One of the first decisions you make as the parent of a boy is whether or not to circumcise. Circumcision has medical, social and emotional considerations for parents of infant boys. Of course, having a baby of either gender brings with it many decisions. From the moment that second pink line appears you are a parent. Some parenting choices can be fun, like what color to paint the nursery. Other choices require more research and discussion between the mother and her partner including whether or not to circumcise.

For centuries, the only reason for circumcision was a religious one. Non-faith based circumcision began with the Victorians during the mid-to-late 1800s. They believed that removing the foreskin would reduce the male’s urge to masturbate.

The decision to circumcise may be guided by your religious beliefs. Both Jews and Muslims circumcise as part of religious rites. The decision not to circumcise, however, may be one that you never considered. “Aren’t most boys circumcised? Isn’t it cleaner? Why wouldn’t I want my son to look like his father and all the other boys in the locker room?” While these myths are prevalent in the United States and other parts of the Western world, the facts of circumcision tell a significantly different story.

Circumcision of male infants is not a medically necessary procedure; it is plastic surgery for the penis. The practice of circumcision began in ancient Egypt, according to Desmond Morris in his book Babywatching. The ancient Egyptians believed that the snake shedding its skin was undergoing a rebirth and, thus, became immortal. They reasoned that if humans followed suit they, too, would attain immortality. The foreskin was equated to the snakeskin, and the practice of circumcision was begun.

For centuries, the only reason for circumcision was a religious one. Non-faith based circumcision began with the Victorians during the mid-to-late 1800s. They believed that removing the foreskin would reduce the male’s urge to masturbate. From that starting point, circumcision has been deemed by various groups to be more hygienic and credited as a preventative measure for diseases from chlamydia to HIV. In reality, removing the foreskin accomplishes none of these assertions and could result in more serious problems.

The foreskin has several known functions, even in modern times. While some people suggest that its use has gone the way of the appendix, in reality the foreskin aids in the sexual health and enjoyment of men. The foreskin is a protective cover for the penis that needs no special care. At birth, the foreskin is attached to the head of the penis, much like fingernails are attached to the end of your fingers. It will remain attached until the boy is about ten years old. Premature retraction of the foreskin can lead to an increased chance of infection.

Early life functions of the foreskin are to help in the proper development of the penile glans and to protect the glans from feces and urine-based ammonia in diapers. Throughout the man’s life, the foreskin continues to protect the glans from friction and abrasion and keeps it lubricated and moisturized by coating it in a waxy, protective substance. When the man becomes sexually active, the foreskin allows sufficient skin to cover an erection by unfolding and aids in penetration by reducing friction and chafing. The foreskin is highly sensitive and is, in fact, an erogenous tissue rich with erogenous receptors. For his partner, the foreskin contacts and stimulates the female’s G-spot.

There are additional considerations when deciding upon whether your male infant will undergo circumcision. As with any medical procedure, there are complications presented by the choice to circumcise. In March 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that any potential medical benefits are not significant, and the AAP no longer recommends circumcision as a routine procedure. Prior to consenting to a circumcision, the mother must sign a consent form outlining the risks of the procedure. These risks include hemorrhage (in about 2% of cases), infection, deformity, scarring, permanent bowing of the penis (chordee), and urinary retention from swelling, among other concerns, including loss of the penis. Though rare, death occurs in approximately 1 of every 5000 circumcisions. Many circumcisions are done without the use of anesthetic, but if anesthesia is used, there are additional complications presented by using anesthetic drugs on an infant.

Despite the American perception, circumcision is not a worldwide practice. Eighty-two percent (82%) of the world’s male population is intact. That leaves the 18% of circumcised men in the minority. Even in the U.S. circumcision rates are declining.

Starting around World War II, rates of circumcised boys increased steeply as American births were moved from the home into the hospitals. Rates of U.S. circumcisions reached a plateau during the late 1980s. With the new century, rates of circumcision began a slow decline. In the latest census reports, from 2003, approximately 55% of American newborn boys are circumcised. Some sources believe that American circumcision rates will decrease steadily over the next generation and return to the pre-WWII ratio of approximately 1 of every 4 boys being circumcised.

Whether or not to circumcise is a decision that must be made with concern for immediate and future implications for the male child. As more parents become aware of the choices they have in labor and birth, more parents are also making the decision not to circumcise.