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  Home  > The First Year  > Myth: Circumcision Is Neither Harmful nor Painful

Myth: Circumcision Is Neither Harmful nor Painful

Fact: While many circumcisers claim that babies do not experience pain, even with anesthetic, a mountain of scientific studies prove that they do. In fact, babies feel pain more strongly than adults. Pain is serious. It is not something to be dismissed, ignored, or laughed at. It does not "toughen" little boys. In fact, baby boys who have been circumcised suffer from abnormally lower pain thresholds, and their heightened response to pain is consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Circumcision—ten years ago I had trouble spelling the word. I would stumble over the pronunciation of it, if I had cause to use it, which was rare. Then Marilyn Milos entered my life during the founding meeting of the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children. It was her eyes, large and bright and gentle, that first engaged me. Then her generous and ready smile, resonant and contagious laugh, deep voice. The word rolled off her tongue with the ease borne of speaking it many, many times each day.

Her own sons are circumcised—because her doctor had told her that the surgery was a necessary health measure, it didn't hurt, and took only a moment to perform. It wasn't until several years later in 1979, as a nursing student, that Marilyn saw the surgery herself. She described her experience in an article published in 1989:*

We students filed into the newborn nursery to find a baby strapped spread-eagle to a plastic board on a counter top across the room. He was struggling against his restraints—tugging, whimpering, and then crying helplessly. No one was tending the infant, but when I asked my instructor if I could comfort him she said "Wait till the doctor gets here." I wondered how a teacher of the healing arts could watch someone suffer and not offer assistance. I wondered about the doctor's power that could intimidate others from following their protective instincts. When he did arrive, I immediately asked the doctor it I could help the baby. He told me to put my finger into the baby's mouth; I did, and the baby sucked. I stroked his little head and spoke softly to him. He began to relax and was momentarily quiet.

The silence was soon broken by a piercing scream—the baby's reaction to having his foreskin pinched and crushed as the doctor attached the clamp to his penis. The shriek intensified when the doctor inserted an instrument between the foreskin and the glans (head) of the penis, tearing the two structures apart. (They are normally attached to each other during infancy so the foreskin can protect the sensitive glans from urine and feces.) The baby started shaking his head back and forth—the only part of his body free to move—as the doctor used another clamp to crush the foreskin lengthwise, which he then cut. This made the opening of the foreskin large enough to insert a circumcision instrument, the device used to protect the glans from being severed during the surgery.

The baby began to gasp and choke, breathless from his shrill continuous screams. How could anyone say circumcision is painless when the suffering is so obvious? My bottom lip began to quiver, tears filled my eyes and spilled over. I found my own sobs difficult to contain. How much longer could this go on?

During the next stage of the surgery, the doctor crushed the foreskin against the circumcision instrument and then, finally, amputated it. The baby was limp, exhausted, spent.

I had not been prepared—nothing could have prepared me—for this experience. To see a part of this baby's penis being cut off—without an anesthetic—was devastating. But even more shocking was the doctor's comment, barely audible several octaves below the piercing screams of the baby, "There's no medical reason for doing this." I couldn't believe my ears, my knees became weak, and I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe that medical professionals, dedicated to helping and healing, could inflict such pain and anguish on innocent babies unnecessarily.

What had I allowed my own babies to endure? and why?

The course of my life was changed on that day in 1979. I have now dedicated my life to bringing an end to this horrendous practice. —Marilyn F. Milos, RN, Founder,

As a nurse, believing every parent had a right and an obligation to be fully informed, she told parents what she wished she had been told before her sons were circumcised. Told to keep her mouth shut, she made a video of a circumcision for parents. She was told it was too much for parents to see."Perhaps, then," Marilyn responded,"it's too much for a baby to experience!"

The video was censored and, in 1985, Marilyn was fired from the hospital, and fired for advocating for the genital integrity of all children. In 1986, she co-founded the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (, the first national clearinghouse in the United States for information about circumcision.

Today, my frustration is no longer fueled by an inability to spell or pronounce the word circumcision easily, but rather by the fact that this practice continues in the face of abundant research, revealing, beyond all shadow of doubt, the damage inflicted.

...No one is aware of the deep implications and life-lasting effect (of circumcision). The torture is experienced in a state of total helplessness, which makes it even more frightening and unbearable. —Frederick Leboyer

* The Truth Seeker, Crimes of Genital Mutilation. (July/August) 1989; 1(3):3.

Circumcision Is Painful and Traumatizing
Complications Caused by Circumcision
Value and Sensitivity of Intact Genitals
Challenging the Medical "Reasons" for Circumcism
Religious Circumcision
Informed Choice: Professional Policy Statements
Cultural Pressures to Circumcise
Physicians' Reasons for Circumcision
Circumcision: Who Profits?
Children's Right to Genital Integrity

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