babies scream so hard that they end up with their faces red and mouths wide open with no sound coming out. I had to hold their heads to the side because some vomit from the pain. I always had to get close to their faces and stroke their cheeks because they would stop breathing.

"The doc puts a bell over the foreskin and slides a sterile safety pin through a hole and then through the skin. He cuts with a blade for what seems like an eternity for this baby and deposits the skin on the sterile tray. The penis is RAW-- I often through [thought] it must feel like a 3rd degree burn with alcohol being poured over it. Consoling is impossible. They shake and their eyes are wide open with panic.

"Yes, I felt horrible every time. I never got used to it. Each procedure looked as barbaric as the next. [With] many, too much skin was taken off or too little (not worth that torture). I have seen infections, too: the risk of any invasive procedure-- even with sterlie [sterile?] fields.

"I get calls from moms who had no problems with breastfeeding and suddenly have trouble. If it is a baby boy, I try to remember to ask when and if he was circumcised. Many of my consults are a result of trauma from the circs. The babies' state of homeostasis is so messed up from the stress that they are no longer able to suck. Every (lactation consultant).. that I know will tell you how circumcision is a major source of feeding problems in the days following."2

If this is a worry, and I believe that it is a scathing indictment of neonatal circumcision, the attitude of a nurse on a pro circumcision website is even more alarming.

"As a nurse in the maternity wing of a large hospital, I have assisted with several hundred circumcisions. I am 100% in favor of routine circumcision. The pain the baby experiences is no doubt considerable, but I think it's more than worth it. .... At the hospital where I practice, about 60 percent of baby boys are circumcised, and I strongly encourage any expectant mother to do it. While the baby sometimes cries loudly during the procedure, most quiet right down after being released from the Circumstraint (the board to which the baby's arms and legs are strapped during the procedure). Assisting during circumcisions is the favorite part of my job, as I think it's a moment of magic when a baby boy's glans is permanently exposed for the first time in his young life. If a mother truly loves her son, she should definitely insist on circumcision."

Sandra (US)3

These magic moments only occur for Sandra with 60 per cent of the babies, but this isn't enough for her. She's 100% in favour of routine circumcision, and says.

"I strongly encourage any expectant mother to do it."

This would give her more magic moments. She has a persuasive line:

"If a mother truly loves her son, she should definitely insist on circumcision."

She admits:

"The pain the baby experiences is no doubt considerable, but I think it's more than worth it."

The baby's pain is certainly worth it for her! What is revealed is her interest in the naked glans of baby boys, and her enthusiasm in getting more parents to agree to the procedure that gives her those `magic moments'. In her case, her interest in baby boys' penises prompts her to pressure young mothers to have their boys circumcised - for her gratification.

If that is infant circumcision, and that is an example of those who are pushing it on the public, then there is something seriously wrong with this medical practice.


It is at this point that someone is sure to say that it's part of people's religion. And so it is. Jews circumcise their infant boys. So do Muslims, though it doesn't have to be done on newborns, and the practice is not mentioned in the Koran.

But most Americans and Australians are neither Jews nor Muslims. Most are either Christian or have no religious affiliation. So let us look at what Saint Paul said about those who tried to push circumcision on the early Christians:

"It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised..."4

"...they...desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh." 5

It is amazing that almost 2000 years ago, a Christian leader, who himself circumcised a man6 should be accusing circumcision enthusiasts of pushing it for sexual reasons. It wasn't just in one place either. Please note that Jews called male prostitutes dogs:7

"Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh."8

You would almost think that St Paul had seen some of the things that pro-circumcision enthusiasts have put on the internet!


Let us not give the last word to enthusiasts, either pro or anti-circumcision. One website9 was able to amass an impressive array of quotations from medical bodies against the practice of routine neonatal circumcision from a range of English-speaking countries. The American Academy of Pediatrics (1999) said that evidence does not justify recommending routine circumcision. The Canadian Paediatric Society, Fetus and Newborn Committee had already said something similar in 1996. The Australian College of Paediatrics and the Australasian Association of Paediatric Surgeons went further. They said:

"...neonatal male circumcision has no medical indication. It is a traumatic procedure performed without anaesthesia to remove a normal functional and protective prepuce [foreskin]."

The Australian Association of Paediatric Surgeons added:

"We do not support the removal of a normal part of the body, unless there are definite indications to justify the complications and risks which may arise. In particular, we are opposed to male children being subjected to a procedure, which had they been old enough to consider the advantages and disadvantages, may well have opted to reject the operation and retain their prepuce [foreskin]."

The 1996 British Medical Association Guidelines, Circumcision of Male Infants: Guidance for Doctors, would appear to rule out circumcision for therapeutic reasons, except as a last resort:

"To circumcise for therapeutic reasons where medical research has shown other techniques to be at least as effective and less invasive would be unethical and inappropriate."

Now we all know that doctors disagree on treatments. Even in different English-speaking countries, medical opinions on circumcision vary. Nevertheless, when national medical councils are equivocal at best about infant circumcision and some are actively opposed to it, parents should heed the warning of St Paul and question the motives of those who push for the circumcision of babies.


1 <>
2` <>
3 Circlist: <>
4 from Galatians 6:12, Revised Standard Version
5 from Galatians 6:13, Revised Standard Version
6 or had a man circumcised, depending on your translation. See Acts 16:3
7 see Deuteronomy 23:18, King James Version: `Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
8 Philippians 3:2-3, Revised Standard Version
9 <>

© Michael Glass, October 2000

(File revised 18 October 2004)

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