Cutting to the Point on Circumcision
Weigh the Options
Sept. 26, 2001 -- 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 made 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 Alex'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. "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 choosing.
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 U.S. 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
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,
anticircumcision 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 in March 1999 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 Carole Lannon, MD, 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 decision."