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Making The Cut 

A secular dad wrestles with the circumcision decision

In August, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its neutral stance on circumcision to one suggesting that the health benefits outweigh the risks. I learned of the policy change from a doctor several months earlier, shortly before my son was due. Suddenly, my anguished decision over whether to circumcise was once again up for debate.

I say "my" decision though obviously it was a mutual decision with my wife, Stacy. But for me, the question cut closer to the bone.

My own circumcision was preordained. My parents were Reform Jews from Brooklyn. The bris, or religious circumcision, was a traditional affair, performed when I was 8 days old, with Manischewitz sweet wine for anesthetic, and bagels, lox and whitefish for the relatives. According to family lore, when the mohel, or ritual circumciser, went in for the cut, I peed on the rabbi. In that moment, I established myself as a tribal member and a social commentator.

I started thinking about what I would want for my own son during Stacy's first pregnancy, when we were told, erroneously, that our daughter was a boy. Since I'm neither an observant Jew nor married to one, a bris was never in the cards. Thus began my soul-searching and rationalizations, trying to jive my Jewish upbringing and childhood prejudices with a modern worldview informed more by science than Scripture.

Initially, Stacy and I were on the same page, preferring a tailored penis. We grew up in the 1970s, when the vast majority of American-born males, Jews and gentiles, were routinely clipped, ostensibly for health reasons. (Today, the U.S. circumcision rate is closer to 50 percent.)

In the '70s, public school health classes warned us against LSD and angel-dust use, not cultural insensitivity. Those one or two unlucky lads with intact foreskins were teased mercilessly in gym class. Now that Stacy and I were becoming parents, we cringed at the idea of our son suffering through childhood nicknamed "turtle" or "anteater."

That is, until we explored the issue further. Today, most circumcisions are done not for health or even religious reasons, but cultural ones. In short, dads want their sons to look like them in the shower. At least in Stacy's opinion, that was not a sufficient reason for performing minor surgery on an infant.

So she switched sides. Her decision was both rational and maternal: If half the pee-pees in our son's school will look like his, no one will make a big deal about it. More importantly, if our obstetrician saw no medical benefit, why do it? Stacy began to see circumcision less as a preventative measure, like the smallpox vaccine, and more as a form of bodily mutilation.

I was slower to abandon my past prejudices. My cognitive dissonance was fueled by a begrudging acceptance that the science at the time showed no measurable gains from circumcision. Indeed, even the 2012 AAP policy falls short of recommending it. It suggests — rightly, I think — that such decisions are best left to the family.

My faith in science also suggested that biological structures don't evolve haphazardly. If the prehistoric Johnson evolved wearing a hoodie, presumably nature thought it needed one. To cut it off without good cause seemed — excuse the pun — a willy-nilly decision.

Still, despite all rational evidence to the contrary, I couldn't get over my unease with not circumcising. That was partly fueled by the knowledge that my father, who died in 2004 and never met his grandchildren, would have been disappointed I'm not raising my kids Jewish. And there's no act more tangibly symbolic of a father's commitment to raise a Jewish son than to cut the flesh of his loins. Thus, the origins of Jewish humor.

For a time, Stacy and I considered holding a symbolic, vegetarian bris, during which no meat would be cut. We even joked about serving kosher hotdogs with the tips removed just to keep things light.

Then one night I realized why I was so fraught about foreskins. My discomfort wasn't driven by the weight of a 5000-year-old tradition, a concern over locker-room bullies or a fear that my dad was scowling from beyond the grave. It was a visceral reaction grounded in primitive and irrational fears, reinforced throughout childhood, that the foreskin is unclean, unhygienic. Not "one of us." That realization made me really uncomfortable.

On May 8, 2012, Ezra Matthew, who bears my father's name, was born. Several days later, he was unceremoniously circumcised in the maternity ward. Ironically, Stacy was there but I wasn't, as our obstetrician did the procedure when she found a few minutes between deliveries.

In the end, we were swayed not by emotional, cultural or religious arguments, but by recent medical research we found convincing: All other things being equal, the risks associated with circumcision are minimal compared to the benefits in terms of reducing STD transmission, urinary tract infections and penile cancer.

The only "blessing" came from our obstetrician, who, at the end of the procedure, gave Ezra his first penile pointer: "Use it well."

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