First the Bagel, Now the Mohel

The Jewish Daily Forward is reporting that more and more non-Jews are calling in the mohel, or ritual circumciser, to have their sons circumcised. The reasons for this include a desire for cleanliness (mohels operate outside of hospitals) and adding a bit of spiritual pizazz, even if the pizazz comes from outside a family’s own religious tradition.

An excerpt:

Nearly two years ago, Jeannie Noth Gaffigan and Jim Gaffigan gave birth to their first son at home through the assistance of a nurse-midwife. Though the decision to circumcise wasn’t a religious one, as Catholics the Gaffigans wanted more than a simple medical procedure. “We felt a mohel would lend a high level of dignity and significance to this very important moment in our lives,” Noth Gaffigan said in an e-mail to the Forward. [The mohel] Blake, 52, arrived at a house packed with food, drink and family — a gathering that, were it not for the priest in the corner, would have looked like nothing less than a Jewish bris.

I believe the U.S. is the only country in the world where the majority of boys are circumcised even if the parents have no religious reason to do so. This has long been a puzzling issue, and a contentious one, too. This site gives a good look at circumcision rates in the U.S. in the past several decades, which have been falling but are still high.

Here’s one sentence from the site that gives an indication of just how contentious the issue is: “Circumcision hit its highest level in 1965, at which point the genital integrity rate was just 15 percent.” The phrase “genital integrity” is a bit more suggestive than “uncircumcised,” wouldn’t you say?

So here are two questions:

1. Why is it that, in a country with such a relatively small population of parents whose religion requires them to circumcise their sons, have so many boys historically been circumcised?

2. According to the circumcision stats Web site, circumcision rates vary widely from region to region in the U.S. Here are the approximate rates in 2004 for the following four regions:

Midwest: 80 percent
Northeast: 68 percent
South: 59 percent
West: 32 percent

What can account for such a high Midwest rate and such a low West rate? I am guessing it is a combination of cultural preferences (influenced perhaps by immigration), and some degree of religious dictate of course, but also insurance policy and hospital culture. (See Shannon Brownlee‘s book Overtreated for examples of huge regional differences in various medical treatments.) But I am still astonished at this vast diversity in the circumcision statistics. Can anyone explain it?

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  1. Phil says:

    My guess is that the difference is due to differing recommendations from the medical staff. People generally follow the recommendations of their doctor, and doctors in a particular region would tend to have similar views (for similar reasons we have blue states and red states — people tend towards the social views of their peers).

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  2. Phil says:

    My guess is that the difference is due to differing recommendations from the medical staff. People generally follow the recommendations of their doctor, and doctors in a particular region would tend to have similar views (for similar reasons we have blue states and red states — people tend towards the social views of their peers).

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  3. Morley says:

    Jim Gaffigan? As in, the comedian?

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  4. Morley says:

    Jim Gaffigan? As in, the comedian?

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  5. Andy says:

    The American Cancer Society believes circumcision has no effect on penile cancer rates:

    “… penile cancer risk is low in some uncircumcised populations, and circumcision is strongly associated with other socioethnic practices that are associated with lessened risk. The consensus among studies that have taken these other factors into account is that circumcision alone is not the major factor preventing cancer of the penis. It is important that the issue of circumcision not distract the public’s attention from avoiding known penile cancer risk factors — having unprotected sexual relations with multiple partners (increasing the likelihood of human papillomavirus infection) and cigarette smoking.”

    As more people become vaccinated for HPV rates should go down across the board, as well.

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  6. Andy says:

    The American Cancer Society believes circumcision has no effect on penile cancer rates:

    “… penile cancer risk is low in some uncircumcised populations, and circumcision is strongly associated with other socioethnic practices that are associated with lessened risk. The consensus among studies that have taken these other factors into account is that circumcision alone is not the major factor preventing cancer of the penis. It is important that the issue of circumcision not distract the public’s attention from avoiding known penile cancer risk factors — having unprotected sexual relations with multiple partners (increasing the likelihood of human papillomavirus infection) and cigarette smoking.”

    As more people become vaccinated for HPV rates should go down across the board, as well.

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  7. AZ says:

    I just gave birth to twin boys four weeks ago and we decided to get them circumcised. As a new parent, I was aware that the rate in the US for circumcision is about 57% (I forgot where I read that, some pregnancy magazine, no doubt). My doctor friends declared it unnecessary, and I did not have a religious reason for having my boys circumcised. However, I had read similar information regarding disease, etc. that Jennifer posted about (#4), and that was why I was in favor of circumcision. My husband wanted the boys to “look normal.” We live in the Midwest, which could explain our overall willingness to assent to the procedure. Our doctor did not pressure us or even offer an opinion on the procedure one way or another. I will report that the babies didn’t seem to notice what happened and, according to the doctor, slept through the procedure. I don’t really know how it went as they have not mastered the English language yet, and I mostly determine how they feel about things based on whether they sleep or scream.

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  8. AZ says:

    I just gave birth to twin boys four weeks ago and we decided to get them circumcised. As a new parent, I was aware that the rate in the US for circumcision is about 57% (I forgot where I read that, some pregnancy magazine, no doubt). My doctor friends declared it unnecessary, and I did not have a religious reason for having my boys circumcised. However, I had read similar information regarding disease, etc. that Jennifer posted about (#4), and that was why I was in favor of circumcision. My husband wanted the boys to “look normal.” We live in the Midwest, which could explain our overall willingness to assent to the procedure. Our doctor did not pressure us or even offer an opinion on the procedure one way or another. I will report that the babies didn’t seem to notice what happened and, according to the doctor, slept through the procedure. I don’t really know how it went as they have not mastered the English language yet, and I mostly determine how they feel about things based on whether they sleep or scream.

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