On October 11, 2021, the New Yorker magazine published an essay by popular writer Gary Shteyngart, recounting how being circumcised when he was seven years old resulted in decades of misery and complications. On November 1, the magazine published three comments in response, mine, one from a rabbi, and one from a urologist. The post below is the follow-up letter I wrote to the urologist, Dr. Michael Mooreville.
Dear Dr. Mooreville:
I am writing about your letter to the New Yorker, which appeared after my own among the responses to Gary Shteyngart’s essay about his decades of suffering because of a botched circumcision. Thank you, in advance, for taking the time to read my comments below.
First, you suggest that Shteyngart’s problems occurred because he was circumcised too late, and then say that it’s easier (somehow) for a physician to know how much foreskin to remove from a baby than from an older male. My decades of working to end unconsented-to, medically unnecessary circumcision suggest this is not true. Men who have spoken or written to me, or who have spoken out publicly about their circumcision-induced penile deformities, overwhelmingly were circumcised as newborns by doctors in American hospitals. Some of them have undergone one or more additional surgeries to correct cosmetic or functional problems; others, out of parental ignorance or shame, instead have learned to live with the harm just as Shteyngart did. In none of these cases did any of these surgeries result in a better, healthier penis than the penises of men who were fortunate enough to have grown up with their natural, unaltered genitalia. As a practicing American urologist, your caseload is likely similar to that of other urologists who have told me that more than one-quarter of their medical practice involves addressing circumcision-related damage, including meatal stenosis (which occurs nearly exclusively in circumcised males), skin bridges (such as Shteyngart’s), and degloved penile shafts.
Second, I am curious about your comment that amputating a baby’s foreskin will allow his penis to “grow into a fully mature look…” (emphasis mine). Are you suggesting that the penises of men with foreskins (comprising around 75% of the world’s males) are somehow “immature”; this makes no sense. How can a penis shorn of its natural protective covering, with its nerves, muscles and blood supply be superior to the natural, unaltered penis that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years? Frankly, I’m astonished that the New Yorker’s rigorous fact-checking protocol didn’t eliminate this nonsensical statement from your letter.
Finally, I wonder if there are other healthy body parts you would suggest removing from babies or children because they “can be the source of multiple (?) medical problems in older men” (or women). The appendix (1.1 cases of appendicitis per 1000)? Teeth (prone to infection-causing decay)? Breasts (1 case per 1000 of breast cancer among American women aged 40, increasing over time), while the rate of penile cancer (which occurs in both intact and circumcised men) in the United States is 1 per 100,000. I might add here that genital hygiene is not complicated. If a boy can learn to become a teacher or chef or woodworker or tennis player or truck driver or urologist, he should be able to learn how to wash his penis.
I hope you will think about my questions, and dare to think in a more common-sense way about a forced bodily alteration that does nothing to make American boys or men healthier than their counterparts in countries where males retain the genitals they are born with.
Georganne Chapin, MPhil, JD
This letter to the editor was published in The New Yorker on October 25, 2021.
Kudos to Shteyngart for bravely exposing the harm that can be caused by circumcision. His heartbreaking personal struggle, while extreme, is more common among circumcised men than the public has been led to believe. Since 2008, when I co-founded Intact America, an organization that seeks to change the way people in this country think about circumcision, I have heard from thousands of men who have suffered lifelong physical and psychological damage from the procedure. According to a 2019 report published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, in the U.S., where nearly all circumcisions take place in medical settings, eleven per cent of pediatric-surgery malpractice cases involve circumcision. Yet American doctors and hospitals keep putting babies at risk with a medically unnecessary procedure that is not routinely performed on male children in any other Western country. We must ask why we allow doctors and hospitals to profit from cutting the genitals of male children even as we fight to outlaw female genital cutting, here and abroad.
Last week, Intact America launched a petition to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The petition demands that the AAP follow the recommendations from its own research about infant pain, and tell its doctors to END THE PAIN and stop circumcising baby boys. Our goal is 29,000 signatures by February 29. We need your help! Please sign this petition, and share it with your friends. Ask them to sign and share it, too!
Intact America insists that the American Academy of Pediatrics issue a new circumcision policy—one that honors and protects baby boys from harm.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently said that babies shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary pain. But the AAP continues to promote “routine” infant circumcision, a painful, medically unnecessary surgery that removes a normal part of a baby’s penis.
Last month, the AAP published research showing that common medical procedures carried out on newborn babies are very painful, and that the effects of the pain can last many years. The procedures mentioned included heel sticks, insertion of IV needles, and circumcision. The AAP report also found that commonly used pain relievers are neither effective nor safe.
Infant circumcision differs from the other procedures discussed in the report in that it is an invasive surgery that neither tests for nor treats any illness, and permanently removes a natural and valuable part of a boy’s sexual anatomy – the foreskin. The pain from circumcision is intense and continues for days or weeks after the surgery.
Circumcision, originally promoted in the 19th century as a way to prevent masturbation, has become part of American medical culture. Every year, a million baby boys in the United States are subjected to this surgery, although no medical association in the world recommends it.
Some of the falsehoods currently used to support circumcision include hygiene, disease prevention, and aesthetics.
The truth is:
- The intact penis is easily cleaned throughout a boy’s and man’s lifetime.
- Circumcision does NOT prevent sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. European countries where fewer than ten percent of all men are circumcised have about the same STD rates as the United States, where circumcision is common.
- Any preference expressed by men or women for the circumcised penis is a result of cultural conditioning. Besides, as the U.S. circumcision rate declines, and the number of intact boys and men grow, the intact penis will no longer seem strange or unattractive.
Many Americans also believe that circumcision is “just a snip” – a minor, brief, and painless procedure that babies will not remember. This is FALSE, and the new AAP article on pain proves it.
Because circumcision is NOT medically necessary, and because the pain it causes is unmanageable and harmful over the long term, Intact America demands that the American Academy of Pediatrics tell its doctors to end the pain and stop circumcising baby boys.
Help us reach 29,000 signatures by February 29, 2016.
Please sign our petition TODAY.
Several days ago, Intact America posted this meme on Facebook:
The response was astonishing – the posting got the greatest number of views and comments, by far, of anything we’ve ever posted on our Facebook page.
Many of the comments contained arguments and rejoinders about the relative “badness” of circumcision and rape; some objected strenuously to the insinuation that circumcision was “as bad as” rape; and others said that circumcising an unconsenting infant was “worse than” raping an unconscious woman.
These arguments miss the point of the meme, which is: The fact that a victim has no memory of having been wronged does not mean that a wrong has not been done, nor does it let the wrongdoer off the hook.
Think of it this way: If a neighbor enters your home unbeknownst to you, takes a gold necklace from your jewelry box, and leaves, and you never discover that the necklace is missing, did a burglary occur? Of course. Is the neighbor who took the necklace not guilty, simply because you didn’t miss the item? Of course not. Your home was burgled, and your neighbor is guilty of burglary.
Why should wrongs committed upon someone else’s body be different from a property crime?
Both circumcision and rape meet the common law definition of battery – an intentional, unpermitted act causing harmful or offensive contact with the “person” of another. What makes the act in question “unpermitted” is that the victim did not consent. Lack of consent doesn’t require the victim’s active objection; rather it may come from legal incapacity (i.e., an unconscious individual is, by law, incapable of consenting; a baby is, by law, incapable of consenting). Whether or not the victim later recalls the battery (or recalls it at some subliminal level, as may be the case with any violent act) is irrelevant to the classification of the act as a violation of that person’s rights.
There are those who will say, with regard to infant circumcision, that consent has been given – by the parent. This is another legal fallacy. No person can consent to a legal violation of another. Just as I cannot tell a thief that it is alright for him or her to enter your home and remove your gold necklace, just as I cannot allow another person to have sex with my underage daughter, just as in the United States and most western countries, I cannot permit another person to slice off my minor daughter’s labia or clitoris, I cannot “consent to” (and thereby absolve from culpability the operator) the medically unnecessary removal of perfectly healthy, normal tissue from my son’s genitals. In medicine, parental or “proxy” consent is reserved for operations or treatments needed to save the life or health of a child. “Routine” circumcision – a cosmetic procedure – doesn’t meet this criterion.
The motive of the perpetrator, the batterer, is also irrelevant. The fact that the person who slices off a part of a child’s genitals thinks s/he’s doing the child a favor is no more a defense than the claim of a man who has sex with an incapacitated woman because she “needed it” or “asked for it.”
In striving for equal rights for all human beings, we must avoid being drawn into irreconcilable arguments about which of two horrors is more horrible, which of two violations is worse, and which of two victims is more entitled to protection or to sympathy (or, worse, which deserves condemnation). These arguments only serve as distractions from the real imperative – protecting the vulnerable and holding accountable those who violate them.
I can’t count the times I’ve heard people say that female genital mutilation (FGM) is “much worse” than routine infant male circumcision. And frankly, I’m tired of it. Cutting the genitals of children – female or male – is a gross violation of their basic human rights. Period.
Which is why a recent New York Times article, “Genital Cutting Found in Decline in Many Nations,” really galled me. While it’s indeed encouraging that the incidence of FGM is declining in some African countries, the article failed to note that in the United States, more than a million newborn boys are subjected to circumcision each year.
As Americans self-righteously decry FGM, the American government and funders such as the Gates and Clinton foundations are pushing male circumcision on misinformed and disadvantaged adult men and, increasingly, on male infants who cannot consent. Removing normal genitalia is not a legitimate public health intervention, yet they continue to relentlessly promote it. Whole ranks of international health specialists are building their academic and foundation careers on this worthless, unethical surgery carried out on third-world men, and American doctors continue to rake in the cash for inflicting it on American baby boys. And all of them are willfully, conveniently ignoring any discussion of the ethical disconnects and cultural biases that prevent honest comparison of FGM and MGM.
Complete excision of penile skin as a complication to newborn male circumcision. (DMJ)
A recent study published in the Danish Medical Journal documents significant complications from circumcision in more than 5% of boys. The photo at right – which accompanies the report – generated disgust even among intactivists when we posted it on our Facebook page. Many asked us to remove it. We didn’t, because this photo of an infant’s mutilated, forcibly stimulated penis speaks volumes about our culture’s refusal to see circumcision for what it is: the unnecessary and unethical damaging of a perfectly healthy part of the body resulting in a spectrum of outcomes that no one has the right to dismiss. Why can’t we call that male genital mutilation? Will the DMJ report be picked up by American mainstream media? Of course not.
The hypocrisy and cultural blindness are mind-boggling.