Circumcision: Basic Facts (Guest Post by Rachael Heiner)

Circumcision.  It’s one of THOSE issues, hot button topics that really hit on people’s nerves and conversations get really heated, really fast.  When I first began researching circumcision during my first pregnancy, I found that it was very difficult.  It seemed like everything I found was either vehemently anti-circumcision or vehemently pro-circumcision.  It was not easy to find out just the facts, or for me to understand the way that circumcision is viewed in our culture today.

Circumcision-Basic Facts (Guest Post by Rachael Heiner)

 

My goal today is to present some basic facts about circumcision.  I am not for circumcision as a routine procedure.  I also have two sons who are circumcised, and I didn’t come to where I am now until later.  I am happy to discuss my opinion and how I came to this decision, but my goal with this post is to present information without too much opinion.  Staying calm and caring during dialogues on this type of issues is very important to me.  Here’s why:  as soon as one party feels the need to turn defensive, they are physically unable to listen because their adrenaline is pumping and the body goes into fight or flight mode.  At that point, you are literally incapable of having a rational conversation and your only options are to fight, or end the conversation.  I hope that I can provide you with some basic facts about circumcision, and you can continue your research from there.

Circumcision FAQ

What is Male Circumcision?

Circumcision is the permanent removal of the foreskin from a boy/man’s penis.

What IS the Foreskin and What Does It Do?

The foreskin is a double-layered fold of skin and mucous membrane that makes up roughly half of the penis’s skin when left intact.  Though many people think of it as just an extra flap of skin, in an adult man the foreskin is 12-15 square inches of skin that contains about 20,000 nerve endings.  This post on Peaceful Parenting about the difference between a circumcised and intact adult penis is a great resource for comparison photos.

At birth, and into childhood, the foreskin is adhered to the head of the penis in much the same way a fingernail is adhered to the nail bed.  As children grow, the foreskin will begin to retract and un-adhere from the head of the penis.  This can happen anywhere between toddlerhood and late teenhood.  For almost 80% of boys, it will fully retract on its own by age seven.  There is no need to forcibly retract an intact foreskin.

The purpose of the foreskin is to protect the glans and opening to the urethra when the penis is not erect.  The foreskin is the male equivalent to the hood of skin that covers and protects the exposed portion of the female clitoris.  At maturity, the foreskin is fairly stretchable.  The foreskin helps to keep the glans, which is the primary sensory part of the penis, moist and protected.  In intact males, the glans is an internal organ.  The foreskin also helps facilitate sexual intercourse by providing a natural lubricant.

Is Circumcision Painful for Babies?

Yes.  Many studies have been done on pain reception in infants and preemies.  In a 2001 study on prevention and management of pain in newborns, researchers found that “NEWBORNS routinely experience pain associated with invasive procedures such as blood sampling, immunization, vitamin K injection, or circumcision.”  Though many doctors inject an anesthetic into the base of the penis before performing the procedure, a 1998 study found that only 45% of respondents said they used anesthesia for circumcision procedures.  It can be hard for babies to express their feelings.  Some infants seem to experience pain during urination after circumcision.  Babies experience pain, and circumcision creates a wound on the baby’s body.

How is a Typical Circumcision Performed?

Several methods of circumcision are practiced depending on the doctor.  The first step is for the baby to be restrained, usually on a specially designed board where their arms and legs can be strapped down.  Some doctors give a pacifier, sometimes with sugar water, for the baby to suck on.  After administering a local anesthetic by injection or topical cream, the doctor must separate the foreskin from the penis.  The foreskin is adhered to the head of the penis, so this involves placing something under the skin and moving it around to create a separation.  The doctor can then use one of several techniques to cut the foreskin off.  This page has some examples of circumcision devices.  Afterward, the infant’s penis will usually be covered with some type of ointment to prevent the raw area from sticking to his diaper or other skin, and wrapped loosely with gauze.  The procedure generally takes around 10 minute to perform.

Other options for circumcision outside the hospital include having the procedure performed by a Jewish Mohel, pediatrician, or pediatric urologist.

Here are two video examples of routine circumcisions.  By their nature, they are graphic:

How Many Babies are Circumcised?

In its 2007 report on male circumcision, the WHO estimated that 30% of men age 15 and over worldwide were circumcised.  According to the CDC, the rate of male infants leaving the hospital in the United States circumcised after birth has dropped 10% since 1979, and in 2008 stood around 56%.  It is difficult to get accurate data on circumcision rates in the United States because not all hospitals report their data – in fact, as low as 5% do, and even with those reports babies born and/or circumcised outside of the hospital setting are not accounted for.  Some estimate the circumcision rate in the US has dropped as low as 30%, and the rate is lowest on the Pacific Coast.

Circumcision rates vary greatly by geographic location, as can be seen on this chart of circumcision rates by state.  Based on government surveys from multiple sources, it is estimated that the hospital circumcision rate for Washington state is around 12%, and one of the lowest in the nation.  One noticeable trend on this map is that states where medicaid does not pay for circumcision tend to have lower rates.  It is possible that this is because medicaid influenced the market and fewer insurance companies in total will pay for the procedure in those areas, because people do not want to or cannot afford to pay out of pocket for the procedure, because people are paying out of pocket for non-hospital circumcisions, or for some other reason entirely.

Is a Circumcised Penis Cleaner?

A well-cared for penis is cleaner!  Whether circumcised or not, the only way to keep a penis truly clean is through good hygiene.  Sometimes, the misconception that intact penises are less clean comes from a misunderstanding about smegma.  Smegma is a combination of exfoliated skin cells, skin oils, and moisture that is white in color and sometimes looks ball-like or creamy.  Men and women both produce smegma, men under the foreskin, and women around the clitoris and folds of the labia.

Far from being unclean, the foreskin is self-cleaning (in the same way the vagina is) since smegma is antiviral and antibacterial.  No soap is required, just warm water, especially once the boy is older and the foreskin begins to retract on its own.  For babies and young children, all that is needed is the usual baths in clean, warm water to keep the area clean.  Since the foreskin is adhered, it is not necessary to retract or ‘get under’ the extra skin to clean it.

Is Circumcision Medically Necessary?

There are no health organizations in the world that support routine infant circumcision.  Many insurance companies no longer pay for it because it is considered a cosmetic procedure.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised their statement on infant circumcision, saying “Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.”  However, in 2012, they revised this statement again.  Their current statement includes the following:

“Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it.”

and

“Although health benefits are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision for all male newborns, the benefits of circumcision are sufficient to justify access to this procedure for families choosing it and to warrant third-party payment for circumcision of male newborns. It is important that clinicians routinely inform parents of the health benefits and risks of male newborn circumcision in an unbiased and accurate manner.

Parents ultimately should decide whether circumcision is in the best interests of their male child. They will need to weigh medical information in the context of their own religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs and practices. The medical benefits alone may not outweigh these other considerations for individual families.”

Effectively, they do not support the routine circumcision of infants, but at the same time their official stance is that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Risks and Benefits

When looking at the risks and benefits of any procedure, you must consider the numbers.  I will list common risks and benefits associated with circumcision, along with some statistics and links to further information.  Many of the numbers are very small, or have wide ranges, and unfortunately it is sometimes hard to assess their accuracy.  Because circumcisions are often performed in the hospital, and then babies are sent home, complications that arise may not ever be attributed to the circumcision procedure.  There is also no requirement on doctors or hospitals to report their circumcision rates.  When looking at statistics, always consider the size of the study, when it was done, and whether the outcomes were statistically significant.

What Are the Risks of Circumcision?

Studies estimate circumcision complication rates at anywhere between 0.1 to 35%, clearly quite a large margin.  Though some studies say that the risks of complications from circumcision are as low as 0.1 or 0.2%, The American Academy of Pediatrics says “the true incidence of complications after newborn circumcision is unknown.”

Risks of circumcision include:

  • Excessive bleeding (1 in 1,000) 
  • Infection (3 in 5000
  • Foreskin adhesion (7.8 in 100
  • Need for subsequent surgery (1 in 1,000) 
  • Systemic infection (1 in 4,000)  
  • Loss of penis (1 in 1,000,000) 
  • Death (as high as 9.01 in 100,000)

Other risks include too much skin being removed resulting in painful erections or restricted growth, too little skin being removed, and scarring.

In addition to the immediate physical risks of complication during circumcision, many studies have been done about the effects of circumcision that may be carried into adulthood.  These include possible links to premature ejaculation, sexual difficulties, decrease of sexual pleasure, lasting psychological effects due to trauma, and loss of sexual enjoyment (both for the man and his partner).  Reduced sensitivity is a given with circumcision because of the number of nerve ending that are removed during the procedure.  Some think that this leads to less satisfaction as adults.

What Are the Benefits of Circumcision?

Reduction in Rates of Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

Some studies show that there is a decrease in the rate of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in circumcised boys.  Boys are significantly less likely than girls to develop UTIs and by age 5, only 1-2% of boys will have had a UTI.  Circumcision decreases the risk of a UTI by less than 1%, so though the procedure may help prevent UTIs, the decrease is statistically insignificant.  Additionally, in a 2005 study, researchers found that to prevent one UTI, two babies would experience complications from the circumcision procedure.

Reduction in Rates of Penile Cancer

The American Cancer Society’s official guidelines now state that circumcision should not be recommended as a sole way to prevent penile cancer, and that “In weighing the risks and benefits of circumcision, doctors consider the fact that penile cancer is very uncommon in the United States, even among uncircumcised men.”  Circumcision does seem to reduce the risk of penile cancer in some cases.  Penile cancer occurs in less than 1 man in 100,000 and accounts for less than 1% of cancers in men in the United States.

Reduction in Rates of HIV

Several studies have come out recently regarding the relationship between circumcision and reduction of HIV infection rates in Africa.  We must consider the fact that we live in the United States, so whether these studies are relevant to our situation is the first question.  The data is not always easy to interpret, and forming an opinion on the circumcision-HIV issue requires digging into some research.  The CDC has found that in the United States,circumcision does not affect the rates of HIV in U.S. men.  Here are some other links on HIV and circumcision:

Reduction in Rates of HPV

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) has come into the spotlight in recent years with the development of a controversial vaccine that is now being given to some teens.  HPV is the leading cause of invasive cervical cancer in women.  In terms of health, HPV has much more of a potentially damaging effect on females, but males are able to transmit the disease.  Some evidence suggests that circumcision reduces the transmission of HPV.    This study, done among heterosexual men on 5 continents, found that neither condom usage nor circumcision was associated with the HPV DNA prevalence.  In either case, it must be used in tandem with other safe sex practices.

Prevention of Phimosis

Phimosis is a condition where the foreskin is unable to retract.  Because a normal foreskin does not retract for many years after birth, a diagnosis of phimosis given at a young age should be carefully considered and possibly suspect.  The foreskin remains tight through puberty and this is a normal condition.  Less than 2% of adult males experience phimosis and of those, over 75% usually respond well to treatment with steroid creams.  Circumcision is a treatment for phimosis, however due to the low occurrence of phimosis in intact adult males, some doctors are starting to prefer it as a solution for only the most difficult cases.

Religious Circumcision

Some religions include circumcision as part of their faith or common religious practices.  Circumcision is practiced as a religious rite in Islam, called Khitan, and in Judaism the rite of brit milah is traditionally performed on the infant’s 8th day of life.  In all faiths, there are a wide berth of beliefs and practices.  Whatever your faith, it is up to you to decide what is right for you and your family, and how it will fit in with your faith.  Resources exist for those who are struggling with this question, including the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center.  The most prominent religion in the United States is Christianity.  Some think that the bible dictates circumcision, and others believe exactly the opposite.  Here are a few blog posts regarding Christianity and circumcision:

Social Circumcision

Many people have questions and concerns about the social aspects of circumcising vs. keeping their baby intact.  Some of these questions include:

  • Will my son get made fun of?
  • Shouldn’t my husband make this decision, after all, he’s the one with the penis?
  • Isn’t it better to do it now when he won’t remember it?
  • But his brothers are circumcised, won’t it be a problem if they’re not all the same?

For some responses to these questions that are really great, head over to Birth Boot Camp Founder, Donna Ryan’s blog, Banned from Baby Showers, and read her post about Social Circumcision.

More Circumcision Links

Here you will find some of my favorite blog posts and personal stories on this subject.  These are not necessarily objective, and reflect the personal experiences and opinions of the authors.

Additional Sources:

Male Circumcision:  Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety, and acceptability (WHO 2007)

Urinary Tract Infections (kidshealth.org)

Centers for Disease Control: Male Circumcision rates based on hospital discharge information (1979-2008)

 
Rachael-web
 
This article first appeared on the blog, Ready, Set, Birth! and was written by Rachael Heiner, a natural birth teacher in Bellingham, Washington. Rachael has two sons and is one of our dedicated and beloved instructors. She blogs regularly at Born in Bellingham.
 
 

 

  • reply Patricia Robinett ,

    Good job, Rachael! One thing I would add is that 9%+ of circumcised boys – and only circumcised boys – will develop meatal stenosis. You can find this information on medical websites. This is a hardening of the opening that urine passes through and is very painful and sometimes the condition requires further surgery. Bellingham… do you know Gary Burlingame? He hosts two mailing lists: 1) Intact – for those who want to join together to protect babies from circumcision, and 2) Restore – for those who want to restore their foreskins by stretching the skin. I learned a lot there about how adult man feel about their infant circumcisions – and I also learned there that I had been circumcised. I have met several other women now who were also circumcised in the USA before it was made illegal in 1997. This is a little-known fact about medical history. Thanks for your excellent article!

    • reply Keith ,

      I suffered at the hands of an incompetent doctor, I have a very narrow meatus, and for many years have not had an orgasm, so I gave up intercourse. How I wish my mother had sought a second opinion.

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          • reply Amy ,

            This is a great informative post! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this :)

            I wanted to let you know that all of your links under Religious Circumcision go to the same article. I would love it if the links could be fixed so that I can read all of the articles and also share with friends!

            Thanks!

            Amy

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