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"Circumcision, Mom, Baseball and Apple Pie"

 by Donald Morgan (
 Copyright 1996, Donald Morgan
 [This article was published in the June 1996 issue of _Sound
 Views_, monthly newsletter of the Humanists of North Puget
 Sound, La Conner, WA]
 The nonreligious circumcision (NRC) of American males is as
 American as mom, baseball, and apple pie. In fact, it is a
 uniquely American custom which is not duplicated in any other
 country in the world. 
 While the vast majority of American males are circumcised, the
 vast majority of the world's males are not. The practice here,
 for example, contrasts sharply with that of the Scandinavian
 countries where NRC is not, and never has been, routinely
 practiced and where it is estimated that less than 5% of all
 males are circumcised.
 The current rate of NRC in the United States is now about 70%,
 down from its peak in the late 1960s when about 95% of all
 newborn males who were born in hospitals were circumcised. In
 some regions, notably the Midwest and the Northeast, the NRC
 rate remains at almost 90%. In others, notably California, it is
 considerably less. Still, NRC remains the norm in most areas of
 the country. This is especially true in the case of white,
 middle-class America.
 Few Americans likely realize that NRC was originally promoted
 in this country in the last half of the 19th century in an
 attempt to curb masturbation and the countless ills and dire
 consequences that were thought to be associated with it. Here is
 one of the many examples which could be cited reflecting the
 then current wisdom regarding masturbation:
      In all cases which male children are suffering
      nerve tension, confirmed derangement of the
      digestive organs, restlessness, irritability, and
      other disturbances of the nervous system,
      even to chorea, convulsions, and paralysis, or
      where through nerve waste the nutritive
      facilities of the general system are below par
      and structural diseases are occurring,
      circumcision should be considered as among
      the lines of treatment to be pursued. [Charles
      E. Fisher, M.D., A Handbook on the Diseases
      of Children ...., Chicago: Medical Century Co.,
      1895, p. 875]
 In fact, there was hardly an illness or disease that could not
 be, and was not, attributed to masturbation. In addition to
 those previously mentioned, the list included insanity,
 blindness, epilepsy, convulsions, tuberculosis--you name it.
 Often, a drastic circumcision performed without anaesthesia was
 the preferred "treatment." Dr. Kellogg, founder of the corn
 flake company bearing his name, had this to say:
      A remedy for masturbation which is almost
      always successful in small boys is
      circumcision.... The operation should be
      performed by a surgeon without administering
      anaesthetic, as the pain attending the
      operation will have a salutary effect upon the
      mind, especially if it be connected with the
      idea of punishment. [John Harvey Kellogg,
      M.D., Plain Facts for Young and Old,
      Burlington, Iowa: F. Segner & Co., 1888, p.