Expectant parents spend nine months agonizing over decisions big and small. Where to register? What kind of car seat to buy? What to name the baby? But parents of baby boys face a difficult decision that parents of girls do not, namely whether or not to circumcise.
Because the procedure is usually done shortly after the baby's birth-either in the hospital or at home as part of a religious ceremony-expectant parents can't wait until the last minute to decide.
Once almost a given for American parents, circumcision has in recent years become one of the most controversial topics in pregnancy literature. Also in recent years, more American parents have chosen not to circumcise their infant sons.
The American Academy of Pediatrics announced in August 2012 that after a review of scientific evidence, the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks but not enough for the academy to recommend the procedure for all newborns. Their official policy statement says the final decision should be left to parents to make based on their ethical, religious and cultural beliefs.
Dr. Erin Taback of Oak Park Pediatrics echoes the AAP's neutral stance. She tells undecided patients that circumcision is a personal choice.
"You're not going to go wrong either way," Taback says.
The majority of her Chicago-area patients still opt to have their baby boys circumcised, she says.
Anti-circumcision activists view circumcision as a form of genital mutilation. These are by no means a fringe group: in San Francisco, they gathered enough signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot that would have allowed residents to vote to ban circumcision within city limits. Ultimately the initiative was taken off the ballot, but the controversy brought this anti-circumcision view into new prominence.
One of the reasons the proposed ballot initiative was so controversial was that it did not allow any exemptions. Circumcision of male infants is a religious sacrament for both Jews and Muslims.
Jewish male infants are usually circumcised at home eight days after their birth by a mohel, a person who has undergone specialized medical and religious training, in a ceremony known as a bris. Islamic ritual male circumcision, khitan, is not so strictly mandated and varies widely across the Muslim world.
Real parents' decisions
Oak Park parent Courtney Abrams said it was important to her to have her now 6-month-old son, Gavin, circumcised because "this is what Jewish men do to form a covenant with God. His father underwent this ritual, and his father before him…."
Abrams noted that while it was hard to hear Gavin crying during the ceremony, "it was over quickly and he stopped crying within moments."
Overall, her son's bris was a very meaningful experience for Abrams, especially because Gavin was named for her husband's late father-a fact the mohel, Chicago pediatrician Dr. William Barrows, spoke about movingly.
Circumcision, like any surgical procedure, is not without risk, as Erin Krex of Glenview learned. Krex's son was circumcised in the hospital shortly after birth, but the procedure was not performed correctly. She raised her concerns with her pediatrician, but he dismissed them. When her son was 2, Krex sought a second opinion from a pediatric urologist who recommended surgery.
Krex says she would opt for circumcision if she had to do it over again, but wishes she had trusted her instincts sooner.
Concern about an improperly performed procedure was only one of the reasons Chicago mom Katherine McHenry elected not to have her now 19-month-old son, Tai, circumcised.
Katherine and her husband researched the pros and cons of circumcision when they were expecting. Ultimately they decided that "medically, there really (was) no reason to perform the procedure."
McHenry says she feels lucky she and her husband came to the same conclusion because she says she knows other couples who didn't.
McHenry, who is pregnant again, says if the baby is a boy, they will not even consider circumcision.
In the end, the decision whether or not to circumcise a newborn baby boy is like other important parenting decisions. The best decision is the one that feels right to you.
Updated on Aug. 27, 2012 by Alaina Buzas.
Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mom of two.