Sometimes a purpose gets dropped in our laps when we least expect it. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that on October 2, 1981, my life would forever be changed by a television show that I watched, seemingly by chance. Looking back now, I realize that this happened not by chance, but by God’s design, to touch my heart and prompt me to get involved in trying to make life better for baby boys yet to be born.
That particular Friday evening, my husband and I were waiting for his brother to come for a visit. We sat down to watch television to pass time. The show “NBC Magazine” came on, with a segment about infant circumcision called “The Casual Cut.” As I watched the show, I became more and more shocked by what I saw and heard. I listened as one doctor after another explained that there were no valid medical reasons for performing routine circumcisions on baby boys. One doctor who did circumcisions said that circumcisions were mainly done for parental preference in the United States. In horror, I watched and heard short segments of a newborn baby boy being circumcised. Edward Wallerstein, author of the book CIRCUMCISION: An American Health Fallacy, told how circumcision is not practiced in most other countries. He called it a “cop out” that American doctors do not stop performing medically unnecessary circumcisions, but instead take a neutral position by saying they’ll let the parents decide.
I was stunned. Why had I never before heard any of this? Why had most parents never heard this? I did not know any of this when my oldest daughter was born in 1972, more than a year after the American Academy of Pediatrics had said that “there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” Why, before my second daughter was born in 1977, was I asked upon admission to the hospital if I wanted my baby circumcised if I had a boy? No medical doctor had up to that point in time even mentioned the word circumcision, let alone told me it was unnecessary surgery, but now a woman working in admissions was soliciting me for this surgery. When I thought back to being questioned this way, I became more and more angry. If my second child had been a boy, I would have known nothing about circumcision, and my baby would also have suffered terribly from this surgery. Why were doctors painfully amputating the healthy foreskins of eighty-five percent of American baby boys in 1981, without anesthesia, when there was no valid medical reason for it? Today I know the driving force in medicine is money, but back then I didn’t understand why doctors would do such a ghastly thing to baby boys when no national medical association in the world recommends it. Seeing this show turned out to be a defining moment for me. For the very first time, I understood how some in my own family had suffered needlessly as a result of unnecessary circumcisions, and I was outraged. This should never have happened to them. The medical reasons were bogus, and the damages are real. It made no sense then. It makes no sense now.
I had a lot to think about, but not many ideas on what I could do to help protect baby boys from medically unnecessary circumcisions. My first step after watching this show was to read Edward Wallerstein’s book, in an attempt to educate myself about circumcision. Then I spoke with my friend who was a La Leche League leader. Together we signed a letter to the editor that I composed to send to two local newspapers, telling people the facts about circumcision. I was afraid at first to put my name alone on this letter, since most people in the United States do not talk openly about circumcision. For me, this was just the first step in a long, evolving journey.
I don’t remember how, but somehow I learned of a childbirth group fighting against infant circumcision. I contacted this group. I arranged for a speaker to come speak about circumcision to two local childbirth classes. I ordered booklets and learned that genital cutting is practiced not only on baby boys in the United States, but also on females in Africa and the Middle East. In some of these countries, young girls are subjected to circumcision, excision, and infibulation, and I inwardly wept as I read what is done to girls there and saw photos of this inhumane practice. I thought of my own daughters. No child, male or female, ever deserves to be treated this way. Children deserve equal protection from both male and female genital mutilation.
The year 1982 brought forth with it the birth of my third daughter. During my prenatal care, I told my doctor to write “No Circumcision” on my chart if I had a boy. While walking in the hospital hallway one evening after my daughter was born, I suddenly heard the gut wrenching screams of a baby, coming from behind the closed curtains of the nursery. I overheard others say that this baby boy was being circumcised, and I saw the baby’s father standing in the hall joking about it. I could not bear to hear what this poor baby was being forced to endure. I rushed back to my room, closed the door, stuck my fingers in my ears, and tried to block out the pitiful cries of this baby. Nothing I did worked. The baby’s screams were so loud and so desperate that they reached to the far ends of the hall, and I felt like screaming too. The screams of this poor child, who could not escape the doctor’s knife, were burned into my brain. I felt sick inside. This was not the way a baby should be welcomed into the world. This was not the way to love a child. The doctor who was torturing and mutilating this child had no respect for this child’s human rights or human dignity. I determined then and there that I would do everything within my power to try to stop circumcisions wherever I could. This became my goal and my purpose, and I went home driven by a power I could not explain. I may have been just a wife and mother, but I would not let that stop me from trying to make a difference. I had a mission, and I would not be able to live with myself if I didn’t try to help these children. I felt sick at heart that I couldn’t help this defenseless child, but I would do whatever I could to try to help others. The Christophers’ motto of lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness became an inspiration for me going forward.
Every day, sitting at my dining room table, I typed out letter after letter to newspaper editors about infant circumcision on an old, manual, Signature typewriter. This time, only my name appeared on these letters. One by one, I mailed a letter each day to every daily newspaper in the United States. Within a couple of years, I had contacted every newspaper, large and small. I gave an address in the letter for people to write to for more information, and I took great joy in the response of one mother who wrote that she protected her baby boy as a result of my letter. Even if my efforts resulted in only one child being protected, that made it all worthwhile. That would be one less child who suffered for no good reason.
The most common reason parents give today for circumcising a son is so he will “look like” the circumcised father, which perpetuates this abuse from one generation to the next, while ignoring the best interests and bodily integrity rights of the child. (When American doctors sold circumcision to mothers in the past, most fathers were intact, so their circumcised sons did not end up “looking like” them.) The child, who is created perfectly by God, is not allowed to look like himself if he is circumcised to “look like” someone else. Instead, the baby is forced to suffer terribly to satisfy the father’s ego, and the mother suffers too when she abandons her protective, maternal instincts and allows this to happen to her child. Why can’t parents love and accept their children as they are? I feel so blessed that my husband never put any pressure on me to harm our son for self-centered reasons, as some fathers do. His actions were instead loving and selfless, and I admire him for that.
If parents could see what happens to a baby during an actual circumcision, I think most would be so horrified that they would never allow this to happen to their sons. Today I realize that too many doctors don’t want parents to see an infant circumcision, because then parents would say no to circumcision and doctors would lose out on that income, but back then I didn’t realize this. Many parents who circumcised their sons out of ignorance, both now and in the past, are later filled with regrets, and some have even apologized to their sons for not protecting them. Some circumcised men today have on their own chosen to undergo the lengthy process of non-surgical foreskin restoration, to try to undo some of the harms caused by circumcision and to feel whole once again. Other men wish they could bring lawsuits against the doctors and hospitals responsible for circumcising them unnecessarily as infants.
When I finished writing to every daily newspaper, I went on to send letters to Christian newspapers and college newspapers. I donated Wallerstein’s book on circumcision to my local library. I obtained a copy of a video showing an actual infant circumcision and had that aired on local public access television stations. I wrote to physicians and childbirth educators where I live and made them aware of this video to use in their classes. One obstetrician, who originally was from Germany where circumcision is rare, called to thank me. After doing all these things, I reached the point where I became physically and emotionally exhausted. I hit a roadblock. I ran out of ideas. I needed to rest.
In the years that followed, I prayed that God would guide me and give me new ideas on what I could do next to help protect babies. He had chosen a most unlikely person to try to educate the public about circumcision. As a high school senior, I had been voted the quietest girl in my class, in a class of over five hundred students. Now I was plastering my name all over the United States in an attempt to convince parents to protect their baby boys from painful, medically unnecessary circumcisions. What was I thinking? Discussing this taboo subject in public was not going to make me many friends. It brought negative comments from some. Before this, I did not realize how controversial a subject circumcision could be. This path was not a path I would ever have chosen for myself. As a mother living a fairly simple life out in the country, I remember thinking that God could certainly have chosen someone far more sophisticated for this purpose than I.
Why did the screams of a baby boy being circumcised hit a nerve in me in such a powerful way? I can only guess, but I suspect it is because I find it easy to empathize with these babies. Circumcision is a form of sexual abuse, and I’m horrified when children are subjected to that. In addition, I was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes at the age of nine. Diabetes has taught me firsthand a lot about pain and suffering and loss, and also something about compassion. The daily insulin injections I take are painful but necessary to stay alive. The blood tests I do are also necessary for me to maintain control, but the suffering and loss experienced by these babies from circumcision is not medically necessary, and that is what makes this so appalling to me. What kind of a culture have we Americans created, where we think that a baby boy is not perfect when he is born, and we want a doctor to do painful, penile surgery on him to fit our misguided notions of what we think he should look like? Why are doctors and others so deaf to the screams of these children, children who are telling us to stop this cruelty? Circumcision is not a loving or nice thing to do to baby boys, and it is no more acceptable here than is female circumcision acceptable in countries where that exists.
For a time, my efforts to work toward stopping unnecessary circumcisions took a back seat. That purpose remained within me, but family responsibilities trumped any outside efforts I might have made. I did send a video and information to my sister-in-law, who protected her second son from circumcision when he was born in 1986. When her first son was born in 1981, she said a nurse told her that she “had to” sign the circumcision consent form, so she did. What this nurse told her was not true. She did not “have to” sign that consent form, but she didn’t realize this at the time.
In 1987, my fourth child, a son, was born prematurely. Shortly after my son’s birth, I told his neonatologist that under no circumstances was my son to be circumcised. My son’s doctor, who was outspoken against circumcision, went back to the intensive care nursery and told the nurses to write “No Circumcision” on my son’s chart. (The only person who should ever make a decision about elective circumcision is the male himself, since this is HIS body and rightfully HIS choice. Involuntary circumcision removes that choice from the only person who should be making it. Leaving a baby intact respects the male’s choice, and most intact men never choose to be circumcised. Solicitation of parents for infant circumcision by American doctors and hospitals is a practice that should have ended years ago.) Later, when I was well enough to walk down to the nursery to see my son, all of the nurses there told me that after the doctor told them what to write, they all began to smile and cheer. These nurses know what circumcision does to baby boys. Unfortunately, too many parents do not. When I returned to the hospital later for my six week check-up, the obstetrician solicited me for circumcision at my last visit with him. This was his last chance to make money from me, if he could convince me to mutilate my son. I told him no, but I found his behavior so disgusting that I wished later that I had said more.
After some reflection, several years ago I decided to change doctors and go elsewhere for annual checkups. When I had questioned my doctor in 1982 during my prenatal care, he told me that circumcisions were medically unnecessary, that he had seen infants die from them while he was in medical school, but that he circumcises babies anyway if parents want that. Since I could no longer in good conscience go to a doctor who would mistreat children this way, I wrote a letter to him explaining why he was losing me as a patient. Today I refuse to go to any doctor who kills children before they are born or who mutilates them after they are born. It is hard to find ethical doctors who live up to this standard, and who follow the medical dictum to “First, Do No Harm,” but I won’t lower my standards. A doctor who will not respect the rights of children is not a doctor I want to see or pay.
Whatever my efforts against circumcision have been through the years, my efforts pale in comparison to others who have done infinitely more. Marilyn Milos of California played a key role in 1982 when she produced a videotape of a baby boy being circumcised at a hospital and started showing it to expectant parents. As a nurse, she was fired for educating parents about circumcision, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for so many babies. This firing led her to found the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, and to devote herself full-time to the purpose of educating the public about circumcision. Today the circumcision rate in California has declined to around twenty percent, largely due to Marilyn Milos’ educational efforts and Medi-Cal’s decision in 1982 to stop wasting tax dollars on infant circumcisions.
Another woman with a purpose, Rosemary Romberg, wrote the book Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma, which was published in 1985. She too was interviewed on the television segment “The Casual Cut,” and spoke out eloquently in opposition to routine infant circumcision. A group of purpose-driven nurses in New Mexico founded Nurses for the Rights of the Child and became conscientious objectors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe. These nurses refuse to participate in any way with the circumcisions of baby boys, but they had to fight the hospital to gain that right. Others have written books, worked at baby fairs, written letters, given speeches, lobbied legislators, displayed and demonstrated at medical conferences, and so much more. Collectively, all of these efforts have seen the circumcision rate in the United States drop closer to 50 percent today – still way too high, but significantly lower than in the past. As more parents become educated about circumcision, the circumcision rate continues to drop. Education is ultimately what will probably put an end to this cruel practice. Doctors will not stop circumcisions on their own, unless forced to do so by more lawsuits brought against them. I am so glad for the sake of my five grandsons that they did not suffer the pain and trauma of circumcision and were left intact. They had a peaceful and loving start in life, something I wish all children could have.
New opportunities for me to reach more people about circumcision opened up when we got a computer and were connected to the Internet. Once again, I sent letters to newspapers and other publications throughout the country. I sent letters to thousands of state legislators, encouraging them to drop Medicaid funding of unnecessary circumcisions. My letter to one Jewish legislator in Arizona convinced her to take the initiative to defund Medicaid circumcisions in that state. In 1999, only six states in the United States did not pay for Medicaid circumcisions. Today, that number has increased in several more states. Insurance and Medicaid payment for medically unnecessary circumcision drives up health care costs for everyone. I do not take credit for these successes, since others have worked hard to achieve these goals. I have played a small part, though, and my role has helped in the total effort.
I draw great strength and inspiration from my Roman Catholic faith. As a lay Catholic, one of my goals today is to get U.S. Catholic hospitals to stop performing non-therapeutic infant circumcisions. While looking at the Catholic Catechism years ago, the words in paragraph # 2297 jumped off the page at me. A sentence under “Respect for bodily integrity” revealed to me where I should next focus my efforts. This sentence reads, “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.” These words confirmed for me what I already knew in my heart. Stopping infant circumcisions at U.S. Catholic hospitals is the morally right thing to do. Infant circumcisions are non-therapeutic foreskin amputations, and no Catholic hospital should be performing them in violation of Catholic Catechism teaching, Catholic hospital Ethical and Religious Directives, and New Testament teachings.
In 2002 and again in 2004, I wrote to all of the U.S. Catholic bishops and cardinals, and even the Pope, urging them to stop non-therapeutic circumcisions at U.S. Catholic hospitals. Circumcision at Catholic hospitals in other countries is not a problem like it is in the U.S., since infant circumcisions are not done routinely in most other countries. The small number of bishops who did respond to my letter failed to grasp the moral and ethical concerns surrounding this issue, and some still believed the old health myths. The vast majority of U.S. Catholic bishops never had the courtesy to respond, which was frustrating to me. I went on to write to over six hundred U.S. Catholic hospitals. Some administrators referred my letter to their ethics departments for consideration. I discovered that unfortunately, when ethics about circumcision come into play against profits from circumcision, profits win out. Catholic hospitals don’t live up to their own stated teachings. This lack of concern by U.S. Catholic bishops and U.S. Catholic hospital administrators that “Respect for bodily integrity” is being violated at U.S. Catholic hospitals is nothing less than scandalous.
In March of 2003, one day before the deadline to submit an article to “The American Journal of Bioethics”, I learned of an article that was soon to be published in that journal, written by two non-Christian men in defense of non-therapeutic infant circumcisions at U.S. Catholic hospitals. I knew I had to respond, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about doing that with so little time. I recall thinking that here I was, a mother of four and grandmother of two at that time, with only a B.A. after my name, and God was asking me to respond to an article written by two men with Ph.D.’s after theirs. What, in heaven’s name, was God thinking? I didn’t know then how I was going to write an article on such short notice, but somehow God provided me with the exact words I needed to say. My article appeared in that magazine later that spring, and that article and many others appear at the Catholics Against Circumcision website I helped others create at http://www.catholicsagainstcircumcision.org/ . I felt great joy when a Catholic father from Kansas wrote to say that he protected his second son from circumcision after reading the articles at this site. I also researched and have posted online at http://wisewomanwayofbirth.com/circumcision-dirty-little-secrets-exposed/ a long and growing list of botched circumcisions and infant circumcision deaths – heartbreaking tragedies that never should have happened to children.
The spring of 2003 brought with it one further development, when the editor of “The Linacre Quarterly,” the journal of the Catholic Medical Association, wrote to say that he wanted to print my letter to him in their next issue, as an open letter to Catholic physicians. I had already written letters to Catholic newspapers, Catholic magazines, and various Catholic groups about circumcision at U.S. Catholic hospitals, and now this letter would openly confront Catholic physicians who were doing medically unnecessary circumcisions. It seemed incomprehensible to me that I had gone from being a young mother watching a television show about circumcision in 1981 to being an activist challenging the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic medical establishment in 2003 to do the right thing, but that was where God had led me, accompanied by all of my fears and misgivings. In the beginning, I kept asking myself, “What will people think of me if I do this or that?” I had now reached the point where it no longer mattered what people thought of me. If God asks me to do something now that will help babies, it does not matter if people attack me personally. What matters most is that baby boys are spared from painful, unnecessary circumcisions and allowed to live their lives as God has created them to be. In the years since 2003, Catholic publications have printed more articles against circumcision by other Catholics, including one in “The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly” in 2012, and a letter I had printed there in 2108.
From 2005 to 2008, I worked extensively on a project that got thousands of educational dvds into the hands of childbirth educators, midwives, and doulas who were contacted across the United States. I spent months finding email addresses for thousands of childbirth professionals. This project came about from an idea God unexpectedly gave me one day out of the blue. This dvd shows not only an actual infant circumcision, but also discusses in detail the anatomy and functions of the foreskin and how circumcision adversely affects the sexual experience for both men and women. Many wrote back to say that baby boys had been spared from circumcision after parents saw the free dvd and learned more, and they expressed their gratitude for having these much needed resources to share with parents. Some conveyed their hope that circumcision would become a thing of the past, much as the horrific foot-binding of little girls in China was abandoned a hundred years ago and is now a thing of the past.
In the beginning of this journey, I had hoped to see good results happen overnight. While that desire is still there, I have learned that sometimes one person puts down a foundation, others build upon that foundation, and then others in due time get to see the results. Similarly, my purpose at this point in time may be to only plant seeds, but hopefully others in the not too distant future will get to reap the harvest. It is not important who succeeds in reaching a goal, but that ultimately the goal gets reached.
It may seem to some that others have higher or loftier purposes in life than do I. After all, how much glory is there in fighting against the forced genital cutting of children that is euphemistically called circumcision? Americans do not get placed on pedestals or receive accolades for fighting against that. Nevertheless, God makes each one of us different, and He does not give to me the same purpose that He gives to you. Some of us are given humanitarian purposes like feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, or caring for the sick. Others of us are called to be the voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. We are all given ordinary purposes in life, but we are not all called to do the extraordinary. Some of us fulfill God’s purpose in our lives by performing our ordinary duties well – working hard to support our families, loving and caring for our children, helping our neighbors in the communities where we live. These ordinary purposes in life are no less valuable just because they are shared by so many. All of the good purposes in life, whether they are ordinary or extraordinary, are significant in the eyes of God.
If God does touch your heart with a special purpose, and He asks you to do something that goes beyond the ordinary duties of your daily life, it is your choice whether to say yes or to say no. Saying no might be the easier path to take, but saying yes could help others in ways you never imagined. In the beginning, you can never tell where a given path might lead you, with all of its twists and turns, but ultimately the journey will be far more rewarding if you say yes to God’s plan. In the end, when all is said and done and your own personal journey on earth is over, hopefully people will see that the world has become a better place as a result of your having lived in it and the actions that you took while you were here. One day I hope my epitaph can sum up my life and work this way: “She cared for and about children.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1994. Mahwah: Paulist Press: 553.
Romberg, Rosemary. 1985. CIRCUMCISION: The Painful Dilemma. South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc.
Wallerstein, Edward. 1980. CIRCUMCISION: An American Health Fallacy. New York: Springer Publishing Co.