That belief held sway for decades. Men had it done to their sons because it was done to them. Generations of women came to think of the uncircumcised penis as odd. To leave your son uncircumcised was to expose him to ostracism in the locker room and the bedroom. No amount of debunking seemed to alter that. As far back as 1971, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that there were “no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” The following year, some 80 percent of Americans circumcised their newborns.
What changed? The shift away from circumcision is driven by a mass of converging trends. For one, we live in an age of child-centric parenting. New research suggests that the babies feel and process more than previously thought, including physical pain (see “How Much Does It Hurt?”). In a survey conducted for this story, every respondent who decided against circumcision cited “unwillingness to inflict pain on the baby” as the main reason. The movement toward healthier living is another factor. Just as people have grown increasingly wary of the impact of artificial foods in their diets and chemical products in the environment, so too have they become more suspicious of the routine use of preventive medical procedures. We’ve already rejected tonsillectomy and appendectomy as bad ideas. The new holistically minded consensus seems to be that if something is there, it’s there for a reason: Leave it alone. Globalization plays a part too. As more U.S. women have sex with foreign-born men, the American perception of the uncut penis as exotic has begun to fade. The decline in the number of practicing Jews contributes as well. Perhaps as a reflection of all of these typically urban-minded ideas, circumcision rates are dropping in big coastal cities at a faster rate than in the heartland. In 2006, for example, a minority of male New York City newborns were circumcised—43.4 percent. In Minnesota, the rate was 70 percent. Circumcision, you could say, is becoming a blue-state-red-state issue.
The Moreas considered all of this and more, having imbibed more information about both the pros and cons of circumcision during the last four months of Deanna’s pregnancy than they care to recall. They still hadn’t decided what to do until the day after their son, Anderson, was born. Then, when a nurse came to take the boy to be circumcised, the decision came clear to them. “We didn’t want to put him through that—we didn’t want to cut him,” says Deanna. “It’s mutilation. They do it to girls in Africa. No matter how accepted it is, it’s mutilation.”
And yet, the pendulum is already swinging back. Earlier this year, the New York Times published a front-page story noting that the Centers for Disease Control was considering recommending routine circumcision to help stop the spread of AIDS. The idea was based largely on studies done in Africa indicating that circumcised heterosexual men were at least 60 percent less susceptible to HIV than uncircumcised ones. The story promptly touched off a firestorm, with pro- and anti-circumcision commenters exchanging angry barbs. The CDC will now say only that it’s in the process of determining a recommendation.
Caught at the crossroads of religion and science, circumcision has proved to be a free-floating symbol, attaching itself to whatever orthodoxy captures a society’s imagination. Its history is driven by wildly shifting rationales: from tribal rite of passage to covenant with God to chastity guarantor to paralysis cure to cancer guard to unnecessary, painful surgery to a Hail Mary pass in the struggle with the AIDS pandemic. There’s no reason to think a new rationale won’t come down the pike when we least expect it. Our millennia-long quest to justify one of civilization’s most curious habits continues.