Circumcision Is Not Child Abuse -- but That Doesn't Make It Right

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When you give birth to a baby boy in the US, you're immediately tasked with making a major decision: to circumcise or not to circumcise. For decades, the majority of American parents have been pro-circumcision. In fact, around 80 percent of American males are circumcised, and circumcision is so culturally ingrained that many of us are shocked by the sight of an intact foreskin. But just because circumcision is the norm in the US doesn't mean we're doing the right thing for our boys. A growing movement of activists are working not just to put an end to circumcision but to have the procedure reclassified as child abuse.

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A piece on OZY.com reveals many European activists are taking active steps to outlaw circumcision, arguing that the practice is "a form of child abuse, like any other intentional infliction of harm upon the bodily integrity of a child."

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Their argument certainly isn't new. When I got pregnant with my son in 2014, one of the first things I learned is that people feel very strongly about circumcision. Either they believe it is ultra-hygienic and necessary to circumcise baby boys, or they think the procedure is on par with genital mutilation and anyone who chooses it is an abusive hack who shouldn't be a parent. Even on OZY.com's article, the discussion was filled with comments calling parents who circumcise cruel, abusive, and selfish.


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But for many parents, the issue isn't so cut and dry. Circumcision is still considered a standard medical procedure in the US. In fact, it's the most common surgical procedure performed by American doctors. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) even maintains the stance that "the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks," though they stop short of recommending the procedure universally. The AAP also cites research that shows circumcision can reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, STDs, HIV, and even penile and testicular cancer.

Some parents opt for circumcision because the baby's father is circumcised, and they feel strongly that it's the "right" thing to do. And, many others choose circumcision because it's a sacred tenet of their religion. The reasons parents choose circumcision are often bolstered by health professionals, science, and deeply personal motivations. 

When the time came to decide whether or not to circumcise my own son, I couldn't get past the overwhelming instinct that it was simply not my right to choose. Circumcision is, after all, a permanent alteration of a child's body -- of their sex organs -- without their consent. I spoke with our pediatrician, who told me that the benefits of circumcision are negligible and my son would be just as healthy as his non-circumcised peers simply by practicing good hygiene and wearing a condom during sex.

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In the end, I chose not to circumcise my son. I believe he has the right to make those decisions about his own body, and I don't think the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risks or my own ethical reservations. If you ask me, personally, I am anti-circumcision. I think it's an outdated practice that violates infants' bodily integrity, and I think the benefits have been overstated. Globally, only about 30 percent of males are circumcised. The sky-high circumcision rates in the US are not the norm.

Still, I take issue with so-called "intactivists" who accuse parents who are pro-circumcision of cruelty and abuse. Parents who choose circumcision are doing so not only because they believe it is in the best interests of their child, but because they've been told by the American Academy of Pediatrics, by the CDC, by family doctors, and by other trusted sources that it's a good thing to do, that parents like me who don't circumcise are actually making the inferior choice. Circumcision is so overwhelmingly popular in the US because many people believe it is a sound, essential parenting decision -- because that's what we're told over and over again by authorities we trust.

The common, accepted way of thinking can be wrong. And, in this case, I believe it is. But shouting "child abuse" isn't going to sway any hearts or minds, and it certainly doesn't open the door to a meaningful discussion. To say the 80 percent of caring, thoughtful parents who've circumcised their children are abusers is absolutely ridiculous. Circumcision is not child abuse, and the sooner we stop equating the two, the sooner we can have a real conversation about the true issues and risks with continuing the practice.

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