Book Review: Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery

Here is the third of a few reviews I’ll be doing on some daddy/pregnancy books. I actually read most of this book before the twins were born but am just now getting around to post about it.

This book review is on Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery by David L. Gollaher.

When we decided not to find out the sex of the babies, I wanted to educate myself more about circumcision, just in case we needed to make that decision when the babies were born. Before reading the book, all I really knew about circumcision was that it was done for religious reasons under Judaism; although I am technically Jewish and was raised culturally Jewish, I didn’t know where that tradition came from or why. I also had heard various pro-circumcision claims of preventive and public health, though I didn’t know the underpinnings of those claims either. Being a public health epidemiologist myself, I was very interested in the studies that guided the American Academy of Pediatrics Circumcision Policy Statement – which, when boiled down to one sentence, says, “Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.” The fact that the evidence isn’t strong enough to recommend it being done routinely made me wonder what the “evidence” actually was. In the event we had babies that necessitated we make a decision about circumcision, I certainly didn’t want to make the choice for religious reasons that I didn’t understand, nor did I want to simply accept the public health claims that are widely publicized in the media. So that’s why I sought to read a book about it.

I choose this particular book on circumcision, because the reviews said of all the books on circumcision, it was the most balanced in terms of presenting both sides of the debate. While both sides of the debate were definitely presented in detail, I do think it was clear at times on which side the author falls. Of course, I recognize that it is equally possible that this perception is due to my own bias.

The book begins with a couple of chapters on the historical development of circumcision tradition within various cultures: Egyptians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and various ritualistic tribes. There is a brief chapter on the anatomy and physiology of the foreskin, then a chapter the link between circumcision and disease. The book ends with a chapter on recent backlash (the anti-circumcision movement) and a section on female circumcision.

Of everything I learned from the book, two things surprised me the most. First, how far back circumcision dates (the oldest account is from 2400 BC on an Egyptian tomb) yet how new the “standard” of circumcision really is (early 20th century in the United States). The whole purpose of the book is to trace the theories and attitudes towards circumcision between the earliest accounts and today, and I believe the book accomplishes this goal with flying colors. The second thing that surprised me was the logic used, or at least as it was presented in the book, by communities (both medical and social) that led to circumcision becoming a “standard” practice in the United States. A lot of questions are posed in the book that aren’t explicitly answered – instead, the author presents the theories, supported by vignettes, and allows the reader to make judgements on the flow of logic themselves.

When I first picked up the book, I thought that I may be able to read it piece-meal, that is read only the chapters I was interested in (namely the Judaism and health chapters). But because I had the time before the twins were born, I decided to read it from the beginning, and I’m definitely glad I did that. Although the chapter topics appear they could stand alone, the author does a good job of making everything flow together. I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much from the book had I chose to read only certain chapters not in order of presentation.

The one downside I found to the book was that it was difficult for me to read. Not emotionally, but just in terms of prose style and vocabulary. I am very familiar and comfortable with reading scientific articles as I do it on a very regular basis; however, the way in which the author writes was difficult for me to read, for whatever reason. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a huge vocabulary like those who read tons and tons of books, but I can usually figure out the meaning of a word based on the context of the sentence. With this book, however, there were many many words I had to look up in the dictionary to understand the sentence in which they were used. It wasn’t a big deal, but the two things combined meant that it took me much longer to read this book than another of similar length.

Overall, the book exceeded my expectations in terms of the historical information provided, and I definitely feel like I had read enough to make an educated decision about the fate of my son’s foreskin, should I have had to make that decision (it turns out we didn’t need to). I think anyone who is expecting a son (or chooses not to find out the sex before birth) and who doesn’t have strong religious or cultural reasons already established for choosing circumcision should read this book before deciding what they think is in their son’s best interest and, perhaps most importantly, why.

This is the third book in my Daddy Book Reviews. Previous books reviewed are:

Future books to be reviewed include:

3 responses to “Book Review: Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery

  1. …. … There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective by Miriam Pollack

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1 … ….

  2. ……… Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision – A Film by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
    Jews for the Rights of the Child
    Circumcision and the Brain
    Alternative Jewish Rituals
    Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is the Circumcision?

  3. An unbiased book for expectant parents and winner of the Best Childcare/Parenting Book (Books for a Better Life Award). The Circumcision Decision: An Unbiased Guide for Parents

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