It won’t come as a surprise to read that I don’t think much of Yair Rosenberg’s lazy approach to analyzing non-therapeutic infant male circumcision. Add another example. This time he’s misreporting the findings of another meta-analysis by Brian Morris. Mr. Rosenberg quotes from a Daily Mail article that amounts to little more than a press release.
But first his introduction:
Across Europe, pushes to ban circumcision have rested on its supposedly deleterious effects on a child’s body, and lack of demonstrable benefits. Anne Lindboe, Sweden’s child welfare adviser, has gone so far as to label the practice “violence against children,” claiming that parents who perform it do so out of “ignorance.” She and her counterparts in Denmark and Finland have classified child circumcision as a “human rights violation” and called for it to be criminalized. A German court similarly banned the procedure on the grounds that it caused “bodily harm.” The only problem with these stances? They completely contradict everything science has found about circumcision’s impact on children’s health.
Findings of potential benefits from voluntary, adult male circumcision do not contradict the ethical, rights-based position against non-therapeutic infant male circumcision. Proxy consent is not the same as the consent given by adult volunteers to this permanent, irreversible surgery. Circumcising healthy minors violates their rights to bodily autonomy and integrity, just as any other permanent, non-therapeutic intervention is a violation. It’s the same principle that applies to even the tiniest, less-invasive-than-male-circumcision cut on a female minor’s genitals, which we’ve rightly criminalized. Potential benefits and human rights violation are not mutually exclusive. The presence of potential benefits does not eliminate the fatal ethical flaw. Nor does deciding that circumcision diminishing sexual function, sensitivity, or satisfaction is a “myth”, as Mr. Rosenberg claims of the new meta-analysis by Prof. Morris and Dr. John Krieger.
With that misguided frame, Mr. Rosenberg presents the study:
“The highest-quality studies suggest that medical male circumcision has no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation, or satisfaction,” Professor Brian Morris told The Daily Mail. Morris and his co-author looked at 36 studies covering 40,473 men, half circumcised and half not. They ranked each in terms of scientific rigor and quality, according to accepted official guidelines. And they found that circumcision “had no overall adverse effect on penile sensitivity, sexual arousal, sexual sensation, erectile function, premature ejaculation, duration of intercourse, orgasm difficulties, sexual satisfaction, pleasure, or pain during penetration.” Indeed, after 24 months, 99.9 percent of men were satisfied with their circumcisions–and 72 percent said sensitivity had increased.
There’s a lot to unpack there. The largest point is that Mr. Rosenberg clearly didn’t read the 12 page paper because he regurgitates the results in the digestible (i.e. misleading) package given in the news article. Reading it might reduce his confirmation bias. There are enough obvious limitations, as well:
While the review considered a large body of evidence, there are some factors that may be influencing the findings.
For example, many studies were surveys, and the recruitment process for them is not described. It could be the case that men who have a satisfying sex life may be more willing to participate and answer questions on sexual performance and satisfaction that those who aren’t.
Also, most of the responses in the study are subjective, and what one person considers to be a sexual problem or sexual satisfaction, another might not. There may also be differences in the culture and ethnicity of the participants of certain studies, meaning that their findings cannot be so easily transferred elsewhere.
Beyond that, focus on the conclusion from the study. They state that their analysis suggests this conclusion. Suggests is not a synonym for proves. Yet, even though the Daily Mail article doesn’t use the word in quoting Morris, Mr. Rosenberg states:
Morris told The Daily Mail that he saw his study disproving circumcision’s adverse effects as complementary to those showing its benefits. …
He repeatedly misses the critical issue of consent versus force. In a previous article Mr. Rosenberg summarized a finding that “[i]t would have been unethical to continue without offering circumcision” to the remaining intact volunteers in a study with a simple statement that it would be “[u]nethical not to circumcise the men.” It appears that Mr. Rosenberg is not a reliable filter for news pertaining to circumcision.
There are obvious problems in the current meta-analysis. I will accept their methodology and reasoning as presented, which lead to their “suggests” conclusion. Assuming it is accurate, so what? The findings were not 100%. Of course, 99.9% is presented as essentially the same thing, which is even better than the result we’d expect from a dictator’s latest popular election. From the Krieger et al. Adult Male Circumcision study in Kenya ¹, 8.9% of circumcised men identified their penile sexual sensation as something other than “increased” or “the same” 24 months after circumcision. It’s ridiculous to pretend that these men don’t matter and that their experience should be ignored to allow a perceived universal defense for circumcising male minors.
Mr. Rosenberg concludes:
Yet the findings of science have done little thus far to deter Europeans politicians and health officials from seeking to criminalize circumcision, and labeling those who practice it “ignorant” and “barbaric.” It remains to be seen if this study will alter their course.
A utilitarian defense for violating human rights is ineffectual because the defense relies on using only a preferred subset of factors to reach a conclusion. “It’s mine” is a sufficient reason for a male to want his foreskin. He owns his foreskin as much as he owns any other part of his anatomy. Potential benefits valued by his parents are irrelevant while his body is healthy. Proxy consent for this non-therapeutic intervention is invalid because the net benefit or harm is subjective to the individual himself.
This is obvious if considering the question Morris and Krieger asked. Does male circumcision affect sexual function, sensitivity or satisfaction? In order, yes, maybe, and maybe. The findings suggest as much if we look at the participants in the included studies as individuals with their own unique tastes and preferences rather than as statistics. The paper’s focus is sex as a measurable number, which is an idiotic way to reach a conclusion about a subjective topic like human sexuality.
For sexual function, the foreskin is removed. That changes function. Maybe that’s “good”, maybe it’s “bad”. Each person must decide before circumcision what he thinks he wants. What his parents prefer is meaningless.
As for sensitivity, the results are equivocal. I’m willing to accept the negative findings as lower-quality studies for this purpose. But in a study Morris and Krieger rate as 2++, Payne et al , this:
… It is possible that the uncircumcised penis is more sensitive due to the presence of additional sensory receptors on the prepuce and frenulum, but this cannot be compared with the absence of such structures in the circumcised penis. …
Yet, for Morris and Krieger, this is support for their “suggests” conclusion because:
… More circumcised participants reported an increase in their level of sexual arousal, while more uncircumcised men reported being unaffected by the erotic stimulus. …
They want to believe, so they believe. That’s the only way I can reconcile the source study with their analysis.
In certain aspects sensitivity is quantifiable, but there is a an element of experience to human sexuality that a generalized “yes” or “no” here dismisses. That same element of experience, but without the ability to quantify in a utilitarian summary, exists in personal evaluations of satisfaction. This is why I don’t state that someone is wrong for preferring circumcision or believing it improves their experience of sex or life, in general. But that is also why it’s wrong for Morris, Krieger, Rosenberg, or anyone else to support parental choice (i.e. proxy consent) for non-therapeutic circumcision. Declaring one’s own preference as a truth applicable to someone else – without concern for the individual’s preference for himself – is the critical mistake inseparable from their argument.
One final point: It’s important to read the abstract and the study rather than just the abstract, even as a layman. Doing so reveals a lot of nuance, as the AAP’s revised position statement in 2012 so embarrassingly showed. It avoids the “It’s official!” conclusion too many (like Mr. Rosenberg here) want to staple to the evolving science involved in circumcision. The Payne  study is another example of the importance of this maxim, as are the remaining studies reviewed by Morris and Krieger, probably.
¹ Bracketed numbers correspond to the same-numbered footnote in the Morris/Krieger review.