The novelist Gary Shteyngart recently published a lengthy article in the New Yorker detailing the suffering he has gone through after a botched circumcision performed when he was seven years old. Born to a Jewish family in the USSR, Shteyngart did not received a brit milah (ritual circumcision) at the traditional age of eight days, meaning that the procedure would have been much more painful than normal even if it had been conducted properly. Not content merely to discuss his own experience, he launched a broader attack on the practice, at a time when an “intactivist” movement is growing in strength, and some European countries are considering bans on circumcision. The rabbi and mohel Hayim Leiter notes that the essay makes numerous inaccurate or misleading claims:
When it comes to the issue of how many children actually die from circumcision, Shteyngart’s numbers may be a bit skewed. On a statistical level, . . . there are studies reporting that there are two deaths in every million boys circumcised per year; there are also studies which report zero deaths in 100,000 boys circumcised per year.
But on a practical level, the numbers seem much clearer. . . . I have spent my career mining the news for stories about brit milah. In my entire career, there has never been a single story of an infant’s death due to circumcision. If a baby had died from the procedure, it would certainly have made headlines.
Shteyngart also makes the claim that circumcision has a very high rate of complications, but the data only reflect that point when the procedure is done later in life. The rate of procedure-related complications during and after circumcision in the neonate is approximately 2 to 6 per 1,000. This rate increases twentyfold for boys who are circumcised between one and nine years of age, and tenfold for those circumcised after ten years of age. An important fact to note here is that the complications this study speaks of could be as minimal as excess bleeding, which is easily remedied with no long-lasting effects.
No one wants Gary Shteyngart to suffer another moment. And, in truth, I commend him for sharing his experience so candidly. But his grievances are not with brit milah itself, but rather with the Soviet government. His struggles most likely resulted from his family’s inability to circumcise him at eight days when the recovery is quickest and easiest. I am sure that is no consolation to him, but his experience should not be taken as evidence that neonatal circumcision is a dangerous procedure that regularly leads to lifelong complications.