Foreskins for Keeps – An Idea Whose Time Has Come
[This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 81, Spring 2007.]
I was genitally mutilated when cut by a scalpel while giving birth at 17 years of age. It was called an episiotomy and it was “routine” for women 40 years ago. That painful surgery led me to the homebirths of my next two children because I knew that cutting genitals was wrong. Back then, women didn’t have scientific studies or evidence, we simply knew it couldn’t be right and we didn’t have to prove it. Years later, a large randomized controlled study at BC Women’s Hospital proved what I and thousands of other women always knew: Episiotomies do harm. (1)
I have two intact brothers and one cut brother. My mother always regretted having her last son circumcised because “the doctor said it was best.” My youngest brother had the misfortune to be born at the height of the Canadian circumcision epidemic in 1957 and the covering of his sensitive newborn glans was stripped from it with no anesthetic, crushed and amputated.
When I started midwifery practice in the 1970s, protecting infant boys from unnecessary pain by opposing circumcision seemed a natural part of the gentle birth movement. I found that most couples, with the rare exception of practicing Jews and Muslims, could not see any point in cutting their sons. I would do my best to talk even religious clients out of circumcision because I felt that someone had to warn them that their baby would be bloody, sore and fussy for days after the operation. One father of a premature boy wanted to circumcise his tiny five-pound son because he felt it was the right thing to do. He had been circumcised as an infant and thought this was the preferred status for a man. I was able to “educate” him out of the idea and this is a story about that little boy that took place 18 years later:
I was at a coffee shop and a woman came up to me and inquired “Gloria?” I didn’t know who she was and she explained to me that I had attended her homebirth 18 years before. The story started to come together for me. I think I didn’t recognize her because I had only met her once before she gave birth to her son. The woman had had a heart-shaped uterus and she gave birth at 34 weeks (six weeks early). They insisted on birthing at home and basically told me they would go unassisted if I didn’t come to the home. The birth went well, baby weighed about 5 lb and we pumped the colostrum and dropper-fed him for a while but baby thrived. I had a place on my chart where I was prompted to ask “Will your son’s penis be left intact?” but I hadn’t gotten to that question before they gave birth. I was shocked to find out on day three that the father was making plans to circumcise this tiny little guy. I tried everything I knew to talk him out of it but he was adamant that it would happen. I even threatened to bring out the really nasty colored pictures that I had. He came right back with his intention to get very nasty with me if I persisted in obstructing him. I was just sick about it. Finally, I dropped off on their kitchen counter a very “bland” pamphlet from our local hospital that really didn’t take a position about circumcision pro or con. I don’t, to this day, know what hit that father as a mind-changing piece of information but when I came back for the next postnatal visit he had transformed! He told me that after he read the pamphlet he had decided to speak to his own parents about his anger at being cut. Anyway, 18 years later, there I was in a coffee shop with the mother and that boy. He’s a big, good-looking man now. The mother said to her son “This is the lady who delivered you and you should thank her for giving you your life.” He, of course, didn’t know what to say to that but he offered his hand for me to shake. I said to him “No, I didn’t deliver you and I didn’t give you life—you and your Mom figured all of that out by yourselves. What I would like you to thank me for is your foreskin because I went to bat for you when your Dad thought you should be circumcised, and that part wasn’t easy.” He looked me in the eyes and really understood what I was saying and gave me a big “Thank you.” That was a moment!