Cutting to the Point on Circumcision
From the time Debra Sherman and her husband, Mark Wilcox, learned through
prenatal genetic tests that they were having a boy, they agonized over whether
to circumcise their baby. "I didn't want the first decision we make for him
to be a bad one," Sherman says.
In the end, the Chicago couple decided against taking that extra surgical
snip of foreskin from their son's penis. Without overwhelming medical evidence
favoring circumcision, Sherman says, it would have seemed to her like deciding
to cut off his ear lobes.
"From everything we read and everyone we talked to, it seemed like there
was no medical reason to do it," says Sherman, whose son, Alex, is 7 months
old. "Plus, I'm not religious, Mark's not religious, and I just thought it
was an awful thing to do to a baby."
The fact is, the circumcision decision is a very personal one. Experts say
parents need to understand the advantages and disadvantages, then decide what's
right for them. Here are the latest facts and a look at how some parents are
Vive la Difference
Locker rooms have a way of reducing each sex to its least common
denominator. Peel away the Levi's and Jockeys, put aside sizes and shapes, and
the equipment is all basically the same -- at least that was the case when
today's generation of new dads were kids.
Parents in the United States have routinely circumcised their sons since the
1940s, in large part because doctors believed it promoted good hygiene and
prevented disease. To Jews and Muslims, circumcision is a sacred ritual
symbolizing their covenant with God. By the mid-1960s and early 1970s, about
90% of all boys were circumcised.
But that trend is shifting. In 1996, circumcision rates declined to about
65%, although rates differ depending on demographics: 80% in the Midwest, 68%
in the Northeast, 64% in the South and 34% in the West. Among whites, the rate
is 81%, compared with 65% among blacks and 54% among Hispanics.
In fact, many observers predict that by the time the first generation of
boys born in the new millennium is old enough to hit the locker-room showers,
the haves and have-nots may be about equally divided.
The biggest reason for the change is mounting evidence that the medical
benefits aren't as compelling as once believed. In addition, anti-circumcision
groups have turned up the heat on the debate. They claim the practice is cruel
and unnecessary and are spreading the word via Web sites, mailings, bumper
stickers, T-shirts and international conferences.
Circumcision rates are much lower in other parts of the world, including
most of Europe, Asia and Latin America. Only 48% of boys in Canada, 24% in the
United Kingdom and 15% of boys worldwide are circumcised.
Probably the strongest cause for pause among parents, however, came this
year when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying
it does not endorse routine circumcision.
"There are potential benefits as well as risks, but the data wasn't
sufficient for us to say every newborn male needs to be circumcised," says
Dr. Carole Lannon, clinical associate professor of pediatrics and internal
medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and chairwoman of
the task force on circumcision. "Each parent needs to make that