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December 08, 1989 - Image 117

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-12-08

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Rethinking Circumcision

The debate is heating up as the medical profession
changes its opinion on the necessity for


Special to The Jewish News


ometimes the ideas our
parents discarded as
absurd and outworn
our own generation redis-
covers as wisdom. In medi-
cine, for example, any number
of once-popular recommenda-
tions — from natural child-
birth to oat bran — fell into
disfavor, only to enjoy
renewed vogue in recent
years. Now the pendulum of
medical opinion has begun to
swing again as doctors re-
evaluate their attitudes
toward the ancient practice of

For Jews, of course, the
question has never arisen.
Ever since Abraham circum-
cised himself and Isaac, his
descendants have sealed their
covenant with God through
the ceremony of brit milah.
Until very recently, a circum-
cised man was almost in-
variably Jewish or Moslem.
The only exceptions were
members of a few African
tribes, English royalty and
the minority of Gentiles who
had undergone the operation
as a medical necessity.
All that changed, however,
around the turn of the cen-
tury, when American physi-
cians began to urge universal
circumcision, • albeit for rea-

sons that would have ap-
palled Abraham. Victorian
doctors believed erroneously
that circumcision would
desensitize the penis and
dampen men's enthusiasm for
By the 1970s, up to 80
percent of all American
male infants underwent the
80 percent of all American
male infants underwent the
operation, usually at the urg-
ing of their pediatricians. Thn
years ago in this country, no
one could tell the Jews from
the Gentiles in any locker
That high tide began to ebb
in 1971, when the American
Academy of Pediatrics and

the American College of Ob-
stetricians and Gynecologists
jointly advised parents not to
circumcise their sons in the
absence of a compelling re-
ligious or medical reason.
And as medical enthusiasm
waned, so did the rate of cir-
cumcision. By the late 1980s,
fewer than half of all parents
chose to circumcise their
For one thing, doctors final-
ly woke up to the fact that
newborns do feel pain. As any
Jewish parent can testify, cir-
cumcision hurts. In dry medi-
cal fashion, the American
Academy of Pediatrics noted,
"Infants undergoing circum-
cision without anesthesia

demonstrate physiologic
responses suggesting that
they are experiencing pain.
Behavioral changes include a
cry pattern indicating dis-
tress during the circumcision
procedure and changes in ac-
tivity (irritability, varying
sleep patterns) and in infant'
maternal interaction for the
first few hours after: ,-
Most babies, of course, suf-
fer nothing more than a few
hours of transient pain but
even so, Gentile parents
hesitated to subject their in-
fants to medically unneces-
sary distress. Besides, local
anesthesia, while available in
the form of dorsal penile
nerve block, carries its own



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