It is not just a religious tradition – it may have health benefits, but it can also be traumatic and painful. Should Jewish mum Beatrix Clark put her baby son through it?

To snip or not to snip? That is the question – at least, it was for me throughout both my pregnancies. I'm Jewish, my husband's not and the matter bugged me constantly. If we had a son, would he – should he – be circumcised?

To snip or not to snip? That is the question – at least, it was for me throughout both my pregnancies. I'm Jewish, my husband's not and the matter bugged me constantly. If we had a son, would he – should he – be circumcised?

In Jewish law religion goes through the mother – hence my children are Jewish. But I don't practise and I married out. Should our son still be circumcised, enabling him to practise his religion later if he chooses? Or, as my husband believes, should a son be like his father – in this case, uncircumcised?

Jewish people, like Muslims, circumcise their sons for religious reasons. They believe that God commanded it, and traditionally, when a Jewish boy is eight days old, his foreskin is cut off in a religious ceremony dating back to Abraham. The procedure is carried out without anaesthetic by a specially trained, Orthodox male known as a Mohel.

Sounds painful, even barbaric? Dr Morris Sifman has performed around 4,000 such circumcisions and believes that because the process is so quick – lasting under a minute – the baby's discomfort is short-lived. But those who have seen their sons go through it say it's not a pleasant experience.

"Our first child, Xavier, cried terribly and developed an infection," recalls Tania, who has three sons. "With our middle son it went more smoothly but our youngest, Teddie, took a week to stop bleeding, which was really distressing, as it should take 24 hours."

Yet despite these complications, Tania and her husband, both Jewish, regard circumcision as a fundamental aspect of their faith and are adamant that they'd do it again.

When both parents come from a culture in which circumcision is the norm, most still practise it without question. But what of cases like ours, which are – excuse the pun – less clear-cut? With mixed-race relationships on the increase, the question of whether or not to circumcise a male child can be a difficult and emotional one. Family and social pressures often make matters worse.

"Parents from different cultures can have real conflict over this issue," says Dr Yehudi Gordon, consultant obstetrician at London's Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth. Gordon is himself Jewish but, unlike Morris Sifman, he believes that ritual circumcision can cause a baby extreme pain, which can last for days or even weeks. When approached by couples who have doubts about having their son circumcised, he urges them to think carefully before going ahead with the procedure.

"If you feel you have a choice – and many people don't – my advice is, don't do it. Circumcision is an operation and can cause complications. Why put your baby through unnecessary surgery if you can avoid it?" he says.

Because for one thing, say those in favour, it's more hygienic. In North America, although circumcision rates have recently fallen, over 90 per cent of male babies are still circumcised – the majority of these for reasons of health and hygiene. Here, too, certain doctors believe the procedure has important medical benefits for the child and can prevent health problems later in life.

Mr Sabry Gabriel, who is a surgeon at several London hospitals, cites four major health arguments in favour of circumcision.

"Studies in America have shown that 90 per cent of infections of the penis occurring in the first year of life are in uncircumcised babies. Cancer of the penis has not been known to occur in Jewish or other circumcised men, and a circumcised man is far less likely to contract HIV than one who is uncircumcised," he says.

Gabriel believes that circumcision has health implications not only for a man, but also for his partners. "There is evidence that cervical cancer is linked to a virus that can be sexually transmitted and can be harboured beneath the foreskin," he says.

For many couples, reaching a decision over whether or not to circumcise involves one person having to compromise. Diane and Mike are expecting their second child, and if it's a boy, Diane wants him circumcised. "Mike's not Jewish and isn't keen on the idea. But he knows it's important to me and will go along with it, as long as we have it done in hospital rather than by the traditional method," she says.

When one parent has doubts, having a son circumcised surgically in a private hospital is often the solution. Such was the case for Zoe, mother of four-year-old Joshua and one-year-old Alfie.

"I hated the idea of inflicting pain on my babies but understood why my husband, who's circumcised, felt they should be the same as him. We decided to have it done with the Plastibell, which we were told is the least painful method. Joshua cried initially, otherwise both boys were fine," she says. "But it's still fairly traumatic and if you're going to do it I'd advise getting it over with as soon as possible."

The Plastibell method can be used 24 hours after birth onwards. It involves placing a plastic ring inside the foreskin and a silk tie around it, cutting off all sensation so that the area is pain-free when the procedure is carried out. Local anaesthetic is used to minimise pain when the device is put on and according to surgeons who use this method, complications afterwards are virtually unknown.

Like Zoe, I understood my husband's desire for a son to be like him. I didn't want to disappoint my relatives, but neither did I wish to hurt my baby. We decided against circumcision and when I saw my newborn's perfect little body I had no wish to change what nature created. But does this mean he can never have a bar mitzvah or marry in a synagogue?

Not necessarily, according to Rabbi Mark Winer of the West London Synagogue of British Jews. "Strictly speaking, any boy born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. I wouldn't insist on a boy being ritually circumcised in order to have a bar mitzvah or marry in a synagogue, although I would prefer it. But I do think a boy who grows up uncircumcised will have problems identifying as a Jew," he says.

Rabbi Winer believes that ritual circumcision is a wonderful tradition that brings people together. Nevertheless, he accepts and even advocates the use of local anaesthetic to reduce pain, and he will officiate at hospital circumcisions if he is asked to.

Mark Winer's views are progressive, and to an Orthodox rabbi they would be unacceptable. But it's reassuring to know that, even if he remains uncircumcised, our son will have the option to go back to his roots if he wants to.

So religious arguments aside, should we be circumcising our baby boys in the 21st century? Are the health benefits great enough to justify inflicting pain on a helpless infant? Or, as doctors such as Yehudi Gordon believe, is the medical evidence in favour of circumcision limited and inconclusive? Is a practice that may have had a place thousands of years ago unnecessary in an age when people wash and bathe regularly?

And in North America, where male circumcision at birth has traditionally been the norm, are people now starting to react against it? About this, too, views seem to differ.

The debate rages on, and such is the controversy sparked by this emotive issue that it remains hard to draw a conclusion. If you're completely sure that circumcision is right for your son, then go for it. But let the decision be yours, your partner's, and no one else's. If you're unsure, why not leave him with a foreskin – and the right to decide for himself?

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