Bodily Autonomy, Hypocrisy and the Penis Wars

I am a hypocrite. Pray tell? I am a huge advocate for bodily autonomy in almost all situations. I believe in a woman’s right to choose abortion at any time during her pregnancy for any reason. I am entirely against routine infant circumcision and even infant ear piercing. I don’t make my children show affection to their relatives. I teach them about consent and model consent with them daily. One of our house rules is even: “I stop when someone asks.” Pretty much my only exceptions to bodily autonomy are health (we aren’t skipping vaccines or necessary medical procedures) and hygiene (you are covered in poop, we need to take a bath) and even then, I am pretty flexible and consider alternatives if my children are unwilling.

However, the recent CDC announcement recommending infant circumcision and subsequent internet debates about circumcision have gotten me thinking. A dangerous pastime, I know. When is it appropriate to consent on behalf of your child? Can we make broad stroke statements about bodily autonomy? Should we “Monday morning quarterback” other parents’ decisions related to the health of their child or even about a procedure done for cultural or cosmetic reasons? What if there are no public health implications, as there are with vaccines?

2059214874_cd872f2ed7_zI am an intactivist. Until recently, I was firmly enmeshed in the natural parenting movement, which is full of absolutes – about everything from birth to breastfeeding, from infant care to intact penises. I have attended many internet arguments regarding circumcision and remained firm in my belief that routine infant circumcision is wrong. The CDC’s recent statements about the health benefits of routine infant circumcision are not only a stretch in a country with a relatively low HIV infection rate and where heterosexual men infected with HIV via vaginal sex make up less than 1% (0.86% to be exact) of new HIV cases. I feel strongly that they might instead want to focus on broader evidence-based strategies for prevention like promoting abstinence, mutual monogamy, limiting the number of people with whom you have sex, and consistent and correct condom use.

Their statement brings to light a key question – is the decision to circumcise your son a medical one? I am not sure. Unless there is a medical condition you are treating, I have always felt that circumcision was something that people did for cultural (my religion or family says this is the thing to do) or cosmetic (I want him to look like his dad and/or not face teasing in the locker room) reasons. Should we make decisions about permanent body modification for our children before they are able to consent? If yes, when is it okay?

My daughter at age 1

Back to me being a hypocrite. My daughter was born with congenital hemangiomas. These are noncancerous vascular tumors that can have serious complications or go away on their own, depending on the severity or location. One of my daughter’s hemangiomas was on her face. Starting at an early age, we were able to see one of the leading experts in the country and her team (including a pediatric plastic surgeon) regarding them. After her first appointment, they recommended we wait a year and return. In the meantime, people were cruel. At my grandfather’s funeral when she was six weeks old, people commented rudely about how God must have given it to her to teach us something and asked us if she would always be ugly. She was beautiful, by the way.

I had to explain hemangiomas to everyone from check out clerks to day care workers who thought that it was a burn or injury. Once she started to understand, people would ask her about it – “How did you get your ouchie?” When she was about 17 months old, we saw the team again. They informed us that her hemangioma was not going to go away. It was growing in such a way that it would not recede completely on its own and that if we didn’t intervene, she would have to have surgery eventually in order to remove a flap of skin and scar tissue. The resulting scarring from that surgery (likely at age 6 or 7) was likely to be extensive. There was also a chance that it would ulcerate, which could be painful and frightening for her. The alternative – we could have it excised at 18 months and she would have a small scar that most people would not notice after time.

My daughter at age 5

We chose to have the surgery. We did so without her consent. Why? Because people are cruel, and I didn’t want her to remember any pain or teasing. Her scarring could be controlled. Technically it was cosmetic. She wasn’t having any complications at the time. I have no problem with my decision to consent on her behalf to this surgery, which was mostly for cosmetic reasons. She got through the surgery with no complications. The procedure was done under general anesthesia by an amazing pediatric plastic surgeon with additional credentials in dermatology. She was literally running laps around me three hours later. Today, she has a tiny scar that gets lighter every year.

Was I wrong? Am I a hypocrite for speaking out against routine infant circumcision for cosmetic reasons when I elected cosmetic surgery for my daughter? Where is the line drawn? As one of my Facebook friends pointed out, what about orthodontics for purely cosmetic reasons? Or helmets to correct flat heads? I think as parents we have to make decisions about our children’s health and well-being every day, based on the information we have. Am I still against routine infant circumcision? Absolutely. Do I still disagree with the CDC’s recommendations? Yes. Will I judge or harass people who made that choice? Nope. I guess I am a hypocrite, but at least I’m not an asshole.

Condom image credit: Christopher
Other images: Steph, all rights reserved.


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. I don’t think you are a hypocrite – a foreskin a normally occurring part of the a body with male sex characteristics. Removing it may have some stastically significant theoretical health benefit, but it is inherently and normatively part of the penis.

    Hemangiomas, on the other hand, are clinical abnormailities that can have acute symptoms and be traumatizing and I would have completely made the same decision (and made a similar one for my daughter when she had a large mucous cyst on her lip that was causing her discomfort and affecting her speech, but was clinically harmless).

    So, maybe the real answer is that we are hypocrites together.

  2. Yeah, I don’t think you’re a hypocrite either. Your daughter was too young to make this decision, and you made it for her. That’s our job as parents.

    That’s why code ethics are bad ethics, no matter *whose* code they are. They’re not informed by the situation. I mean, I’m against circumcision, too, but I can envision a situation when one might be necessary.

    1. I know several people who have had to circumcise their sons for medical reasons. I chose not to circumcise mine. I think I am comfortable with the morals of the intactivist movement, but not the fanaticism.

  3. No, I don’t think you’re a hypocrite.
    With your daughter it sounds like surgery was to come one way or another and you went for what seemed like the best route with the least pain and risk.
    Circumcision is not “inevitable” or even highly likely. I’m German and apart from Jews and Muslims, people frown upon circumcision. Parents try to avoid it because, hell, it’s surgery and people try to avoid surgery.
    I I find it quite telling that the USA as a nation seems to be more comfortable with cutting bits off baby boys than talking about safe sex.
    For a comparison:
    That’s the German campaign for safe sex. You see the billboards everywhere. Currently they’re focussing on removing stigmma from STIs and getting people to go to the doctor quickly.

  4. I concur with pretty much everyone here so far. There’s no hypocrisy here.

    I’m also kind of horrified by the CDC recommendation. I generally prefer to defer to the experts on medical matters, but everything I know about circumcision suggest to me that the CDC is wrong to make such a blanket recommendation, that circumcision is a treatment in search of a disease and that the things it may lower the risk of are either such low risks in the first place that the risk benefit analysis is at most a wash, or else prevented much more effectively by other, less dramatic means, that recommend routine infant circumcision makes no sense. I’m with you in not being an extremist about this, but I’m concerned that the CDC is not offering the best, unbiased health advice. Unfortunately, I’ve avoided the topic up until now since the CDC recommendation because the debate ends up being so toxic. I don’t know how we have a reasonable conversation about it and work with medical professionals to come up with the best, unbiased advice based on a solid analysis of all the risks and benefits.

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