Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Baby and The Bathwater

I don't have a penis. Although it has rarely been an important factor in my life, it seems that it disqualifies me from having an opinion about procedures which involve them. (Apparently a vestigial tail is not "close enough") But ever since learning about the practice, its history and statistics, I have been a staunch supporter of non-circumcision.

If I have a failing, however, it is that I tend to assume that any view I hold is automatically held by others of sound mind, and so I was surprised to learn that almost half the male babies in Alberta are put through the procedure. It is unlikely to be a cultural practice (which I won't comment on here - the benefits of the religious affinity cannot and should not be measured against the pros or cons of the procedure, it is for the religion itself to debate) since the national average is far below Alberta's rate, but rather something people are having done simply out of habit or misinformation.

A common reason is that fathers don't want their sons to look different from themselves, an argument that would be laughed out of any other medical procedure debate but is apparently tolerated in this special bubble. The fact that it is, actually, a medical procedure that carries inherent risk, is put on the back shelf to the consideration that the father might one day have to explain to his child that some penises look different and that's okay.

In defense of the procedure, however, a common argument against is that the child's human rights are being violated since they obviously cannot consent to the procedure, a point that often causes parents to collapse on the ground, helpless with laughter. "The child can't consent" they chortle, "better stop taking them to the dentist/ making them eat new foods/ wear 'itchy' sweaters!" The fact is that parents are parents, and they have the right to make decisions about their child's medical considerations.

A compelling argument for circumcision is that studies have shown it can protect against various sexually transmitted diseases, for example lowering transmission of HPV (especially when used in concert with the HPV vaccination). As someone who does not support the procedure, however, I am always baffled by the notion that people would support this option over the superior option of encouraging condom use (or cleaning in the case of the urinary tract infection argument). The perennial response to this is that condoms are sometimes not widely available, which is relevant for third world countries but in Alberta, this really is not a valid objection. As for a child's ability to clean, despite the risk of cavities, we don't take away their teeth (or toenails as another debater pointed out).

The downside to the non-cutting side is that activists tend to refer to it as barbaric, unnecessary, and talk of the lasting damage, while men with circumcisions shake their heads from the sidelines. The point is that it rarely eliminates sensation, and only occasional experiences complications, so fatalist arguments tend to repel curious parents who check out the circumcised camp, expecting blood-thirsty maniacs, to find a dearth of "haunted, mutilated, men" and reason that it isn't all that bad, ignoring the more reasonable, compelling arguments against circumcision.

Frustratingly, both sides claim the high ground on the "sexual sensation" debate, due to the fact that since no long-term, rigorous, tests have been or can be done, all evidence is anecdotal, and extremely capricious. 

What all these contrary arguments boil down to is that it is, of course, for the parents to decide. It would be better, however, if the reasons for circumcision were more thoroughly thought out, since I suspect we would see a drop in the procedure (not an elimination - it is still medically necessary occasionally) if people investigated more.


Michael said...

As a dad with a little boy, I've made this decision once and as we are expecting another child (gender: Surprise) it's possible I will have to make it again. I did my homework, I read what was available and hunted my way through the vast internets and came to the conclusion it wasn't necessary.

If it's not necessary, and there are risks involved (however slight) then I have no interest in causing a moment (however brief) of pain for my son. There is a cost to having the procedure performed and we spent that money elsewhere.

I know there are a lot of people who care deeply on one side or the other, but I'll spend my passion elsewhere. To me it was simple pragmatism.

Miss Ernst said...

I have to admit, that is exactly my thinking about it: only if it is necessary. I am surprised by how heated people get about it.

Also, I never did get to congratulate you both on the expected baby! Congratulations!