Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On Using Your Imagination

Imagine, if you will, the following.

It was 1850 in America. Victorian morals and ideals rule politics, religion, and the home. So when a well-respected doctor stepped forward, claiming that he could cleanse the nation of its ills quickly and easily, would it make sense for the country to respond with indifference? Of course not. People flocked in droves to read his pamphlets, to hear him speak, and to find out more about the things that Dr. Henry Kellogg advised to get the nation back on track.

What did he suggest?

The best way to deal with the country's problems, said Dr. Kellogg, was to remove the ultra-sensitive fingernails and fingertip skin from every male baby - called a "tipectomy". Boys, after all, were often delinquents of the mind and body. They thought impure thoughts, they lusted after women, and they stole and cheated. Young boys were impressionable, Dr. Kellogg claimed, and they needed to be started off right. A boy whose fingertips and fingernails had been removed would lack the tactile sensation he would get from handling a stolen good, from touching a woman. Those experiences would not give him the same feeling, and he would be less likely to wish to experience them without true commitment. He would be less likely to have idle hands and a wandering mind. He would not, essentially, connect with his environment on the same level because he simply could not experience the world around him in the same way. Best of all, the procedure had actually existed in a religious form for hundreds, even thousands of years, elsewhere in the world. And it could be adapted for use on females as well.

In truth, the measure made no real difference in the number of thefts or rapes or of any other negative event, but the idea spread like wildfire. Doctors nationwide claimed great success; alternative methods of performing the procedure were created. Each one was supposedly quicker and cleaner than the last. Parents were told that they have this choice to make - and after a few decades, it had become so mainstream that parents were no longer asked if they want the procedure performed. This is the time before informed consent, after all, and it's said that "doctor knows best." So off come the nails, the fingertips, and with them each child loses tactile sensation, protective skin and keratin, and a bit of their body that they can never get back.

As the years passed, and the procedure became more mainstream, there were groups that began to speak up, wondering if the procedure really carried the same benefits as had been reported for so many years. The medical community, aware that this procedure had added hundreds of thousands of dollars to their yearly coffers, jumped in, offering up all sorts of extras: the trimmed fingers, they insisted, look better. Nails must be cleaned and trimmed regularly, forcing a parent to put more upkeep and care into their child than they already did. And of course, there were potential complications: nails can be ripped or torn off, or hangnails can form, opening the child up to unpleasant infection. Although antibiotics would have been prescribed for any other infection, doctors insisted that it was simply easier to avoid future infection and the undeniable pain of a potential hangnail or torn finger nail by removal. Removal means no cuts, no burns, no scrapes. No splinters, no hangnails, no infections. Even though the chances of all of these things are relatively low anyway, it is still said that removal is the best option.

By the mid 20th century, the bygone era of natural nails and fingertips is gone. Boys (and sometimes even girls) were routinely put through the painful procedure days after birth. Although no real anesthetic option existed (as most anesthesia choices were actually too dangerous to give at full strength considering the procedure being performed), doctors insisted to parents that babies could not feel pain - and, once that argument died off, the point became that they of course give enough anesthetic to ensure that no baby truly felt pain. There was a silent choice to ignore the idea that after whatever little anesthesia is given wears off that a baby will again be in extreme pain.

Yet in the 1980s a new idea arose: in Africa, and in select areas of the Middle East, the procedure was being performed on girls. Although this had been an option for parents, it wasn't prevalent in America. Pictures and video streamed in of young girls being held down on cold concrete floors, their arms spread wide open, while older women with dirty hands and rusty, re-used razor blades sliced off their fingertips and nails. Although it was more common to perform a procedure nearly identical to what was being done to baby boys in the US, most of the footage that found its way back was that of girls whose entire fingers were being skinned, just short of the muscle. It was ignored that the barbaric procedure being streamed back to America was not the norm, and that while it of course should not have been performed under such awful conditions, that it was otherwise identical to what Americans did to their sons. It was different, the medical community screamed (with the human rights folks on their coattails), because the skin of girls was more sensitive. Because there were procedures performed in which more skin was removed. Because the procedures were performed with no anesthesia, in unsanitary conditions with improper staff and backup. The uproar led to girls gaining protection from tipectomy in the late 1990s, via court order, and the nation patted itself on the back for ensuring that the rights of girls were sealed and that any parent who tried to have a tipectomy performed on their minor daughter would be prosecuted for child abuse and endangerment.

Yet boys were still having their fingertips and nails removed on a daily basis, by the thousands.

It was at that point that the medical community began to take tipectomies in an entirely new direction. Aware of the epidemic of skin-borne illnesses in developing nations, the idea that tipectomies could prevent the spread of these diseases was suggested. Studies were ordered, and men in African countries were offered incentives for having their fingers effectively destroyed. Life after having the sensitive skin and nails removed was totally different, and it appeared that the studies had worked: men whose fingers and nails had been "trimmed" off were less likely to touch potentially infected people or objects. Without considering the idea that, after healing, men would likely return to their old habits (as there had been no guidance in proper hygiene and handwashing techniques) and end up contracting the same illnesses anyway, the studies were claimed a success - but this critical flaw was noticed by the scientific community and the studies were cut completely before a final decision could be made on the effectiveness of the procedure. In the meantime, the medical community touted a few more ideas: that "studies" had shown that men who had undergone a tipectomy tended to develop less skin cancer, that they did not experience the same late-in-life struggles of needing their fingers constantly cleaned and cared for as men who were left intact, and that men who had undergone tipectomies at birth reported no difference in their tactile sensation or pleasure sensations than a man who had been left intact (given, that was a rather silly argument; two people who had never known anything different could not possibly compare their experiences to one another). It was said that men who never knew any different didn't complain, and although instances of keratinization of skin, the development of extreme callouses that could make touching things uncomfortable, and of finger dysfunction had been steadily increasing, it was claimed that a parent who had chosen tipectomy had done the right thing.

Never mind that these boys had never been given the chance to decide if they had wanted to have their fingertips removed. Never mind that it removed an amount of skin and a protective layer of sensation that could never be restored or returned. Never mind that the procedure itself carried with it inherent flaws and dangers, such as bleeding out, removal of too much skin, or removal of too little (that often resulted in numerous secondary procedures having to be performed to "finish" the job). Never mind that other nations, where tipectomies weren't performed without reason, carried lower rates of finger dysfunction, of touch-transmitted diseases, and of the touch-specific skin cancers claimed by American doctors to be a direct result of boys still having their fingertips and nails.

Silly as all this may seem, this is exactly how routine infant circumcision is handled in America. The flippant attitude is the same, the dangers are the same, and the loss is the same. This is the line that circumcision in this country has taken. This is how we treat our sons; we protect our daughters fiercely but we allow a portion of our sons' bodies to be removed without entirely knowing what we commit them to losing. The long-term psychological effects - ignored by many - are only now being realized and acknowledged by the scientific community. Only now are people truly beginning to realize the pointlessness of routine circumcision, and of what a boy will lose through having it done.

But most of all, even if none of this strikes home with you, even if you roll your eyes and shake your head and ask who let this crazy intactivist out into the world without an escort, at least consider this: If you accept, for even a moment, that this is not YOUR choice, but your son's, he can choose later to have it done. If he feels it is necessary, then he can be circumcised and he can live with his own choice. If you strip him of that decision, and let him be strapped down on that cold plastic board, then he can NEVER GET THAT BACK. You have taken that from him permanently; you have insisted that your choices, and your knowledge, are somehow more important than his body and his right to someday make choices for himself. You have chosen to go beyond "knowing best". Please, at least consider letting HIM choose.

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