The continuing practice of routine neonatal nonreligious circumcision represents an enigma, particularly in the United States. About 80 percent of the world's population do not practice circumcision, nor have they ever done so. Among the non-circumcising nations are Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Scandinavia, the U.S.S.R., China, and Japan. People employing circumcision do so either for "health" reasons or as a religious ritual practiced by Muslims, Jews, most black Africans, non-white Australians, and others.
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The origin of the ritual practice is unknown. There is evidence of its performance in Israel in Neolithic times (with flint knives) at least 6000 years ago.38 Jews accept the Old Testament origin as a covenant between God and Abraham,18 although it is generally agreed that the practice of circumcision in Egypt predated the Abrahamic Covenant by centuries.55 Ritual Circumcision is not germane to this discussion except insofar as the surgical ritual impinges upon accepted medical practice.65
So called "health" circumcision originated in the nineteenth century, when most diseases were of unknown etiology. Within the miasma of myth and ignorance, a theory emerged that masturbation caused many and varied ills. It seemed logical to some physicians to perform genital surgery on both sexes to stop masturbation; the major technique applied to males was circumcision. This was especially true in the English-speaking countries because it accorded with the mid-Victorian attitude toward sex as sinful and debilitating.64
The most prolific enumerator of the health benefits of circumcision was Dr. P. C. Remondino.50 In 1891 this physician claimed that the surgery prevented or cured about a hundred ailments, including alcoholism, epilepsy, asthma, enuresis, hernia, gout, rectal prolapse, rheumatism, kidney disease, and so forth. Such ludicrous claims are still disseminated and possibly believed. The book was reprinted in 1974, without change, and the Circulating Branch Catalogue of the New York Public Library (1983) listed the Remondino book, showing a publication date of 1974. One physician, writing in Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality (1974), called the book "pertinent and carefully thought out."63
Remondino was not the only one expounding such views. In 1911, Dr. Joseph Preuss, in a monumental tome, Biblical-Talmudic Medicine, claimed that Jewish ritual circumcision endowed health benefits; his sole source was Remondino46 Some espoused more extreme views; in 1910 an article in J.A.M.A. described a new circumcision clamp. The author/inventor claimed that with this device, the operation was so simple that men and women could now circumcise themselves.30
In the 75-year period (1875 to 1950) there was virtually no opposition to routine circumcision in the United States. Instead there were many articles in medical journal and textbooks extolling the practice; the issue was ignored in the popular press. Yet in the more than a century of acceptance of routine circumcision in the English-speaking countries, from 1870 to the present, no other country adopted newborn circumcision.
The first serious questioning of the practice did not occur until late 1949 (in England with the publication of Gairdner's "The Fate of the Foreskin."17 which began to affect the practice of circumcision by the British. In 1963, an editorial in J.A.M.A. called the attitude of the medical profession paradoxical and confused, and admitted that the facts about circumcision were still unknown.14 This was followed by several critiques of circumcision such as those by Morgan (1965 and 1967)38 and Preston (1970).45 In 1968 Øster confirmed Gairdner's findings,42 as did Reichelderfer and Fraga,49 who presented a comprehensive study of circumcision. Yet some physicians continued to support circumcision for surprising reasons. For example, Dr. Robert P. Boland, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1969, compared circumcision with tonsillectomy, calling both procedures "ritualistic," and "widely performed on a non-scientific basis." He opposed routine tonsillectomy but concluded vis-a-vis circumcision: "Little serious objection can actually be raised against circumcision since its adverse effects seem miniscule."5