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Three winners have been selected from the gratifyingly multitudinous and high quality submissions to the first annual Parenting Beyond Belief Column Competition. The winners are:

BLAKE EVANS, “Circumcision Decision”
ROBBIN DAWSON, “Look at the Bird”
ROBYN PARNELL, “Grandmas Gone God-Wild”

The winning entries will be presented here and in Humanist Network News in no particular order over the coming three months. Thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to Blake, Robbin, and Robyn!

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Circumcision Decision

by Blake Evans
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“I’ve decided to let you decide whether or not to circumcise.”

Sally said this to me one night, about six months into her pregnancy.

“Only if it’s a boy, though, right?”

One side of her mouth turned up. “Yes. Only if it’s a boy,” she said patiently.

Obviously, we had chosen not to learn the gender of the fetus. So few surprises in life and all that. But, apparently, that did not absolve me from making this decision.

“Why do I have to decide?” I asked.

“OK, I’ll tell you what: if it’s a boy, you decide. If it’s a girl, I decide.”

Didn’t seem quite fair somehow.

In the interest of too much full disclosure, I should note that I am circumcised, as are most men who were born in the US between the mid-1870’s and the mid-1970’s. According to Edward Wallerstein, author of Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy, the practice started in the US as a way of discouraging masturbation, and only started to wane in the 70’s after the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “…there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” Still, neonatal circumcision in the US is believed to be as high as 60% of all male newborns.

Why is it still done? Part of the answer lies in religious and traditional beliefs.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. — Genesis 17:10

And Herodotus, the Father of History, writing in the 5th century BCE, said of the Egyptian priests, “whereas other men… have their members as nature made them, the Egyptians practice circumcision.” I doubt, though, that either of these explains why my Unitarian parents chose to have me and my brother cut.

“If you decide not to circumcise him, I don’t think I’m comfortable cleaning it.”

“What? Why not?”

“I don’t know how!”

“Well, what makes you think I do? I’ve never had to clean one that wasn’t cut.”

Some people point out that most cultures that practice circumcision come from desert environments, and perhaps this practice prevented infections, called balanitis, that might occur when sand gets under the foreskin. In fact a nurse practitioner at the OB’s office mentioned this when I asked for her opinion.

“They said they see an increase in infection in uncircumcised males over in Iraq, so there does seem to be some benefit.” I was never able to confirm this, and I found it stated as a reason for circumcision going back at least as far as World War II, but there was never any evidence for it. Preemptive cutting to avoid balanitis seemed a bit like removing his appendix on the off-chance he gets appendicitis.

“Plus,” continued the NP,” there is reason to believe it reduces the transmission of HIV and other STDs.” Well, so do condoms, but much more effectively.

“So, have you decided?” Sally’s sister was visiting and had just been told that it was all up to me.

“Not yet.”

“Well, if you want my opinion, I haven’t seen many that were uncut. But… they’re kinda weird.”

Aesthetics is definitely about what one is used to seeing. As Herodotus said further about the Egyptians, “they circumcise themselves for the sake of cleanliness, preferring to be clean rather than comely.” Apparently circumcised penises looked weird to the ancient Greeks. I, as with most of my generation, am used to the circumcised look.

Which was exactly why I was having such a problem deciding. Wasn’t my hesitation ultimately about my son looking like me? If there “are no valid medical indications for circumcision,” why on Earth would I do it? If I were uncut, or if I was from a religious tradition that required it as a covenant, I doubt this would even have been a question in my mind. But based purely on aesthetics, with no medical evidence to validate it, nor religious tenet to guide me, how could I justify removing something that could never be replaced? How could I surgically alter “his member as nature made it?”

In the delivery room, Sally asked me again, “Have you decided about the circumcision?”

“I’m about 80% sure I’ll leave it intact.”

What did I eventually do?

I had a daughter.
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BLAKE EVANS recently left a consulting practice to become a stay-at-home dad. He lives in New York City with his partner Sally, their child CJ, and a brown dog. During nap-time, he runs the blog domestic father, a site dedicated to skeptical parenting and critical thinking.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.