“Should Our Baby Be Circumcised?”
—How one couple answered the question
IF YOU are expecting a baby, you may be considering this question. As the parents of two sons, we too had our season for thinking, reading and talking about it. And as Bible students, we had a special interest in the subject, remembering that circumcision was for many centuries an inviolable law given to the descendants of Abraham by the Great Physician himself, Jehovah.—Gen. 17:10.
Due to this very special aspect of circumcision, we have viewed with interest a recent trend in some circles to question the wisdom of routine circumcision. Although about 90 percent of all United States males are routinely circumcised at birth, several articles have appeared in recent medical journals advocating a cessation of the practice.
Upon examination, it seemed to us that some of these articles voiced rather extreme opinions. Others, however, seemed serious enough to merit our parental attention. These refer to the risks involved in circumcision. Some also quote certain child psychiatrists such as the late Dr. Rene Spitz, who said: “This is one of the cruelties the medical profession thoughtlessly inflicts on infants.”
These suggestions interest Bible students whether they are parents or not. After all, did Jehovah give his chosen people a mandate that, in the light of modern science, involved grave risk and even cruelty? We wanted to know more about it.
Origin of the Practice
A review of the history of circumcision reveals that it is an ancient practice indeed. Some authorities believe that except for omphalotomy, the severance of the navel cord, circumcision is probably the oldest type of surgery. The word circumcision is formed from the Latin words meaning “around+cut,” and refers to the cutting off of the prepuce or sleevelike foreskin of the penis. This surgery has been practiced by many tribes and peoples other than the Jews.
But modern science has provided fresh reason for our faith that circumcision was divinely prescribed to the Jews; for their practice of it was unique in one particular aspect: the timing. Commenting on this unique factor, the noted Dr. Alan F. Guttmacher says:
“It is noteworthy that the early Jews, who made many interesting observations in both medicine and hygiene, fixed the operation for the eighth day. This was probably arrived at by trial and error. Not an inconsiderable number of those done before the eighth day probably bled dangerously, while those done on the eighth day rarely bled excessively. Modern medicine has found a possible explanation in Vitamin K. This vitamin . . . contributes to the process of blood-clotting. . . . At birth the level in the baby’s blood is relatively low, and it drops even lower during the first few days of life, since the child cannot manufacture its own Vitamin K until it swallows a healthy supply of germs. The baby’s intestinal tract then begins to produce its own Vitamin K, and the supply gradually rises until it reaches an adequate level when the baby is a week old.”
Of course, Bible students will dispute one point with Dr. Guttmacher. The “many interesting observations” made by the early Jews, such as the diagnosis and treatment of disease, the importance of clean water, quarantine, the value of frequent washing and bathing, and precautionary measures in the handling of blood, cadavers, wastes, and sexual matters, including circumcision on the eighth day, were not arrived at by “trial and error,” but by divine revelation.
Nor is Vitamin K the only factor involved in the divinely prescribed timing of circumcision. Another necessary blood-clotting element is prothrombin. Summarizing data that appear in Holt Pediatrics, Dr. S. I. McMillen notes that “on the third day of a baby’s life the available prothrombin is only thirty percent of normal. Any surgical operation performed on a baby during that time would predispose to serious hemorrhage . . . the prothrombin skyrockets on the eighth day to a level even better than normal—110 percent. It then levels off . . . It appears that an eight-day-old baby has more available prothrombin than on any other day in its entire life. Thus one observes that . . . the perfect day to perform a circumcision is the eighth day.”
These medical discoveries made thousands of years after Jehovah’s mandate to Abraham to circumcise precisely on the eighth day are significant. We are once again reminded that Jehovah not only knows what is best for us, but applies his knowledge for our good.
Today, however, medical circumcisions are almost all performed before the eighth day of life. Why? Well, it is more convenient to do it before the baby leaves the hospital.
We concluded that circumcision, performed at the time prescribed by the Creator, did not involve any extraordinary risk. Nevertheless, opponents of routine circumcision do refer to “risks.” How great are these risks of modern circumcision?
Weighing the Risks
Captain E. Noel Preston, MC USAF, lists such possibilities as hemorrhage, infections, the removal of too much skin, accidental lacerations, incomplete circumcision (resulting in the formation of adhesions and secondary penile deformity), and even accidental amputation.
As parents, we were frankly overwhelmed by such a list of horrifying possibilities! But after discussing the matter, we began to gain some perspective. We reasoned that, although we live in a country where 90 percent of all boys are circumcised, we personally had never heard of a single complication—not even a little infection, much less a mutilation. What do the statistics say?
According to one report, an average of 16 children died annually in England and Wales between 1942 and 1947, as a direct result of circumcision. On the other hand, we have the observation of Dr. M. S. Eiger, a pediatrician, who states: “In ten years of practice at two large New York hospitals, I have never seen a complication of circumcision that I would consider of serious proportions.” Several studies made in the U.S. would seem to corroborate this later observation. In one New York hospital there were six complications and no deaths in a series of more than 10,000 circumcisions performed between 1933 and 1951; three cases of bleeding requiring stitches and no deaths among 1,878 cases reported from California in 1951, and only one death in more than half a million circumcisions performed in New York city from 1939 to 1951.
Now, even one death in more than half a million is a terrible loss; but we wonder if even these rare cases might be eliminated if the operation was performed on a scientifically sound day. After due consideration, we decided that, if performed on the eighth day by an experienced physician, circumcision was probably one of the smallest risks our sons would ever face, and that the possible risks were overshadowed by the probable benefits.
Since mandatory circumcision was divinely abolished during the first century, we realized that our sons could boast no religious merit through circumcision. (Acts 15:1-29; 1 Cor. 7:19) We also realized that the foreskin is a part of Jehovah’s creation and that he did not require his servants prior to Abraham to have it removed, nor does he require it of his Christian worshipers. We knew that the prospects of our sons as servants of the Most High would depend on the more important ‘circumcision of the heart,’ that is, the removal from the heart of that which is superfluous and would contribute to the growth of uncleanness.—Rom. 2:29; Col. 3:5-11.
However, that there is practical value in circumcision was explained in Science News Letter, Oct. 31, 1964: “The reason for circumcision is cleanliness, to prevent accumulation of an irritating mixture called smegma in the narrow space between the male glans and the overlying foreskin.” An article in Today’s Health explains that “smegma . . . if it is not removed . . . becomes a malodorous breeding ground for bacteria which cause irritations and infection.”
Opponents of routine circumcision suggest that “if a child can be taught to tie his shoes or brush his teeth or wash behind his ears, he can also be taught to wash beneath his foreskin.” That is no doubt true of many children. But, I regret to say, our boys have never been diligent or thorough at any of these tasks! And while the worst that one may expect from improperly cleaned teeth is dental decay, a good deal more may be involved in the case of an unclean foreskin.
Studies made in America, Europe and Asia have disclosed a much higher incidence of cancer of the penis in uncircumcised men than in circumcised. In fact, as M. S. Eiger, M.D., observes, “Cancer of the penis virtually never occurs in a man who was circumcised in infancy.” These studies have been so conclusive that even an outspoken opponent of routine circumcision in the U.S. admits: “Poor sexual hygiene, inadequate hygienic facilities, and venereal diseases tend to increase the incidence of genitourinary cancers in the ethnic groups or populations that do not practice circumcision. In these groups, then, circumcision would seem to be indicated.”
This same doctor, however, does not feel that routine circumcision is necessary in the U.S., where a high degree of personal hygiene is convenient (for most people). An article in Woman’s Day states that “adequate hygiene confers nearly as much protection against cancer of the penis as circumcision.”
However, cancer of the cervix, the third most common cancer killer of American women, is virtually unknown among Jewish women. Many authorities feel that the fact that Jewish men are circumcised is a factor contributing to this.
A study made in Yugoslavia compared circumcised emancipated Moslems and uncircumcised non-Moslems. They found twice as many pre-malignant cervical lesions in the wives of the uncircumcised non-Moslems as in the circumcised emancipated Moslems (11 per 1,000 in the former, 5.5 per 1,000 in the latter). Interestingly, they found that in the Orthodox Moslems (who practice adolescent circumcision along with other forms of sexual hygiene) the occurrence of this malady was nil.
But is circumcision cruel? Well, to us the protection afforded by circumcision seemed to more than compensate for the momentary pain. We remembered that, in many of life’s better investments, “better is the end afterward of a matter than its beginning.” (Eccl. 7:8) We weren’t afraid of causing scarred personalities in our sons, remembering the many desirable personalities among the ranks of the circumcised.
It Was OUR Decision
We realize that not all parents agree with our decision. Whether parents opt for circumcision or not, their decision merits the respect of others. Particularly if they are Christians, we may be sure that they have not lightly made any decision involving their children. One Christian father explained their decision in this way: “Gabriel was born prematurely, and we felt that we shouldn’t add to his difficulties the wound of circumcision. Of course, Jehovah’s reminders have made us aware of the importance of genital cleanliness; so we have carefully instructed him in this regard.”
Other parents may feel that they cannot afford the expense of the operation, or it may not be readily available to them. Finally, some may reason that if Jehovah had thought circumcision to be indispensable, he would not have caused the termination of the ancient mandate.
This, then, brings our discussion full circle, leaving the decision right where it belongs, with you, the parents.—Contributed.