Confessions of an 'Intactivist'

By Jill O'Reilly © 2011

I had my first son almost 14 years ago, and the circumcision debate that is raging today is the same one that raged back then. So I've chosen to sit it out - until now.

When I first learned about circumcision I was horrified... How could any mother who is truly connected, attached, loving, and intelligent choose such a thing for her baby?! "How?!" I thought. Why would anyone want to put their soft new bundle in a situation where they would experience such pain - for what is basically a cosmetic procedure? Don't they understand what they are doing? What is wrong with people/society/America?

For years I couldn't see a baby boy without wondering about the state of his penis. Did that cute little smushy bundle in the adorable Gymboree onesie begin his life by being strapped to a plastic tub while a piece of cold metal sliced across his genitals? Did the funny little toddler at the park who is playing with my son have all his parts? Or had his parents been 'sheep' who blindly followed a silly social custom?

But now I have a teenager... and I have had a daughter... and two more sons. And I have been privileged to work with many, many expectant families. I have taught childbirth classes, and I have assisted at homebirths, and I have witnessed many families bring beautiful boys into the world, and love them. Adore them. And yes, circumcise them. I have learned that emotional arguments and my own opinions don't matter. I have seen parents agonize over the decision, and I have seen parents for whom the decision is not even up for consideration. I do not weep for those babies. I do not grieve for their loss of sensitivity, and I no longer see a baby in the store and have the state of his penis be the first thing that enters my mind.

An acquaintance recently had a baby. She has a blog and vehemently opposes circumcision. Her blog is aggressive and very 'in your face.' She reminds me so much of myself. Full of passion about a hot topic. But passion only gets you so far. Along with passion there must be COMpassion. I have been trained how to educate, how to communicate, how to inform, how to facilitate and... how to let go.

When my babies were young, and I was so close to the situation, it was impossible for me to emotionally distance myself from the subject. I couldn't discuss circumcision calmly because it was too easy to imagine my own child in that plastic tub, and the outrage would come welling up, fueled with the passion of a mother bear protecting her cub.

But my passion has cooled, my outrage has subsided - baby and toddler-hood is fleeting. The things that are so dramatically important now will barely register in a few years. If someone had told me that one day I would be posting something like this I would have been shocked. But those circumcised babies deserve mommies who aren't feeling like they abused their kids. They deserve a mommy that is empowered, not belittled. They deserve mommies that feel strong and capable and wise in their decisions making abilities. They deserve to be held by someone who hasn't just had her entire self-image repainted as some kind of monster. What has been accomplished by destroying someone's confidence in their parenting? What have we done when the young mom who loves her baby (and I promise you, she loves him every bit as much as we love ours) thinks that she has failed... and so quickly?

I'll tell you what happens: we create someone who doesn't trust her ability to make the right choices. And that is far, far more distressing to her son's future than whether or not he is intact. The biggest problem with debating circumcision is that much too often the discussion is happening too late... that foreskin can't be put back on. Making someone feel like they won't be a good mother unless they 'confess' and see the light is terrible. And it accomplishes nothing.

I have no idea if any of my son's teenage friends are circumcised or not. I've never asked him and I never would. I've never asked any of his friends' mothers either. It's just not something that comes up often during conversation. Intact care, breastfeeding, co-sleeping... all of these are important topics in the small world of baby and toddler-hood. But the impact of our words - and the feelings that they foster in mothers caring for their babies - those matter forever. Empower each other. Respect each other. Babies need to be raised by mothers who are strong and capable. There are many good mothers, and many good mothers with circumcised sons. We're all in this together.

If you're the parent of a circumcised son and would like a safe space to discuss the subject further, join with others at Keeping Future Sons Intact, or drop Lillie a note to be added to the private KFSI discussion thread. Additional resources for related material at: I Circumcised My Son: Healing From Regret.

Jill O'Reilly is the mother of four children - three sons and one daughter. She spent years working as a midwife, doula, and childbirth educator. She is currently expecting her 5th 'bonus' baby in a few weeks and is busy planning for her homebirth. She can be reached at or here on Facebook.



  1. roger desmoulinsJanuary 29, 2011 1:08 PM

    Routine infant circumcision in English speaking countries other than the USA declined massively because doctors were free to exercise their professional judgement and refuse to perform it. The enormous prestige of the medical profession made it possible for routine circ to fade away with very little angst. For most of us, what doctors do or refuse to do is assumed correct.

    But in the USA, the medical profession has adopted a very curious fence sitting stance, one that makes unreasonable demands on the urological and sexual knowledge of parents. As is often the case when humans are asked to make a decision we are not qualified to make, parents go with conformity.

    Routine infant circumcision persists in the USA because medical education refuses to lead. Because American urological and sex research declines to count the complications of circ in a thoughtful and responsible way. Because sex research refuses to look at how the tender bits excised by circ enhance sexual pleasure and functionality. Because the USA, in many respects a nation quite sophisticated about social psychology, avoids the fact that routine circumcision is a splendid problem in the social psychology of human sexuality.

    Parents are in no way to blame for any of this, and what we intactivists say and write should keep this uppermost in mind.

    What Jill O'Reilly describes above is part of her normal transition from excitable young woman to ambiguity-tolerant middle aged mother.

  2. THIS, this is true activism. I applaud you! I wish more people felt the same.

  3. I am still in "mother bear" mode having recently protected my own baby boy from genital cutting and silently watching everyone I know make the opposite decision while fuming on the inside. I do appreciate your wisdom, and I hope that I have the proper perspective to really help make a difference someday.

  4. In many parts I agree. However, if we don't say anything, if we don't speak out against human rights, we *allow* mothers to believe it is ok to circumsize, then we have sat blindly by and allowed the wheels of culture to continue with a travesty. It is only by standing up and declaring that the act of cutting a baby boy is WRONG that we can change perceptions. Don't forget that the 'other side' -- doctors, big pharma etc. -- are working just as hard on the other side to convince mamas that it is "just a snip", that it is ok to cut. *Someone* has to stand up and oppose that.

    If some mamas feel guilt once they know what they've done -- well, I can't do anything about that other than assure them that when you know better, you do better. The issue of circumcision is just like breastfeeding to me: there are booby traps that prevent mamas from meeting their goals and penis traps that make mamas think that circumcision is the better choice. Any blame rests on the makers of the traps and so should the guilt rest there.

    On a really basic level, if a mama IS fully informed about the lack of benefit and potential for harm, and decides to cut anyway, then why should she not feel guilt? Whether she loves her child or not (which I don't think is really the question), she made a choice to practice harm, which is much different than a mama who didn't know better or was misled by the Corporate Circumcision Engine.

  5. "we create someone who doesn't trust her ability to make the right choices. And that is far, far more distressing to her son's future than whether or not he is intact"

    This applies not just for mothers who have chosen to have their sons circumcised, for whatever reason, but also for those of us who come from a history of pro-circumcision who have decided to go against the norm in our families and chose not to circumcise.

    My family recently discovered my choice not to have my third son circumcised, after much MUCH research. It was not a well received decision, and I was made to feel like I was making the worst possible parenting decision of my life. I was made to feel like I wouldn't be a good mother unless I changed my mind and have my third son circumcised like his two older brothers (who were circumcised before I was ever educated on the topic).

  6. I completely agree with Lorien.

  7. wow I really liked the insight to this article. That is some real wisdom, pointing out the fleeting nature of infancy and the HUGE impact that comes with repremanding a mother for following pointless, painful traditions.

    There will come a day when it will be culturally trendy to focus on progress, and on truth/reason rather than on tradition and social learning.

    At least, for the time being compassion will have to wait out the sheepish nature of so many people, as long as the benefits of doing so out weighs to consequences.

    I think I can really punch in a few more points but for now, this article was just a breath of fresh air. Thanks for writing.

  8. pardon me while i clarify what compassion means and how it is being misused in this situation.

    compassion means "with passion" and refers to "being with" the fervent emotion of another.

    in this instance, it doesn't apply. most parents who circumcise are not fervent about their decision. it's often "the way it is" or what have you. even the "god commands me" process is largely culturally driven and not a particularly fervent emotion.

    in my experience, the only individuals fervent about their decision are those going against their cultural norms. and so, it is only possible to be compassionate toward/with those folks.

    but, the article is asking that we learn to accept that people who are circumcising are not bad parents. acceptance is important and empowering. i agree that -- in order to truly help, befriend, learn from and grow -- we must accept that people make different choices. this acceptance opens the door to true communication on issues.

    and, then when a mother realizes the consequences of some of her choices -- such as circumcision -- and often feels great guilt or remorse from it, THEN we can have compassion. we can be with her in her fervent emotion of loss, and of accepting that she chose that situation for herself and her son. We can help her -- via compassion -- come to acceptance and move forward.

    Of course, acceptance does not mean that we consider her choice equally valid or valued. it does not say that all choices are right. it simply accepts that different choices are made. Many choices can be right in many instances (how people get sleep, for example, with exceptions such as babywise); but in some instances, only one or two choices are truly "right." it is intellectually dishonest to assert otherwise.

    In the end, accepting things as they are is a way for us to be comfortable with everyone while still advocating openly for our cause.

  9. "Along with passion there must be COMpassion."

    Thanks for this sensitive and intelligent post. We don't always have to be screaming to be heard. In my experience, people are likely to tune out the adversary, and tune in to the ally. I think I can have a far greater impact if I leave my 'bad mommy' labels on the shelf.

  10. We can split semantics all we want- whether compassion is the "best" choice of words is irrelevant. The author is calling on all mothers to show empathy and sympathy to each other.

    You can advocate without alienating. It's all about the choice of words and about sensitivity to others feelings.

    Excellent post- thank you to the author.

  11. Circumcision was listed as the top parenting controversy for 2010, making it even more confusing for parents.

    Parents considering infant circumcision should check out: Circumcision Decision-Maker

  12. I really have to disagree here. My job is not to make mothers feel secure in their parenting skills. My job is to inform. I refuse to walk on eggshells so Mommy can feel good about herself. If we candy coat the situation we are no better than the media that does the same when discussing the issues. Words are important and powerful and I will continue to use those words that infuriate adults such mutilation, abuse, and amputation because that is what it is. The words hurt because they are accurate. The information about the dangers of circumcision is out there and pretty easy to find. The time is long over when parents can use the excuse that they didn't know.
    Buck up moms. You are going to need a thick skin come the teen years. If you need someone to tell you what a great job you're doing raising your kids, hire someone to stroke your ego.

    1. Totally agree with you. What the article seems to be saying is "let the boys be cut so the moms will feel OK". That's not acceptable.

  13. This article brought tears to my eyes. I have been at odds with my mother in law for some time- and I had no idea what it was that changed her. It seemed to happen after my husband had surgery to have his cancer removed.

    I have always posted articles that I find about circumcision on facebook- because I am 22 and have many friends who are on the verge of motherhood- and I want them to be aware that there is information out there for them to look into- instead being sucked into the media saying circumcision prevents HIV. I feel they will find the articles interesting.

    My husband is 24 years older than me- so for the most part his family has had their children and so I have not discussed circumcision with them personally- other than with my mother-in-law. When I discussed it with her I tried to let her know that I wasn't calling her a bad parent, that I understood that the information she had access to 40 years ago- wasn't the same today- that there were less studies to see, and it was just something that happened. My husband is circumcised- and I tried to say as best as I could that I didn't think it made her a bad mother or anything- because it is truly how I feel- 40 years ago- it was just something Americans (for the majority) did.

    So yesterday I find out that my husbands ENTIRE family (Aunt, cousins, siblings, mother) are all "uncomfortable" around me- because of my posts on facebook about circumcision.

    Like I said- I have never personally discussed it with any of them- I see no point because they have done what they have done and aren't about to have more kids. So now I am stuck between a rock and a hard place- I love my husband very much- but his family is uncomfortable around me because I have a belief that they don't share.

    Anyhow- thank you for the article- so true- and my husband says I have no empathy because I post these things all the time and I guess the way that I try to say things comes off as offensive no matter what I do.

    I don't want to stop posting- because I do believe that it gets people who don't have children yet thinking about the fact that they have the option to leave their sons intact.

  14. I believe that accepting responsibility for one's past wrongs (including circumcision) is essential to being moral. However, I do not believe that one must languish in penance forever afterward: with acceptance comes resolution to evolve into a superior state of being. The enemy is 'hypocrisy'. Those who have mutilated their sons owe it to themselves, and their son's sacrifice, to refuse to perpetuate the injustice and denounce the practice. Anything less would be disingenuous.

  15. Thank you for this, Jill. The older I get and the longer I am in this business of birth, the more grace I have for those who make choices different from the ones I would make. It is so easy to be self-righteous about the way WE have chosen to live our lives, birth, and raise our children. Often women choose one issue to be militant about and condemn those around them for choosing differently without taking into consideration the myriad of choices a new family faces:
    Free-birth, homebirth, hospital birth, epidural, c-section
    circ vs non-circ
    formula vs. breast milk
    minimal or extended BF
    family bed or crib
    vaccinate or non-vaccinate
    cloth vs disposable diapers
    and on and on and on

    And, quite honestly, these are minor compared to all of the decisions that come along as our children get older.

    There is nothing easy about this journey of parenting and we could all use a bit more grace in our lives for ourselves as well as the other women walking this journey with us.

  16. Using language correctly, particularly in a form such as a blog where it is written, is absolutely paramount to forwarding our intentions and goals.

    By using the term "compassion" instead of empathy, sympathy, or acceptance, the author is calling us to validate the choice of circumcision (even if that isn't her intention).

    If she meant have empathy, then say have empathy -- empathizing does not mean validating. If she meant sympathy, then say sympathy -- sympathizing does not mean validating. if she meant accepting the choice -- that is, accepting that it happened and not emotionally hanging on to it (which is what her examples assert), then she should say accepting, which does not include validating.

    This is not a call for intactivists. This is a call for us to no longer be intactivists, even if the author didn't intend so. Her misuse of language asserts that we should validate their choices, say that their choices are equally correct.

    Circumcision is not a "choice a family faces." It is, in fact, a brutal sexual violation of an infant. When we categorize it as a "choice" we are taking away the very reality (and long term harm) of the action. I cannot validate this action against children of any sex.

    For most choices that a family makes, there is no long term impact on the child's health and sexuality. To compare sleeping, feeding, and birthing choices with circumcision and saying that we should validate all of the choices is intellectually dishonest.

    Breastfeeding vs formula feeding -- children generally turn out OK. Co-sleeping vs crib -- kids turn out ok. Vaccination/not -- kids turn out ok. Birth experience -- this is more about the mother, kids turn out ok. Cloth/Disposables -- kids turn out ok.

    Circumcision -- pain pathways in the brain changed, body permanently modified without consent, sexual disfunction and less sensation in adulthood affecting both the circumcised and the partner. the way that it is "white washed" -- well, he doesn't remember, won't know better, and it's our "choice!" OUR CHOICE!

    *ridiculous* it is not a parent's choice to physically and sexually abuse a child. it is *not* and every aspect of our society asserts this to be true, *except* in circumcision because people *white wash it* with words like "have compassion" and "validate the many choices of parents so they feel good about themselves.*

    I do not CARE whether or not someone uses a crib, breastfeeds, vaccinates, how they birth, what diapers they use (or not), how they dress their babies, what religion they are, etc.

    I DO CARE about children not being violated physically and sexually. In addition to not supporting circumcision, i also do not support tattooing, scarification, body piercing, or any other aspect related to modifying infants against their will (i consider this a human rights violation), and in particular, i do NOT validate the "choice" to modify a child's sexual organs for the religious, social, or other reasons that someone might bring up.

    Even so, i can empathize, sympathize, and accept that people make this decision. I am fairly certain that my sister circumcised her son (she stopped talking to me abuot it, and if she HAD kept him in tact, no reason to stay silent). I made no bones about the fact that her choice is *wrong*, but i accept that she made it, that she currently has the legal right to, and i can empathize and sympathize with the fact that she feels educated on the subject. Our relationship -- nor her parenting -- is marred by my honest assertion on the matter.

    Nor have my relationships with the many women whom i know who still circumcised their sons, even after our discussions on the matter. They know where i stand. And since they have no fervent emotion about it, there's no need for compassion. There is only my own need to accept that it happened, without validating their choice.

    I'm sorry, no. I will not accept that the choice to circumcise is correct.

  17. Thank You Jennifer in NZ- I agree.

  18. "But those circumcised babies deserve mommies who aren't feeling like they abused their kids. They deserve a mommy that is empowered, not belittled."

    OK, so don't tell those mommies they abused their kids, and don't belittle them. That doesn't mean to tell them they made the right decision.

    This has a parallel with circumcised men who don't want to think that there is anything the matter with their penis, i.e. the matter with them, and get very hot under the collar at the very suggestion there could be anything wrong with circumcision.

    But is it we who made this linkage? For a couple of generations, circumcision was presented as "the right thing to do" and parents who did it as implicitly good parents, while the media have presented circumcision (when they could bear to mention it) as the norm, and the circumcised penis as normal. How can we contradict those claims without setting up the opposite ones?

    I for one get tired of the cop-out "circumcision is no longer necessary". It was NEVER necessary.

    I think the solution, if there is one, is to make sure they're well informed about the risks, harms and human rights violation of circumcision long before they're ever likely to get pregnant. In practical terms it means that instead of haunting mommy fora, you should be patrolling teenage girl fora, and especially telling those airheads who say "Foreskin? EEEW! Gross!" that they don't know what they're talking about.

  19. Very, very well said Jennifer in NZ.

  20. I just thought of something I should share, I have decided if I have a boy not to circumcise, and the people who did convince me were two women I know who regret that they did it. They never told me why I shouldn't (I have a girl anyhow) they simply told me why they believe it to be wrong and why they regretted doing it. That worked for me. I think when we talk about why ''we'' choose to do something, it gets through to people more than when we tell people why ''they'' shouldn't do something or have done something.
    Moms usually ask people when they are pregnant for advice on these matters, and making it about you seems to work very well.

  21. The other thing I do, especially when I'm teaching classes, is to make sure that I have every confidence that these new mamas really DO have the ability to make the right choice for their babies. I tell them that they are going to be the expert on their child - nobody else. When you empower a person to really believe they have what it takes to make tough choices they feel stronger and more capable. And they DO make better choices.

  22. Some people feel that they are being backed into a corner no matter how gently you present information. I see it all the time and it's really tiring.

    Though I have to admit that I made the decision of keeping my son intact when someone used vinegar on me (not honey). I have to thank that person who opened my eyes...

  23. I loved this letter from Mandi to her first son who she circumcised (and kept her next son intact) -

    And Dani's similar story -

  24. It also takes me a great deal of composure to speak about circumcision without becoming emotional. That is why I have done most of mine in print. I can read it over, repeatedly, until it presents facts in as non-judgmental inoffensive a manner as I can. I know that there are wonderful mothers who choose circumcision, although I must say that I still have a hard time believing they would have chosen it if they'd known everything I know about it. My education on the topic has come over three and a half decades of study and experience.

    I still cry when I hear about babies being circumcised. I cannot help it. I still think of my second son, circumcised before he was placed for adoption with me, and of his screams and fear whenever I cleaned his little penis, as gently as I possibly could. I think about the total lack of even the tiniest bit of genital pain in the three baby boys I raised with intact foreskins, and the ease of keeping them clean, in comparison. It makes me furious that so many American physicians still choose to look for excuses to keep performing infant circumcisions, rather than joining the rest of the industrialized world in letting the practice pass into history, along with practices like bloodletting and lobotomy, where it rightfully belongs. I do not believe that circumcision is EVER the right thing, but I know that we all make choices things that are not the best thing.

    I wish I could tell you how many mothers I have read about, or heard from in person, who have regretted having one or more sons circumcised and wished they had known more about it. This includes even Marilyn Milos, the mother of the intactivist movement. For that reason, it is important to keep trying to share this information with expectant parents, preferably in a noninflammatory manner.

  25. I believe there is a place for anger in discussions about circumcision, but the anger needs to be coming from men who's lives have been negatively impacted (and there are LOTS of them) and from parents who were deceived by doctors working in our fee-for-service 'health' system into thinking they were allowing a beneficial procedure for their child, only to discover the truth too late.

    But there is no place for anger towards naive parents who consented to circumcision. Yes, they should have researched further, but it's a genuine shock for many to learn that doctors are either totally ignorant on the foreskin or willfully unethical in soliciting unnecessary genital surgery on children.

    The goal of everyday intactivists should be to spread awareness and share information to save today's babies while those working the legal and human rights angles (usually) behind the scenes will be saving tomorrow's babies.

  26. I'm getting the feeling from this post that you think we should leave mothers who already cut in blissful ignorance...what about her future sons?



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