Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America

Reviewed Publisher: 
New York: Oxford University Press. 370 pages. ISBN 0-19-517674-X.
Reviewed Title: 
Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. (2004)

As founder and director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), I am often asked about the history of circumcision. While the origins of circumcision, especially as a puberty rite, are lost in antiquity, the Bible tells us that Jews and Muslims circumcise in accordance with Abraham's covenant with God (Genesis 17). Christians rejected circumcision as spiritually worthless.

In his newly published book, anthropologist Leonard B. Glick, MD, PhD, traces the history of circumcision from its Middle Eastern origins to the practice that was medicalized in English-speaking countries during the mid-1800s and is so prevalent in America today. Circumcision is virtually unknown in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, while 55 percent of boys in the United States still are routinely subjected to a non-therapeutic, unnecessary surgery within the first few days of birth.

Those who understand pre- and perinatal psychology surely realize that circumcision is a primal wound that interferes with the maternal/infant bond, disrupts breastfeeding, and undermines the infant's first developmental task of establishing trust. Circumcision is where sex and violence meet for the first time, and it imprints the connection between the brain and penis with pain instead of the pleasure that organ is meant to experience. How did it come to be common practice?

The amazing story begins, Glick notes, in the nineteenth century, when British and American physicians began to promote circumcision as a "miracle cure" for everything from masturbation to paralysis and insanity. In the twentieth century, doctors introduced theories that the procedure prevented syphilis and several kinds of cancer. None of these claims held up, but as each was refuted, new ones were introduced in what Glick describes as a seemingly endless series of attempts to find something for circumcision to prevent. Eventually, the British abandoned the practice. The Americans, ever-so-slowly, are following suit.

Glick concludes with reviews of the most-recent medical claims for circumcision and the arguments against it. Today, not one national or international medical association in the world recommends circumcision.

The author points out that infants are persons with full civil rights and, therefore, no one has the right to impose circumcision on them, not even their own parents.

Click's fascinatingly informative and clearly written book makes it easier for me now to answer questions about the history of circumcision, but I'll probably just recommend his immensely valuable book.

Publication Date: 
10/2005