Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Is the Pain of Circumcision Truly "Brief"?

By Clara Franco © 2011
Original article in Spanish. English translation and edits by Danelle Frisbie and Clara Franco.
Leer en Espanol aqui.


One of the most popular excuses that some parents and doctors use in their decision to unnecessarily amputate the healthy prepuce of a newborn male is the mythological argument that "babies do not feel pain."

There seems to be a general consensus that the pain babies feel is negligible and "not remembered." Worse is the lie some parents are fed when they are told their newborn "cannot even feel pain because his nerve endings have not yet matured," or similar fallacies.

Let's pause for a moment to think about this. Repeat it with me: Newborns cannot feel pain. Newborns cannot feel pain. Newborns cannot feel pain. Therefore, it must be perfectly ethical (and certainly permissible) to slap my newborn baby, leave him to cry alone, pull his hair, step on his toes, or put my cigarette out on his skin. If I restrain him to a board, terrify him, amputate part of his genitals (with or without anesthesia) it doesn't matter - because this not-fully-developed-bundle-of-cries "cannot feel any pain." He's not yet really human. At least not all the way.

That babies cannot feel pain is of course horrifyingly false. I wish I did not have to resort to links, but video clips often say more than I possibly can with even a thousand words. Please, watch these and tell me that newborns feel no pain:

They all do…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW1a9VUu4i4

He does too:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAGNnqyNidY

And so does this one:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTB_tlKpPuY

It is one thing to say that babies cannot feel pain, and another thing to say that they will not remember the pain they feel. Let's look for a moment at memories. I do hope that the fields of psychology and psychiatry continue to advance so that we finally come to a collective understanding that even if we do not consciously remember every single experience in our lives, they all impact us in one way or another. Each experience shapes who we are and who we become - whether or not it is on the forefront of our conscious memory. And yes, this includes our time inutero, even before we are born into this world.

In fact, the newborn experience of pain may be even more transcendental than in an older child or adult. The reason is simply that a baby cannot rationalize the pain he is feeling - he cannot name it - he cannot articulate it, reflect on its origin, have any idea of the root cause, or how to avoid or escape the pain. This is the big difference between merely experiencing pain versus enduring intense trauma.


A young girl who desires for herself to have pierced ears knows that it will hurt, but she can recognize the source of the pain, rationalize it, measure it, and face it as a sacrifice in exchange for something positive, something she desires: to wear earrings.

A two-year old accidentally bruises his finger while playing with the door. He cries and is very upset, but he begins to understand that his pain had a cause, and that the cause is avoidable. Next time he won't play with the door like that.

The preschooler who falls from the stairs feels pain, but it is not traumatic as she knows what the stairs are, what falling down is, and can recognize the connection to the pain she feels. She is able to learn how to manage the stairs so that falling down and pain are not consequences of using them.

A baby cannot do any of these things. For the days- or weeks-old baby, any pain can be traumatic because he is unable to identify causes, consequences, and ways to avoid and escape. He cannot rationalize the pain, or understand why he is feeling such things. Any pain that a baby feels is a first-time pain: it is downright terrifying. Furthermore, his world revolves around his mother, her warmth, milk, comfort, voice, smell, protection and nothing more. She is everything to him. Any traumatic pain experienced will be associated with her - the only person and thing he knows in the world at this point. It is yet another reason that we see an increase in failure to thrive, breastfeeding complications, "colic," and insecure attachment post-genital cutting.


From the first day they discover they are pregnant, many mothers go about doing special prenatal activities that are said to enhance their baby's brain development and memory. Prenatal exercises, listening to relaxing music, reading to baby inutero, and tuning into Mozart and Bach and Beethoven in hopes of raking up baby's I.Q. points are commonplace today. At birth, mom will use special message, or early babyhood stimulation to enhance learning and memory. Mothers readily recognize that all of these early experiences - from inutero to the postnatal days - impact and influence their baby. How is it then that we could choose to recognize positive impacts on the brain and body leading to benefits for baby, while negative impacts on the brain and body (such as genital cutting) are ignored or dismissed? If we know that gentle massage, and touching a baby softly and warmly leads to improved digestion, hormone balance, neurological firing, awareness, better sleep, alertness and attachment, how could we not also recognize that intense pain and brutality upon the body of our baby also impacts him in many real and profound ways?

Male circumcision is considered by many to be genital mutilation, a non-consensual surgical amputation that does the child (and the man he will become) much harm and no “good.” It is a completely unethical act to take a healthy male, of any age, from two hours old to one hundred years old, and forcibly amputate a healthy and useful part of his anatomy against his will or without his consent when there is no medical need to do so. This would remain true even if circumcision surgery was entirely pain free. Even without pain, genital cutting - forever altering the penis and its form and function - would be a violation of a man's fundamental human right to bodily autonomy. To amputate a healthy, functional body part without medical need is harmful, and it carries negative consequences, regardless of whether there is pain in the amputation process or not. It is wrong to harm, even if the act itself is a painless one. To sexually assault an adult who cannot feel anything, and will not remember anything, because s/he is drugged… Is this right? Or wrong?

Back to reality: Circumcision does hurt. And it hurts quite excruciatingly. This brings us back to the double excuse commonly given for this amputation: that the baby’s pain is negligible because it will be forgotten, and second, that it is a "brief pain."

It seems we have forgotten the fundamental principle of time being relative to our ages. Where did the old "time passes by so fast as we age" go? Have we truly forgotten? Time seems to pass faster as we age because it is relative to our lived experiences to this point. It is such a simple principle, that every one of us has noticed, and can understand using elemental math: the more years we live, the smaller proportion of our lives each year represents. A year seems like an immeasurably long time when we have only lived four of them; yet it goes by like a whisper when we have been through eighty of them. Every year of our life seems shorter because each of them represents less and less of the percentage of time we have lived. In elementary school, the class hours feel endless; yet there are scarcely enough of them to do anything with by the time we’ve graduated college. When you have only lived several hours, each of them is for you what a quarter-century is to Grandpa. And if you’re a newborn, then you’re basically stuck in an endless "right this very instant."

For a newborn then, a painful experience is not only traumatic because he cannot explain it, understand it, or justify it, but also because in his perception of time the pain is endless.

Let’s calculate some simple proportions and compare the length of a fifteen-minute operation (more or less what the tearing and cutting portion of a standard circumcision surgery lasts), proportional to the lifespan of a two-day old baby; and extrapolate it to the length of a 30 year old adult. The adult has lived for 30 years, which are roughly the equivalent of 10,950 days (only taking into consideration 365 days per year), which is 262,800 hours, or 15,768,000 minutes. An intense pain that lasts fifteen minutes only represents, to this 30 year old, 0.000095% of his life. Manageable, I suppose.

But a two-day old baby has lived for just 48 hours, and a grand total of 2,880 minutes. To bear genital tearing and cutting for fifteen of them, is the equivalent to 0.52% of his lifespan. Does it still sound quite small? Like a minuscule number? Let’s see what happens if we expect a thirty-year old adult to bear excruciating pain for 0.52% of his life. We would be asking him to bear a pain that lasts for 81,993.60 minutes - 1,366.56 hours, or 56.94 days. Any volunteers who will be willing to feel knives and clamps on their penis or clitoris for almost fifty-seven straight days? But it’s such a simple and quick procedure!

Imagine this, for fifty-seven days and nights straight:



For argument's sake, let’s assume our baby is not two days old, but eight - the age at which genital cutting occurs in some households. And let’s say the procedure does not last for fifteen minutes, but only five minutes. (Some mohels claim to be able to "cut faster.") We’d be asking our baby to bear pain equivalent to 0.43% of his life. For the thirty-year old, this would be like feeling the scalpel (with no anesthesia) for 113 hours - only 4.7 days and nights! That’s much better! Right? A torture that lasts for 5 days and nights straight, without a break, is a practice belonging to the most atrocious of wars.

What if our baby is six months old? Fifteen minutes are for him 0.0057% of the life he has known. For a thirty-year old adult, this would be like a skinning that lasts for fourteen hours. Interestingly, very few women in North America today even elect to go through natural labor "pains" (functional, necessary, beneficial pain) for fourteen hours straight without intervention and pain relief... 

The conclusion in this matter, then, is not that we must wait a longer time before performing an unnecessary, painful and harmful amputation (although doing so at 30 would certainly make the pain more "brief" than to do so at birth). Rather, it is that this is a pain that babies should never be subjected to in the first place - a suffering that no one should be forced to endure without their full and informed consent or certain medical necessity.

The fallacy of believing "it is better to cut early, because our baby won’t remember and it’s quite brief," is a falsehood that takes little logic to debunk and see through. On the contrary, to cut the genital organs of a baby who cannot even understand what is happening, and to put him through a horrific pain that represents, for him, a grotesquely long time, is much more harmful and cruel than it would be to subject even a non-consenting adult to the same.

 advocacy apparel at MadeByMomma


Clara Franco is the director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers Mexico chapter. Read more from Franco (in Spanish) at Mexico Intacto, follow at Mexico Intacto on Facebook, or find Franco's work in English also at:


Intactivists: Those Uncommon Activists!


Circumcision: The Most Twisted Logic in the World

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26 comments:

  1. This is completely horrible... It was like watching a terror movie.

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  2. It's an interesting idea to look at the relative time a circumcision lasts as compared to his life to date. It reminds me of how summers lasted forever as a child but go by in a flash as an adult. It's all relative.

    Not only is circumcision extremely painful for the minutes of surgery, but consider the pain of healing in a diaper for weeks and having the residual cut foreskin pulled back over and over to prevent adhesions from forming. The fact that some parents still claim it is easier to care for a circumcised penis and that circumcision doesn't hurt is a testament to the depth of American denial that exists about this harmful procedure.

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  3. Thank you for doing this. More people need to know.

    We chose not to for our son who is now three and are glad that we did, despite truly odd negative reactions from some family members.

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  4. Great piece! I recommend the book Welcoming Consciousness for your next one. It will bolster your argument even more.

    http://www.amazon.com/Welcoming-Consciousness-Supporting-Life-Development/dp/097606586X

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  5. Inability to recognize or empathize with the pain of baby boy creates culture that is circumcised in spirit.

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  6. I have never watched a circumcision video. I couldn't even watch this one. But I made myself hear the crying. I can't believe anyone would be sick in the head enough to allow someone to do this to their sweet baby boy... yeah, I said it, sick in the head! You have to be emotionally dead to allow this.

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  7. I feel so much regret for circing my son :(
    I dont need to watch the videos I saw for myself but the damage was already done :(
    Makes me feel like a terrible mother for letting someone do this to my son but my husband talked me into it.

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    Replies
    1. I knew at birth that they were not frozen to circumcise therefore I didn't do it .... However now my 2 year old had many infections and needed to be cut .... it's been 3 days since he's been circumcised and my stomach is still in knots and I hate the pain he is in .... I don't understand how ppl do it at birth!! It's sadistic to me even though I had to do it I HATE IT ;( Kids deserve to be pain free at all times it just isn't fair

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    2. Big hugs to you Anon.

      I cannot imagine being told my son "has to be circumcised..." :(

      We all love our little ones dearly and do the best we can for them with whatever resources we have at the time.

      I just wanted to share this article in case it is useful to anyone else who finds themselves in a similar place. It breaks my heart that we so often don't even have medical professionals who know what they are doing with intact babies, and this in turn leads to problems (forced retraction, etc.)

      Protect Your Intact Son: Medical Advice for Parents When Your Doctor Says to Circumcise:
      http://www.drmomma.org/2009/08/protect-your-uncircumcised-son-expert.html

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  8. Brook, your story is an all too common one, sadly. At least you know now and can discuss it with him when he is older so that hopefully it ends with him. Also, if you have another boy you can make sure noit to repeat the same mistake. ALL mothers screw up, ALL OS US. THe important part is to learn from it and move on as time machines have yet to be invented.

    Out of curiosity, how does your husband feel about it now?

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  9. Andrea von SchoeningApril 16, 2011 4:04 PM

    Thank you for this post - excellent as usual! I also can't watch the videos, and am so grateful that my 17-year old son is intact. I appreciate the explanation of time ... I have certainly experienced this as I've gotten older, but never really understood why this is so! It also puts the experience of babies into clearer perspective for adults to understand. As for long-term effects - there are the emotional effects that extend for the baby's entire life, as well as the physical effects. Many therapists have witnesses their clients accessing their circumcision experience in therapy. It's also part of what forms the baby's first impressions about whether this is a safe place where thay have landed (earth) which becomes the foundation for the attitudes they carry throughout their lives. The physical effects of circumcision, especially if it was poorly done, can also cause additional emotional effects ... It is just so sad, and completely unneccesary! Thank you for continuing to spread the word and saving baby boys!

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  10. Brook - you're not alone. Hugs mama! I have two sons who were circumcised before I knew anything. No one even said anything to me - I just thought that's what you did. In fact, I didn't even sign a consent form, my husband did and it was never even discussed with me. It makes me sick to know. I also have two sons who are intact AFTER I realized what was going on and went on a massive search for information. It is awful all the things parents are not told. We are not really informed when we sign away our sons to be cut like this. But we love them all the same, and I know that what matters most is that we are 100% honest with them as they get older. The men who have mothers that were honest with them are very forgiving and loving of their moms. It is those who reject and deny anything ever happened to them that have sons who grow to resent their moms and hate what was done to them when they finally do learn the truth. You are such an amazing mom just for realizing that a mistake was made, and it is so obvious that you love your son immensely. That will come through. :)

    If you haven't read these other parents' stories yet, a lot of them are encouraging too:

    http://www.drmomma.org/2010/05/i-circumcised-my-son-healing-from.html

    I just wanted to tell you that you're not alone.

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  11. As a physician, we are NEVER told that infants can not or do not feel pain. I do not know where this statement is coming from but it is false and not something that physicians believe or are ever taught.

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  12. Horrible, absolutely HORRIBLE! I could not even watch one video, I started sobbing after 5 seconds of the first one!! How could anyone do this to their kids? How in darn hell did anyone come up with this in the first place? And why? I know, I know, religious reasons is always the answer but please, I can't imagine any merciful God wanting us put our babies through something like this.
    My DS is almost 7 months old and intact. I was asked not once but at least 5 times in the hospital when he was born if I'm sure I don't want him cut. It was like a high-pressure sell.
    This really needs to be outlawed!!!

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  13. I am glad someone else posted about regretting their son being circumsized. I didn't know any better. It was what everyone else did, my husband is and wanted our son to be. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it. I have made other mistakes as a mother, but fixable ones. This one isn't. How am I supposed to get over the guilt? What am I supposed to tell him as he gets older? ;(

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  14. i agree with the regretful mommies...i'm one of them. and i'm not going to lie...the comment someone made about people who allow this to be done being "sick in the head" hurt. a lot. i'm a very intelligent human being who is a bleeding heart all around: i have rescue animals, even before i had a baby i couldn't stomach the thought of someone abusing or neglecting a child/baby, and in my job as a care provider for adults with developmental disabilities i was constantly battling with people's perceptions of how "those people" should be treated (typically, more people felt that their dogs should be better cared for than "those people"). i am NOT sick in the head. i am currently sick at heart for what i allowed to happen to my sweet perfect wonderful baby boy. and i have been since the day it happened....before i even saw the research. as soon as i held my baby after his circumcision, i started crying and asking over and over again "what did i do to my baby? why did i hurt him like this?"
    i 100% agree that this needs to stop. now. i don't pretend to know how to make it happen. and i don't know how to get through to men....because my husband doesn't get it. we've talked about it before, and while we respect the other person's point of view (we have to, we're married) neither of us agree with the other. i'm just thankful that i'm not planning to have any more babies and won't be faced with fighting with my husband over potential future circumsions. because if it came down to him, i would divorce him before i let him cut another one of my children.
    as for getting over the guilt? i don't know how. i'm open to suggestions.....

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  15. to the physician- It's not taught anymore, but a lot of docs don't keep up to date after completing their education. My father in law WAS taught this, and had never run across contrary ideas until I provided him with unbiased data. His son wasn't taught that they don't feel pain...just that they don't remember it, even minutes later. And regardless of their training, most docs seem to pick up the idea of infants not feeling pain anyway. Almost every American woman that's carried a son has had one try to convince her it was true.

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  16. To the anon physician:

    There is no way you can be sure that all aspiring doctors are given the same info that you were. A question: if you are all aware that babies can and do feel pain, why do you circumcise without a local? Seems terribly unnethical to me...

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  17. Thank you for all the wonderfully helpful information you provide about circumcision on this blog. I really hope this knowledge becomes much more widespread. I think in my area it is much more common to circumcise than to keep baby intact and I hope that changes. I feel blessed that I had enough information before I had my son to make the best decision for him.

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  18. I couldn't even bring myself to watch the videos. All I could watch is the poor baby being strapped down... that was enough for me. Makes me feel sick.

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  19. I wish that all parents would watch a circumcision video before their baby is born. I have watched one before so couldn't bring myself to watch this one... but certainly most humans watching one would feel the panicky feelings, increased heartrate, and the feeling like you are going to throw up while watching a circumcision. And if those feelings don't convince you to not have it done to your own baby, well, I don't know what else would be convincing enough... surely most people who watch a video of it being done would have those instinctual feelings and reactions??

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  20. I am now traumatised after watching these videos. I could only manage a few mins of the last one. My mum asked me ONCE to do it for my newborn son. After she heard my reply, she never asked me again. Medieval torture is what I feel this to be. As soon as my now 7 yr old son came in from school today, I couldnt squeeze him hard enough. I could never ever live with the guilt of doing that to my baby boy.

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  21. There aren't enough expletives in the world to express how DISGUSTED I was by those videos. Abuse!! It is an abuse of the worst kind! And it's committed every day in thousands and considered socially normal and acceptable. I can't believe this actually happens.

    It is abuse! It is abuse of every kind! The trust the baby places in those around him, BROKEN. The baby abandoned, strapped down, ignored as he screams in PAIN. He must be wanting the comfort of his mother so much in these moments. He must feel so alone.

    The actual procedure - aside from the trauma and upset to the baby - looks so EXCUCIATINGLY PAINFUL. How could you believe it would not be? They mutilate, clamp, stick things into and CUT the boys genitals! How can doctors - CAREGIVERS - do this? I am horrified and disgusted.

    I agree with Erin - every parent, before consenting to circumcision, should be shown the above videos. I am sickened to the bottom of my stomach. I am deeply heartbroken. I am truly disgusted. I've never felt so sick. And angry.

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  22. I want to add that in addition to all of the great points you mentioned, mutilating a boy's penis is a form of rape and sexual violation. Consider for a moment the implications that have come to society of raping, sexually violating and traumatizing most of the male population! Add to that the attachment disruption and all of the other traumas of being male in a society that offers little compassion to males and it is amazing that ANY boys and men emotionally survive!

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  23. Excellent analysis. The whole contrast between in-utero positive stimulation vs. the pain of genital cutting brought tears to my eyes.

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  24. I have seen many of the video's last year. I can not watch them anymore, they are too... painful. But I am still reading any new article I can on the subject matter, I'm trying to convince my husband not to circumcise our (not yet conceived) sons.

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