Myth 1: They just cut off a flap of skin. Reality check: Not true. The foreskin is half of the penis's skin, not just a flap. In an adult man, the foreskin is 15 square inches of skin. In babies and children, the foreskin is adhered to the head of the penis with the same type of tissue that adheres fingernails to their nail beds. Removing it requires shoving a blunt probe between the foreskin and the head of the penis and then cutting down and around the whole penis.
First, the average surface area of the foreskin is 36.8 square centimetres, which is 5.7 square inches not 15. Second, it's a gross exaggeration to liken the adhesions between the glans and foreskin to the nail bed. The foreskin and glans are primed to separate, and have often begun (though rarely completed) this process at birth. Separating the two is relatively trivial, requiring little force.
Myth 2: It doesn't hurt the baby. Reality check: Wrong. In 1997, doctors in Canada did a study to see what type of anesthesia was most effective in relieving the pain of circumcision. As with any study, they needed a control group that received no anesthesia. The doctors quickly realized that the babies who were not anesthetized were in so much pain that it would be unethical to continue with the study. Even the best commonly available method of pain relief studied, the dorsal penile nerve block, did not block all the babies' pain. Some of the babies in the study were in such pain that they began choking and one even had a seizure (Lander 1997).
Yes, circumcision without anaesthesia hurts. But the very study cited acknowledged that ring block was effective: "Of the 3 anesthetics considered in this investigation, ring block is clearly superior. It provides satisfactory anesthesia for all stages of the circumcision. While newborns fussed periodically over the restraints or being handled, they typically did not react to the most nociceptive elements of the circumcision (such as foreskin separation and incision)."
Myth 3: My doctor uses anesthesia. Reality check: Not necessarily. Most newborns do not receive adequate anesthesia. Only 45% of doctors who do circumcisions use any anesthesia at all. Obstetricians perform 70% of circumcisions and are least likely to use anesthesia - only 25% do. The most common reasons why they don't? They didn't think the procedure warranted it, and it takes too long (Stang 1998). A circumcision with adequate anesthesia takes a half-hour - if they brought your baby back sooner, he was in severe pain during the surgery.
The cited source (Stang and Snellman) is thirteen years old, and probably doesn't represent current practice very well. A more recent study found considerable differences in use of anaesthesia in only five years: 71% in 1998 and 97% in 2003.
Myth 4: Even if it is painful, the baby won't remember it. Reality check: The body is a historical repository and remembers everything. The pain of circumcision causes a rewiring of the baby's brain so that he is more sensitive to pain later (Taddio 1997, Anand 2000). Circumcision also can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anger, low self-esteem and problems with intimacy (Boyle 2002, Hammond 1999, Goldman 1999). Even with a lack of explicit memory and the inability to protest - does that make it right to inflict pain? Law requires anesthesia for animal experimentation - do babies deserve any less?
There's no credible evidence that circumcision has any such long-term psychological effects. Claims to the contrary are entirely speculative, as can be seen by reading the cited sources.
Myth 5: My baby slept right through it. Reality check: Not possible without total anesthesia, which is not available. Even the dorsal penile nerve block leaves the underside of the penis receptive to pain. Babies go into shock, which though it looks like a quiet state, is actually the body's reaction to profound pain and distress. Nurses often tell the parents "He slept right through it" so as not to upset them. Who would want to hear that his or her baby was screaming in agony?
This "explanation" is amusingly contrived, but of course Occam's Razor favours the alternative explanation: that the baby actually did sleep through the procedure. This is perfectly consistent with studies of adult circumcision under anaesthesia, in which pain is reported by only a few men. For example, pain was reported by 0.83% of men in one study, and 0.2-0.3% in another.
Myth 6: It doesn't cause the baby long-term harm. Reality check: Incorrect. Removal of healthy tissue from a non-consenting patient is, in itself, harm (more on this point later). Circumcision has an array of risks and side effects. There is a 1-3% complication rate during the newborn period alone (Schwartz 1990). Here is a short list potential complications.
1-3% is a bit of an exaggeration. A recent systematic review found a median of 1.5%, but most are extremely minor.
This section continues:
Meatal Stenosis: Many circumcised boys and men suffer from meatal stenosis. This is a narrowing of the urethra which can interfere with urination and require surgery to fix.
While there's no proof, it seems likely that circumcision is a contributing factor to meatal stenosis. However, it's an exaggeration to say that "many" suffer. The largest study of circumcision and meatal stenosis found 7 cases in 66,519 circumcisions - 0.01%. The next two largest studies found risks of 0.9% (29 in 3,205) and 0.55% (11 in 2,000).
Adhesions. Circumcised babies can suffer from adhesions, where the foreskin remnants try to heal to the head of the penis in an area they are not supposed to grow on. Doctors treat these by ripping them open with no anesthesia.
As with uncircumcised boys, adhesions can occur. And, as with uncircumcised boys, they usually resolve without treatment. See this study.
(I'm skipping discussion of buried penis and infection. Both can occur, though the risk of each is small.)
Death. Babies can even die of circumcision. Over 100 newborns die each year in the USA, mostly from loss of blood and infection (Van Howe 1997 & 2004, Bollinger 2010).
This figure is wrong, as we've discussed previously.