Joel Stein Contemplates Circumcision (for His Son)

Whoa! Not for me — for my unborn son. My family's debate over the unkindest cut

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Illustration by John Ueland for TIME

I knew having a child would force me to examine my life, but I didn't expect to have to start with my penis. When my wife and I found out we were having a boy, everyone asked if we were going to circumcise him. All I knew was that circumcision is something the U.S. does and Europe doesn't and is therefore awesome. Our penises are clean and sleek and new like Frank Gehry skyscrapers, while theirs are crumbling, ancient edifices inhabited by fat old men in hats.

But when I thought about it, there was something disturbing about the fact that someone had chopped off part of my penis — a part that not only had nerve endings and a protective function but also could have made me look bigger. When I presented these arguments to my lovely wife Cassandra, she told me to shut up. Her argument was largely based on aesthetics and involved a lot of detailed talk about the surprising number of men she had dated. It's hard to win a debate when you're busy covering your ears and singing to yourself. (Read about Joel Stein's quest to name his baby.)

I argued that our son would not feel embarrassed either way, since compared with American babies in the 1960s, when 90% got snipped, about half of newborns are now deforeskinned — and only about 30% of California infants. I went on Facebook to ask if being made fun of in the locker room was apocryphal. What I learned is that even Facebook users disapprove of making parental decisions on Facebook. And kids probably don't make fun of one another, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 69% of circumcised and 65% of uncircumcised adolescents know which one they are. Also, you don't need to be Don Rickles to respond to someone's mockery of your foreskin with a casual "Dude, why are you staring at my penis?"

All I knew was that this is clearly not a decision I should be making for another human being. What school he attends, what he eats, which bouncy seat he should bounce in — sure. Whether to alter your genitals for aesthetic reasons is a question meant for your mid-20s at Burning Man.

Still, I knew this decision was going to be made now or never, so I started asking every medical professional, woman and gay man what kind of penis they preferred, which, to my shock, got me a lot of dinner invitations. Though there seemed to be a slight aesthetic preference for not wearing a hat and a slight functional preference for keeping one on, no one had a really good argument for giving your baby plastic surgery. A pediatrician told me the sole reason he circumcised his son was so that the kid looked like him. If my son looks at my penis and the biggest difference he notices is foreskin, I have far more serious problems. Plus, if I wanted my son to look like me, I wouldn't have worked so hard to marry someone better-looking than I am.

It turns out, though, that there's an enormous group of people who would argue passionately for my son's foreskin. Francis Crick and Jonas Salk were among the Nobel laureates who signed a petition to the World Court to end circumcision. The last week of March was Genital Integrity Awareness Week, which included a march from the White House to the Capitol, which, while not far in miles, is an eternity when measured in baby foreskins. This cause is so real, it has its own ribbon. There's even a group called Jews Against Circumcision, made up almost exclusively of Jews whose parents no longer talk to them. (Read "The Great Uncircumcision Debate.")

The antisnipping crusaders argue that the ancient Greeks rejected this violent tribal custom of the Jews and Muslims; hardly anyone practices it anymore besides those groups and Americans. They argue that the Jews created it as a way either to exclude women from their club or to ritualize the sacrifice of the firstborn male. They say it was brought to the U.S. in Victorian times only as a means of reducing masturbation by limiting sensation, in what has to be the biggest failed medical experiment in history.

Cassandra would not hear any of this. She felt strongly that our son should feel Jewish and that when she bathes him, she shouldn't have to touch his penis too much. And then last month, a study from Africa showed that circumcision greatly reduces the chances of catching a sexually transmitted disease. And I had lost my argument.

So in a few weeks, I'm going to buy some bagels, call a mohel who is also a pediatric surgeon and believes in local anesthetic, and do something that I'm pretty sure is wrong. I have a horrible feeling that all of parenthood is like this.

Read TIME's 2002 cover story "The Legacy of Abraham."