To circumcise or not?

Oct 30, 2010 at 12:12 a.m. ET

When it comes to parenting, we’ve all run into our share of controversial topics. From vaccines to discipline, nutrition to education, it seems everyone has an opinion and an expert to back them up. Circumcision is definitely one of those issues, and it’s a topic that every parent of a boy must face.

newborn baby boy

When trying to decide whether to circumcise your child, numerous factors probably play into the process, including religious beliefs, traditions, health concerns and your personal experiences. The choice is a very personal one that is not taken lightly.

Topic du'jour

The infant circumcision topic evokes an incredibly emotional response from parents on both sides of the debate. "It has quite a bit in common with the other hot topics of today," says Anatoly Belilovsky, MD, Medical Director at Belilovsky Pediatrics in New York . "Like immunization, it is seen as invasive, painful, bloody, artificial, and induces visceral reactions based on that. Like formula feeding, it is the choice of the old generation, and rejected by the new." These issues prove that parenting is never easy and, whatever choices you make, you'll always find loud and passionate voices on both sides.

A little perspective

The medical advantages of circumcision have been questioned over the years. Perhaps the most notable objector was Dr. Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician and author. "Spock was one of the first doctors to say that circumcision is medically useless, although he accepted its use in religious settings, unlike later opponents such as Paul Fleiss," says Dr. Belilovsky. While many subscribe to these beliefs, a recent study shows that circumcision can help prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases -- although definitely not a substitute for other forms of prevention -- as well as certain illnesses. "Circumcision appears to protect against are urinary tract infection and cancer of the penis," says Dr. Belilovsky. "Penile cancer is infrequent, but more common than serious complications of circumcision."

The reality

According to a 2006 survey, around 56% of boys are circumcised in the United States , and every one of those circumcisions represents a unique decision process. "In my practice, the division is mainly along ethnic lines," says Dr. Belilovsky. "Those that have the tradition do; those that don't, don't." Some doctors recommend circumcision when babies have conditions such as phimosis (when the foreskin doesn't retract) or balanitis (inflammation of the foreskin), but no parent should feel pressured one way or the other.

Weighing the risks

As with most parenting decisions, it makes sense to weigh the risks of circumcision against the benefits, as you see them. These are often subjective values because what one parent considers beneficial, another parent may consider insignificant. To make matters more difficult, there's always the social aspect to consider. Parents always have a choice when it comes to this elective procedure, so do your research to decide what's right for you, not what is expecting of you.

For more information about the risks and benefits of circumcision, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics web site.

Read more about circumcision: