Infant Male Circumcision and Current Human Rights Disparities

Another focused post for a story on which I’ll have more to say.

In a study published Monday in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a team of economists and epidemiologists estimated that every circumcision not performed would lead to significant increases in lifetime medical expenses to treat sexually transmitted diseases and related cancers — increases that far surpass the costs associated with the procedure.

I strongly suspect the study is flawed because it makes estimates. I’ll withhold further comment until I know more. For now, there’s enough to discredit the embarrassingly incomplete approach used to justify the study and its estimates.

That sentiment [that Medicaid should cover non-therapeutic child circumcision] was echoed in an editorial accompanying the study. UCLA health economist Arleen Leibowitz wrote that by failing to require states to cover circumcision in Medicaid plans, the U.S. reinforces healthcare disparities.

“If we don’t give poor parents the opportunity to make this choice, we’re discriminating against their health in the future,” she said in an interview. “If something is better for health and saves money, why shouldn’t we do it? Or at least, why shouldn’t we allow parents the option to choose it?”

We shouldn’t do it or allow it because non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting child is unethical. Male circumcision on a healthy child violates his basic human rights to bodily integrity and self-determination. It is indefensible, even if it’s possibly “better” for his health in someone else’s subjective evaluation or because it saves money when individuals are considered statistics rather than human beings with their own rights and preferences.

The abstract makes it clear the study is speculative. Yet, we already have rights-based law for females without absurd exemptions we refuse to touch for males, so the idea that rights trump speculative benefits isn’t foreign. The ability to do something or to possibly achieve some population-level result without concern for the individuals involved cannot – must not – be viewed in a bubble that contains only the factors one is interested in (e.g. male circumcision is currently practiced, so it’s acceptable).

There are no doubt many non-therapeutic surgeries we could perform on children that might result in some decreased prevalence of disease x, y, or z. Infant mastectomies to remove breast bud tissue might reduce the risk of breast cancer. Shouldn’t we study that, at least, since it might reduce cancer? Reducing cancer is “good”, whatever the means, right? No one is foolish enough (yet?) to think such a thing, which highlights the flaw in thinking by those making excuses for circumcision, such as Ms. Leibowitz here. Society should stop ignoring the costs to the individual who must bear the outcome of the decision. Ignoring them is unacceptable. The ethics of circumcision are not divisible from any other basic human rights consideration or proper medical analysis based on therapeutic need, or lack thereof.

Finally, that non-poor families can afford to violate their children’s sons’ rights is not a reason to use taxpayer funds to let poor parents violate their children’s sons’ rights. That’s a political question rather than a medical question. It is inexcusable to sacrifice the bodies of male children (only!) because we’re too cowardly to honestly evaluate the mistake of non-therapeutic circumcision on non-consenting individuals. This is the same idiotic approach Dr. Edgar Schoen pushed in his 2005 propaganda book, “Ed Schoen, MD on Circumcision”. Somehow, not using public funds to violate a child’s body and rights is discrimination. It isn’t because circumcision is not a valid parental choice. UCLA health economist Arleen Leibowitz is wrong.

None of this is a surprise, based on the editorial by Ms. Leibowitz and Katherine Desmond, “Infant Male Circumcision and Future Health Disparities”. The first two sentences reveal so much.

The health benefits of male circumcision (MC) have been extensively documented in observational studies and by randomized controlled trials in Africa showing that MC reduces heterosexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection from women to men by 55% to 76% …

The trials showed that voluntary, adult male circumcision reduces female-to-male HIV transmission in high risk populations with a heterosexual epidemic and a low rate of circumcision among adult males. That’s quite different, since it doesn’t describe the United States. It also fails to describe the circumcision they’re advocating. Children are not adult volunteers. That’s the ethical flaw in their analysis.

… and provides significant protection against human papillomavirus infection. …

Gardasil is approved for girls and boys. Circumcision is unnecessary for this possible benefit, as it is for nearly every possible benefit.

… Male circumcision is negatively associated with prostate cancer in men and with cervical cancer in female partners of men infected with human papillomavirus.

Negatively associated. Correlation is not causation. The study’s authors acknowledged this when they stated that it was an observational study. “Negatively associated” is not sufficient.

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