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  Home  > Circumcision  > Circumcision Is Painful and Traumatizing

Circumcision Is Painful and Traumatizing

In the course of almost every circumcision, babies scream, tremble, and/or cry. Many hold their breath, defecate, or vomit. Breathing difficulties can induce choking. Some infants are so severely traumatized by the experience that they fall into a semi-comatose state. (Some circumcisers pretend or presume these babies are simply falling asleep.) Going into a coma-like state is one way for a baby to distance himself from his agony, but it has dangerous consequences for later brain development. Some infants cry for hours afterwards, and remain irritable for days. Post-circumcision trauma increases stress hormones, decreases oxygen perfusion, and disturbs the sleep-awake cycles.

It is difficult to reconcile the awareness that during birth the baby must be well oxygenated, not sedated, tenderly cared for, and welcomed with love, with the practice of strapping him to a restraint board within a day or two after birth and exposing him to bright lights and, without benefit of effective anesthesia (which, unfortunately creates additional risks and potential complications for newborns), amputating his foreskin. There is something bizarre and irrational in this, even more so in a climate where current ethical guidelines state that surgical procedures cannot be performed on research animals without using effective anesthesia.

When they brought him back to me, I could see that he had been crying and had a glassy, wild look in his eyes. I think it was terror... I'll never forget that look. They probably shattered every bit of trust he had. —C. Miller*

Infant neurological development, trauma theory, and clinical experience all support the conclusion that circumcision is a trauma. Like many other traumas, the experience of circumcision is repressed, but may be remembered or relived under special circumstances. Long-term psychological effects can be difficult to establish because the consequences of early trauma are very rarely recognizable to the person who experienced them. It is well established that adults who were abused as young children suffer adverse behavioral responses connected with their early trauma. Clinical experience, child development theory, and infant behavior all suggest that circumcision can impair bonding. Most immediately, the separation of newborn from the mother, on whom the infant's world centers, is in itself a traumatic experience.

Circumcision is an enormous obstacle to the development of basic trust between mother and child. —R. Laibow, MD*

Some infants withdraw because of the trauma of circumcision and become less responsive and more irritable. Some mothers, feeling guilty, become overprotective or withdraw to protect themselves from feeling their own pain. Some circumcised infants cry for extended periods and seem inconsolable. While this helps the infant resolve the trauma, the crying may exceed the mother's tolerance level. She may think of the infant as having a "difficult" temperament and use that belief as a reason not to respond. Or, she may feel incompetent and withdraw herself, feeling unable to relieve the infant's distress. Clearly, it is not only the infant who suffers PTSD. Witnessing circumcision, or becoming aware of the harm or injury inflicted on her child, leaves mother vulnerable to PTSD as well. The mother-infant relationship depends on the responsiveness of both. If either mother or infant is unresponsive, the relationship will suffer.

Jesse was shrieking and I had tears streaming down my face... Jesse screamed so loud that all of a sudden there was no sound!... He was screaming and it went up and then there was no sound and his mouth was just open and his face was full of pain! I remember something happened inside of me... the intensity of it was like blowing a fuse!... I don't think I can ever recover from it... It was too intense... When he was first born, there was a tie with... my newborn. And when the circumcision happened, in order to allow it I had cut off the bond. I had to cut off my natural instinct, and, in doing so, I cut off a lot of feelings towards Jesse. I cut it off to repress the pain and to repress the natural instinct to stop the circumcision. —E. Pickard-Ginsburg*

* Quotes attributed to only a first initial and surname are taken from Thomas J Ritter and George C Denniston's Doctors Re-examine Circumcision

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