I’ve been thinking about a question, sparked by a new doula friend. A huge part of my job is helping mamas to protect their bodily autonomy – that they make the decisions about what happens to their bodies with genuinely informed consent – and genital integrity – specifically, avoiding episiotomy unless medically indicated and minimising the chance of tearing during birth by following physical cues for positioning and pushing, ‘breathing the baby down’, or perineal support, for example. I hear things like ‘I don’t want to be cut unless it’s an emergency’ or ‘I want my vagina or vulva to be the same afterwards’ or ‘I’m afraid that I will tear and it will hurt’ or ‘I tore last time and it was very painful and took time to heal: how can I avoid that this time?’ Imagine helping a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) mama birth a nearly ten pound baby over an intact perineum. Think of seeing a mama who had had a huge episiotomy (to which she had not consented) that extended to a fourth degree tear with complications, birth her second sweet baby with no tearing at all. It’s incredible. I say, ‘Trust your body. Your body is not broken. Your body was perfectly designed to birth this baby. You will open and stretch. Trust your body. Your body is perfect.’ These are some of the mantras of doula-assisted birth. Again: women want me to help them guard their own bodily autonomy and genital integrity. And I am very, very happy to do so.
How do I hold this role in my mind with some parents’ decision to circumcise baby boys, breaching their bodily autonomy and genital integrity? Recently I have come to the conclusion that I can’t hold both things in my mind at the same time. I hear in my head the same requests and questions above, this time in the voice of a baby boy: ‘Please don’t cut me unless it’s an emergency…Please let me decide…Please let my penis be the same as it is now…Please don’t hurt me.’ In a whisper, so that parents cannot hear, I have told brand new baby boys ‘You are perfect, and whole, and your body is not broken.’ And I have said ‘I’m so so sorry, I tried my best.’ Someone might tell me to mind my own business, that’s it’s not my decision or my place to apologise. To this I can only say: it is this one baby boy’s penis. He has the right to bodily autonomy and genital integrity. Just as his mama does.
Consequently I’ve decided not to offer doula services to mamas who are carrying boys and choose to circumcise. I understand that (male) infant circumcision is seen as a legal right* and a cultural norm in much of the United States. I know that there are a number of spurious health claims about circumcision, myths about cleanliness and frankly offensive ideas about the aesthetics of the intact penis. I believe, most of the time, that parents who choose to circumcise make their decisions out of love and with the best information they have at that time. I recognise that for at least two religions it is an important rite.** But for myself, for my own mental and spiritual well-being, I can no longer reconcile working so hard to help mamas have a gentle birth, a ‘gentle welcome’ into motherhood, and leave knowing that I have failed to secure a ‘gentle welcome’ for a baby into life just because he is a boy, born in a country where routine infant male circumcision is normal and often unquestioned. It is true that this decision may cost me clients: in fact, it already has. But I think that is an easier cost to live with.
If you want to learn more about circumcision, why it’s done and why it’s important to leave all babies, boy or girl, intact, these are some great resources:
* Technically, the Fourteenth Amendment means that laws forbidding female circumcision apply to males too.
** For Jewish people, as part of the Covenant; for Muslims, as a cultural expression rather than a requirement of the Quran.