Flawed Circumcision Defense: Mitchell Warren

Mitchell Warren, the Executive Director of AVAC, penned an essay at the Huffington Post titled The “Best Hope” for AIDS Vaccine Advocacy. If it was just that, it would be fine. It’s not just that because it never is, although it takes digging beyond the article itself to find the problem.

He begins this essay about searching for an HIV AIDS vaccine:

There is growing global momentum behind the call to begin to end the AIDS epidemic using the scientifically-proven options available today. These include voluntary medical male circumcision, antiretroviral therapy (ART) — which dramatically reduces risk of HIV transmission between stable sexual partners — and prevention of pediatric infection during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding. If taken to scale with resources and urgency, these core components of combination prevention, along with other key prevention interventions, can save lives, prevent new infections and lower the price tag for the global AIDS response over the long term.

Well, sure, if we’re talking voluntary medical [sic] male circumcision, there isn’t an immediate problem. Such a strategy works to re-enforce and extend infant male circumcision in the long-term, and that needs to be addressed. But, by itself, voluntary medical¹ non-therapeutic male circumcision is a choice an individual may make for himself.

That’s never where it ends. AVAC describes itself (emphasis added):

Founded in 1995, AVAC is a non-profit organization that uses education, policy analysis, advocacy and a network of global collaborations to accelerate the ethical development and global delivery of AIDS vaccines, male circumcision, microbicides, PrEP and other emerging HIV prevention options as part of a comprehensive response to the pandemic.

Its focus on ethics is so robust that it randomly drops voluntary from “voluntary medical male circumcision” on its circumcision page. Its focus on ethics is so sincere that AVAC once issued a press release quoting Mr. Warren supporting:

“Research and dialogue are also needed now to explore the feasibility of rolling out infant circumcision. This approach will not show immediate benefits in terms of HIV incidence but can minimize risks and could be a highly cost-effective implementation strategy over the long term.”

To be fair, that press release is more than five years old. But the site also includes a link to a 2010 paper co-written by Brian Morris titled, “The case for boosting infant male circumcision in the face of rising heterosexual transmission of HIV”. And the Women’s HIV Prevention Tracking Project (WHiPT), a collaborative initiative of AVAC and the ATHENA Network, released a report (pdf) in December 2010 titled “Making Medical Male Circumcision Work for Women”. Question: why is voluntary missing in voluntary medical male circumcision? The report, as suggested by the missing “Voluntary”, is full of YAY INFANT CIRCUMCISION. For example, on page 9, under Next Steps for WHIPT Advocacy based on the findings:

Over the next year, WHiPT teams will execute advocacy plans based on their findings. Actions include:

  • Investigating the benefits and disadvantages of infant male circumcision

So, AVAC’s notion of ethics includes the ability for one person to “volunteer” another person for non-therapeutic surgery. I’m not surprised. It’s page on ethics includes:

The term ethics addresses ideas of right and wrong and with moral duty and obligation. Research ethics address “rights” and “wrongs” surrounding research that uses human participants to find answers to scientific questions. The primary focus of ethics guidelines for research in humans is safeguarding the rights, dignity, and health of the trial participant.

What about the ethics of applying the findings of research to non-consenting, healthy individuals? That is also a valid question that AVAC is apparently willing to ignore. Or should I read its position to mean these ethically-developed strategies are to be applied globally without further concern for ethics in applying those strategies? My analysis would be irrelevant in that reading. Of course, AVAC would still be very unethical, but my analysis would be wrong. I’m not that cynical, so I don’t read it that way. Onward.

The WHiPT report continues with its recommendations for Kenya (page 15):

The Ministry of Health should consider the integration of MMC for infants into the maternal and child health facilities, given the long-term benefits as well as the safe and inexpensive nature of the procedure.

I’ll ask again: why is the “V” missing in VMMC? Of course it wouldn’t make sense when talking about infant circumcision because that’s not voluntary. But the ethical position is to drop infant circumcision, not voluntary. The latter is just a matter of convenience in pursuit of an improperly-stated goal. (An improperly-stated goal could also be called “lying”.)

In its Uganda findings (page 55):

Almost one-third of the respondents said they would circumcise their infant boys if MMC were protective against HIV (33.3 percent for Kampala and 27.8 percent for Kapchorwa).

From its conclusion and recommendations for Uganda (page 57):

From the documentation, it is clear that women are aware of traditional/religious male circumcision but have little knowledge of MMC and its benefits to them. On the same note, women are not empowered in decisionmaking around MMC—with either their spouses or their infants. Policy makers should consider the social and gender implications of MMC in the community, if it is to be appreciated and beneficial to both men and women.

MMC acceptability and use in communities revolves around promotion, advocacy and sensitization efforts undertaken by the government, implementers and advocates.

  • Government and advocates must provide increased sensitization of women, with enough clear information about MMC before the community is prepared for its uptake.
  • Government, advocates and community leaders need to address the myths and bring facts about MMC with evidence-based information to communities.
  • Government and implementers must develop an MMC package that will integrate sexual and reproductive health with gender equity and empower women to get involved in decision-making, especially on condom use.
  • Implementers must impart knowledge and skills in decision-making regarding the circumcision of their male infants.

The “V” is missing everywhere. I’m starting to think the “V” key must be broken on every keyboard AVAC to which AVAC has access. That, or they only care about circumcision without regard to the ethics of voluntary action.

For further demonstration of the point, from the findings and recommendations surrounding the conflation of voluntary medical male circumcision and female genital mutilation, the report states (page 8):

• Advocates must monitor efforts to clarify the distinction between MMC and FGM.

There are distinctions in degree, which is what the researchers intend as proof that the difference is in kind. They are wrong, but temporarily, let’s accept their mistake as valid. Even with that requirement, there is one distinction between MMC and FGM that can’t be made, despite the group’s expectation that this distinction is obvious. Neither MMC nor FGM is voluntary. Both are forced on the recipient (i.e. victim) by another person. If the recommendation focused on the difference between VMMC and FGM, then the distinction would blink in neon. But they can’t include that because the entire premise of infant circumcision requires a complete rejection of the ethics of voluntary without regard for the defensibility of that rejection.

Basically, it’s clear that AVAC cares about the ethics of circumcision only as far as it’s useful in pushing circumcision. Where ethics permit circumcision, the concept matters. Where ethics reject circumcision, just drop the “V”. Circumcision is an AVAC objective, not ethical circumcision.

¹ I strike medical because the term advocates are looking for is medicalized, or something implying a sterile facility with modern surgical tools. I assume medical is also meant to convey the pursuit of potential benefits, but that too conveniently omits the ethical aspect of non-therapeutic circumcision. Thus, I have no interest in promoting loose wording.

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