The Globe & Mail, Toronto, Thursday, June 10, 1999, p. A22 (Facts & Arguments).

My answer should have been different


It's only a piece of skin. It shouldn't upset me so much. Anyway, there's nothing I can do about it now. Besides, the experts said it was the best choice; in 1986 when my twin sons were born, the operation was de rigueur.

Years ago, when we women suffered ignominy and unnecessary procedures in childbirth, we banded together and said no. We changed things. We should be changing this, too.

Back then, circumcision was performed on 85 per cent of North American boys. I got the whole spiel from the medical folk. I have no religious requirements respecting the procedure, so circumcision was unnecessary in my case - but not according to the hospital staff. If I didn't have my sons circumcised, I was told, they'll be plagued with infections. They'll get cancer of the penis. They'll give their wives vaginal disorders. What's more, since their dad is circumcised, they'll be confused by the difference, and suffer psychological problems. The nurses assured me it was painless, and over in a flash. The message was: do your duty, mom, and get those little boys snipped!

I wish I could claim total ignorance. But even then there was discussion about circumcision being unnecessary and painful (although it wasn't a very loud discussion). Men - perhaps since they'd forgotten what it felt like to have it done - didn't speak out against it, and women seemed more concerned with "women's" issues. But even though there wasn't enough objection to make me halt the procedure, I was suspicious about the claim it didn't hurt. How could it not hurt, to have a piece of skin lopped from your genitals?

Not trusting my own judgment, I agreed to it. Shortly after the operation, however, I was in the hospital nursery, and happened to see the plastic frame used for the procedure. It was a small device (for babies are small) with a moulded form for the boy to be tied to, so he could be held down easily during the circumcision. I pictured my babies in that device, and instantly recognized what I'd done. Too late. Had I seen that thing earlier - had the hospital shown me what they were really doing - I never would have let them near my children.

Nevertheless, I put the matter aside. It was easy to forget what had been done. The boys healed up, of course, and the first sentence they spoke was not "I remember the day I was tied up and mutilated," but more along the lines of "Lookit car mama." But recently, I've done some reading on the subject, and the whole question of circumcision came back to me. I wouldn't do it to my thirteen-year-old sons, how could I do it to my babies?

There is evidence that circumcision is a devastating event that can have intense psychological repercussions. The foreskin is a complex and sensitive tissue, not just an appendix-like, superfluous tag of skin. It has functions.

I had no idea, for instance, that the head of the penis is normally a mucous membrane that is permanently changed by the removal of the protective sheath. What remains is arguably scarred tissue.

If you're a woman, imagine having your lips removed, or - as is done in some cultures, to the dismay of many - your genital lips, your labia. Imagine the sensitive and moist areas of your body, which normally are shielded, having their shielding taken away. Yet because no baby says, "Hey, don't do that," and no man circumcised in infancy knows what it's like to have a foreskin, the procedure continues.

Yet this procedure does damage. Why do we imagine that babies don't suffer and don't remember. How dare we take such a risk with their feelings, and their potential, as to do them such an injury? Looking back, my own weakness in the face of the status quo astounds me. But what astounds me more is that 13 years later, this is still going on. We are still letting this happen to our boy babies.

Years ago, when we women suffered ignominy and unnecessary procedures in childbirth - shaving, enemas, being tied down while in labour - we banded together and said no. We changed things. We should be changing this, too. We women in particular should be advocating for our boys. These are our children, and later they become partners and lovers and friends. A man or a boy with the power to declare his choice would not agree to be tied up and submit to an unnecessary operation, without so much as an analgesic, with its attendant psychological, sexual and even physical repercussions. Surely we cannot believe our speechless babies have fewer rights.

We are the agents of our children's choice. I wish I had remembered that, when - as I held my new little boys in my arms - I was approached by the doctor who asked me, "When do you want them circumcised?"

The answer, of course, should have been: never.


Diane Mason is a writer living in Toronto.


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