Circumcision: The Earlier Generation

My article on why we didn’t circumcise our son mentioned that when my partner Daniel learned more about circumcision, he felt “that he was mutilated without his consent simply because of tradition and ignorance” and was so upset that “he wouldn’t speak to his parents because he feared he would yell at them.” As I tried to make clear in the article, we knew that Daniel’s parents had made that decision using the information they had at the time, working from within a culture in which routine infant circumcision was rarely questioned, so it wouldn’t be fair to blame them.

Daniel’s parents wrote a response. It’s so well-written and such a clear presentation of the difference in perspective between 1971 America and 2004 America that, with their permission, we are publishing it as a guest post.

Dear Daniel and Becca,

Just some quick comments on the blog about circumcision. As you note, the decision to circumcise wasn’t controversial in 1971. Of course, this was before home computers and the Internet, so we were not online every day, Googling topics of interest, checking Wikipedia, and downloading pro and con blogs.

Our decision was not made primarily on the basis of religion. Frankly, we weren’t that religious. Our pediatrician was in favor of it for the presumed health and hygiene benefits. Furthermore, although it was not the major factor in our decision, it was also believed at that time that circumcision enhanced sexual sensitivity as well as decreasing the risk of cancer of the penis. In fact, Daniel was circumcised in the hospital by a physician, not in our home as part of a bris–the religious ritual. Elsa and I had attended several of those, where people stand around and pray, gawking at the infant while the mohel dabs wine on the child’s lips to keep him happy. We much preferred the sterile environment of the hospital, and we followed the conventional medical wisdom of the day that involved getting it over with as soon as possible.

Had we regarded it as a controversial issue, we would have solicited additional opinions and gone to the library to delve into the medical journals. However, it wasn’t like that. There really were no dissenting votes from family, friends, or medical folks. We had doubts about various matters of child-rearing, but this wasn’t among them.

I suppose it is somewhat analogous to the situation, a generation before, where almost everyone had their tonsils automatically removed during infancy. Here too, the idea was to eliminate “vestigial” tissue before it became a source of potentially savage infections. This was a big concern before the invention and widespread use of antibiotics. In fact, for some reason, my father did not have his tonsils routinely removed, and he therefore had to have very painful surgery later in life, when his tonsils were creating a lot of trouble. Having them out as an adult led to a very difficult recuperation period.

Obviously, parents are always obliged to make decisions on behalf of their offspring on the basis of partial, incomplete, and soon to be outmoded information. When should the doctor be called, should the kid be exposed to chicken pox, should we vaccinate, should we let the kid cry half the night, and so on. Sometimes the issues are small and sometimes they are larger. As I was growing up, the dental profession kept changing its mind about how one should brush one’s teeth and whether the toothbrush should have hard or soft bristles. My mother (and others in her cohort) thought breastfeeding was a big mistake. She considered the process unreliable and—get this—”unnatural.” When it became clear that Elsa intended to breastfeed Daniel, she began a campaign for him to be weaned as fast as possible. She thought it was unwise for him to be “indulged” for too long. We had to promise that we would have him drinking from a cup before entering high school! She also thought giving a child food just because he was hungry was risky—in her day, you stuck to a definite feeding schedule, come hell or high water.

A few weeks ago, when we visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, we found out that they were still doing bloodletting during the Civil War and that they considered the appearance of pus a good sign—the bodily humors were presumably restoring a suitable balance. They also threaded the needles they used to suture wounds by licking the thread, and during surgery the physician rinsed his hands in a common, bloody bucket of water.

In my era, Argyrol drops were put in every newborn’s eyes. The formula for this antiseptic solution was developed by Albert Barnes in 1902, and the worldwide sale of this product was the basis of the fortune that now supports the Barnes Foundation art collection. It wasn’t until 1996 that the medical profession concluded that the formula—which contained silver—was both ineffective and unsafe. Similarly, the disinfectant pHisoHex was considered the best way to keep your hands free of germs until 1969, when hexachlorophene was suspected of causing cancer. However, in 1973, it was once again declared safe. In this country, it has remained a prescription drug although you can get it over the counter in Australia.

The one thing you can count on is that some of the decisions you are now making with regard to Nicholas will later turn out to have been at least foolhardy if not downright harmful. However, all you can ever do is use your best judgment and hope for the best.

We never know what we don’t know, and we generally do not have the luxury of waiting to see what the verdict of history will be or what our offspring will conclude about the choices we make.

Jay & Elsa

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