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.