Every year throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, between four and five million girls suffer gruesome genital mutilation at the hands of tribal “cutters” or circumcisers.1 Far from being regarded as barbaric criminals from whom children should be hidden, these wielders of sharpened rocks, broken glass, rusty metal, and (only sometimes) scalpels occupy a special position of power and influence in their communities.2 Parents voluntarily, sometimes enthusiastically, bring their young and infant daughters to be mutilated. Though methods vary in severity, in as many as 10 percent of cases, a cutter shears a girl’s labia for “beauty,” excises her clitoris to deprive her of sexual pleasure later in life, and sews closed her vagina to ensure virginity until marriage.3

To the Western mind, such practices are shocking and revolting. How could parents do such a thing to their children? With rare exception, Americans recognize female genital mutilation as a form of assault, and the United States outlaws even the least severe version of this ritual, a prick on the clitoris performed as a symbolic gesture to satisfy parents who demand genital cutting. But Americans’ righteous opposition to genital mutilation does not typically extend to males.

Whereas in the United States girls are protected from even a genital pinprick, boys can legally be circumcised for nontherapeutic reasons, and frequently are. Nontherapeutic circumcision of the infant penis is among the most commonly performed surgical procedures in America today, and the practice is widely supported by Americans. Although many support the practice, however, few understand its medical details.

Like female circumcision, male circumcision can be more or less severe in form. The most conservative or minimally invasive circumcision involves the removal of only the tip of the foreskin of the penis. But circumcision as American doctors typically practice it is a far more radical procedure. American doctors typically remove the entire foreskin, the specialized tissue that covers and protects the glans penis and urinary meatus. In most cases, doctors perform circumcision on an infant in his first days of life, when, unlike an adult’s foreskin, which easily retracts down and away from the glans, the infant’s foreskin is still fused to the glans. So during infant circumcision a doctor “bluntly dissects”—that is, rips away—the foreskin from the glans. The doctor then covers the glans with a protective device and cuts away the foreskin completely.

Unlike female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East, which has been a widespread practice since ancient times, the widespread practice of penile circumcision in America is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Until the late 1800s, penile circumcision in America was practically unheard of outside of Jewish communities. How did this infant-mutilating procedure become so common and so uncritically accepted in America? Although penile circumcision has been practiced in various forms by many cultures, the radical procedure commonly used in the United States is rooted ultimately in just one of these cultures: ancient Judea.4 How this procedure was adopted in 19th-century America and then grew in popularity to where it is today is a disturbing story of religious history, quack science, and social conformity.

The Roots of Circumcision in America

The roots of the tradition of Americans circumcising infant boys are traceable to ancient Canaan, a geographical area now consisting of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. . . .


1. Committee on Bioethics, “Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors,” Pediatrics, vol. 125, 2010, pp. 1088–93, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/125/5/1088.abstract.

2. Leonard J. Kouba and Judith Muasher, “Female Circumcision in Africa: An Overview,” African Studies Review, vol. 28, 1985, p. 100, http://www.jstor.org/discover/524569?sid=21105020246231&uid=3739560&uid=3739256&uid=4&uid=2.

3. P. Stanley Yoder and Shane Khan, Numbers of Women Circumcised in Africa: The Production of a Total, (Calverton, MD: ORC Macro, March 2008), p. 14, http://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/WP39/WP39.pdf; United Nations Children’s Fund, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Statistical Overview of the Dynamics of Change (New York: UNICEF, 2013), http://www.unicef.org/publications/index_69875.html.

4. Leonard B. Glick, Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 5.

5. Glick, Marked, p. 16.

6. Glick, Marked, p. 14. Modern biblical scholars group the text of the Torah into four sections composed at different times and labeled J, E, D, and P. The first two, J and E, were likely written in the 9th and 10th centuries BC and make up parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. At this time, Judaism included sects of polytheistic cult worship (the E stands for Elohim, literally meaning “Gods” plural). In D, written in the 7th century BC and making up much of Deuteronomy, reformers began striving toward monotheism and the worship of the One God “Yahweh” (or “Jehovah”). In P, written in the 6th century BC, priests reacted to the Babylonian captivity.

7. Bernard Reich, A Brief History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Facts on File, 2008), pp. 6–7.

8. JPS TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011), pp. 23–24.

9. Glick, Marked, pp. 15–16.

10. Note that all Hebrew words are written as commonly accepted English transliterations using the Roman alphabet.

11. Glick, Marked, p. 287.

12. Jewish Publication Society Inc., JPS TANAKH, p. 53.

13. Jewish Publication Society Inc., JPS TANAKH, p. 251.

14. Glick, Marked, pp. 15–16.

15. Glick, Marked, pp. 18–19.

16. Jewish Publication Society Inc., JPS TANAKH, p. 186.

17. Glick, Marked, pp. 21–24.

18. Jewish Publication Society Inc., JPS TANAKH, pp. 31–32.

19. Jewish Publication Society Inc., JPS TANAKH, p. 119.

20. Jewish Publication Society Inc., JPS TANAKH, p. 784 (italics added).

21. Glick, Marked, pp. 44–45. Metsitsah has been abandoned by most Jewish denominations out of concern that the practice spreads infectious diseases.

22. Will Durant, The Life of Greece: The Story of Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), pp. 580–84.

23. Nissan Rubin, “Brit Milah: A Study of Change in Custom” in The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite, ed. Elizabeth Wyner Mark (city: UPNE, 2003), p. 89.

24. Rubin, “Brit Milah,” p. 87.

25. Glick, Marked, pp. 43–49.

26. Rubin, “Brit Milah,” pp. 91–97.

27. Crossway Bibles, ESV Study Bible (city: Crossway Bibles, 2008), pp. 2249–54.

28. Glick, Marked, p. 39.

29. Glick, Marked, pp. 85–114.

30. Glick, Marked, p. 158.

31. Glick, Marked, p. 159.

32. Glick, Marked, p. 163.

33. Glick, Marked, p. 162.

34. Glick, Marked, p. 172.

35. Glick, Marked, p. 173.

36. Glick, Marked, pp. 179–81.

37. Glick, Marked, pp. 196–98.

38. Edward O. Laumann, Christopher M. Masi, and Ezra W. Zuckerman, “Circumcision in the United States. Prevalence, Prophylactic Effects, and Sexual Practice,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 277, 1997, pp. 1052–57, http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=414922.

39. Maria Owings, Sayeedha Uddin, and Sonja Williams, “Trends in Circumcision among Male Newborns Born in U.S. Hospitals: 1979–2010,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 2013, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/circumcision_2013/circumcision_2013.htm.

40. Glick, Marked, pp. 183–87.

41. Glick, Marked, p. 191.

42. Glick, Marked, p. 206.

43. Hugh C. Thompson, Lowell R. King, and Sheldon B. Korones, “Report of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Circumcision,” Pediatrics, vol. 56, 1975, pp. 610–11, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/56/4/610.

44. American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision, “Report of the Task Force on Circumcision,” Pediatrics, vol. 84,1989, pp. 388–91, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/84/2/388.abstract.

45. American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision, “Circumcision Policy Statement,” Pediatrics, vol. 103, 1999, pp. 686–93, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/103/3/686.abstract.

46. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Obstetric Practice, “ACOG Committee Opinion No. 260: Circumcision,” Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 98, 2001, pp. 707–8, http://journals.lww.com/greenjournal/Fulltext/2001/10000/ACOG_Committee_Opinion_No__260__Circumcision.34.aspx.

47. American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision, “Male Circumcision,” Pediatrics, vol. 130, 2012, p. e756–85, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/3/e756.full 10.1542/peds.2012-1990.

48. AAP, “Male Circumcision,” p. e763.

49. S. Mårild and U. Jodal, “Incidence Rate of First-Time Symptomatic Urinary Tract Infection in Children under 6 Years of Age,” Acta Paediatrica, vol. 87, 1998, pp. 549–52, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.1998.tb01502.x/abstract; B. Jakobsson, E. Esbjörner, and S. Hansson, “Minimum Incidence and Diagnostic Rate of First Urinary Tract Infection,” Pediatrics, vol. 104, 1999, pp. 222–26, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/104/2/222.full.pdf; Nader Shaikh, et al., “Prevalence of Urinary Tract Infection in Childhood: A Meta-Analysis,” The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, vol. 27, 2008, pp. 302–8, http://journals.lww.com/pidj/Abstract/2008/04000/Prevalence_of_Urinary_Tract_Infection_in.4.aspx.

50. A. Nayir, “Circumcision for the Prevention of Significant Bacteriuria in Boys,” Pediatric Nephrology (Berlin, Germany), vol. 16, 2001, pp. 1129–34, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s004670100044.

51. Vanitha A. Jagannath, et al., “Routine Neonatal Circumcision for the Prevention of Urinary Tract Infections in Infancy,” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, vol. 11, 2012, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009129.pub2/abstract.

52. E. J. Schoen, C. J. Colby, and G. T. Ray, “Newborn Circumcision Decreases Incidence and Costs of Urinary Tract Infections during the First Year of Life,” Pediatrics, vol. 105, 2000, pp. 789–93, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/105/4/789.long; D. Singh-Grewal, J. Macdessi, and J. Craig, “Circumcision for the Prevention of Urinary Tract Infection in Boys: A Systematic Review of Randomised Trials and Observational Studies,” Archives of Disease in Childhood, vol. 90, 2005, pp. 853–58, http://adc.bmj.com/content/90/8/853.long; T. To, et al., “Cohort Study on Circumcision of Newborn Boys and Subsequent Risk of Urinary-Tract Infection,” Lancet, vol. 352, 1998, pp. 1813–16, http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140673698023927.pdf.

53. AAP, “Male Circumcision,” p. e760. The AAP Taskforce on Circumcision lists the fact that “newborn males who are not circumcised at birth are much less likely to elect circumcision in adolescence or early adulthood” as a reason for performing the procedure in the newborn period.

54. Thompson et al., “Report of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Circumcision,” p. 610.

55. AAP, “Male Circumcision,” p. e759.

56. M. S. Brown and C. A. Brown, “Circumcision Decision: Prominence of Social Concerns,” Pediatrics, vol. 80, 1987, pp. 215–19, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/80/2/215.

57. J. D. Tiemstra, “Factors Affecting the Circumcision Decision,” The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, vol. 12, 1999, pp. 16–20, http://www.jabfm.org/content/12/1/16.full.pdf.

58. Marvin L. Wang, et al., “Updated Parental Viewpoints on Male Neonatal Circumcision in the United States,” Clinical Pediatrics, vol. 49, 2010, pp. 130–36, http://cpj.sagepub.com/content/49/2/130.full.pdf.

59. Stephanie Chen, “Pediatricians Now Reject All Female Genital Cutting,” CNN, May 27, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/05/27/AAP.retracts.female.genital.cutting/.

60. Committee on Bioethics, “Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors,” p. 1092.

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