An RN relates her nursing school experiences with circumcision and how they led her to keeping her son intact and to intactivism. Used with permission of the author.
A Private Matter
I’ve been so reluctant to write about this since my son’s birth, but I feel like it’s time. I keep asking myself why I’m feeling apprehensive about it, because I’m generally very good at expressing my opinion.
I think I’ve figured out the reason for my hesitation: I don’t want to write about it because it’s private. It’s not about me, so I feel like maybe I shouldn’t discuss it. But it was (half) my decision, and about half of all new parents have to make this decision, so it’s worth discussing.
What am I talking about? Circumcision.
Before very recently, I wouldn’t have called myself an “intactivist,” but I think perhaps it fits me better than I’d like to admit. For now, maybe I’ll call myself a “hesitant intactivist” instead. Here’s a little about how I’ve come to feel the way I do today about circumcision:
Part One: Class
I’m a Registered Nurse. Four years at a liberal arts college and one ridiculously hard licensing exam and I can call myself that. Prior to entering nursing school and beginning my clinical rotations (or getting my job as a nurse’s aide), I hadn’t seen many naked people, certainly not males. Of course, I understood the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised (intact) penises from my textbooks. I didn’t really have an opinion on the subject; in fact, I hadn’t given it much thought at all.
One day in a reproductive anatomy and physiology lecture, my professor (who was a medical doctor and also a Catholic priest) started talking about circumcision. I remember feeling awkward as he stood in front of a room full of young women and scoffed about how, “There are women out there who are trying to save the foreskins! Like that’s a worthy cause.” As I think back on it now, I wish I could look around the room and read the other women’s faces around me. There we were, future child-bearers, listening to this wise educator tell us how positively ridiculous it is to leave a baby boy intact.
I remember a couple of other professors bringing the topic up in a different context: providing hygiene to uncircumcised elderly men. The over-arching lesson there was that we should all circumcise our babies so that the nurses who take care of them when they’re old men won’t have to pull back the foreskin during a bed bath. The fear of finding someone who was unclean was the motivating factor. I realize now that this is a symptom of the gross lack of respect for our elders in this country. We fail to provide many of them (dare I say most?) with the kind of consistent, affordable, loving care that they need to keep their daily needs met.
Part Two: Clinical Rotation
Later that year, I was in my “Mother/Baby” clinical (labor and delivery, postpartum, lactation consulting, postpartum home health). I had always been fascinated with birth, and I have seriously considered continuing my schooling to become a Nurse-Midwife. I remember seeing birth for the first time in person. I was literally holding on to another nursing student as we watched this beautiful baby boy come into the world. I still remember his name. To this day, I feel overwhelmed thinking about how his mother gave us such a huge gift by allowing us to be there to witness that moment.
The next week, I was in the post-partum unit working with a different nursing student, and our clinical instructor told us we’d be watching a circumcision. We helped the nurse bring four precious, tiny baby boys back to the “Circ Room” in the nursery. This room was a small enclosure with windows on all sides within the larger nursery (which was now mostly used for storage since rooming-in had become the norm). The nurse strapped each of the four babies down to individual plastic boards, securing their arms and legs with velcro straps. A couple of them were already crying. The other student nurse and I watched from the nursery, outside the little room. I understood the procedure from a textbook perspective, but still, I didn’t know what to expect.
The doctor swept into the tiny room in a hurry, and got right to business. He worked his way in a circle, quickly injecting each boy’s penis with Lidocaine: one, two, three, four. All of the babies were screaming by that point. Then, he started over at the beginning—hardly giving the anesthetic any time to take effect—and began to cut. I was horrified. Then, what happened next was what really made the experience stick in my head forever: He finished with the last baby, propped up the board the little one was strapped to so we could see more clearly, and gestured to his bleeding penis. He looked at us, two young women and said, “Now that looks more familiar to ya, doesn’t it?” and he winked. What a pig! My mouth fell open and I blushed, not knowing what to do. He laughed and left the room so the nurse could clean up his mess. I could never make eye-contact with him again after that day.
I went back to my dorm that afternoon having decided that if I ever had the opportunity to see a circumcision again, I would refuse. Furthermore, I decided that if I ever found myself in a capacity to be performing the surgery, I would refuse to do it for personal, ethical reasons. It just seemed so wrong. In that moment, I didn’t think much about what would happen if I someday gave birth to a baby boy. I’m sure somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that if it felt wrong to do that to someone else’s baby, I certainly would not allow someone to do it to mine.
Part Three: My Turn
When I got pregnant, my husband and I had a brief discussion that went something like this: I said, “If we have a boy, we’re not going to circumcise him.” Then Jaymz said, “Yeah, I know, why would we do that? It’s wrong to cut on babies for no reason.” End of discussion.
Many months later, our baby was born, and—surprise—he was a boy! He was incredibly beautiful and perfectly made just exactly the way he grew inside me.
We had chosen to have a home birth with midwives so that I could have autonomy, so that I could feel safe and comfortable and never have to fight for the kind of birth we wanted to have. I know what happens in the hospital. I didn’t want anyone cutting into my reproductive organs without very good reason. In the same way, I wasn’t going to let anyone cut on my amazing little child. It ended up being a non-issue, a non-decision. We did nothing, but sometimes doing nothing can be very important.
Our baby boys deserve genital integrity just as much as our baby girls do. And I’ve decided, I don’t care who makes fun of me or thinks my cause is ridiculous: it’s definitely worth fighting for.