Sunday, October 21, 2012

Circumcision: a question that should never have been asked


  Throughout the beginning of my first pregnancy, I firmly believed I was carrying a girl. I mean, I would have bet money on it. At our 20 week ultrasound we discovered that he was a boy. After my surprise wore off, it didn’t take long until the question I had been hoping to avoid by having a girl came up: were we going to circumcise him?
 
   I’ll tell you that my initial reaction was “no way!”  How could I do that to my baby? And why? Why would I remove something he was born with as if it were a birth defect? If I would have just stuck with those initial feelings, I wouldn’t be writing this today. But sadly, I didn’t.

   I did what most new moms do when trying to make this decision: first, I asked my doctor. He wasn’t very helpful. He basically told us that the choice between doing it and not doing it was like six of one, and a half dozen of another. Looking back on it now, I cringe at how little information he gave us, and I can’t believe that he considered what little he did give us to be informed consent. Not one word about the functions of the foreskin. Not one word about the thousands of nerve endings we would be removing from our son’s most sensitive body part. Not one bit about how the procedure is done. I did ask him about the pain and he assured me that he uses an anesthetic. He implied that the baby would not feel any pain. This made me feel a little better.

   Then, I asked my friends. I hate to say it, but my friends were all from a pretty small bubble that really all thought the same thing. The consensus from pretty much everyone I talked to was that uncircumcised penises were dirty and looked “gross” and of course they were going to have it done. Some had sons and had already had it done to them. I tried to get more detailed information as to why they had chosen this for their sons, but really just got that they thought it was cleaner and looked nicer. And I have to admit, deep down, I thought the same thing.

   Then finally, I asked my husband. Being from a family that chose circumcision for their sons and growing up in the same culture that convinced me and my friends that uncut penises were gross, of course he wanted to have it done to our son. I think we kind of believed that ridiculous notion that a son’s penis should look like his father’s (I look back on that thinking now, and I can’t believe I bought in to that nonsense).
  
   My precious baby boy was born soon after in the middle of the night by emergency cesarean section after the monitors showed his heart rate dropping too low. I was very shaken by the whole thing. My doctor was not on call that night, so one of his partners performed the surgery. It was pretty bad. I was totally scared. I was vomiting from the drugs. No one said a word to me. They just talked amongst themselves about stupid stuff.

   I was so sick afterwards. I continued to vomit and feel horribly nauseous for another 12 hours. And I was in so much pain. I felt like I had been run over by a truck and then dragged for miles. I couldn’t believe it. But I was so excited to finally have my baby, and so excited to be a momma. I held him for the first time in the recovery room. I couldn’t open my eyes without throwing up, so I just held him and talked to him. I told him that I had been waiting for him for such a long time, and I loved him so much. I told him that I was his momma and that I would take care of him.

   I was feeling somewhat better by the next day. At least the room had stopped spinning. That’s when they came in to take him to be circumcised. I honestly don’t remember too much about it. I was probably still too drugged. I don’t remember anyone talking to me about it. I don’t remember signing anything. What I do remember, however was me handing him over to them. I remember it because right before I did, I had this feeling that it was wrong, that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to give him to them. But I did. How I wish I could go back to that very moment and say “No! You cannot have him!” But I didn’t listen to that voice inside me.

   My husband and I waited anxiously in my room for what seemed like forever. Finally they brought him back. I will never forget what he looked like. I can’t even describe it. I asked the nurse what was wrong with him. “What happened? Was he crying?” I asked her. “Oh… yea, a little” she said sheepishly. I could tell it was way more than a little. “Well, why was he crying?” I asked. “My doctor said with the anesthetic, he wouldn’t feel it!“ I told her, getting pretty upset. She looked at me and said “Oh your doctor isn’t here today. The on-call doctor did it. He doesn’t use any anesthetic.”

   He doesn’t use any anesthetic.  
  I wanted to throw up. I couldn’t believe what I had just done to my boy. I can’t even express how horrible I felt. Here I was with my first baby, my first pregnancy. I had eaten everything healthy. I had given up caffeine and diet Cokes, sushi, margaritas and soft cheeses.  I held my breath as I walked by people who were smoking. I went to all of my prenatal appointments. I took all kinds of vitamins. I went to childbirth classes and did prenatal yoga. I planned for a natural, drug-free, peaceful birth. And none of it mattered now. In my very first test as a mom to this baby, I had failed him. He didn’t care about any of those other things. All he knew was that I had let them hurt him. 

   I can’t even tell you how much I wanted to hurt that doctor. I saw him pass by in the hall and I  wanted to jump on him and beat the crap out of him. (Thank goodness my ignorance kept me from knowing all that he had just done to him, or I might very well have) I couldn’t understand how anyone, much less a doctor who is supposed to help people, could do that to a defenseless baby. I couldn’t imagine how much my baby must have been hurting, and screaming for me. And I was sitting here in this room just waiting as they tortured him. It was horrible.

  Soon the time came for the nurse to show us how to care for the wound. Where his sweet little baby penis used to be was what looked like a red, raw stump. I saw it and the first thought that popped into my mind was that it looked like something that is not supposed to be exposed. It looked to me like an organ that needed to be covered. I had no idea that during babyhood and childhood, the foreskin is literally fused to the head of the penis, just like your fingernail is fused to your finger. This protects the penis from contamination from feces and urine and allows the penis to continue to grow and mature until the connection naturally separates on its own sometime before adolescence. This keeps it protected and safe until it is needed for sex. In order to circumcise a baby, they have to rip apart that connection, just like you would rip a fingernail off of a finger. This is what the doctor is doing when he sticks the metal probe down into the tip of the penile opening and forces it around to the other side. He is physically ripping apart that membrane.

   I left the hospital the next day. I was so happy to finally be a mom, so excited to be bringing my baby home. But deep inside, I already doubted my abilities.

   Over the next few days I continued to care for the wound like the nurse showed us. I did everything I was supposed to, but I could tell it still hurt him. Every time he peed or pooped in his diaper, he would cry. Every time I had to change him I would have to mess with it some more. I had to clean it off, and clean off any poop that had gotten onto it. This was not an easy thing to do because after a circumcision is done, a “ring” of foreskin is left (to allow for growth and because when they are so little, it’s hard to tell how much their adult penis will need to expand comfortably. Babies who have every bit taken off, called a tight circumcision, can grow to have very painful erections). The space between this “ring” and the head (glans) would collect anything and everything it came into contact with; stray clothing strings, stray hair, poop. It would get stuck in all the tiny folds and behind the head. This is partly due to the fact that this area of the penis is similar to a mucus membrane, like the inside of your mouth or eyelids. It is meant to be moist and lubricated. It is meant to be covered and protected by the foreskin. This is nature’s way of ensuring the sensitivity is preserved, and helps to keep any foreign matter away. When it’s not covered and is exposed, it seems to actually attract stuff. I had to pull back all his little bits and clean out every part. This was not easy to do on an open wound. He cried at every diaper change. It obviously hurt him. Looking back now, I don’t know why we thought it wouldn’t.  Almost his entire penis was an open, raw wound.

   After a few days, I started to notice that it didn’t look quite right. It looked crooked or something. I had a follow up scheduled with my OB a few days later, so I decided to mention it to him. At the end of my appointment at his office, I asked him to take a look. I mentioned how it didn’t look quite right to me, like they had left some of the foreskin attached to his glans still.  Apparently, what happened was when they did his circumcision, they left a larger amount of foreskin on the left side than on the right. This part of foreskin had reattached to the side and top of his glans. I learned this later, however. As soon as my OB saw my baby’s penis, without telling me anything, explaining anything, or much less asking if he could, and without so much as a thought to the pain that it would cause my little guy, he grabbed hold of the area and physically ripped the separation apart. AGAIN. My son screamed like I had never heard him before. It immediately started bleeding. During all of this crying and bleeding, was when my doctor decided to tell us what he had just done and why. I just stood there in shock. I could not believe I had just let them hurt him for a second time. I was speechless. I stared at him in disbelief at what he had just done. We left that appointment and I never went back there again.

   By this point I was just sick with regret. I worried that it was done wrong. I worried that it would never look right. I worried that he would have to have it done again.  I wished I had never messed with it. I mean, my God, it was his penis! And I was doing all kinds of stuff to it. This is not a body part you want to mess up.  I told myself right then and there as we drove home that I was done messing with my son’s penis. I never should have started. Whatever else needed to be done to it, would be his decision to make.

    I felt worse than ever now.  I had the usual new mom anxieties, but to know that I had disfigured my son, whom I had just barely met, was horrible. Every time I changed his diaper, I wanted to cry. Sometimes I did. I felt like a total failure as a mom. It hurt our relationship as well. I had difficulties bonding with him. I loved him and adored being a mom, but I felt like he should have gotten a better one.

   Soon afterward, I began to research circumcision. I mean, real research, not just silly fluff pieces in parenting magazines. I read studies. I read medical journal articles. I learned that the U.S. is the only country (besides Israel and small parts of Africa) that circumcises. I was shocked. I thought everybody did it. I learned that the claim that circumcision prevents penile cancer is such a  falsehood that the American Cancer Society had even released a statement asking everyone to quit saying it was true. I learned how painful the procedure actually is by watching a YouTube video of an actual circumcision being performed.  I was absolutely sickened by that baby’s screams, and even more so by the doctor’s complete and utter lack of concern at the torture he was inflicting. His callousness was what really stuck with me. I just didn’t understand how they could do it. Doctors spend years studying the human body. They know how painful it must be. They take oaths to “First, do no harm.”, and here they were, cutting off fully functioning, healthy body parts, apparently oblivious to the person screaming in pain right in front of them.

   It was during this research that I finally found out about the functions of the foreskin. I had no idea that the part of the penis that everyone was cutting off actually has very important purposes. And it was most definitely not just a flap of extra skin. It had so many different specialized functions, 20,000 nerve endings, specialized cells that actually fought infection… and much more. There was a part of me that didn’t want to know. I wanted to stop reading. 

    I remember when it all finally came to me; the realization of all that I had actually taken from my son. I was sitting in front of the computer holding him in my arms. I just remember thinking how badly I wanted a do-over; how badly I wished I could go back and change things. I had spent more time researching which stroller to buy than I had spent researching whether or not to circumcise my son. I had relied on the opinions of people who knew little more about circumcision than I did, which I now realized, was next to nothing. I was absolutely sick with regret. We all know how strong a mother’s love for her child is. Mothers will easily give their lives to save their child. Well, at that moment I would have easily traded a body part of my own to get his back. I literally would have.

   I had so many emotions. I was shocked. I was speechless. I was hurt, and hurting. I was angry. Why did I not know all of this information before? Why did no one tell me? Why did my own doctor not tell me, especially when I had asked him? Why on Earth did I listen to other people, who knew nothing about circumcision other than the fact that they liked the look of it better? It was unbelievable. I was so angry with myself. I thought I was smarter than that, but still, I fell for it.

  Soon afterward, I learned I was expecting another boy.  And there it was again, THE question: Would we circumcise him? It may seem after all you’ve read that my decision was easy, but I will not lie to you, it wasn’t. I knew in my heart that it was an unnecessary, harmful procedure, but there were so many other things to consider now. I had one son that was circumcised; did the other one have to be as well? I mean, didn’t they have to “match”? If we decided not to circumcise him, would my second son feel out of place as the only intact male in the house? Would my husband feel differently toward either of them? Would either one feel like an outsider? Or be traumatized and scarred for life? What if I had a third son, or a fourth? Would I just keep circumcising and circumcising just to make sure I had a matching set? 

  I thought and thought about the future ramifications. How would I explain to my boys why they looked different from each other? And there it was- the thought that deep down had been worrying me the most: How would I explain? How would I tell my grown baby, my precious son, what I let them do to him? In leaving my second son whole, I would have to address their difference; I would be saying “I chose differently this time because what I did to you was wrong”. That thought killed me. Could I admit to myself, to my son, to the world, that I had made such a mistake?

  It would be so easy to avoid all of these questions. It would be so easy to just have my second son circumcised as well. I wouldn’t have to confront any of it. Except, now I knew better. I knew what I had done to him. I knew I was wrong. And I knew I couldn’t pretend I was right just to make myself feel better.

  Oh, how I wrestled and wrestled with this decision. Then, one day, I suddenly realized that I was struggling to answer this question that should have never been asked. His penis was healthy. His foreskin was not diseased. It was not harming him, or threatening his life. It was a normal, healthy, functioning part of his body, and it was not my place to decide whether to cut it off or not; it was his.
 
  And that was it for me. I was done. I decided that when they were old enough to decide for themselves what they wanted to do with their bodies, I would be there to support them. But it needed to be their decision. I didn’t have to say I was wrong, or this is right; I didn’t have to prove to anyone that one way was better than the other. I had to simply say, "It’s not my decision to make". And that’s it. It was amazing how simple and logical and freeing this realization was.

  My son was born soon after and we kept him whole. The questions I spent so many months agonizing over have been a complete non-issue. Honestly, the biggest thing I’ve noticed was how easy it was to take care of him. There is no special cleaning of an intact baby required. At birth and for many years afterward, the foreskin is fused to the head of the penis. It does not retract. This means that there is nothing extra you as a parent will have to do to clean or take care of your intact son. Nothing. All you do is wipe it off like you would a finger. My intact son was easier to clean than my circumcised son. Seriously. And he was far easier to clean than my daughter.
  
  My boys see each others' bodies all the time and have never mentioned a difference. I think they just don't expect each other to look the same; their hair is different, their faces are different; and both look different from their sister. Neither one of them looks like their dad. And frankly, I'd be pretty creeped out if they did. They are little boys. And they look like little boys, and think like little boys and don't expect (or want) to "match" anyone. They are perfectly happy just to be who they are. When the time comes that they are old enough to understand, or if they start asking questions, I will explain. I will apologize to my son, and I will pray that he forgives me.

  If you are considering circumcision, I urge you; please do your research first. Please take the time to learn about what it is you would be removing from your son. I have links to some really great articles below. 

 The question of whether or not to circumcise your son is a question that is, unfortunately, posed to the parents of most newborn boys. But it is a question that should never have been asked. And remember, you can always just refuse to answer it.

Click  here for some great info:

 Are you fully informed?  Tons of great info.
A brief history of circumcision-do you know why circumcision was started in the U.S? It's probably not what you think!

Circumcision myths -see if you've been told to circumcise for these reasons.

Myths about circumcision you likely believe - a great series from Psychology Today

Looking like dad 

How do I talk to my husband about circumcision? 

The Whole Network -lots of great info

Question Circumcision- a great informative site 

Circumcision and the Christian Parent 

Biblical Circumcision Information 

Many other stories of circumcision regret 

43 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you wrote this post. It is beautifully written. I admire the sincerity and candor. I will be sharing this on my facebook page and hoping that your story can save a baby boy from circumcision. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you for telling your story. It may help many others make a better decision. As a lawyer who regularly represents the victims of botched circumcisions I know the toll they can take on a family, not just on the boy. Your blog is compelling. I hope others will listen to you.

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  3. Hugs to you momma... Thanks for sharing this. If anyone consodering this procedure actually reads this with an open mind they will definitely decide against it. It is compelling and heartwrenching.

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  4. My heart aches for you :( The fact that doctors choose money over ethics makes me want to vomit on a daily basis. The informed consent is a complete joke and our country is absolutely in the stone ages when it comes to knowledge of the foreskin.

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    1. I totally agree with you on all counts Katrina. Thanks for reading.

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  5. Really wonderful blog. Thanks for sharing your powerful story. Your words will help many, many people make an "informed decision" to leave the decision to the man their son will become.

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  6. You are the best person.

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  7. I greatly admire your courage for having written this.

    American doctors know much less about what is cut off than you and I do. All sorts of long run risks arising from infant circumcision have not been quantified, because nobody has done the large sample studies. Hence doctors cannot give us the information we require to give informed consent.

    Routine circumcision is the greatest open problem in the social psychology of American sexuality.

    I urge you to write a letter in this spirit of this post, to the maternity ward where your son was delivered, and to the doctor who circumcised your son. Emphasise that the hospital did not keep the promise your doctor made to you. And that consent to circumcision should be part of the paperwork filled out before admission to the maternity ward, and not given orally while under the influence of post-caesarean pain killers.

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    1. Thank you Roger. That sounds like a good idea. I just may do that.

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  8. Excellent, thoughtful, compassionate post. I'm adding this to the essays at the Intactivism Pages.

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    1. Thank you, Hugh. I am honored. I hope it can help someone.

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  9. I too succumbed to circumcism with my first son because my husband's family gave us a REALLY HARD time on it. Even though I educated myself on it, I didn't want "war" with his family. I actually watched the circumcism through the window and they had to shut the curtains because I was screaming and crying and fell on floor in pain (I had a bad delivery and wasn's even suppose to be walking.)The doctor did the plastibell instead of cutting because he said it would hurt less (he did not use anesthic either). My son was screaming the entire time it was done to him. When they brought him to me it was like his whole (no pun intended) personality changed. There was blood in his diaper over the next few days, it was hard to keep clean....just not a good thing. I have never forgiven myself for letting my husband's family sway my decision. Sixteen months ago (and 7 years later) I gave birth to my 2nd son and kept him whole. I wish I was strong even 7 years ago to make this decision but at least I saved one of my son's from pain and having his integrity taken away. I have to say it is easier to care for a whole penis than one that has been cut. I love both of my boys and my 8 year old knows about being cut versus being whole. I hope that when he has a son he will make the right decision.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story. I believe that this is the only way this will ever end; people sharing their stories and information, saving one baby at a time.

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    2. My mother and her mother in law went head to head over circumcising me. Very happily, my mother won, but to do so she had to threaten to divorce my father if he and his mother did not STFU.

      This happened in 1949. Thus I grew up usually being the only intact boy in the locker room. I grew up with a "weird" penis that had zero validation in printed matter on family medicine and human sexuality. With a penis that was utterly unfamiliar to potential dates. I married quite late as a result.

      My father was cut and I was not. He went to his grave never having speaken to me about circumcision. He and I saw each other naked many times every summer, in beach and swimming pool locker rooms. Despite her utter lack of social graces, my grandmother never mentioned to me the fact that I was intact, and I became her favourite grandchild.

      I have no regrets about all this. Thanks to my defiant mother, there is fact that lies at the core of my sexual being, and that sets me apart from the vast majority of men of my place and time. My wife, who climaxes every time we come together, gets to enjoy something that very few American women of her generation get to enjoy: foreplay intercourse with a penis having all the tender moving parts. I also was a half century ahead of the curve. Like Paul Anka wrote, and Sinatra sang, "I did it My Way."

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  10. Thank you for sharing this, it was very brave of you to do so. Thank you.

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  11. I'm sure it probably came up during your research but restoration is possible and if your son and or husband want, they can look like your youngest. I'd be interested to know how your husband reacted when you changed your mind about circumcision because you said earlier that he was gung ho for it with your first son.

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    1. My husband and I were both sickened by what we put our little guy through. I know he regretted it too. I will leave the rest of my husband's story for him to tell. Maybe one day he will.

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    2. I know this is a late reply here, but I can't help feeling you are taking this way too personally as YOUR fault. What I see here, which is sadly something I am seeing all too frequently in birthing situations, is that the doctor did this without really getting your permission (if you were whacked out on medication/anesthetic I'm sorry but that doesn't count) to do so. In fact, you told your regular doctor that you didn't want this done. Your guilt is probably something to do with the idea you were supposed to protect your son, but were unable to do so. I'd try to stop beating myself up if I were you, and I would go after the doctor, BIG TIME.

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  12. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope you have forgiven yourself, we all make mistakes.

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  13. Thank you so much for being brave enough to share this. My heart is breaking for you. This will end with people like you sharing your stories. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you. And I agree. One baby at a time...

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  14. Well-written, honest and brave. I hope that ours will be the generation brave enough to confront the truth about this issue and stop it.

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    1. I would love to see that happen! Thank you for the kind words.

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  15. You are an amazing mother! Thank you! Sharing!

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  16. You are an amazing mother! Thank you! Sharing!

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  17. Both you and your baby were brutalized by the medical profession. And just think, this scenario is being played out day after day in this country. Thank you for your eloquent personal testimony.

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  18. This is extremely well written, and I agree that the medical profession is ignorant about the importance of the foreskin. You trusted them to do their job and provide you with accurate information, and they did not do it.
    My husband is circumcised, but his Mom really regretted it later, and she was honest and apologetic with him about that for as long as he can remember, so he never felt any resentment toward her about it. You are a great Mom!

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  19. Love you, Aud! So well written.

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  20. Love you buddy! You are awesome! XXX

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  21. Should be required reading for expecting moms.

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  22. This must have been a very hard post for you to write. It takes a lot of bravery to tell the truth and admit our mistakes (as parents, we make so many). Thank you for posting this, and for being so brave, and for making a gentler choice the second time.

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    1. Thank you, Jennifer. It was hard, and brought up a lot of emotion. I hope it can help someone though.

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  23. Great blog Audre. We haven't circumsized Micah yet (we were going to before he turned a month but pushed it off) and would be doing it after his next hope heart if we decide to. This made me want to investigate further... I'm not sure what we will decide, but I now understand why you are so passionate about not circumsizing

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  24. That's my wife and the mother of my children...
    I have had to re-think this whole procedure as well. I believe we do this today because it has become the norm. People are not informed about it and don't seem to be interested in being informed. The less they know the better, is what they think. I know because I felt the same way before I had my first child. Thankfully my wife is not one to think this way, she wants to know why we do something. She has educated me on many, many issues. This just happens to be one of them. Educating yourselves is exactly what the doctors do not want you to do. In fact so many doctors get mad at my wife because she asks so many questions she should not be asking.

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  25. Very powerful account of your experience. Thank you for so boldly and articulately sharing your story.

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  26. Thank you for sharing your experience and your feelings so articulately. Your account will certainly help others to keep their sons whole.

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  27. Thank you for sharing your story. This makes it a more firm 'NO' for me when my little baby boy arrives next month. I too watched a youtube video and have done research and just can't imagine putting my son through that pain. I cried during and after that youtube video. Now if only I could get my fiance to just watch the video or do some research. Thanks again for your story. :)

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  28. It is terrible how parents are left with so little information and have to make a decision that is not fully informed. IT's so unethical. Thank you for your story....many of us can relate. The more people tell their stories, the more we can get the truth out there circulating.

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  29. There was a point in my life where I thought it was "normal" and necessary too. Only to learn later that 70 percent of the world's men have intact genitals.

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  30. I was super misinformed when I had my oldest and he is circumcised too. He had complications that caused problems off and on for years. He finally at about 5 seem to completely heal(so much for not remembering, huh?). We decided to keep our youngest intact and like you said it isn't an issue. My oldest did notice the difference but I just told him we all look different all over and he said... Yeah like grandma has lots of freckles and we don't. And like My friend has glasses... See he got it at 5... Not a big deal

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