You’re having a baby. It’s a joyous event. You’re excited and unsure if you’re up to the task. There will be a lot of on-the-job learning, as well as mistakes that will be more amusing with the passing of time. You’re not supposed to have all the answers, and with experience, it will be clear you can’t plot them all in advance. The discovery is part of the process that makes parenting so exciting and strange and human.
Strangely, we assume parents should make a choice on circumcision if their baby is a boy. Our culture declares that the decision is for the boy’s parents. I’m asking you to make a choice against circumcision because it’s not a choice parents should make for their healthy son(s). Rightly considered, the choice belongs to the individual, not his parents. He should retain his choice absent some medical need for which circumcision – the most radical intervention – is the only available solution.
There are numerous reasons to reject circumcision for your healthy newborn son. The easiest summary comes from a basic principle and an economics concept. First, the principle: non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical. The problem is not that circumcision is bad, per se. Healthy men who choose to have themselves circumcised are correct for their bodies. Men circumcised as infants who are happy (or indifferent) about being circumcised are also correct for their bodies. But when circumcision is performed on a male without immediate medical need or his consent, there is no guarantee he will be happy with his parents making his choice. That’s the economic concept. All tastes and preferences are subjective and unique to the individual. The boy may like being circumcised, but he may not. It’s impossible to know which a son will prefer.
As the decision is commonly framed in America, circumcision is a referendum on the father’s penis and should be performed on his son if dad is circumcised so that their genitals match. The assumption is that, if it’s good enough for dad, it’s good enough for his sons. However, we know more now than we did when dad was born. We know that circumcision, being surgery, inflicts some guaranteed amount of harm by removing the foreskin and possibly the frenulum, as well as leaving a scar. There is also the possibility of complications inherent in every circumcision. Adhesions, skin bridges, bleeding, infection, greater-than-expected damage to the penis, and worse are all possibilities. Aesthetic symmetry between father and son is insufficient to justify surgery on a child. Rejecting circumcision for a son is sensible, not a referendum on the quality or functionality of his father’s penis.
When those inherent risks are considered, they’re often discussed as a minor trade-off for the potential benefits. The problem is that infant circumcision is almost always non-therapeutic. There is no malady to be resolved, no objective trade-off to be made. Every benefit supposedly in favor of circumcision involves something that might happen or might be desired by the individual. It’s an aggressive intervention on a healthy child whose foreskin will likely remain healthy throughout his life.
Every potential benefit from circumcision can be achieved through less invasive methods that prevent or treat the uncommon ailments cited. Many of these methods, such as condoms, are still required after circumcision. In the unlikely situation where the child eventually requires intervention, a doctor up-to-date on treating an intact penis will still likely be able to resolve a foreskin problem without circumcision. Should circumcision be necessary, he will experience some pain. Leaving him intact does not guarantee that he will eventually experience this pain. Circumcising him when he’s healthy guarantees he will experience pain. The choice is imposing pain that he will feel or exposing him to risk that he might experience pain later. The latter involves pain that he’d likely be able to ameliorate with pain management that an infant can’t have. Even if we assume there is no pain during the procedure, there will be pain during the healing process. Add to that the presence of urine and feces in repeated contact with a healing wound, and the choice to wait until it might be necessary becomes clearer.
For the claimed medical benefits, I accept all of them as possible, even where, for example, I believe there may be flaws in the methodology of the relevant studies. The analysis still leads to the same conclusion if all benefits are assumed to be possible. The details of each matter against circumcision and reveal their flaws. When considered in context, the proposed benefits are weak compared to the availability of prevention methods and treatments both more effective and less invasive than prophylactic circumcision. As Dr. Morten Frisch et al state (pdf), the “cardinal medical question should not be whether circumcision can prevent disease, but how disease can best be prevented.”
To illustrate the weakness of the proposed benefits, consider two commonly cited potential benefits: UTIs and HIV. The benefit for UTIs is a risk reduction from 1 percent of boys in the first year of life to between .1 and .3 percent of boys in the first year of life. Even for the intact boys, this risk is already significantly less than it is for girls. Most UTIs are easily treated without surgery. The same treatments that work for girls also work for boys.
The Canadian Pediatric Society states that, within every 1,000 circumcised boys, two will be admitted to the hospital for a UTI before their first birthday. Within every 1,000 boys left with their foreskins, seven will be admitted to the hospital for a UTI before their first birthday. Factor in the circumcised boys who will need some further treatment for complications, and the risks become clear. Circumcision can cause more problems than it seeks to prevent. As the CPS states, of the 1,000 boys who keep their foreskins, only ten of them “will have a circumcision later in life for medical reasons”. Prophylactic circumcision to avoid a one percent risk of needing that circumcision later is odd.
For the reduced risk of HIV, there are several significant problems related to non-therapeutic child circumcision. This potential benefit has only been found for female-to-male transmission in high-risk populations, and the studies only looked at voluntary, adult circumcision. None of those three aspects describes the situation in the United States or other first world nations. Our sexually transmitted HIV epidemic is male-to-male, and circumcision has not been shown to have any benefit there. Further, the relative risk reduction from circumcision for female-to-male transmission in the U.S. is an estimated 15.7%, far less than the often-cited 60% relevant to Africa. The absolute lifetime risk of HIV infection is already low in the United States. The lifetime absolute risk reduction is small. This summarized table provides the details. And what will science know about preventing or curing HIV by the time a child born today is sexually active?
As stated before, condoms are still necessary after circumcision. Circumcision doesn’t change the male’s required sexual behavior. Parents retain their responsibility to teach him the importance of safe sex practices (and proper hygiene techniques). Nor is there proof that infant circumcision has the same benefits found for voluntary, adult circumcision. Apart from research on UTIs, the potential benefits have been found only in studies using adult volunteers. Despite both being “male circumcision”, the two are not quite the same surgery. The significant difference in consent is most critical, but the foreskin hasn’t separated at birth and must be forced free from the rest of the penis to circumcise an infant. This introduces additional physical trauma and risks for an infant.
The proposed cultural benefits suffer under examination, as well. He has his normal genitals? Women won’t date him, or his peers will make fun of him, the thinking goes. We forget to consider whether he’d prefer his foreskin more than a partner who requires him to be circumcised or if he’ll even encounter a partner who prefers circumcision¹. Parents can build enough self-worth into their children to withstand teasing. That’s essential because children will always find something about their peers to tease. If it’s not his foreskin, it’ll be his height or hair color or clothing or whatever else is easy. Anyway, the locker room fear is rooted in the experiences of prior generations when communal showering was common in schools. It’s best examined in the present rather than holding to a scenario that no longer exists, especially as fewer parents circumcise their sons. Half or more of his peers will be intact. If he is “different”, he’ll be different like many of his peers. As children grow, parents realize their goal is not to teach their child to conform, but rather to help him become an independent person whose differences make him who he is. Making a major, irreversible decision for him before parent and child have grown to that point in their relationship may become something the parent or the child regrets.
The premise of this approach is “I don’t know”. None of us knows. We don’t know what we’ll want in the future. We don’t know what science will discover that makes circumcision even more unnecessary to achieve the possible benefits. We don’t know who we’ll be or who we’ll meet. Not circumcising sons in the absence of medical need prioritizes optimism over unfounded fear. It’s about keeping their choices open until they can express their personal preference about what they want and what will make them happy. It’s a realization that “what if” can be about a good future rather than succumbing to a fear of unlikely dangers.
Your son will be born with a foreskin. His prepuce is normal. It will belong to him, just like every other normal part of his body. It has functions. You want what is best for your children. Your son can always have his foreskin removed later, either for need or choice. He can’t put it back if he wants it after circumcision. Choosing to leave your son intact is the better choice.
¹ Many non-Americans are flabbergasted when they learn that circumcision has been so prevalent in the U.S. Their primary experience is with men who still have their foreskins. Given the declining rate of circumcision, the future American partners of a child born today will likely mirror that acceptance.
In “Cultural Bias in the AAP’s 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision”, Morten Frisch, MD, PhD, et al (pdf) criticize the AAP’s revised policy statement on circumcision. In part, they state:
The most important criteria for the justification of medical procedures are necessity, cost-effectiveness, subsidiarity, proportionality, and consent. For preventive medical procedures, this means that the procedure must effectively lead to the prevention of a serious medical problem, that there is no less intrusive means of reaching the same goal, and that the risks of the procedure are proportional to the intended benefit. In addition, when performed in childhood, it needs to be clearly demonstrated that it is essential to perform the procedure before an age at which the individual can make a decision about the procedure for him or herself.
They raise many issues surrounding the AAP’s focus on UTIs, penile cancer, STDs, and HIV. They conclude that non-therapeutic circumcision “fails to meet the commonly accepted criteria for the justification of preventive medical procedures in children.” Even ignoring their critique of the applicability of the scientific studies involved in the AAP’s revised policy statement, they are convincing. Their ethical argument is powerful.
The response by the AAP’s Task Force on Circumcision is intriguing and bizarre. It’s intriguing because it raises potential issues with what Frisch et al wrote about the science. This section is worth discussing, but not by me. I see the points on both sides. It’s difficult for either to squeeze every helpful detail into a few pages. For this, I’ll leave it with my usual statement. I am willing to accept the claimed benefits, however faulty they may be. The ironclad ethical case against non-therapeutic child circumcision is no weaker if all of the AAP’s criticisms have full merit.
Its response is bizarre for the ethical issues the Task Force continues to dismiss and ignore.
First, responding to the claim that the Task Force suffered from cultural bias:
… Although that heterogeneity may lead to a more tolerant view toward circumcision in the United States than in Europe, the cultural “bias” in the United States is much more likely to be a neutral one than that found in Europe, where there is a clear bias against circumcision. …
That (claimed) neutrality is the problem in the AAP’s revised policy statement on male circumcision. They imagine that there is no right answer to this ethical question. Here, the physical integrity of a healthy child is surgically violated without his consent. The law recognizes a single correct answer for female minors on the same ethical question. The implicit conclusion that male minors possess a lesser right to their physical integrity than their sisters is indefensible. It doesn’t matter that potential benefits exist from circumcision. Frisch et al demonstrate this in analyzing the difference between consent and proxy consent for a non-therapeutic intervention.
The AAP continues its challenge:
… Yet, the commentary’s authors have, at no point, recognized that their own cultural bias may exist in equal, if not greater, measure than any cultural bias that might exist among the members of the AAP Task Force on Circumcision. If cultural bias influences the review of available evidence, then a culture that is comfortable with both the circumcised penis and the uncircumcised penis would seem predisposed to a more dispassionate analysis of the scientific literature than a culture with a bias that is either strongly opposed to circumcision or strongly in favor of it.
So, basically, the AAP’s Task Force is saying “I’m rubber, you’re glue”.
To the point, Frisch et al show that the cultural acceptability of circumcision is not a valid defense because there is a right answer to the ethical question involving this prophylactic surgical intervention on healthy children. The AAP missed the essential issue in its recommendation. The ongoing American experiment with circumcision is a reasonably-inferred explanation. Frisch et al emphasize the child in non-therapeutic child circumcision. The AAP continues to emphasize only circumcision, with the children being a distant abstract. That is the problem, regardless of the reason.
For the purpose of those paragraphs, I pretended that the AAP’s claim that the US is neutral on infant circumcision isn’t laughable nonsense. On the basis of individual opinions, I think we’re probably the fifty-fifty nation they imagine. Institutionally, both medically andpolitically, we are very much a pro-circumcision nation. The Task Force stated a truth, while missing it, in its Technical Report:
… Reasonable people may disagree, however, as to what is in the best interest of any individual patient or how the potential medical benefits and potential medical harms of circumcision should be weighed against each other. …
The factually-unprovable statement in the Abstract that the “preventive health benefits of elective circumcision of male newborns outweigh the risks of the procedure” is the evidence that the AAP is not a pillar of neutrality on non-therapeutic male child circumcision. The Task Force thinks the subjectivity it mistakenly presents as a valid general conclusion in its Abstract may reasonably be taken into consideration for circumcising an individual by proxy consent. If they understood the ethical implications, they would acknowledge that it must only be taken into consideration by the individual for his own healthy body. The neutral position presents facts and lets the individual choose. The biased position lets someone else impose a permanent, unnecessary intervention for the individual.
The Task Force includes a section, Age at Circumcision, in which their argument is that many minors make their sexual debut before the age of majority and some of those people are irresponsible with regard to condoms. The Task Force argues these two facts render it acceptable for parents to make their son’s circumcision decision for him. It views parents through an ideal, rather than the reality of human decision-making where a child must live with the permanent consequences of an unnecessary decision. Individuals are just part of a statistic.
When the Task Force finally gets to the ethical issues, it whiffs again:
… The authors’ argument about the basic right to physical integrity is an important one, but it needs to be balanced by other considerations. The right to physical integrity is easier to defend in the context of a procedure that offers no potential benefit, but the assertion by Frisch et al of ‘no benefit’ is clearly contradicted by the published scientific peer-reviewed evidence. …
Because there are potential benefits, we may discard the supremacy of the basic human right to physical integrity for the healthy child? That’s ridiculous. They don’t say it directly, but their conclusion for parents making their son’s choice endorses it in reality. With this thinking, any number of extreme surgical interventions could be justified on a healthy child because they might offer some benefit at some point. We should at least research any possible intervention to make sure we’re not missing some benefit that could decrease some risk, if that really is an acceptable approach. Or we could be rational and set aside our long-held cultural acceptance of this unethical procedure, but that’s harder to defend than fear, I guess.
The second statement, the “assertion by Frisch et al of ‘no benefit’”, is not supported by my reading of their paper. They do not state there is ‘no benefit’ to circumcision. They question the strength of the benefits and their applicability to children, particularly because less intrusive methods to achieve these benefits are available. The Task Force builds a straw man instead of confronting the ethical issues.
Frisch et al appeal to the ethical precept “First, do no harm,” but they fail to recognize that in situations in which a preventive benefit exists, harm can also be done by failing to act. Whereas there are rare situations in which a male will be harmed by a circumcision procedure, …
I’m interrupting the excerpt to correct this inaccurate statement. Every circumcision inflicts harm, including loss of normal tissue and nerve endings, as well as scarring. Some circumcisions inflict more harm than expected or intended. The Task Force conflates intent and outcome.
… it is also true that some males will be harmed by not being circumcised. Simply because it is difficult to identify exactly which individuals have suffered a harm because they were not circumcised should not lead one to discount the very real harms that might befall some men by not being circumcised. …
I don’t discount the real harms some will experience from the risks in being alive with a normal human anatomy. I dismiss their relevance in this context. It’s a dumb standard for evaluating what may be done to a healthy child without his consent. Life can never be lived without risk. If a male is worried enough about the minimal risks posed by his foreskin, he can elect to be circumcised with his own informed consent. But the reverse is not true. A male who is circumcised at birth can’t recover his foreskin if he would not trade his foreskin¹ for the proposed benefits. Individual choice is the valid, superior ethical position.
… There is no easy answer to this issue ethically. Regardless of what decision is made on behalf of a young male, harm might [ed. note: will, if the decision is circumcision] result from that decision. That is precisely why the AAP task force members found that this decision properly remains with parents and that parents should have information about both potential benefits and potential harms as they make this decision for their child.
There is an easy answer to this issue ethically. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting male is unethical. It inflicts guaranteed harm to minimize already tiny risks. This is the same easy answer we draw for females. We know parents shouldn’t make this decision unless it is “necessary to the health of the person on whom it is performed” when the person on whom it is performed is female. We’ve legislated this knowledge. The right to physical integrity is easy to defend. The AAP has an ethical duty to defend it for all children, including males.
¹ Full quote from AAP Task Force on Circumcision member Dr. Douglas Diekema: “[Circumcision] does carry some risk and does involve the loss of the foreskin, which some men are angry about. But it does have medical benefit. Not everyone would trade that foreskin for that medical benefit.”
This picture is amazing. It captures the inherent contradiction in the way many parents think and behave toward their sons:
I don’t have a source for this. I found it on Twitter but don’t remember from whom. Since it cites The Whole Network, I’m happy to provide a link there. Whoever is responsible for creating this, kudos. It’s excellent.
In an article about an Australian couple arrested for “allegedly organising the illegal circumcision of their one-year-old baby girl in Bali,” this anecdote from Edith Cowan University’s head of medical sciences Moira Sim about patients she has treated is insightful:
She said the women she treated did not see the mutilation of their genitals as an issue because they did not remember having the procedure.
That’s a defense for male circumcision so commonly offered in the United States. Yet, in this anecdote, it’s clear how irrelevant their opinion is as a defense. The violation occurred, and we can easily assume that these women would not feel that way if they hadn’t had their genitals mutilated as children. Ex post facto defenses of non-therapeutic genital cutting offered by the victim, or an assumption that the recipient will develop a specific opinion, can never justify imposing the procedure on a minor.
Adding to my post on ethics, I want to continue with the recommendations from the technical report on non-therapeutic male child circumcision issued by the AAP Task Force:
Parents are entitled to factually correct, nonbiased information about circumcision that should be provided before conception and early in pregnancy, when parents are most likely to be weighing the option of circumcision of a male child.
Parents of newborn boys should be instructed in the care of the penis, regardless of whether the newborn has been circumcised or not.
Notice the past tense in the second point. Parents should be instructed in the care of the penis before they decide to circumcise. My anecdotal experience suggests some number of parents circumcise in part because they don’t understand how to care for a normal penis. However small this number probably is, if parents shouldn’t be ignorant, the AAP should recommend education before the decision, not after. Some parents may leave their son his choice if they’re educated in how simple and non-scary it is to care for a normal, intact penis.
It should also provide factually correct information. From “Care of the Circumcised Versus Uncircumcised (sic) Penis” (Pg. 763):
Parents of newborn boys should be instructed in the care of the penis at the time of discharge from the newborn hospital stay, regardless of whether they choose circumcision or not. The circumcised penis should be washed gently without any aggressive pulling back of the skin.24 The noncircumcised (sic) penis should be washed with soap and water. Most adhesions present at birth spontaneously resolve by age 2 to 4 months, and the foreskin should not be forcibly retracted. When these adhesions disappear physiologically (which occurs at an individual pace), the foreskin can be easily retracted, and the whole penis washed with soap and water.25
No, they should be instructed about care before discharge. Even if we ignore the obvious point that a circumcision would likely already have been performed by that point, are parents not responsible for any care for their son while in the hospital? Unless a hospital is doing it wrong, they don’t just keep the child until parents are discharged and then say “here you go”.
More importantly, that paragraph contains factually incorrect information. The Task Force states that most adhesions present at birth spontaneously resolve by age 2 to 4 months, which is ridiculous. It’s also unsupported by their source. From footnote 25, Caring for the uncircumcised penis: what parents (and you) need to know by Cynthia J. Camille, FNP, CPNP, Ramsay L. Kuo, MD, and John S. Wiener, MD:
Penile growth, along with intermittent erection, aids in the process that eventually completely separates the prepuce from the glans to form the preputial space (Figure 1). This process begins late in gestation and proceeds at varying rates during childhood; therefore, the age when the prepuce is completely retractable also varies.2,3 Complete retraction past the corona is possible in at least 90% of boys by 5 years of age. In contrast, some boys will not have complete separation of the prepuce circumferentially beyond the corona until accelerated penile growth occurs at puberty.
Even if “90% by age 5″ is correct (some evidence at this link suggests it might be an overestimate), that differs significantly from “by age 2 to 4 months”. This is a recipe for incorrect diagnoses of phimosis and forced retraction, leading to unnecessary circumcision for non-existent medical necessity.
In the first few months, you should simply clean and bathe your baby’s uncircumcised penis with soap and water, like the rest of the diaper area. Initially, the foreskin is connected by tissue to the glans, or head, of the penis, so you shouldn’t try to retract it. No cleansing of the penis with cotton swabs or antiseptics is necessary, but you should watch your baby urinate occasionally to make sure that the hole in the foreskin is large enough to permit a normal stream. If the stream consistently is no more than a trickle, or if your baby seems to have some discomfort while urinating, consult your pediatrician.
The doctor will tell you when the foreskin has separated and can be retracted safely. This will not be for several months or years, and should never be forced; if you were to force the foreskin to retract before it is ready, you could cause painful bleeding and tears in the skin. After this separation occurs, retract the foreskin occasionally to gently cleanse the end of the penis underneath.
The Task Force provided no obvious evidence to support its “by age 2 to 4 months” claim. Either they didn’t correctly source the claim they made, or they’ve allowed at least one mistake to enter the document. Neither generates much confidence in the overall process.
Much has already been said on the flaws in the AAP’s revised policy statement on non-therapeutic male child circumcision. (Here’s an additional plug for the exceptional rebuttal by Brian D. Earp.) I want to comment directly on its recommendations and the ethical issues addressed – or unaddressed – in the technical report. First, from page 757:
The Task Force made the following recommendations:
Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, and the benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for those families who choose it.
Parents should weigh the health benefits and risks in light of their own religious, cultural, and personal preferences, as the medical benefits alone may not outweigh these other considerations for individual families.
These two statements conflict. Stating that the benefits outweigh the risks is a judgment call based on subjective valuations of the various inputs. The task force recognizes this when acknowledging that some parents would value other considerations more than the AAP’s evaluation of the net effect. That same possible difference of opinion applies to the cost-benefit analysis itself, which should include actual costs (i.e. the foreskin) rather than just risks.
The AAP is stating that it’s possible to disagree with the task force, but only to an extent because it reviewed the data and drew a conclusion. That’s wrong because the evaluation requires subjective weightings rather than objective criteria. It’s one thing to question the possible benefits altogether, as some do. It’s also possible to accept the potential benefits while not valuing them more than the costs involved. All individual tastes and preferences are unique. AAP Circumcision Task Force member Dr. Douglas Diekema said as much prior to the release of the revised policy statement. Why is that not reflected here in place of this incorrect statement that the benefits definitively outweigh the risks (and the unmentioned costs/harms)?
Further discrediting its recommendation on this, the ethics section (Pg. 759) states:
… Reasonable people may disagree, however, as to what is in the best interest of any individual patient or how the potential medical benefits and potential medical harms of circumcision should be weighed against each other. …
The highlighted statement is the ethical argument. This accurate statement contradicts the conclusion the AAP presents that the potential benefits definitively outweigh the risks it considered. It is more relevant in the context of what the individual being circumcised might value. How will he – rather than his parents – want the benefits, risks, and costs weighed against each other for his normal, healthy foreskin? That’s the ethical core that the AAP Task Force sidestepped. Its recommendation for proxy consent for non-therapeutic circumcision is indefensible.
Moving on to the Ethical Issues section (pp. 758-760):
As a general rule, minors in the United States are not considered competent to provide legally binding consent regarding their health care, and parents or guardians are empowered to make health care decisions on their behalf.9 In most situations, parents are granted wide latitude in terms of the decisions they make on behalf of their children, and the law has respected those decisions except where they are clearly contrary to the best interests of the child or place the child’s health, well-being, or life at significant risk of serious harm.10
Sure. But that doesn’t support non-therapeutic male child circumcision. Proxy consent for permanent, amputative surgery must require something approaching objective need. Legally, we already require this for non-therapeutic genital cutting on female minors, including that which is analogous to or less harmful than a typical male circumcision. The comparison to be made for non-therapeutic male circumcision is whether or not parents are given this same non-therapeutic, cultural latitude in cutting the genitals of their daughters. They are not, which demonstrates that it shouldn’t be about the parents but about the child.
(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years …
Subsection (b) establishes that only therapeutic genital cutting is legal for female minors. Subsection (c) rejects all parental preferences, whether cultural or religious, for non-therapeutic genital cutting on their daughters. It’s improper for the AAP Task Force to treat non-therapeutic male child circumcision as if it’s just a health care decision. It’s unlike any other decision we allow. If nothing else, circumcision guarantees (i.e. “significant risk”) the child’s normal, healthy foreskin will be removed forever (i.e. “serious harm”). Do male minors ever become reasonable people who may disagree about the weighting of the benefits and risks?
Revisiting “reasonable people may disagree”:
Parents and physicians each have an ethical duty to the child to attempt to secure the child’s best interest and well-being.11 Reasonable people may disagree, however, as to what is in the best interest of any individual patient or how the potential medical benefits and potential medical harms of circumcision should be weighed against each other. This situation is further complicated by the fact that there are social, cultural, religious, and familial benefits and harms to be considered as well.12 It is reasonable to take these nonmedical benefits and harms for an individual into consideration when making a decision about circumcision.13
It is not reasonable. The individual who must live with the permanent consequences of the decision, if the decision is to circumcise, is not the person taking these non-medical benefits and harms into consideration. (Here, based on my earlier excerpt from this paragraph, benefits such as a reduced risk of heterosexually-acquired HIV should be evaluated as non-medical because they are a non-therapeutic justification for surgical intervention via proxy consent. Or remedy my rebuttal to “these medical benefits, non-medical benefits, and harms” if my precision focused on the lack of need irritates.)
In footnote 13, which is Diekema’s “ethics” perspective on Boldt v. Boldt, he concludes:
(3) Absent a significant medical indication, circumcision should not be performed on older children and adolescents in the face of dissent or less than enthusiastic assent.
This is important. Infants can’t consent, of course, but there is no reason that an inability to consent should be construed as a “yes” in favor of his parents’ preferences. Not even benefits that reasonable people may determine do not outweigh the risks (and costs). From the Ethical Issues section of the policy statement technical report:
Parents may wish to consider whether the benefits of the procedure can be attained in equal measure if the procedure is delayed until the child is of sufficient age to provide his own informed consent. These interests include the medical benefits; the cultural and religious implications of being circumcised; and the fact that the procedure has the least surgical risk and the greatest accumulated health benefits if performed during the newborn period. Newborn males who are not circumcised at birth are much less likely to elect circumcision in adolescence or early adulthood. Parents who are considering deferring circumcision should be explicitly informed that circumcision performed later in life has increased risks and costs. Furthermore, deferral of the procedure also requires longer healing time than if performed during the newborn period and requires sexual abstinence during healing. Those who are already sexually active by the time they have the procedure lose some opportunities for the protective benefit against sexually transmitted infection (STI) acquisition, including HIV; moreover, there is the risk of acquiring an STI if the individual is sexually active during the healing process. (See the section entitled Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Including HIV.)
First, note that it references a section on STDs, including HIV. Condoms are a cheaper, ethical way of achieving the same benefits and in greater than equal measure. They’re also still necessary after circumcision to prevent STDs, including heterosexually-acquired HIV. Yet, the word condom appears¹ zero times in the body of the technical report. Why?
The same applies to the other benefits, or there are safe, effective, non-invasive treatments available. It’s also reasonable to infer that, since people may disagree based on their preferences for whether the benefits outweigh the risks, people may also differ on whether the cited gains from infant circumcision rather than voluntary, adult circumcision are worth the trade-offs of their foreskin and their choice. The “greatest accumulated health benefits” isn’t enough to justify circumcising the individual who will not want to be circumcised.
The most crucial sentence in that excerpt is the third. Males left with their normal genitals are less likely to elect (or need) circumcision. This is too often portrayed as something akin to weakness or cowardice in the autonomous male, for which parents can be the brave, responsible decision-maker. (e.g. Brian Morris et al.) That’s a bad framing device. Instead, this unwillingness (i.e. less likely) is the most powerful indicator that males left with their foreskin value something more than being circumcised. Even if that is merely a desire to avoid the (perceived) pain of the surgery, it is proof of their preference against being circumcised. It is not better to guarantee that pain by forcing it on them in infancy. The typical defense is that they won’t remember it, which is so ridiculous that it could justify any intervention. As AAP Task Force member and bioethicist Douglas Diekema said, “Not everyone would trade that foreskin for that medical benefit.” If the AAP had reflected that view in its recommendations, the revised policy statement could’ve been ethical.
For the remaining sentences, parents who are considering deferring circumcision should be explicitly informed that circumcision performed later in life has a very low likelihood of being necessary. Why leave this point out to focus only on one side of the equation if parents should be fully informed? It shouldn’t be included as an abused throwaway in a technical report most parents will never know exists.
In cases such as the decision to perform a circumcision in the newborn period (where there is reasonable disagreement about the balance between medical benefits and harms, where there are nonmedical benefits and harms that can result from a decision on whether to perform the procedure, and where the procedure is not essential to the child’s immediate well-being), the parents should determine what is in the best interest of the child. In the pluralistic society of the United States, where parents are afforded wide authority for determining what constitutes appropriate child-rearing and child welfare, it is legitimate for the parents to take into account their own cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to medical factors, when making this choice.11
It is not legitimate. The Task Force’s own words demonstrate that it’s possible for the individual male to not value circumcision. He is in his parents’ care for 18 years. (Per Diekema’s recommendation, his parents may be able to choose non-therapeutic circumcision for only a few of those years.) He will then be an autonomous adult for what will likely be another 40 to 80 years. What will he believe is in his best interest about his normal body for that time period? If his parents circumcise him, he will never be autonomous on this question. (As his sister(s) will be by law, contra the absurd idea that parents should be afforded wide authority to determine what constitutes his best interest forever.)
This decision involves informed proxy consent, not informed consent. For this, non-therapeutic circumcision, there is no reasonable disagreement about the lack of need. What is in the child’s best interest is to not undergo unnecessary surgery for reasons he may not value. He can choose it later, or his parents can choose it should genuine medical need arise while he remains their responsibility. He can’t unchoose it once it’s imposed.
The technical report does not support the AAP’s recommendations because it contains omissions and contradictions. Both the technical report and the condensed versions are irresponsible documentd that will perpetuate the violation of the bodies and rights of newborn males. They should be retracted.
¹ It appears once in a footnote as part of the title of a source.
Catarina Dutilh Novaes has an excellent post on the comparison between male and female genital cutting.
A heated discussion ensued from my post on circumcision last week, which in turn was essentially a plug to a thought-provoking post by Brian D. Earp at the Oxford Practical Ethics blog. The controversial point was whether circumcision is or is not to be compared to female genital cutting.
I’ve learned a lot from the different perspectives presented during the discussion; among other things, I’ve learned the terms ‘genital alteration’ and ‘genital cutting’, which now seem to me to be more adequate than either ‘circumcision’ or ‘genital mutilation’ to formulate the issue in a non-question-begging way (as argued here). And yet, I am now even more convinced that the analogy between male genital alteration and female genital alteration is a legitimate one – which (and let me say this again!) does not mean that there are no crucial differences to be kept in mind. That’s what an analogy is, after all.
I agree with this, and the bulk of the post. I recommend it with only a minor quibble and an additional piece of modern evidence.
It is well known that female genital cutting is practiced with different levels of severity, going from pricking and piercing to infibulation. …
I do not believe this is well known beyond academic knowledge. In my experience the average person hearing this comparison believes that female genital cutting is always a) the most severe form, b) performed to eliminate all sexual pleasure, and c) imposed at the insistence of males. Facts rarely correct that misunderstanding when presented. Most often the avoidance rests on imagined parental intent, as if that alone can dictate the outcome.
- Female genital cutting is embedded in a long history of oppression of female sexuality, and has as its main goal to diminish women’s sexual enjoyment. Male genital cutting in the form of circumcision has no such goal.
She is citing an objection from the comments of her original post rather than her opinion. She supports the challenge to the claim with the 19th century history of male circumcision in America. That is relevant, but there’s modern evidence that circumcision seeks to control male sexuality. Last year Rabbi Mark Glickman wrote (my post):
… Unlike female genital mutilation, Jewish circumcision is not a way to limit or control the child, and it does not destroy sexual desire.
Many find the practice troubling, I believe, because it so dramatically distinguishes religious values from commonly accepted modern American ones. America idealizes nature; Judaism and other religions try to control it and improve it. …
There are otherexamples. Religion still seeks to control the child and his sexuality through circumcision. A lack of ill intent does not negate the control from circumcision or its intentionality.
In a cultural rather than ritual context, circumcision is still about control. Parents circumcise so the boy will “look like his father”, regardless of what the child wants. Parents circumcise so that his sexual partners will not be repulsed. (This is an indirect form of control of his future sexual partners.) Parents circumcise to avoid STDs, even though condoms are still necessary. All of this controls the child and his sexuality. The control of males through non-therapeutic genital cutting is rarely as extreme as it is for females, but it is real and occurs now. There is no need to rely on history. The analogy holds up here.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Germany’s Circumcision Police”. It starts off well.
There was a head-spinning moment in Germany last week: News emerged that a rabbi had been criminally charged for performing his religious duties. Rabbi David Goldberg of northern Bavaria, who shepherds a 400-member community, is the first person to run afoul of a ruling by a Cologne judge earlier this year that criminalized circumcision, a basic religious rite.
There is some precedent outside of Germany for such a ruling. …
Even though we disagree on policy, agreeing on basic facts is always good. But his essay slowly falls off the path.
… In the United States, a San Francisco ballot initiative tried last year to make circumcision an offense punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison; it failed to get enough votes. …
That’s not an accurate summary of what happened last year. A court ruled that the local ballot initiative conflicted with an existing state law and struck it from the ballot. It had nothing to do with getting enough votes.
… But the circumcision ban deserves universal scorn. …
Does the German government really want to get into a public battle over whether they are better guardians of the health and welfare of Jewish (and Muslim) children than their parents?
As long as parents continue to circumcise their healthy sons, I hope so. Obvious physical harm for subjective non-therapeutic benefits is unacceptable without the individual’s consent. Protecting the rights of all citizens is a legitimate role of the state.
The Los Angeles Times recently cited a study predicting that as the number of circumcisions goes down in the U.S., the cost of health care will steadily climb. Eryn Brown reported that “If circumcision rates were to fall to 10% . . . lifetime health costs for all the babies born in a year would go up by $505 million. That works out to $313 in added costs for every circumcision that doesn’t happen.”
I’m not impressed by Rabbit Boteach endorsing the idea that a child’s normal body – and by extension, his rights – has a price beyond which we’ll justify non-therapeutic intervention to remove parts of it. But, more importantly, the key in that is not $313. It’s predicting. Aaron Tobian and his co-authors used a data model to make a guess. There are many factors involved. They are not constant. Cost, availability, and need could be quite different in two decades. For the potential benefits against sexually transmitted infections, circumcision can be chosen later. That would match the ethics of the studies that used adult volunteers. This study seeks to “prove” that a specific, non-urgent solution should be applied now, regardless of ethics.
Why? Because circumcision has been proven to be the second most effective means—after a condom—for stopping the transmission of HIV-AIDS, with the British Medical Journal reporting that circumcised men are eight times less likely to contract the infection.
He gets credit for mentioning condoms, which puts him ahead of the AAP. Still, condoms provide greater protection than circumcision, and remain necessary after circumcision. So, cost-wise, it’s condoms or condoms and circumcision. The former is cheaper and ethical. Infant circumcision is not ethical, including when potential benefits against STDs are cited.
While the Germans decry the barbarity of circumcision for men, they also overlook the benefit to women who are the men’s partners. Male circumcision reduces the risk of cervical cancer—caused by the human papillomavirus, which thrives under and on the foreskin—by at least 20%, according to an April 2002 article in the British Medical Journal.
They overlook the potential benefit to women? Do they? They can agree that (voluntary, adult) circumcision may confer reduced risk to female partners while also finding it unacceptable to impose circumcision on infant males (i.e. not “men”). Rabbi Boteach ignores the ethical foundation for the court’s ruling.
While some attempt to equate male circumcision with female clitoridectomy, the comparison is absurd. Female circumcision involves removing a woman’s ability to have pleasure during sexual relations. …
Not necessarily. Yet, in spite of that, it remains unethical. At some point, the human rights principle(s) involved must factor. Equal protection is a human rights principle.
… It is a barbarous act of mutilation that has no corollary to its male counterpart. …
This is also not true. Within what he wrote, it is, because he limited himself to clitoridectomy. The scope of illegal female genital cutting/mutilation is much broader than that, including any cutting that is anatomically analogous to (or less harmful than) male circumcision. That’s relevant.
… Judaism has always celebrated the sexual bond between husband and wife. Attempts to malign circumcision as a method of denying a man’s sexual pleasure are ignorant. …
… Judaism insists that sex be accompanied by exhilaration and enjoyment as a bonding experience that leads to sustained emotional connection.
If we ignore explicit statements in favor of circumcision as a way to diminish male sexual pleasure, Rabbi Boteach’s claim here is not mutually exclusive from reduced sexual pleasure. Intent does not guarantee outcome.
We Jews must be doing something right in the bedroom given the fact that, alone among the ancient peoples of the world, we are still here, despite countless attempts to make us a historical footnote.
This is evidence that male circumcision does not eliminate male reproductive ability. No one has claimed it does. His statement is a non-sequitor. The ability to reproduce is not proof that circumcision is acceptable or that it does not affect sexual pleasure or inflict harm.
Related: From the Cut Podcast, a debate between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Cut director Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon.