Janesville resident Sarah Zeimet gave birth to her second child at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, Janesville, on March 19, 2019. A perfectly healthy baby boy.
While still pregnant but not knowing the sex of her unborn child, Zeimet did some preliminary research on circumcision in the event she gave birth to a boy. She said she was still unsure whether she would circumcise a son should she have one, when she came across an anti-circumcision post on Facebook. For her, that post sowed the first seed of doubt in the the procedure.
Zeimet discussed the matter with her husband. She said he shared her belief that circumcision, despite being a common practice, was not necessary for a child of theirs.
“It was like a relief,” she said she felt upon hearing him agree with her.
So when Zeimet’s gynecologist asked during a prenatal appointment if she was going to get her child circumcised if it was a boy, Zeimet replied she was not and the conversation ended there.
At the hospital, she welcomed her newborn son. Soon after delivery, nurses started asking if she was going to go ahead with a circumcision. A resolute Zeimet said no. She said three nurses, stopping by her recovery room on separate occasions, asked, only to be met with the same response.
Finally, a fourth nurse came in to prep the infant to be circumcised, Zeimet said, before she shouted “No.”
“I was horrified that if he was taken out of the room that they were going to circumcise him,” she said.
Hospital: ‘Parents decide’
Mercyhealth Hospital officials said patient confidentiality prevents them from discussing particular cases. But in a statement, Dr. Mark Goelzer, Mercyhealth’s medical director, said the “risks and benefits” of circumcision are discussed between parents and a pediatrician.
“We find that most parents have made the decision to circumcise their baby before arriving at the hospital for delivery,” he said. “Ultimately the parents decide.”
Goelzer said the procedure is often done at the hospital by a pediatrician or a pediatric urologist either soon after birth or at a later date, depending on the wishes of the baby’s parents.
In the weeks after the birth of her son, Zeimet said several friends and family members asked if she had had her son circumcised. After sharing the fact that she and her husband opted not to have their boy circumcised, she said she felt some backlash that made her feel anxious about her decision.
“Did I make the right choice? Did I do the right thing? All these people are angry with me for it,” she said.
Zeimet’s experience is not unique, as the topic of circumcision has long been taboo. Only recently has opposition to the procedure grown.
A centuries-old practice
The history of circumcision is deeply rooted in religious traditions, as the practice dates back 3,000 years in Jewish culture and among Muslims and Christians for nearly as long.
Adoption of the practice in the U.S. was largely based on perceived hygienic benefits. During World War II, soldiers had very limited access to hygiene facilities and males were encouraged to get circumcised to avoid infection and disease.
Since then the operation became a cultural norm, evidenced by the fact that between 76% and 92% of males in the U.S. are circumcised, according to the World Health Organization. However, there has been a downward trend among new parents who have decided to have their sons circumcised. Between 1979 and 2010, the rate at which male babies were circumcised dropped by nearly 10%.
Outside of religion, the arguments for circumcision are that they are performed to help lower the risk of urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated these benefits are not sufficient enough to convince the medical community to recommend the routine practice of circumcision.
Goelzer said studies have shown a slight increase in kidney infections among uncircumcised male infants as well as a higher risk for contracting HIV later in life.
“The flip side of that is that there are small percentages in both aspects,” he said. “So you have to weigh the pros and cons of what people’s desires are versus what the science would say.”
Reasons vary as to why people opt to not have their children undergo the surgery. Some parents worry that the operation can result in injury, are concerned that sexual sensitivity will decrease or that a child’s general long-term psychological well-being could be harmed.
There is disagreement that these concerns are valid, especially the latter. There are conflicting studies about the prevalence of psychological effects due to circumcision. Additionally, there have been multiple studies showing no link between circumcision and sexual sensitivity.
The rise of ‘intactivists’
Ramping up the debate is a movement by those vehemently opposed to what they consider “genital mutilation.” Self-proclaimed “intactivists”—those who protest the routine removal or alteration of the foreskin of the penis of a child. They argue that children are unable to consent to the procedure.
“Body modifications are inappropriate for anybody under the age of 18 that cannot make a sound and reasonable, rational decision regarding something as extreme as sex part removal,” Zeimet said.
When she isn’t busy caring for her children, Zeimet said she shares her experience via social media and with friends or acquaintances. Online she found the group Intact America, which she now helps disseminate anti-circumcision information with people across the country.
Intact America’s mission is to bring about a world “where children are free from medically unnecessary surgeries carried out on them without their consent in the name of culture, religion, profit, parental preference or false benefit.”
The group posts testimonials, including that of Zeimet, to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma parents who leave their boys “intact” experience.
Georganne Chapin, executive director of Intact America, said what Zeimet said she went through is all-too common.
“The fact that she was pressured multiple times shows how common the practice is, how cavalier people are about it,” Chapin said.
Zeimet says she knows firsthand how difficult it can be to go against societal norms.
“But trends show children of millennials are growing up in an intact generation,” she said.