I am the mother of a son, and many of my close friends and family members are also parents of little boys. If you are one, too, you know that one of the first questions that comes up when you give birth to a boy is whether or not you’re going to have him circumcised. After considering it, our family decided not to. Our religious tradition does not require it, and after reviewing the current medical literature on the subject, which no longer routinely recommends circumcision, we opted against it. However, I do recognize that this is the decision we made for our family. Many people in my circle made a different decision, and I’m not writing here to pass judgment on you either way.
There’s something about circumcision that I find interesting, all the same. It’s still very commonly practiced here in North America (current estimates are that about one third of Canadian boys, and slightly more than half of US boys, are circumcised). In contrast, in most European countries, the rate is well under 20%. In the UK the rate for children under 15 is around 3.8%, and in Denmark it’s 1.6%. So why the difference? Why do we still routinely circumcise a large number of baby boys on this side of the pond, when it’s fallen so far out of favour on the other?
When we found out we were having a boy, we had to make a decision about circumcision
For the answer, you need to look at the history of circumcision. Throughout the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th centuries, circumcision was rare in North America. There are a few factors that combined to cause Americans to consider circumcision not so much a cultural practice as a medical necessity. One of the first shifts is often credited to Dr. Lewis Sayre, who, in 1870, apparently cured a child’s paralysis by circumcising him. He became convinced that a constriction of the foreskin could cause all kinds of problems, and he lectured widely on the subject. Many other doctors became convinced as well, and within 20 years the foreskin was blamed for a wide variety of medical problems, including insomnia, chronic indigestion, rheumatism, epilepsy, asthma, bedwetting, insanity and cancer.
The Victorians were also big on cleanliness, and as germ theory caught on, circumcision also became more popular. The idea was that by removing the foreskin it would be easier to keep the penis clean, and therefore it was good for the health. Plus, with increasing cleanliness on the part of doctors, there were fewer complications from the procedure.
However, the argument for circumcision that seems by far the most bizarre to most people today, including me, comes out of puritanical Victorian ideas towards sex. There was a widespread belief that masturbation could lead to masturbatory insanity. The idea was that circumcision could provide a cure. John Harvey Kellogg, of corn flakes fame, was one big proponent, and he advocated that the procedure be performed without using an anesthetic. The idea was that the pain, both from the immediate procedure and then afterward as the wound healed, would put an end to any ideas that a boy might have.
After Jacob was born, I was glad to not have to deal with circumcision
Many of the same factors that caused circumcision to catch on here in North America were also present throughout the English-speaking world. While circumcision never really caught on in Continental Europe (hence the extremely low rates in countries like Denmark), it was routinely practiced in the United Kingdom. So why are the rates so different today? In 1949, the newly-formed National Health Service removed circumcision from its list of covered procedures in the UK, following a study by Douglas Gairdner. Here in Canada, the health care system didn’t follow suit for some 45+ years. British Columbia was the first province to stop covering circumcision, in 1984. The last Canadian province to stop covering the procedure was Manitoba, which only removed it in 2005.
I don’t know what things are like in the UK, but as a Canadian who is used to having all my medical procedures fully covered, the idea of paying several hundred dollars out-of-pocket for a medical procedure feels foreign to me. While I do pay some monthly medical insurance costs, those are low, and I never have to pay anything beyond that to access medical care. Whether I’m having a baby, rushing to emergency room, or visiting my doctor, it’s all covered. I suspect that the fact that circumcision isn’t covered has contributed to the lower rates in the UK, and the dropping rates in Canada. In the US, where paying for medical care is the norm, I would expect that this would be less of a factor. That’s only my guess, though.
I’m happy to say that my son hasn’t had any problems, and I don’t regret our decision not to have him circumcised at all. It was the right choice for our family. While everyone else has to make the decision for themselves, it’s interesting to me to see how geographical and historical factors have impacted that decision, and will undoubtedly continue to impact it for as long as people are having baby boys.