When I first started speaking out against circumcision, some of my friends were taken aback; they hadn’t ever really thought about it, and they couldn’t understand why I’d devote so much energy and time to this as a cause. It’s just a flap of skin, isn’t it? Babies don’t feel or remember getting it “snipped off,” right? So what’s the big deal? Men, in particular, rolled their eyes, teased me, and wondered out loud what on earth I was so upset about.
Over the years, as the awareness of circumcision as an issue has grown, many of these same male friends have returned to tell me, upon reflection, that allowing their sons to be circumcised was the worst parenting mistake they’d ever made, the thing they most regret. More men than I can count have told me it’s the one thing they can’t forgive themselves for, even though they’d had no sense of the magnitude of their decision. It breaks my heart every single time I hear, “I had no idea what circumcision really meant, and I had no idea I would regret it.”
Some people, of course, do know, and they make the same terrible mistake. A couple of years ago, columnist Joel Stein wrote an essay for Time magazine in which he questioned whether his son should be circumcised in the Jewish faith. The piece ends with this paragraph:
“So in a few weeks, I’m going to buy some bagels, call a mohel who is also a pediatric surgeon and believes in local anesthetic, and do something that I’m pretty sure is wrong. I have a horrible feeling that all of parenthood is like this.”
Well, I don’t believe that “all of parenthood is like this.” Many mistakes we make as parents are unwitting; they don’t involve clear yes-or-no decisions; you just roll with the circumstances and hope for the best. Circumcision, however, is different. It’s a clear yes-or-no situation. And its consequences are utterly irreversible. Given that Stein’s misgivings were pre-recorded, I can’t imagine he will have a lot of credibility with his own son should he one day say, “I’m sorry I allowed this to happen to you.”
It takes a great deal of courage to look back as a parent and say, “I was wrong.” It also takes courage to resist the pressure from families, faith communities, doctors, and society at large to do something that “everybody does”—and is, at the same time, too embarrassing to talk about. Couple all of this with the fact that many men who regret saying yes are, themselves, victims of parents who were unable to say no.
Bravo to the fathers who have apologized to their sons; and bravo to the fathers who have stopped the cycle of harm, refusing to “consent” to the removal of a part of their sons’ beautiful, normal bodies.
Pass this on, share this post, or just simply start talking about it, because the single most effective way to prevent circumcision is to start the conversation—whether you’re sharing your own experience/pain/regret, or asking pregnant friends if they’ve thought about circumcision. You’ll find that once people really consider it and find out the facts, they’ll realize they are likely to regret it down the road if they allow their sons to be circumcised. (If they’re still on the fence, show them this video by Ryan McAllister, a bioethicist and research professor at Georgetown University. FYI, it includes graphic footage of a circumcision—which is the whole point.)
As parents, we’re often tasked with having to make tough decisions on behalf of our children—but this isn’t one of them. Pass it on.
My mother passed away 11 months ago, so this is the first Mother’s Day I am spending without her in my life. I miss her so much.
Growing up, but especially during my younger adult years, I had my share of grievances against my mother. Over the years, I occasionally confronted her with some of my complaints. Some of her responses satisfied me, while others did not. Sometimes airing my complaints was healing, but in other cases I even got perverse pleasure from seeing that she felt badly about certain parenting decisions she’d made.
A few years ago, though, my grievances against my mother simply dissolved. She was starting to become ill, and – all of a sudden – I saw her not as a formidable figure, one who could give and withhold, one who could shape my happiness and unhappiness, but rather as a woman like me, a mother who made the best choices she could at the time she had to make them. From one day to the next, I realized, truly absorbed, that she loved me, and that she had done the very best she was able to do. I also found that by losing any anger and resentment I held toward my mother, and allowing myself to accept and simply love her, my own life became more peaceful and more purposeful.
Since I became involved in the movement to stop the genital cutting of baby boys, I have heard many maternal remorse and child anger stories.
Mothers have called into radio programs where I was a guest, sobbing from grief and regret about having allowed their baby to be circumcised; some of these have been the mothers of toddlers, but many are recounting stories from 15, 20 or even 40 years earlier. For every one of these mothers, there is a son – a boy or man living with the consequences of a decision he did not make, but that is imprinted on his body and in his brain forever. And I have talked to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of such sons.
Many men struggle to resolve their feelings about having been robbed as babies of their right to a complete body; some struggle with where to place the blame. Some blame the doctors; others take issue with society’s blind acceptance of the ritual, and know they were victims of a terrible tradition. The saddest thing for me, though, is men who continue to blame their mothers; this seems to happen especially if they have attempted to talk with their mothers about their feelings, and have been rejected or told that their anger and feelings of loss are overblown or unimportant or, somehow, illegitimate.
This kind of response is tragic for both parties. While my own sins as a mother do not include acquiescing to the genital cutting of my child, I have done many things I now see were foolish, and I have heard plenty of grievances from my son. I am trying, though, to give myself a break, because while I fully acknowledge his feelings, I know how much I have always loved him, and that I did the best I knew at the time.
I also believe that, with (thankfully) very few exceptions, we mothers love our children and try to do the best for them.
We live in a society that accepts as normal a strange and barbaric ritual promoted as health care, and carried out by authority figures who are promoted (and promote themselves) as healers. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to lose sight of the power of custom and of authority, especially during those times (such as childbirth) when we are most vulnerable and most desirous of doing what’s right. With circumcision, both new mother and newborn baby are victims.
My Mother’s Day wish is that mothers apologize to their sons and forgive themselves, and that sons forgive their mothers. We can then all work together on fighting the custom and the real perpetrators of this awful legacy called circumcision.
I’m heading to New Orleans on May 4 to protest outside the annual conference of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). As you may have read in Intact America’s last newsletter, we tried to rent a booth in the Exhibit Hall, but were rejected on the grounds that male circumcision is only “indirectly related to women’s health” and “…of only casual interest to members of ACOG.”
Indirectly related to women’s health? What does that even mean?
Of only casual interest to ACOG members? Now, that would be funny, except for the fact that obstetricians (OBs) perform the majority of the million infant circumcisions that take place each year in the United States! So why are they cutting babies?
For an OB, circumcision is business. A moderately busy Midwestern doctor can easily make an extra $36,000 in annual income, if he’s good at selling circumcisions to the families of the 200 baby boys he delivers (calculating a 90 percent circumcision rate, and a very conservative $200 per circumcision). If he delivers more babies, and charges more per surgery, the income escalates.
Add to the money the fact that, once you’ve started cutting babies, it’s really hard to stop. Denial sets in; fear of admitting that you might be doing something wrong takes over; you worry that if you say “no,” you might lose your client (the parent) to another doctor who’ll be happy to trim up her son’s genitals for a fee.
But there is absolutely no excuse for infant circumcision. It’s an outrage that ACOG not only refuses to allow intactivists to distribute educational materials and engage in conversations with its members at their convention, but actually disclaims any responsibility for perpetuating this violation of boys’ rights. And it’s time for America’s OBs—trained to operate on women’s reproductive organs—to stop selling a surgery that will permanently alter the bodies and future sexual experiences of their patients’ sons.
I hope you can join me in New Orleans as we carry the message that, just as a girl is entitled to autonomy and bodily integrity, when a boy is born, it’s HIS body, HIS rights. Obstetricians need to get out of the baby-cutting business. They need to keep their hands off baby boys’ genitals.
Here is a quote from an email forwarded to me last week from a man who—at the Massachusetts legislature MGM hearing in 2010—had given me both his email and snail mail address.
I received a donation envelope [from Intact America] at my home address today and it’s started a riot with my family. [Now], we’re not on speaking terms and the big Christmas get together … is not going to happen … How one stupid little envelope can cause so much embarrassment and shouting matches … is mind boggling!
… I’ve been doing my part to stop circumcision… But I’d like to stay anonymous because my family is ignorant.
For me, by far the greatest leap forward in 2012 has been the growing public face of intactivism—in particular, the willingness of men to declare publicly their circumcision status, and declare publicly the way they feel about that. In response to Intact America’s Men Speaking Out campaign, dozens of men submitted photos of themselves as they are today, holding photos of themselves as babies. In comments posted along with the photos, more than a few of these men remarked that they have fallen out with their parents or other family members, because they chose to give voice to their feelings of having been maimed as babies. See for yourself.
Most poignant for me, of course, were Intact America’s press conference and demonstration, held in October during the annual convention of the American Academy of Pediatrics in New Orleans. Shortly before the event, IA was informed that the AAP would not allow us into their exhibit hall, unleashing a chorus of men’s (and women’s) voices directed at doctor who refuse to acknowledge their complicity in American medicine’s biggest rip-off.
As a 60-year-old American woman, my intact genitals are pretty much taken for granted—this despite the fact that some of my contemporaries, victims of a medical system that into the 1970s occasionally gave the nod to clitorectomy-as-a-cure for masturbation or unacceptable emotionality, are not so fortunate. Nonetheless, for me even to write this paragraph might cause others to think about my private body parts—a somewhat discomfiting thought, at best, for me. I can only imagine the courage it takes for a circumcised man to come out not just with the fact that he was genitally altered as a child, but that he still feels angry, humiliated, and grief-stricken as a result.
What I witnessed in 2012, however, was a transformation. Men who previously spoke of circumcision as an “issue”—something carried out by doctors or religious practitioners, a procedure done to babies or children, a cultural phenomenon, a medical practice, even a human rights violation—have now begun to speak their personal truths. Many of those statements bring tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I read them.
But not everybody is so emboldened, so liberated to speak out.
While I cannot presume to condemn a person who is afraid to speak publicly about something that has impacted him so intensely, I can ask this question: How is circumcision ever going to end, if we are afraid to talk about it, if we are afraid that, by speaking out against this horror inflicted on babies behind closed doors—and which then continues to haunt the men those babies become—people won’t like us, anymore? What is the value of peace among family or friends, if that peace is purchased with silence or hypocrisy on a matter of such importance? How are we to educate the ignorant, if we are intimidated into silence?
To be clear, I do not expect every person in the world to speak out against every single unjust cause. But no cause was ever won by people keeping silent! In the case of circumcision, being embarrassed to come out, to speak out, only serves to empower those who cut or those who want to deny the damage.
My New Year’s wish is for everyone affected by genital mutilation—everybody who is suffering himself or herself, or who loves somebody who has suffered from being overpowered and genitally disfigured—to find the courage to speak out.
To this end, please consider making a donation to the Intact America end-of-year campaign. Your help will help us to create ongoing public opportunities for men and women who are willing and anxious to make their voices heard. That is the way we are going to overcome.
With another Thanksgiving upon us, I have a long list of people and organizations that I want to thank. Here goes.
To Amy, Jennifer and Ted – your day to day support means more to me than you’ll ever know.
To Marilyn – my humble thanks for trusting me to carry on the work you and others began.
To the informal but dynamite Intact America steering committee, whose members contribute their expertise, opinions, criticism, labor and love to this movement – I am sure you know I use you all for brains and strength.
To the kick-ass intactivist community, growing in number, depth, insight and commitment – you know we’re winning, right?
To Intact America’s donors and action-takers – keep it up!
To Dean Pisani – on behalf of the boys and men you are helping, thank you for your generosity. And thank you for your trust in me.
To the American Academy of Pediatrics – thank you for issuing a report so blatantly self-interested and unethical as to reveal your true colors as a money-grubbing trade association that wants to ensure that its members continue to get paid for carrying out painful, risky surgery on children who do not need it and cannot consent.
To the New Orleans Police Department – thank you for the respect. discipline, and guidance you showed with regard to Intact America’s demonstration in front of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, during the AAP convention. Thank you for telling the AAP representatives who asked you to make us go away that we were within our rights to protest, and that we were not breaking any laws. And thank you for your interest in our message; we were so privileged to share it with you.
To members of the press whom I will NOT name here, but who have moved from the “skeptical” or even “hostile” column to the “hmm, maybe they’ve got a point column,” and now to the “intactivist sympathizer” if not the “flat out intactivist” column – thank you for being open-minded, and for listening.
To my immediate family – Pablo, Ernesto, Hank, Julia, Chip, Nick and Paul – and to my extended family and friends who have inspired, in one way or another, my passion for this all-important human rights issue.
Above all: To the men who are speaking out, claiming the stage to express their pain and outrage at having been violated as children – it takes a brave man to defy the cultural bias that, first, applies a sexist double standard to genital mutilation and, second, denies the legitimacy of boys’ and men’s protests. I am honored to be at your side.
Thank you all. Again, you know we are winning, right?
I need your help.
Last week, the Huffington Post published “First, Do No Harm,” an article I wrote in response to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent endorsement of routine infant circumcision. I am so grateful for the supportive and heartfelt feedback I’ve received from so many.
Judging from the dozens of comments posted publicly and sent to me privately, it seems that my statement calling circumcision a “human rights violation on a massive scale” was a consciousness-raising tipping point for both readers new to the issue, and those already familiar with it.
I want to ask all of you— if you haven’t already done so—to share your thoughts directly on the Huffington Post’s website, which reaches millions of readers. In addition to me wanting to know what’s on your mind, it’s really important for the media, Huffington Post in this case, to see firsthand the breadth of conviction and the diversity of support that exists for keeping baby boys intact. Of course, your positive comments also serve as important information and validation for casual readers who are newcomers to the intactivist cause.
After you’ve commented, I’m hoping you’ll show your support in another way: by donating to Intact America. On October 20, I will be flying to New Orleans with Intact America staff members Amy Callan and Joe Jensen to join other intactivists for the AAP’s annual conference.
We’re working on an Open Letter for the New Orleans Times Picayune, which costs beaucoup bucks, as well as educational handouts and fliers, banners, and much more.
We need your help to carry all of this off. Thanks to a matching pledge from a prominent intactivist, all gifts will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $10,000. This means your donation will have twice the impact. I know money is tight—but it is really critical that we have a strong presence in New Orleans.
Both the Intact America booth inside the Convention Center and the activities taking place outside promote the intactivist message in a whole new way, featuring the photos and stories of brave men who are speaking from their hearts about how circumcision has affected them. Here is the awesome, 10-foot banner that doctors will see when they walk by our booth. To those men who sent photos for this (ongoing) project: thank you, thank you, thank you!
This is why we have to be in New Orleans—to give voice to all the babies who are at risk of being cut, and to protect the bodies and rights of these babies and the men they will become.
Thank you so much.