Voices – Cassie Parks

My son Jude is a victim of forced retraction, a terrifying experience that I witnessed and will never forget. It’s taken me almost two years to talk about this, but if I can help even one little boy by telling our story, it’s worth it.

Jude is two years old. When he was about two months old, he was vomiting and had diarrhea, and my mom and I took him to the pediatrician. He was pretty sick and the doctor wanted to rule out anything serious, so he referred us to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for tests. During the appointment, medical personnel were prepping him for routine tests while I answered questions related to his condition with another staff member across the room.

That’s when I heard him scream. To this day I’ve never heard him scream like that. I went over to him and I will never get that sight out of my head. A nurse had forcibly retracted Jude’s foreskin to get a urine sample, and I could see his entire glans. It was all purple and swollen and there was a little bit of blood. it was so terrifying.

I said, “You’re not supposed to retract him. This is not supposed to be happening.” She said, “No, you’re supposed to be retracting him at every diaper change. “I knew retraction was wrong, but I wasn’t as educated as I am now about how it all worked, and I didn’t have the facts in my head ready to counter their claims.

I knew forced retraction does happen, but it didn’t occur to me that it could happen in a children’s hospital. It wasn’t even in my head space. It’s one of those things you don’t think will ever happen to you or your loved ones.

When they gave him a pacifier with sugar water in it to calm him down, that broke me a little bit. I had never given him a pacifier. I’m supposed to be his comfort, not a pacifier. I started to hyperventilate and had to step out of the room to get myself together. I couldn’t pick him up. I couldn’t do anything for him.

A while later, a nurse supervisor came to talk to me. She was almost judgmental that we hadn’t circumcised Jude. She told me that I should be retracting his foreskin or I would cause him problems. My mom told her they had instead just opened him up to infection. When it was clear our conversation was going nowhere, she asked if I wanted to talk to the doctor about it. I said no, and when he came back in with the test results, he wasn’t at all concerned.

Jude was in pain for a couple of weeks. For a good week after it happened, I had to set him in the sink with water in it when he peed because he cried every time. It was so sad and he was so pitiful. When I put him in the car seat, the pressure from the buckle hurt him. I cried about it for weeks afterwards. It triggered postpartum depression.

When we were at the hospital, I had googled some facts about the dangers of forced retraction. That’s when I found David Llewellyn, an intactivist lawyer in Atlanta, where I live. He has dedicated his career to ending circumcision and forced retraction. It’s not easy to take on these cases here because no one questions these practices.

Through him we filed suit for battery, nursing malpractice and intentional infliction of emotional distress. We proposed a settlement that would, among other things, require the hospital to institute proper protocols for care. To my husband and me, that is the whole point of the suit. The hospital didn’t agree to those terms, so the case will be going to trial.

I’ve found support among new friends in the intactivist movement – in Your Whole Baby and other mom groups on Facebook, and from Intact America. I’m a really introverted person, and speaking out is hard. But I never want another mother to feel like I did. I’m also shocked at how many people have told me they wish they hadn’t had their sons circumcised.

So I’ve started planting seeds in conversations. It’s kind of an internal battle, building up the courage to say something. But it does feel good when people receive the message and open up their minds a bit. Most people say they hadn’t even thought about it. Sometimes they don’t say anything, and that’s OK. Even a few thoughtful words or a passing comment can be powerful, and they’ll remember it later.

I’ve been afraid of being perceived as a “crazy penis mom.” Now I’m at the point of being OK with that. I’m an advocate. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone—but that’s kind of what motherhood is.

—Cassie Parks

Interested in lending your voice? Send an email to [email protected], giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.

Voices – Lew Rose

A couple of years before our 35-year-old son’s accidental death, he challenged me with the question of why he was circumcised at birth. I was a bit taken aback but apologized profusely, while stammering something about how we thought we were doing what was best for him and that infant circumcision was at that time considered routine. He didn’t pursue the topic, but I sensed my response did not totally satisfy him. I suspect he never fully forgave us.

The truth is that I was a cocky, ill-informed 25-year-old when I made that decision. (His mom left the decision to me.) I focused on such things as his potential acceptance in the locker rooms of his life rather than honoring and respecting him as a beautifully formed, embodied being.

Ironically, I am intact. I was never teased about it in locker rooms and am very pleased with my foreskin. However, growing up I felt somewhat self-conscious about not being like “all the other guys.” I somehow made the assumptions that others regarded being intact as suggesting an unsophisticated family background and that an uncircumcised penis was less attractive to women.

I was obviously uncomfortable about my decision because, while my son was a young lad, I kept my foreskin retracted—pretty uncomfortable—for a few years, so that when he saw me naked it would not be as obvious that he and I were different. (Then I could avoid actually having to talk with him about why he was circumcised.) I never told him all this and suspect he assumed I was circumcised too.

What possible ethical justification was there for me to commit to permanently surgically removing healthy tissue from another person’s body without his permission? Being born with a functional foreskin is not a medical emergency, and therefore is not justification for surgical intervention initiated by me as a parent, doctors, hospitals, insurance companies or anyone else.

I have reflected on his disappointment over the loss of his foreskin many times over the years. My shame was that my first official act as a parent had been deep disrespect of our first-born child. I had totally taken away his right to make an informed decision about an important part of his body.

Over time I did come to forgive myself. I have also become more informed about the fabulous foreskin, its lack of respect by the medical community and, sadly, that genital pleasure sensors are removed with circumcision. I offer my sincere posthumous apology to you, my son, and my compassion goes out to all the other men and boys who have been cut without their consent.

I am committed to being an intactivist, and I hope my story will inspire others to defend the right of all males to remain intact until they are of an age to make informed decisions about their own bodies.

—Lew Rose

Interested in lending your voice? Send an email to [email protected], giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.

Fathers and Sons

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.

Georganne Chapin

Mother’s Day 2013

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.

My mother, Helen Chapin, passed away in June of last year.

Helen Chapin

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.

Georganne Chapin