Recently the ZDs brought together a panel of experts in male reproductive health to discuss an important but sensitive issue that affects all of us, with implications for religion, hygiene, and public policy. This is an abridged transcript of that discussion.
Myrtle-Jane Merryweather, moderator
Harriet Appleworthy, MD
Lucy Quackenbush, PhD, child psychology
Rachel Goldfarb, professional mohelet
Eliza Piddlewit, author, Intact Makes a Comeback!
Ms. Merryweather: So what exactly are the benefits of circumcision, to the individual or the community, as you see them?
Ms. Goldfarb: Oh, they’re absolutely enormous! There’s no reason not to go through with it! It’s much easier to clean your penis if it’s circumcised, let me tell you. Plus, there are studies suggesting the risk of spreading the HIV virus is reduced in circumcised men. It’s absolutely beneficial to your health in every way.
Ms. Piddlewit: But why mutilate yourself to—maybe—stop the spread of a disease you probably don’t even have at the time you’re mutilated? Look, even if those studies are true, there are a lot safer ways to stop the spread of disease. Practice safe sex. It’s as simple as that. It’s not worth chopping up your private parts—or those of your son—over. A mastectomy might stop you from contracting breast cancer, but is it worth it?
Ms. Appleworthy: That’s not a fair analogy. We’re not talking about chopping men’s penises off, simply removing the foreskin. And there do seem to be some moderate health benefits for the circumcised, so that’s worth taking into consideration.
Ms. Merryweather: Is circumcision safe?
Ms. Goldfarb: I’ve been performing circumcisions for years and I can testify to you that it is absolutely safe! As long as you go to a trained professional, I wouldn’t worry. I’ve seen all kinds of penises in my years as a mohelet [circumciser in Jewish communities] and have never slipped up, so to speak. [awkward laugh]
Ms. Quackenbush: There’s some pain if it’s performed without anesthesia though, no?
Ms. Appleworthy: Well, topical anesthetic is typically applied in a hospital setting, so I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s hard to know what babies experience subjectively. But in my work environment we always administer anesthesia of some sort.
Ms. Merryweather: Let’s talk about the social benefits.
Ms. Quackenbush: The male psyche is extremely fragile—it’s essential to understand how important it is to boys to look and feel like their peers.
Ms. Piddlewit: I can’t stand this argument! Everyone else did it, so now you have to too?!
Ms. Quackenbush: Well, no, but—look. Our social environment shapes us in profound ways. In the U.S., the majority of boys are still circumcised. Things are different in Europe, of course. But here in the U.S.—we can’t ignore how hard it can be on kids to be physically different. I’m not saying you should allow that to make the decision for you, just that you should take it into account.
Ms. Piddlewit (sotto voce): If God intended for penises to look like that, why didn’t he make them that way himself?
Ms. Goldfarb: Because it’s a symbol of commitment to God! You can accept it or reject it. God doesn’t force the sign of the covenant on us.
Ms. Merryweather: Now exactly what is the deficit in sexual sensation to circumcised men would you say? Is it significant?
Ms. Piddlewit: It can be devastating to lose any sexual sensation. You’re just better off having all your natural parts, in my experience.
Ms. Appleworthy: That’s contested. It’s not clear exactly how much loss in sensation there is, if any.