Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Auntie's Guilt

I never really thought about circumcision growing up, or really until fairly recently. I grew up in a very conventional, modest family so private matters like that weren't discussed, especially not with my sister and I. I didn't know much about it, what was involved, how it affected penile anatomy. I thought a foreskin was a extra layer of skin in a strip down the front of a penis. They never explained it in my middle school Health classes, and I don't think they really mentioned circumcision, either. Maybe they did and I blocked it out. No, wait, they did mention that an intact man had to retract the foreskin to put on a condom, or something. Very vague memories, you know? I didn't want to know or think about it.

The only thing I do remember hearing about circumcision was that infant foreskins could be used in medical applications to help grow new skin for burn victims and healing wounds and the like. Well that was a great thing, right? The foreskins would otherwise be wasted, and I thought, well, if it could help people, then why not? I never, ever considered the consequences to the babies, that it could hurt, that there could be complications that could affect a boy's life or take it, that the foreskin had a biological purpose. There was circumcision in the Bible, so it must be fine. Right? For these reasons, when I was sitting in a recovery room with my sister, our mother, and my brother-in-law, holding my brand-new first nephew while his father filled out paperwork, I responded with "Why not? No reason not to" when he posed the question about having him circumcised. It was an Air Force hospital so it wouldn't cost them extra. So why not?

So I didn't think too much about it when the precious baby complained while having it cleaned. He complained when we cleaned his cord stump, too. It seemed normal. It wasn't a bleeding, festering wound. It was just a clean, "pretty" little penis, even thought his Dad said he cried through the whole thing. His discomfort didn't concern me. It didn't concern his father, who should know how bad a penis could hurt, so I never thought about it beyond patronizing sympathy. "Ohhh, poor baby. It's okay, it's done, you're fine."

It wasn't until I began my doula journey that I was formally introduced to this idea of keeping a boy intact. I'd had an encounter with it a few years before when I sat a friend's intact toddler and changed his diaper. I thought he was deformed because he didn't look like my nephew. It took me years to realize which one of them was deformed. By then all three of my nephews had been born and had been cut. The damage was done, and my ignorance had been the tipping point years before. They might have just left him alone if I hadn't said "Why not?"

I know it's not totally my fault, but I know I spoke up in that room. Now I know I spoke up incorrectly. My oldest nephew shows some signs of a possible deformity that could have been the result of a problem with his circumcision. Luckily the other two don't seem to have any deformities, but I know they've had a piece of their bodies taken away from them without a choice. Ever since embarking on my quest to find out the truth about circumcision--secular, religious, physical, emotional, medical--guilt has begun to gnaw at my insides. I laid the extra grain on the scales.

I want to apologize, but how can I? They're 7, 5, and 2. Are they old enough to understand? If I wait until they're older, will they feel bitter and betrayed? Embarrassed that I'm even bringing it up? I mean how awkward is that, to have your aunt say "I'm sorry I said something that contributed to your genitals being forcibly mutilated."


I belong to a faith where one's personal freedom and agency to choose for oneself are paramount. We offer baptism only at or after the age of eight so that children have years to learn and grow and decide for themselves if that's what they want. Circumcision is expressly mentioned as unnecessary for a sign of covenant in our scripture, another fact I hadn't noticed because I didn't care at the time. Had I been better informed, it should have been glaringly obvious that there was no need, no reason to recommend circumcision, and certainly not on the misguided notion that their living, healthy body parts should/would be harvested for medical profit, regardless of the cause. Their choice was taken away. They could not consent or decline.

When we know better, we do better. I can't judge anyone who chooses to circumcise their baby boy, whatever their reasoning. I can't judge because I am guilty, too. I will always be guilty, no matter what apologies or forgiveness are given or received. I will have always spoken up and changed my nephews forever.

But I sure as crap can educate and I can advocate. I can pray I have a son someday so that I can leave him intact.  We don't have to keep our culture this way, where we disrespect the integrity of a boy's most personal, private body part. We don't have to inflict violence on our babies in the name of no good reason. We can do better.

Start to know better.

Jena Vincent of Abundance Massage


  1. I know exactly how you feel hun. If Glade had been a boy, she would have been circumcized. Makes me cringe to think of what I might have done.

  2. Great thoughts on this topic. I've been in the dark about the affects of circumcision until fairly recently as well. Interesting how nonchalantly we all talk about it and assume that it's ok and expected.