Genital Mutilation aka Circumcision

DSC_0364One day, I visited my friend Edward’s (name changed) home in New Jersey. He was bathing his infant son. A baby bath tub was conveniently placed in the kitchen sink. Unlike many other babies I had seen, Joshua was rather enjoying his bath in the lukewarm water. He was holding on to the gooseneck faucet to balance his tiny body. Then it came to my notice that the kid had a circumcised penis. It surprised me for the simple reason that back in Kerala Edward used to call Muslims ‘mukkal’, a derogatory term in Malayalam that meant having ‘three fourths’. A more lucid definition would be ‘the incomplete’ just due to the circumcised genital.

How come someone who despised the Islamic ritual (he never knew that Jews, some African and Australian tribal people and even some Christians also did the same to their male children) had his son undergo a similar snipping ceremony?

I couldn’t resist my curiosity. “Why,” I asked him.

“It’s very hygienic. Doctors opined so,” he replied with no compunction on his earlier disparaging comments of Muslims.

Is it really hygienic? I wondered. Even if it is, isn’t it a very costly hygiene, at least mentally and physically as the children grow older? Is it right to take away from a boy what nature has given him? Isn’t it cruel to pain an infant when it is absolutely helpless? Isn’t it unjust on the part of the parents to allow their son’s foreskin to be chopped off when it is not necessary? In a few minutes, scores of such questions dawned upon me.

As far as I know, we, as beings, need everything we have. We don’t have anything we don’t need. All organs and their associates have a minor or major function in all our mental or bodily functions. (Even dead cells that form finger and toe nails and hair have a function to perform. I don’t believe that tumor (cancerous) that grow in our body has a creative function in our living. Here I don’t mean any medical condition too). Then why this practice is medically rationalized to have you believe it is preventive or hygienic?

As the definition goes by, Circumcision is the (surgical) removal of the sleeve of skin and mucosal tissue that normally covers the glans (head) of the penis. This double layer, also called the prepuce, is commonly known as the foreskin.

The foreskin comprises as much as half or more of the penile skin system and contains three to four feet of blood vessels, 240 feet of nerves, and between 10,000-20,000 specialized nerve endings. It is not an adhesion, nor redundant, nor a birth defect. It has three known functions: protective, sensory, and sexual.

During infancy, the foreskin is attached to the glans and protects it from urine, feces and abrasion from diapers. Throughout life, the foreskin keeps the glans soft and moist and protects it from trauma and injury. Without this protection, the glans becomes dry, calloused and desensitized from exposure and chafing. Parts of the foreskin, such as the mucosa (inner foreskin) and frenulum, are particularly sensitive and contribute to sexual pleasure. Specialized nerve endings enhance sexual pleasure and control. Experts say that all circumcised males lose some or most of the sensitivity in their glans and all of the sensitivity in their foreskins!

Then, why circumcision? There are several reasons, but is primarily performed for cultural or religious reasons. Religiously, (Jews, Muslims and some Christians), it is supposedly to obey a divine command, respect for saints and prophets or religious identity. Some believe that the part removed from the penis is dedicated to the divine.
Anthropologists say the Jews created it as a way either to exclude women from their club or to ritualize the sacrifice of the firstborn child (Abraham and son Isaac’s story).

Culturally, it could be a mark of tribal identification or a fertility rite, aimed at giving men the power of procreation by making them shed blood from their genitals like women. Or may be, a social role, family obligation, respect for ancestors, promotion of self-control and so on.

However, until the 19th century, none other than Muslims, Jews and some tribal people in Africa and Australia practiced circumcision extensively. Mass circumcision was introduced in the mid-1800s in English-speaking countries, especially in the United States, for health reasons – ‘to prevent masturbation, which was blamed for causing diseases such as epilepsy, tuberculosis and insanity. Other reasons included to prevent cancer of the penis and cervix, and venereal diseases. All these reasons have been disproven by medical science.

But, there are, of course, genuine concerns. Hygiene is one among them. In the past it was feared that the smegma (white waxy substance, consisting of natural secretions and shed skin cells that may occur around the folds of the genitalia in both males and females) might be carcinogenic, could cause cancer. This fear was used as a justification for male circumcision as well as for clitoridectomy, genrally known as female circumcision. In fact, smegma beneficially serves to preserve subpreputial wetness, and chemically it contains immunologically active compounds and hormones.

According to Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, “smegma protects and lubricates the glans and inner lamella of the prepuce, facilitating erection, preputial eversion and penetration during sexual intercourse. This natural lubricant allows for prolonged intercourse and eliminates the need for artificial supplemental lubrication during normal coitus or masturbation.
Another concern is phimosis (tight foreskin) which is not that common an abnormality. This is not the same as the natural attachment of the foreskin to the glans during infancy, which is completely normal. The foreskin can normally be retracted by adolescence. If retraction is not possible, a number of newer treatments are available which do not involve circumcision: steroid creams, stretching, and preputioplasty.

Next concern is a serious one. If the foreskin has severe infection (balanitis xerotica obliterans) or gangrene, perhaps related to diabetes, removal of the affected area may be a medically advisable option. Abnormalities or diseases of the foreskin can be treated medically or ritualistically, if and when they occur, on a case-by-case basis.

Prof. J M Hutson of Royal Children’s Hospital, Australia, observes that circumcision was ‘likely to have arisen as an early public health measure for preventing recurrent balanitis, caused by sand accumulating under the foreskin.’

A similar view is found in the policy statement on circumcision issued by Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 2002: ‘Circumcision of males has been undertaken for religious and cultural reasons for many thousands of years. It probably originated as a hygienic measure in communities living in hot, dusty and dry environments.’

It sounds rational given the fact that the two major religions that practice circumcision, viz., Judaism and Islam, originated in lands with hot, arid, and dusty conditions and with only few oases or water bodies to depend on. Centuries ago the founders of those religions might have been rational to observe such a ritual. Now, a good, daily bath during which a gentle rinsing of the genital area is more than sufficient to keep your hygiene.

Is circumcision painful? Of course, it is extremely painful and traumatic for the baby! If they witness how circumcision is performed on their babies, most parents won’t allow that to take place. Legs and hands of the baby are strapped down so that he can’t move. His genitals are scrubbed and covered with antiseptic. His foreskin is torn from his glans and slit lengthwise so that circumcision instrument can be inserted. Then his foreskin is cut off. Unlike many of us believe, babies are sensitive to pain as anyone else. Most babies cry frantically during circumcision. Some defecate. Some even lapse into a coma. The reason some babies don’t cry when they are circumcised is that they can’t cry because they are in a state of shock.

Most babies are circumcised without anesthetics. Even if anesthetic is administered, being stuck with a needle in the penis itself is painful. If it is ritualistically done by religious people like the Jewish mohels, the method is crude and archaic and might even endanger the baby’s life. (Not long ago, a Jewish infant died of herpes and several other babies contracted the virus after being circumcised by the mohel Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, who practiced direct oral suction!)

Circumcisions sometimes might lead to complications. According to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statistics, when 100,000 boys are circumcised, 1000 (one per cent) cases might end up in complications, including hundreds of permanent, sexually crippling, botched circumcisions and at least one death. The British urology stats give a graver picture – it could be between 5-7 per cent. (Remember, in February, 2007, an infant at Sarah Bush Hospital in the US had a standard circumcision procedure performed by Dr. Sherif Malek, in which the doctor severed the entire glans of the infant’s penis and faced a lawsuit)

Now the question is, can we live without circumcision? Of course we can! Approximately 80-85 per cent of the world’s male population has intact genitals. Not a single medical society –  be it American Medical Association(AMA), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP), British Medical Association (BMA), American Cancer Society ACS – recommends circumcision for healthy male infants. Barring Muslims, Jews and some tribal people, Americans are the only people who practice circumcision extensively, allegedly for the doctors to make money. Even in the US, the number of circumcised males is coming down.

Circumcision is nothing but an irreversible amputation of a healthy, normal, sensitive, functional part of your baby’s penis – an amputation that experts regard not just as unnecessary, but as contra-indicated. Why should parents decide that the boy should look like dad? Why should the doctors and circumcisers, with the permission of parents, inflict pain on a new born when it can hardly react? Why should we perform something which a child is incapable of stopping?

At the same time, any sane adult can have his foreskin removed if he decides so just like he has a body piercing. But, circumcision, at best, is cosmetic; at worst it is mutilation, and never therapeutic for a neonate.

Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC), USA
National Organisation of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, USA
Stop Infant Circumcision Society, USA


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  1. […] Original post: Genital Mutilation aka Circumcision […]

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