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War of Words: Circumcision and the Internet

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Circumcision is no longer a hush-hush topic, seldom discussed in public. The Internet has spawned vast opportunities for wide discussion about this once all-but-taboo topic. Mark Joseph Stern writing in Slate last month, lamented his conclusion that those who oppose the American business-as-usual attitude toward routine male circumcision are winning the war.

It just may be, contrary to Stern's assertions, that intactivists have a point. Their call for respecting the integrity of an infant's body until he is old enough to make his own decisions about modifying it resonates with many people. There are, of course, those who are happy their parents made the decision to circumcise them so that they won't have to be bothered with either the choice or possibly a painful surgery later. There are those who believe the circumcised penis is more aesthetically appealing. There are other defenders who argue that boys should look like their fellows in the locker room or like their dads. And on it goes.

However, certain facts remain. Circumcision is a relatively new "tradition" for most American families, dating only from the late 1800s, when it was advanced as a Victorian measure to inhibit masturbation. Doctors' recommendations (ease in cleaning, preventing masturbation and other such shallow matters) and two world wars later, more than half of all American men had been circumcised.

Since then, patients have become more involved in their own health care to the point of questioning the necessity of doctors' recommendations for medications, surgeries and therapies. It is in this context that challenging the necessity of a routine surgical practice involving the penises of male infants emerged. Public concerns began to crystalize, perhaps, with the counter-culturalists of the 1960s. They made it their business to challenge all sorts of established practices and institutions. Hippies were some of the first to want to keep their sons "natural" by not circumcising them at birth. By 1989, even Dr. Benjamin Spock, the guru of babies and their care in mid-20th century America, changed his position. He wrote: "My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone."

In the last couple of decades, this idea of challenging accepted wisdom has gained considerable traction. The Internet has facilitated the movement to leave babies' penises intact. Prospective parents on all sorts of discussion boards can and do talk with others about it, sharing decisions, experiences, and outcomes. Men who feel that they have been harmed by circumcision or simply wish they their birth penises had been left intact find one another and, most important, come to realize that they are not alone in their feelings. Some people (both men and women) organize in political action groups that attempt to educate the public.

Limited medical evidence notwithstanding, the case for circumcision is not overwhelming. Many parents are taking the approach, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." While it is true that a minority of infants later require surgeries, most don't and live their lives just fine. Seventy percent of the men in the world are not circumcised nor suffering from the fact that their penises remain intact.

Think again Mr. Stern. It's not circumcision that broke the Internet, but rather the Internet that helped break the silence about circumcision. If you think that there is too much information out there about the reasons not to circumcise, you and like-thinkers should get busy explaining the pro-circumcision arguments.

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