What do you usually talk about on a first date? On ours, which was nine years ago, my wife and I discussed—among many other things—circumcision. I had just been reading about the anti-circumcision movement. I can't tell you much about that article now, but I will never forget one particular anecdote.
There is a group of men who not only oppose the practice, but are committed to trying to reclaim their "lost" foreskin. How did they do this? A long, painful procedure that involves very small weights. Yes, I actually mentioned this on our first date. And yes, she went out with me again. In fact, both of us wholeheartedly agreed not to circumcise our sons. At the time, neither of us knew the sons we were talking about would be ours.
Just about all parents of newborn boys will be asked if they want their sons circumcised. It has long been the most common surgical operation in the United States, but it's not necessarily a given anymore. While exact historical rates of circumcision are nearly impossible to determine, about 80 percent of American boys born in the two generations after World War II had the procedure. According to the National Hospital Discharge Survey, that number dropped to 56 percent of boys born in 2006.
The decrease in the percentage of boys getting circumcised has been linked to several causes, including first-generation children born to immigrants whose cultures don't perform the surgery. Another reason could be that, in 1971, the American Academy of Pediatrics published its guidelines for newborn care with the position that there was no medical reason to recommend circumcision.
Followers of two of the world's major religions routinely circumcise their sons. Jewish parents do it eight days after birth because it's one of the central pillars of their relationship with God. While not ordered by the Koran—which does not specifically mention the procedure, nor at what age it should happen—Muslims circumcise their sons as well, usually before a boy turns 7 years old. Yet these worshipers, who together add up to about 3 percent of the U.S. population, do not account for the high rate of circumcision in America.
Nonreligious circumcision tends to be a particularly American procedure. A 2007 World Health Organization survey shows circumcision is performed on less than 20 percent of boys in most of Europe.
In the United Kingdom, the older a man is, the more likely he is to be circumcised. The National Health Service no longer pays for routine circumcision, and some estimate that the current rate for newborn circumcision in that country is just 1 percent. In the mid-20th century, Australian boys were as likely to be circumcised as Americans. But in recent decades, those have dropped to European levels—about 10 percent.