The troubled history of the foreskin

Common in the US, rare in Europe and now championed in Africa, male circumcision is hotly debated. Jessica Wapner explores whether the gains are worth the loss.

Jessica Wapner in Mosaic:

ScreenHunter_1057 Mar. 08 15.06The tomb of Ankhmahor, a high-ranking official in ancient Egypt, is situated in a vast burial ground just outside Cairo. A picture of a man standing upright is carved into one of the walls. His hands are restrained, and another figure kneels in front of him, holding a tool to his penis. Though there is no definitive explanation of why circumcision began, many historians believe this relief, carved more than four thousand years ago, is the oldest known record of the procedure.

The best-known circumcision ritual, the Jewish ceremony of brit milah, is also thousands of years old. It survives to this day, as do others practised by Muslims and some African tribes. But American attitudes to circumcision have a much more recent origin. As medical historian David Gollaher recounts in his bookCircumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, early Christian leaders abandoned the practice, realising perhaps that their religion would be more attractive to converts if surgery wasn’t required. Circumcision disappeared from Christianity, and the secular Western cultures that descended from it, for almost two thousand years.

Then came the Victorians. One day in 1870, a New York orthopaedic surgeon named Lewis Sayre was asked to examine a five-year-old boy suffering from paralysis of both legs.

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