How Circumcision Works

A little boy cries as a Turkish doctor injects him with a local anesthetic before circumcising him in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

It's­ a common scenar­io, but one that most of us don't think about until faced with the decision: If I had a son, would I have him circumcised? Circumcision, the surgical removal of the foreskin that normally covers the head of the penis, is a relatively simple procedure, but it's not one you want to see go badly -- especially if your son (or you) is the patient.

Sometimes, the answer is made easier by a strong religious or cultural belief. Most (but not all) Jews and Muslims circumcise their male children. Throughout Africa, some tribes uniformly circumcise and others uniformly do not. If you were born in the United States in the last 30 years or so, there's about a 3-in-5 chance that you're circumcised (unless you're Hispanic, in which case the odds are much lower) [source: WebMD].


After examining all available data in 1999, the American Association of Pediatrics decided ­not to endorse circumcision for infant boys. The AAP didn't recommend against it either, offering the opinion that parents should make an informed decision for themselves.

­If you're not Jewish or Muslim, what is the basis for your decision? Should the child be circumcised only if the father is circumcised? Would you "cross over," or decide not to circumcise even though all the male members of your family have been circumcised (or vice versa)? Is it a dangerous practice? Does circumcision really lower the risk of being infected with a STD? Is it cruel?

In this article, you'll learn all you can handle about circumcision -- what it is, how it came to be and why it's still around. First up: What's a foreskin? Continue reading to find out.