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New circumcision report cuts to the chase: Doing nothing costs $2 billion

Updated: September 24, 2012 7:46AM

New parents are sinkholes of concern. Some of their worries are indeed valid — should I let the baby play with tigers? Is the house on fire? — but not all parental dilemmas pass the rationality test.

Exhibit A is the New Age reluctance to have your kids vaccinated, a particularly selfish and ignorant decision. Selfish because your kids will probably be OK anyway, since most other kids are still immunized, and so your children benefit without being exposed to the miniscule risks associated with getting a shot. And ignorant because it reflects lack of knowledge of just how wide a swath of illness and death that plagues like diphtheria and whooping cough and meningitis once cut through the youth of the world.

Exhibit B for over-inflated parental concern is reflected in circumcision rates, which have dropped — from nearly 80 percent in the 1970s, to a little more than half today — in part because parents get all squishy at the thought of altering their supposedly-perfect babies, and don’t realize that not being circumcised makes men more prone to all sorts of horrific venereal diseases and bacteriological infections, including a greatly increased chance of contracting HIV.

While the issue waxes and wanes, the cost in ill health of being uncircumcised has long been known. Now a paper in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine has put a figure on the cost in dollars — $2 billion, so far, with billions more to be spent if rates in this country continue to slide toward rates in Europe, where only about 10 percent of men are circumcised.

Being Jewish and the father of boys, of course I’m biased. The tribe has definite views on circumcision — we sort of came up with the idea, a reminder of the ancient importance placed on Not Being Like Them.

To be honest, the health factor didn’t motivate me, back in the mid 1990s when it came time to have the deed done to my boys. Nor did I see myself as bending to the will of the Lord God Almighty. That isn’t my table. Frankly, it was a matter of tradition, of having to take it upon myself to end an unbroken chain of ritual stretching from me to every man in my family back to Moses. That didn’t seem like a break I was willing to make, and my wife, in many ways a traditional gal herself, was right with me on that one.

So each of our boys had a bris, as the ceremony is called, where your friends and relatives gather at your place to eat babka cake and drink Crown Royal and witness — sort of, through latticed fingers, if a woman, or out of the corner of one eye, while whistling and staring at the ceiling with your hands folded over your midsection, if you’re a man — the specially trained rabbi, called a mohel, make the skillful cut which most guys never think about again, yet someone must, since it keeps it popping up in the headlines.

Is circumcision a strange ritual imposed on innocent babes by musty tradition? You betcha. But guess what? Society inflicts all sorts of strange stuff on us, sooner or later, including — sometimes — asking young men to go off and die in distant places for obscure causes. At least with circumcision you are allowed to suck some sweet wine off a piece of gauze first, to calm your nerves.

As a newspaper reporter, I’m aware that some people feel circumcision is not just wrong, but a huge, quivering wrong — perhaps the greatest wrong inflicted on humanity, ever. For years I got the NO-CIRC newsletter, the house organ of a California group filled with tales of botched circumcisions and men who do not feel “complete.” The publication always struck me as one of the more curious artifacts of zealotry, right up there with UFO enthusiasts and vocal opponents of fluoridated water. Some people feel circumcision is the original sin that has destroyed their lives — some men actually undergo reconstructive surgery, to get the bit put back — and while, in my view, they are cases to be analyzed in a psychiatric rather than a journalistic setting, it’s a free country, and you may obsess upon what you wish.

Or it was a free country. Much of the declining rates are due, not to parental scruple, but to Medicaid cuts: low income parents tend to have the procedure done, if it’s paid for, and tend to skip it if its not. Budget minded states have been scaling back on paying for circumcisions, because they’re not medically essential. A false economy, we now discover, and a reminder that state funding for health care also avoids more expensive procedures down the road — with circumcision, a simple five-second procedure helps avoid, for instance, treating someone for AIDS for years.

But sticking my arm into the circumcision fanatic cage is bad enough without also sticking the other arm into the Obamacare cage, so let’s wind up, and what better way than with a joke? The only joke I recall my grandfather ever telling. Question: Why do rabbis get paid better salaries than mohels? Answer: because mohels get all the tips.

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