Circumcision in America

How did a medically pointless procedure become a routine practice performed on a majority of American males?

Published October 26, 1998 6:57PM (EST)

When I told people that our newborn son would not be circumcised, I
didn't realize that a tiny but vital part of his penis would touch off
deeply held convictions about cultural mores, aesthetics, psychology,
hygiene, father-son relations, American identity and thousands of years of
biblical traditions. In fact, I hadn't given penises much thought since my
teenage years, when every penis was a circumcised penis and the only issue
of overriding concern as the tentative probings of adolescence bloomed
into full-blown sexuality was: "How does this thing work?" Years later, I
was given a detailed, hand-etched poster called "Penises of the Animal
Kingdom"; in this vast forest of mammalian genitalia the only thing more
striking than the banality of man's penis next to that of the 20-foot gray
whale was the fact that all of them, including man's, were intact.
Aside from this brush with reality, however, the mushroom leitmotif of the
circumcised penis remained the unequivocal, unquestioned status quo of my
youth and of all my peers. It was the uncircumcised penis, with its strange
fleshy retractability, that was somehow freakish, a slightly vestigial
aberration, like being born with a tail or a set of gills.

Years of living in Europe and being married to a French
(uncircumcised) Catholic changed all that. Because only Jews and Arabs practice routine circumcision in Europe -- in fact, the United States is the only
country in the industrialized world to practice it across the board -- I
eventually grew so accustomed to the intact penis that a circumcised one
now looks startlingly bereft. Still, when I told people in the States that
our son would not be circumcised it was as if, in keeping his little
foreskin intact, I was committing a perfidious impropriety: refuting both
my Jewish and American identity and, in so doing, robbing my son of both.
For all those who expressed their convictions, however -- the
astonished Jewish relative, the slightly repelled girlfriend, the perturbed
American husband -- a number of questions hung in the air, unanswered.
Why, exactly, do we circumcise? How did circumcision evolve from a
strictly Jewish and Muslim ritual to a standard medical procedure performed
on a vast majority of American males, irrespective of religion? Why is the
United States the only Western nation in the world to practice it routinely,
despite overwhelming evidence debunking medical claims and enduring myths?
More important, what exactly is the foreskin, what happens when we remove
it and why do we continue to opt for circumcision?

It doesn't take much to realize that nature didn't intend the
foreskin and the penis to be separated at birth. Try retracting the
foreskin of a newborn's penis and you're struck by the steadfast, tenacious
grip it has on the glans, or head. The foreskin is sealed to its bounty
like a silo, and only slowly, over the years, yields to full retractability.
But it's far more than just a sheath. The foreskin contains thousands of
highly sensitive sensory receptors called Meissner corpuscles, which are
more abundant there than in any other part of the penis. Richly endowed with a
profusion of blood vessels, it also has a ridged band of peripenic muscles
that protects the urinary tract from contaminants, and an undersurface lined
with mucocutaneous tissue found nowhere else on the body, which contains
ectopic glands that produce natural emollients and antibacterial proteins
similar to those found in mother's milk. With its frenar ridges and its
thousands of nerve endings, the foreskin not only protects the glans, which
in an intact male is extremely sensitive, it also accounts for roughly
one-third of the penis' sexual perceptivity. In short, evolution has seen to it that the penises of all mammals come protected in a remarkably fine-tuned and responsive foreskin.

After nine months of infinitely complex and elegant work at literally
becoming whole persons, however, the majority of American newborn males
have their foreskins removed. Curiously, in a culture where the rights of
every living thing are vigorously endorsed by the vox populi, most parents opt neither to view nor to question the mechanics of this procedure. Dr. Hiram Yellen, one of the two inventors of the Gomco Clamp, a tool used in circumcision,
describes the standard procedure for circumcision in the following passage:

"... the prepuce is put on a stretch by grasping it on either side of the
median line with a pair of hemostats. No anesthesia is used. A flat probe,
anointed with Vaseline, is then inserted between the prepuce and the
glans ... In cases where the prepuce is drawn tightly over the glans, a
dorsal slit will facilitate applying the cone of the draw stud (the bell)
over the glans. After anointing the inside of the cone, it is placed over
the glans penis ... The prepuce is then pulled through and above the bevel
hole in the platform and clamped in place. In this way the prepuce is
crushed against the cone causing hemostasis. We allow this pressure to
remain five minutes, and in older children slightly longer. The excess of
the prepuce is then cut with a sharp knife."

Within minutes, three feet of veins, arteries and capillaries, 240
feet of nerves and more than 20,000 nerve endings are destroyed; so are all the
muscles, glands, epithelial tissue and sexual sensitivity
associated with the foreskin. Finally, what nature intended as an internal
organ is irrevocably externalized.

Perhaps for parents who don't watch a circumcision (the majority
don't; the minority that do wish they hadn't), the reality here -- the
strapping, forcing, cutting, bleeding, stripping, slicing and creating of
immeasurable pain -- is a little like the Bomb: something you'd rather not think about unless you absolutely, positively must. But the fact remains that
millions of American newborns routinely undergo this procedure, and most
parents don't really know why. How did this come to pass?

- - - - - - - - - -

Research into circumcision's history suggests that it dates back to around 3000 B.C., when it was performed in ancient Egypt as a mark of slavery and as a religious rite. Aside from Jews and Muslims, however, people considered circumcision to be a repugnant form of genital mutilation, and both the Greeks and Romans passed laws forbidding its practice. Thus, for a few millennia at least, most men worldwide enjoyed the virtues of an intact penis. In fact, routine circumcision didn't take off in America until the Victorian era, and didn't reach cruising altitude until the Cold War years, when technology, medicine and big business came together in the interest of institutionalized birthing.

The systematic removal of the foreskin owes its ubiquity in America to one man named Dr. Lewis Sayre, once known as the "Columbus of the prepuce" by his colleagues. In 1870, Sayre drew a correlation between the foreskin and an orthopedic malady in a young boy. Through a series of bizarre medical experiments, Sayre and his colleagues eventually determined that links existed between the foreskin and a vast range of ailments that included gout, asthma, hernias, epilepsy, rheumatism, curvature of the spine, tuberculosis and elephantiasis. But what drove circumcision deeper into the bedrock of pediatric medicine was the strident belief that masturbation, thought to be the root of everything from bed-wetting to intractable forms of insanity and mental retardation, could be "cured" with circumcision.

Dr. Peter Charles Remondino, a well-known physician, public health
official and champion of universal circumcision, typified the Zeitgeist. Remondino wrote that the foreskin, which he referred to as an
"unyielding tube" and "a superfluity," made the intact male "a victim
to all manner of ills, sufferings ... and other conditions calculated to
weaken him physically, mentally, and morally; to land him, perchance, in
jail, or even in a lunatic asylum."

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a well-known fundamentalist health reformer and medical journalist (his 1888 "Plain Facts for Old and Young" included roughly 100 pages dedicated to "Secret Vice [Solitary or Self Abuse]") who went on to create the
world's preeminent corn flake, was more direct in his approach. "A
remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is
circumcision," he wrote. "The operation should be performed by a surgeon
without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the
operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be
connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the
application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of
allaying the abnormal excitement."

As astonishing as it may seem, Kellogg's views were shared by most prominent practitioners of the time. In Robert Tooke's popular book "All About the Baby," published in 1896, circumcision is recommended for preventing "the vile habit of masturbation." And Dr. Mary Melendy, author of "For Maidens, Wives and Mothers," wrote that masturbation "lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis and heart disease ... It even makes many lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide." Appealing to parents who might question the protracted afflictions associated with masturbation, Melendy warned, "Don't think it does no harm to your boy because he does not suffer now, for the effects of this vice come on so slowly that the victim is often very near death before you realize that he has done himself harm."

Circumcision was not only bound up with deeply irrational fears
about masturbation at the turn of the century; it was also tied to
sociocultural changes as vast waves of immigration flooded American
cities. Circumcision became a mark of social class that distinguished
gentrified, "real" Americans from the "insalubrious" immigrant masses at a
time when cleanliness was synonymous with godliness. Eventually,
circumcision staked its claim on the American male and his problematic
penis, and became so accepted as the norm that by the early 1900s standard
medical textbooks depicted the normal penis without its foreskin. In this
highly charged atmosphere, American parents who chose not to circumcise
their sons were almost criminally negligent, if not freakishly

By the Cold War era, roughly 90 percent of American males were
systematically circumcised at birth. It was simply something you did -- a
medical procedure as unquestioned as the cutting of the umbilical cord --
and so deeply entrenched in America that it was upheld as standard practice
long after the theories by which it was justified were debunked. People had
long forgotten that circumcision was not based on any supreme medical
imperative but rather on the fantastically phobic mores of a Victorian
society, and the medical establishment did little to clear the smoke on
what had become a profitable business. Was this a perception/reality
problem, or a morality/reality problem?

It wasn't until the '70s -- after French obstetrician and natural-birthing pioneer Frederick Leboyer's "Birth Without Violence," after extensive studies discrediting longstanding medical claims, after lawsuits that forced hospitals to obtain parental consent before circumcising, and after millions of foreskins had been left on the cutting-room floor -- that Americans (and Jews all over the world) began questioning circumcision.

By 1975, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had reversed
its pro-circumcision stance in "Standards and Recommendations for
Hospital Care of Newborn Infants," by stating: "there is no absolute
medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn." And in 1984,
it published "Care of the Uncircumcised Penis," which, clearly supporting
the intact penis, concluded by saying, "The foreskin protects the glans
throughout life." But despite a slow decline in the circumcision rate, accompanied by a new awareness
of the rights of newborns -- and despite rigorous campaigning against
circumcision by doctors worldwide, in the form of international symposiums,
in-depth studies, human rights legislation, information resource centers
and more -- circumcision remains the most commonly performed neonatal
surgical procedure in America. And in this, America stands alone.

By Debra S. Ollivier

MORE FROM Debra S. Ollivier

Related Topics ------------------------------------------