Sunday, February 12, 2006

Circumcision, Debates and Covenants

First posted on Sunday, November 13, 2005

This essay is a rewrite of the Great Circumcision Debate essay. While I like the original, it really was too light and full of fluff. I had more I wanted to say, and this topic really needed to be treated in a more serious tone. This time, I touch on a great deal more doctrine, while briefly discussing the medical and social implications of this practice.-Matt 02/12/2006

The reason for this topic

Reading over a past post on Splendid Sun, I'm reminded of the controversy surrounding my own son's birth. At the time, we did not know what we would have, boy or girl. The ultrasound gave us no clue whatsoever, because our child actively hid himself. So, we had to speculate. Part of that speculation was over the delicate decision to lop off a bit of our child, if it was a boy. This generated a fair amount of conversation.

"If it's a girl, we can name her Allison. But if it's a boy, I don't like the names you've chosen."
"I don't want the names you want either."
"Well, if it's a boy, I think we should circumcise him, because you are."
"I don't want my son to be cut up. My son won't have any spare parts."

Remember that. No spare parts.

What is circumcision and why is it done?

It is the surgical removal of part or all of the fold of skin covering the tip of the penis. But that does not explain the emotional impact this procedure can have. From Biblical times on, circumcision was performed on an adult male (see Genesis 17:23-27) at the time they covenanted with the Lord. The Lord also commanded that children aged 8 days were to also have this done (see Genesis 17:12) . This was to be a token of the covenant made between him and the Lord (see Genesis 17:11-14). This covenant is so personal, it is in his flesh.

That thought catches me. In his flesh. Interesting. It is now known that a circumcised man does not have the same sexual feeling as an uncircumcised man. To men who were circumcised as adults, it has been likened to sight without color. If a man doesn’t know what he is missing, he cannot appreciate what he lost. To those who know what they are missing, it is never the same.

In a priesthood lesson I recently heard on covenants, the teacher was talking about casting away sin. The imagery was eerily similar to the image of cutting off the foreskin. When Abraham cut off his foreskin as a token of his covenant with the Lord, he was covenanting to obey the commandments and (among other things) not have sexual relations outside of marriage. He was literally sacrificing his sexual feeling for this covenant with the Lord. Some would call this too steep a price, but Abraham was nothing of not obedient. He made the covenant, lost a portion of his pleasure, but bound himself closely to his god. This was the same covenant he passed on to his children, the Abrahamic covenant. Isn’t it interesting that he is promised that through his sacrifice and seed, the world would be blessed (see 3 Nephi 20:27)?

Our son and his extra piece of skin
My wife and I attended a parenting/birthing class, which was a good preparation for us. The teacher had an approach I appreciated. She didn't tell us one way of doing things was good or bad. She just informed us and let us make up our own minds. One night, we watched a video of a newborn boy getting clipped, and I tell you what. My decision was confirmed, and Kari's mind was changed. No to any circumcision, full or partial. I think it cruel and unnecessary.

A while later, our son is actually born. We keep our resolve. When the nurse asked us if we planned to have a circumcision, we looked at each other, turned back to the nurse, and in unison said “no.” His little member is safe. Sure, we have to keep it clean and have to avoid any infections, but you have to be careful if he is clipped, too. No big deal.

The reaction of others
Except we found that everyone had an opinion about my son's penis. People were excited to hear I was a father, to hear I had a boy. And nine out of ten times, they felt it was their business to ask if he was circumcised. "No," I would tell them.

"Are you crazy? He could get infected (get cancer, lose his sex drive, whatever) if you don't."

What I want to know is, why do people think this is any of their business? Do I ask if a woman has had a hysterectomy? Do I ask a man if he has prostate problems? For that matter, do you ask if anyone still has their tonsils or appendix? This is a rather personal decision, yet everyone felt they had the right to know, and tell me why I was wrong.

I got pretty good at avoiding debates. It really isn’t worth it. I won’t change their minds, they won’t change mind. But the fact of the matter is, with all the research I put into it, I saw no good reason to clip the little guy. The health reasons cited were all maybe's. Sure, he might get infected. So keep it clean. Duh! Or he might get cancer. Well *cue the sarcasm* cut it all off, then! I mean, maybe I'll get appendicitis, so let's go ahead and do an appendectomy on me. Or let's push this to the extreme. Maybe, I'll get lung cancer, so let's just remove my left lung now, as a preemptive strike. I could get gangrene! Let’s cut off both feet, to prevent it from happening! But what if we removed the wrong appendage? That’s OK, there is a growing proficiency in our medical community in prosthetics. *end the sarcasm*

Uh, yeah. People! You keep it clean and things will be OK. If there is a medical reason to remove it later, do it later. It will be OK.

Other issues debunked
Social reasons . . . what a horrible reason to mutilate one's genitalia. I don't plan on raising my son in Utah for much longer, especially not in Utah valley, where everyone damages their sons. But even if we stayed here (God forbid), my son would just have to deal with the fact that his penis was different from the mutilated boys around him. And what is up with Mormons doing this to their baby boys? Mormons do believe the law of Moses was done away, right? I mean, there was a big debate about this very topic in the period of the apostles, some time after Christ's resurrection (see the Acts 15:1-31). As I recall, the decision was to not continue the barbaric practice. The law was and is fulfilled in Christ. It's over, through! We are now to be circumcised of heart. Why, oh why do Mormons keep hurting their sons in this cruel manner?

Making him match his father? Why do I want him to match me? That's a dumb reason if I've ever heard one. If he asks, I will have a discussion with him about it.

I’ve heard it said that newborns don't have developed pain sensors. What kind of idiotic statement is that? At the very least, they don't like being strapped down. It puts them in a panic. But let’s look at this in a different light: this little boy just came out of a nice, warm, safe womb. He’s ready to face the world! He’s got a loving mother and father right there to watch over him (idealistic, I know). But wait! What’s this? Why are we subjecting him to legalized torture? I will grant that just maybe, their sensors are different from an older baby. Fine. I feel that he still doesn't deserve that kind of treatment. What’s worse, they used to do this without any anesthetic. How cruel is that?

Reasons to not do it
As already stated, it is mean. They don't like having it done. It diminishes sexual feeling. A lot. It is unnecessary. God doesn't even expect us to do it. People, let us stop hurting our little boys!

Thankfully, I don't get the questions about my son's penis any more. People I didn't know made it their business. But what gave these perfect strangers the right to ask (and force their opinions upon me) in the first place? This is a rather personal matter. If my son later decides he wants his penis mutilated, he can do it himself (and I don’t want to hear about it).

I do not resent having had this done to me. My parents did not know any different, and it was the social practice of most of Christian America at the time. It was also what Mormons did. It was not a question of if they should it or not. People just did it back then. I cannot be angry about that. Of course, a part of me wonders what might have been. What am I really missing out on? I’ll never know in this life. Do I just have vision without color?

This also makes me think about the covenants I have made. None of those covenants require cutting a part of me and casting it away. But the Lord does ask of me to cast away my selfish, base, natural desires and come follow him. He wants us to be circumcised in our hearts (see Deut 10:15-16). Note that the idea of cutting male flesh and seed are linked in the scriptures

As I’ve studied this topic, I have developed a doctrinal theory. A man who gains mastery over his flesh, denies himself of the lusts of the heart and overcomes the natural man is blessed for his sacrifice, whether a physical loss of feeling or other sacrifice. How is he blessed? In his seed, and in fatherhood. What was Abraham’s blessing and covenant? That through him, his seed and the whole world should be blessed. We know Abraham did not have many children, yet he was promised his seed would be as numberless as the stars in the sky. Latter-day Saints believe this referred to his future exalted state upon achieving godhood. This is the fullest expression of fatherhood, and even manhood. Put in that perspective, the loss of a little flesh and feeling could seem pretty trivial. But even in this life, the man who controls himself and becomes circumcised in his heart will be a better father than the man who is lost to his lusts.

While the brutal symbol of circumcision and casting away physical desire is a powerful teaching tool and reminder of covenants made, I am so glad to live in a dispensation where the need has been done away through the atonement of Christ. A physical token does not create the covenant, anyway. Covenants should rest inside a person’s heart and mind, or else it is not worth entering.


Judaism 101 has a nice little introduction to the practice of circumcision of boys, including the religious implications for the practice. Has a pretty neutral tone, but very informative.

Circumcision Choices - This site talks about only performing partial circumcision, reducing the damage done while still allowing those who have moral or religious obligations to do their duty as they see fit. It also discusses some of the myths surrounding circumcision and offers explanations. This site is all about choice.

Why Circumcised Men Seem Satisfied - This site explain what is lost when a man has this procedure on his manhood and why most do not know what they are missing. Definite bias, but makes a few good points.

Jewish Circumcision Resource Center - This site is written by Jews in an attempt to do away with the practice of circumcision. Has a definite agenda, but is up front about their goals.


Ariel said...

Believe it or not...

About a year ago, a (male) fellow institute student told me that Mormon males are required to be circumsized. When I pointed out the debate in the NT and the conclusion of said debate, he told me that either the early church was mistaken, or that part of the Bible was incorrectly translated.

Jesse said...


First, I am happy to see that you did not circumcise your son. My feeling is that it will only happen to my own son(s) over my dead body.

Many national medical societies have policy statements saying that there is no medical justification for performing routine circumcision. Finland goes so far as to categorize it as unconsitutional because it is a breach of the bodily integrity of the person involved, without their permission.

It makes me cringe to think of anyone doing this to any small baby. Just look at this kid's face:

Would you really want to put your son through that?

I cannot imagine doing something so painful and so unneccessary to a completely innocent, uncomprehending child.

I am mystified by people who seem to think it's perfectly ok to do this to baby boys, when, if I suggested that we remove the analogous tissue on an infant girl, would escoriate me for doing so. And a physician who did that would lose his/her license and probably go to jail.

As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Baby boys are NOT born "broke," and they don't need "fixing."

darth_ender said...

Interestingly, you've persuaded me. I never stood very firmly on any ground, but I felt it was appropriate to follow the tradition set by Mom and Dad. I think your case is perfectly valid, especially in light of the debate in Acts. Be secure in that your nephews will be whole as well :)

mathoni said...

Ariel, wow. Can't believe some people really feel that way. The whole point of the Law of Moses (including the commandment to circumcise) was to point toward Christ's coming. Well, Christ came and did away with the Law of Moses. If your institute friend didn't believe the New Testament, does he believe the Book of Mormon, which teaches the same concept?
Jesse, I agree. My son is not broken and did not need a useless medical proceedure. You make a good point about so-called female circumcision.
And Darth, if I've persuaded one person, my job has been worthwhile. Thanks to all for writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you are promoting reflection on this practice and illustrating how unnecessary all of it is. BTW, HOW MUCH DO HOSPITALS GET PAID FOR THIS 10-12 min. procedure? Is there an economic agenda for keeping Christians ignorant about the doctrinal fulfillment? Are LDS physicians conflicted with teaching doctrine vs a lucrative income source? Or, are we as members just very modest about such topics and find them to be socially inappropriate or a familial decision?

ALSO, I'd like to point out that this is only ONE of MANY MANY MANY procedures associated with birth and neo-natal care (for babies and mommies) which is medically unsound, unnecessary and probably most importantly- EXPENSIVE.

Unnessary c-sections, lithotomy position births which are dangerous for mom and baby as well as being much more painful, unecessary epidurals and/or episiotomies, non-medical I.V.'s, bottle feeding instead of breast feeding, etc. etc. etc. are overused and frequently mothers are dreadfully ill-informed about the negative consequences and over-use. Evidence-based-medicine *EBM* studies now find that these are only RARELY necessary, but FREQUENTLY practiced).

Especially in Mormon country- natural childbirths and neo-natal care practices are almost non-existant. (Most LDS mothers prefer a HIGHLY MEDICALIZED and frighteningly unnecessary procedures AND look to the -mostly male and LDS- physicians with unquestioning trust. In our ward, without exception, ALL sisters take their primary children to the same pediatrician, who happens to be in the bishopric. His medical advice in their minds transcends the role of a doctor and is considered priesthood counsel. As a RS sister, I've been really suprised that even with all the baby-showers, visiting teaching and female support systems we share, that LDS women are usually very tight-lipped and don't discuss medical CHOICES with each other. They discuss dramatical medical procedures with euphomisms or vague terms, but usually never bring up the OPTIONS or RATIONALE for doing so except,
"the Dr. said . . ." or
"the Dr. TOLD me . . . "

Many LDS mothers are young and often less self-informed about medical procedures. If that's not true, they certainly aren't aware of the controversy involved with circumcision (or any of the abover mentioned procedures.) I'm dumbfounded at the conformity which is FAMOUS in Utah county maternity wards.) I'd really like to do an informal survey sometime and ask several LDS women what books they had read on the topic before giving birth (besides 'What to expect W. Y. E.' which has a LARGE MEDICALIZED BIAS) and whether they knew while pregnant or while in the hospital that a medical library exists IN EVERY ACCREDITED HOSPITAL which will send you packets of research and consumer health information for ALL ALTERNATIVES AND CHOICES involved in their health care decisions. How many mothers and fathers went to for free information from the government and NIH and found that most of the procedures mentioned are counterindicated? I also wonder how many have actually utilized this or similar non-biased or more broad information resources (like doulas, midwives with master's degrees and PhD's, info on health care practices from other countires with better infant and maternal mortality rates, scholarly research and journals, etc. etc. etc.) BTW a terrific book is Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth.

Like circumcistion, many maternity & neonatal procedures are steeped in out-dated traditions, robotic conformity to the past and blind acceptance of medical authority (regardless of emperical studies counter-indicating such procedures.)

*I don't condone medical procedures (and am actually very grateful for them) when they are necessary and appropriate. Thank heaven's for c-sections, Rx, and life-saving procedures which are absolutely essential. I also respect the mother's right to CHOOSE certain procedures associated with birth to accomodate her unique needs (ie pain medication, tests, etc.) However, I realize that westernized emergency procedures are just that . . . emergency procedures based on situations demanding intervention. Midwives and health care professionals in foreign countries which view birth as a potentially healthy and natural process have MUCH BETTER STATISTICS than the average U.S. hospital does. If I were experiencing an emergency or high-risk situation. . . I'd choose a hospital. If everything is going well and there were no major problems, I prefer a midwife.

I think it is IMPARATIVE that mothers and fathers become ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS in their health care and WELL INFORMED PATIENTS, for their sakes and for their children's. ***********************************Thank YOU for posting and raising awareness!!!!!!!!!!!!! Please keep watching out for the sons AND ALSO the moms ! ! !

*Disclaimer: I'm not a medical professional, have no medical advice. I'm just a very well-informed consumer and advocate for patient rights and consumer health information.

Anonymous said...

What about this . . .
(I do get to the point of circumcision)

I was reading an Ensign issue this year commemorating the RS and the various focuses from different General RS Presidents and decades. Under the direction of Eliza R. Snow, the RS established, supported and ran early LDS hospitals. The medical aspect of ‘charity never faileth’ was truly practiced by RS sisters like Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon and Dr. Ellis Reynolds Shipp, who blazed the trail for female physicians not only in Utah, but in the nation. The main responsibility for caring for the sick and attending to mothers and babies directly corresponded to the duty and mission of RS sisters as given to that organization by Joseph and entrusted to Emma in Nauvoo.

I often think about what medical care a maternity ward or in a home might be like if the RS had maintained control of this work instead of relinquishing it to the church as a whole, and the church in turn to corporate hospital administration. If RS women had continued the primary scholarship and care through the then in-tact system of female midwives, female and male physicians and home-health care nurses, no doubt LDS maternity and infant care would have a distinclty unique and DIFFERENT APPROACH than the male-westernized-medical-model. In my opinion, had it been given time, the sisters would have cooperated together and melded the two disciplines together . . . the evidence-based-practice of midwifery and the scholarship of the physicians to extract advances from both fields in a way which only today is beginning to emerge. The environment, people, ideas and resources existed within the RS 150 yrs ago! ! ! That’s my speculation.

I really think the RS sisters, if haven been given the charge (as a group) to become medically skilled and in practice, would have formed a unique ‘Mormon’ form of health care . . . and especially maternal-neonatal nursing care. I often ponder in my mind what our medical situation would be like today had we been the recipients of 150 years of such work.

I sometimes wonder if a more concentrated melding of faith and medical practice would have upturned the circumcision question sooner, if church-based FREE humanitarian medical care would have expunged the economic incentives for unnecessary maternal and neonatal medical practices such as circumcision surgeries, unnecessary c-sections, non-medical I.V.’s, etc. Think about it! If there wasn’t an economic advantage and it detracted from the purpose of extending care to all, the health care field wouldn’t be fleecing us with medically counter-indicated money makers! What would have happened if an LDS medical model emerged which was as well organized and operated, as fair and as laudable as the church’s current humanitarian effort? What if we had all focused our energies together with faith in this venue? What if the largest women’s organization IN THE WORLD had developed and practiced ground-breaking maternal-neonatal health care for over 150 years and wanted to continue to freely share it? ? ? ?

Alas, it wasn’t so, and I don’t doubt that other errands of God have been executed by those well intending saints—men and women, just not in this way. My husband, the lawyer, sighs a breath of relief when I talk about this. His mind reels around the inevitable malpractice nightmare the church would have faced. I still wish that there could have been a way. This is one of the things I intend to ask God at the Pearly Gates . . . why there was a change in direction at that point when we stood at the brink of monumental medical advancements and change?

Just some thoughts-- take 'em or leave 'em.

Anonymous said...

"It is now known that a circumcised man does not have the same sexual feeling as an uncircumcised man. To men who were circumcised as adults, it has been likened to sight without color. If a man doesn’t know what he is missing, he cannot appreciate what he lost. To those who know what they are missing, it is never the same."

My husband, who was circumsized a few years after we were married, would completely disagree with this. It was (in his opinion) the best thing he has ever done for himself and his sexuality and wished his parents had had it done when he was a baby instead of him having to go through it as an adult...

mathoni said...

But at least he had a choice in the matter. Children who have it performed on them have no choice. I believe elective and body-altering surgery that has little medical basis is not worht performing, just because there may be a problem some day. If he's happy, wonderful for your husband. Really. However, from what I read, he is in the minority.

Josiah said...

It's true some people express less sexual pleasure following circumcision, but many people say that it either has little to no effect, or in some cases enhances sex. I understand you have a passionate view against circumcision, but taking the comments of a few individuals that agree with your point of view and representing them as absolute is skewing the truth.

You also purport that children are not anesthetized during the procedure. There are still some instances where physicians don't give local anesthesia (mostly those of a more dated education) but it is becoming standard to use topical gel anesthetics or injection. At the very least, a concerned parent could request their child be anesthetized if they are unsure what their pediatrician will do.

The hinge upon which your argument swings is whether foreskin removal is akin to irradiating the cones in your retina so that life is a palate of grays and sexual pleasure is all but lost. The studies concerning this point in sexually active males who were circumcised is inconclusive at best (and if anything in favor of contradicting the idea that prepuce removal diminishes sexual pleasure). Therefore, this idea can't be used as evidence for or against the practice.

The health benefits of circumcision that you mentioned in a "lets cut it all off" manner are not inconsequential, and the potential complications of the procedure are minor. In the case of congenital malformations, it may be elected to preserve the foreskin for later reconstructive surgery.

Ultimately I'm not trying to persuade you or anyone whether circumcision is "right" or not. I want to present the other side of the issue that you failed to in your argument so that people reading this can make a more well rounded decision one way or the other, and not be persuaded by any one individual's opinions.

Having said this, my wife and I are expecting our second child, a son, in March. We are carefully weighing the risks and benefits of circumcision, and once we feel we've thoroughly considered the issue we will make our decision. I would encourage all reading this to do the same.