Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How the Hironimus Case Has Evolved My Views on Circumcision

I had no opinion on circumcision prior to becoming a mother.

When I was pregnant with my son, the topic naturally came up as one of the "decisions" new parents must make if they have a boy. It didn't take me long to decide against it. Why would I cut off a perfectly healthy, perfectly normal part of my son's body? We had no medical reason to circumcise, so we chose not to. End of story.

I learned a lot more about circumcision in the months and years after we made our choice. And everything I read--every fact I heard about the very useful function of the foreskin (it's so much more than a "flap of skin"), every video I watched (no, I was never able to actually watch a video of the procedure all the way through, but videos are available on YouTube if you'd like to give it a try), every horror story of hemorrhage and complications and repeat surgery and death--EVERYTHING made me more and more thankful that I had chosen to leave my son's perfect body intact.

My decision was not one that I really talked much about. My closest mom-friends knew, and some of my family knew (because they helped change diapers). But otherwise, the topic just never really came up in conversations. Circumcision can be such a controversial topic that it's often avoided. I didn't want anyone to think I was judging them if they chose differently from me. (And, for the record, I generally assumed that most of the parents I knew have circumcised their sons. Even though rates are steadily declining in the U.S., it is so culturally accepted that it seemed safest to assume that "everyone is doing it." I have a lot of friends with kids, and I didn't want to offend anyone.)

Here's where I will rattle off the tried-and-true list of reasons why NOT to circumcise. Like how one of the primary reasons why circumcision became so common in our country was to try to limit masturbation, which is, of course, a stupid reason to cut off useful bodily tissue. Or how studies of circumcision reducing HIV in Africa (in adult men, who consented to the procedure themselves) were flawed and should not be applied to routine infant circumcision in the U.S. (heck, even our military recognizes that circumcision does not prevent STIs). Or how circumcision does not actually reduce the rate of urinary tract infections in boys by any significant amount (lifetime risk goes down by about 0.02%). How about the fact that the New Testament in the Bible actually forbids routine circumcision? Or that babies do, in fact, feel pain the same way that adults do (a lot of people try to claim that the procedure hurts an infant less than it does an adult), and that less than 50% of doctors who perform circumcisions actually use any kind of anesthesia for pain relief? Circumcision can negatively impact breastfeeding. And the idea that a father and son (or brothers) should "match" is just downright ridiculous.

How about this reason? It's his body, and it should be his choice. If a man decides to become circumcised later, that's his decision, but perhaps it's not one we should be making for our kids in the absence of actual medical need. That idea is often referred to as genital integrity.

Yet despite all of these very solid reasons to not do what many deem unnecessary cosmetic surgery (rightfully, in my opinion), I still hardly ever talk about it. I can think of precisely two women who I have broached the subject with (and thankfully, both of them were already planning on going all natural with their sons, so I didn't have to try to convince them otherwise).

But the more I hear and read about the Hironimus case in Florida, the harder and harder it is to stay silent.

Since I imagine you haven't been reading all the same things that I've been reading, here's a quick rundown.

Heather Hironimus and Dennis Nebus have a baby whom they name Chase. They are not married. At some point, the two of them sign a parenting agreement, which includes a clause about circumcision: Hironimus will consent so long as Nebus arranges for the surgery and pays for it.

Now for two important facts. One: Hironimus didn't really know anything about circumcision at the time. Two: Nebus didn't bother to do anything about circumcising their son for more than two years; clearly, it wasn't a huge priority for him.

Meanwhile, Hironimus learns more about circumcision and becomes quietly opposed to it. Mysteriously, Nebus is suddenly eager to have their son circumcised. Hironimus refuses to honor the original agreement. It turns into a big messy court case that spans more than two years.

Flash forward to now. With the assistance of a judge that many feel has disregarded the best interests of the boy, Nebus ultimately wins the case. By now, Chase is nearly four and a half years old. He knows what circumcision means and has repeatedly expressed that he does not want it. Hironimus is threatened with jail time until she consents. She goes into hiding, with her son, at a domestic violence shelter, but is ultimately found and jailed. At first, she holds strong, but the threat of indefinite jail time eventually breaks her; handcuffed and sobbing, Hironimus signs the consent forms.

Coercion DOES NOT equal consent.

And now, rumor has it that Chase is on the brink of receiving this unnecessary surgery. There is no medical reason, he does not want it, and his mother has not truly consented. But all the same, it might still happen.

And this case has really made me rethink my rationale of why I am against routine circumcision. See, before, all of those medical and physical reasons were the top reasons why I was opposed. There's no real benefits! It's painful! It makes sex less pleasurable for adults! An intact boy is super easy to care for!

The more I think about this issue, the more I realize how important the concept of genital integrity really is. What right do we have to make a decision like this for our children? Chase's case is so controversial in part because he's old enough to have his own opinion, and to express that opinion; does that mean that circumcision is somehow more okay when the baby is too young to say no? Most people in our country are very vehemently against the act of female circumcision, but male circumcision is similar in many ways (less so physically and but more so culturally, for the cultures where it is more common); female circumcision is actually illegal in the U.S., but male circumcision is not. It's not my body, it's my son's body; what right do I have to decide that a completely necessary part should be cut off for no good reason?

And the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is an issue that we really do need to talk about more. For so many people, the issue of circumcision comes down to a vague paragraph or two in a pregnancy or baby care book, but it is so much more complex than that.

And at the same time, it is so much more simple.

Without an actual medical reason, and those are surprisingly few and far between, baby boys should not be circumcised. Period. The surgery can always be done later, but it can never truly be undone.

His body, his choice.

It's time that people start thinking, really thinking, about this decision before they make it. I've been big on informed decision making for a long time now, and that's a major issue here too. Parents deserve to truly know the facts about circumcision before deciding whether or not to do it. It's time to start talking more openly about circumcision.


  1. I hadn't previously heard about this story. The part that really gets to me is the dad's selfishness and immaturity. He's so out of touch with his son's needs- the child doesn't even want the surgery! That should speak it all at 4 years old, I think.

    1. One of the things that gets me so much about this case is that it seems like the father suddenly decided he wanted to go ahead with the procedure only *after* the mother became opposed to it. It's pretty classic spite, and I know this sort of thing happens often (I have a friend who still deals with this with her first son's father... he continuously threatened to have it done, even though she was vehemently opposed and he had no legal standing to do it anyway). How pathetic that this "father" would use his own child to get back at his ex like this.

  2. I'm glad that this issue is getting some press though. It's been long overdue. People really seem to believe that circumcision is necessary and that somehow the pain is different for a newborn (?) that's what stuck with me before the birth of my boy- why would I subject him to this violence for little to no reason?! I had to spend hours convincing my husband, but thank God I did! I feel a hundred times more strongly about it now after knowing my son and seeing that it makes no difference in the world. If someone's scrutinizing your son's penis, that's a whole other issue. Stop the violence! It is insane that this practice became normalized.

    1. There are just so many myths surrounding circumcision, and they're very persistent; it's hard to get the truth out there when parents are surrounded by misinformation. People still believe that circumcision prevents STIs (it doesn't), that it prevents UTIs (it lowers the lifetime risk by less than 1%, less than 0.5%), that it prevents penile cancer (which is one of the LEAST common types of cancer anyway, and again, it reduces an already very low risk by a very small amount). They believe that a circumcised man is more attractive (maybe if you prefer scar tissue?), that circumcised boys are easier to clean (I can't compare the two, but an intact boy is super easy to care for), that boys should match their family members and friends (um... I don't even know where to start with this one). And that's not even getting into issues like how circumcision makes hospitals money (some of them sell the foreskins to various cosmetic companies to make things like skin cream... absolutely sickening that they get to profit off of the procedure this way), so they have good reasons to perpetuate the myths.

      It really is disgusting. It's all just so unnecessary.

  3. As far as matching goes, I've never needed to see my father in law's or brother in law's state of affairs, and can't imagine I'd ever need to?

    I'm so glad I have a thoughtful and caring midwife who broached this subject with us. I had never thought about it either! It only took the briefest of research to make our decision not to cut, and I'm so glad we did.

    1. Right? I can't imagine that too many boys spend much time "comparing" themselves to their fathers.