Joya Banerjee Misunderstands Opposition to Circumcision reviews of Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin, PhD, are the subject of a flawed essay by Joya Banerjee, titled “How an anti-circumcision fringe group waged an ideological attack against AIDS scholarship”. I doubt Ms. Banerjee wrote the headline, although it doesn’t much matter because she ues the same silly accusation in her article. After an introduction describing Tinderbox, she writes:

One of the preventive measures discussed in the book, male circumcision, has become an unexpected source of controversy. Anti-circumcision activists have hijacked’s “peer review” comments section, which allows readers to vote on which book reviews are helpful. This system has morphed into a vicious game of character assassination by conspiracy theorists who reject decades’ worth of scientific evidence, showing how easy it is for a concerted crusade to squelch good science.

My first response is to ask if Ms. Banerjee has ever been on the Internet before researching this piece. I mean that only partially in jest. This is how every comments section works, with few exceptions. The primary focus for blame here is probably in the design of Amazon’s peer review system, or at least in anyone placing any significant value on its worth in 2012 as the criterion for buying a book with a controversial topic.

She seems to understand this later in her article, which makes her unfocused back-and-forth attack on opposition to circumcision feel more like an agenda than a critique.

Where does all of this leave us? Two diligent and dedicated authors spent years researching the origin, spread, and potential prevention of AIDS in Africa. Two minutes and a few clicks were all that was required for a passionate extremist group to obfuscate and delegitimize their findings in front of one of their most important and public audiences. Having failed to prove their beliefs through scientific evidence, the intactivists decided to have circumcision, and this entire book, judged in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately for the public, this jury was rigged.

If all it takes is “two minutes and a few clicks”, that’s a flawed system, however inappropriate the action motivation’s may be.

She’s ignorantly inflammatory in her article because she does not appear to understand opposition to circumcision. It is not “extremist” to argue that potential benefits learned through adult volunteers do not negate concern for the ethics of applying that science to healthy, non-consenting individuals (i.e. minors). For some reason she never addresses this aspect of the debate. If she were interested enough to become informed, she could’ve challenged this behavior without misstating the facts about opposition to circumcision.

That said, there is a legitimate problem with this strategy. It’s inappropriate. We can do better. The full set of facts are on our side, and we should always act like it.

But, as problematic as this is, it isn’t as widespread as she declares with her bizarre, broad attack. Most who are against non-therapeutic child circumcision do not engage in this behavior or condone it from those who do. The title states that an “anti-circumcision fringe group” participated in this without naming any group. The group is somehow all “intactivists”. That’s irresponsible, bordering on the same type of unfair maligning she criticizes. She writes later in her article:

Although male circumcision occupies less than 10 percent of the book’s pages, it was enough to spark outrage among a tiny but passionately vocal fringe group, many of whom call themselves “intactivists.” They argue that the procedure is a grave human rights violation and are lobbying to ban the procedure in many countries.

Let me be clear: I do not support what happened on the Amazon page for Tinderbox. I didn’t participate. I don’t recall seeing anything resembling an attempt at an organized tactic. I recognize a couple names among those attached to 1-star reviews, and at least one name attached to a 5-star review, but that’s it. The correct way to state the facts here is that a small group of individuals have done this. It is incorrect, and defies common sense, to suggest that those who engaged in this constitute the entire group of people who oppose circumcision (of healthy children), as Ms. Banerjee’s sloppy accusation does.

Look at the numbers, which are no doubt now influenced further (in both directions) by Ms. Banerjee’s article. Consider this sample of the helpful ratings for one star reviews:

  • 91 of 232
  • 83 of 215
  • 81 of 212
  • 124 of 342
  • 76 of 277
  • 52 of 221
  • 33 of 197

Now consider this sample of the helpful ratings for five star reviews:

  • 114 of 129
  • 104 of 133
  • 111 of 151
  • 131 of 186
  • 73 of 135
  • 76 of 165
  • 101 of 153

They look similar¹, right? That’s not to minimize or dismiss (or legitimize) the gaming of the system. And voting down many of the 1-star reviews is probably appropriate. But it can work both ways. Amazon’s review system allows those who support the book to vote down a 1-star review on the basis of it being a 1-star review, without regard for its content. One seems more likely than the other, of course. Reasonable analysis and criticism must still start with the system, not its users. Where the users are wrong, the problem should be identified without hyperbole.

That last rating is also interesting because it’s the rating on the review left by Ms. Banerjee in June.

It’s really too bad that the reviews here have been taken over by an ideological group that shuns science and hard fact. This group has mobilized hundreds of people to write bad reviews and then rate their friend’s bad reviews as helpful.

The reviews (by people who obviously haven’t read the book) are really about their opposition to male circumcision, not about the content of the book at all. Which is pretty nonsensical, seeing as how the majority of legitimate public health institutions (including the World Health Organization and UNAIDS) have accepted that voluntary medical male circumcision prevents HIV by over 60%, and long term data shows it protects by 76%! That’s better than even the flu vaccine- so it’s surprising that these ideological quacks would rather let Africans die from a preventable disease than admit they don’t understand science.

Anyway, READ THE BOOK! There were (sic) always be quacks and naysayers out there (akin to those who still oppose the measles vaccine because they think it causes autism). The racist attacks on the author in these reviews do nothing to bolster their credibility!

I haven’t rated Tinderbox because I haven’t read it. I’ve skimmed it to get a feel for its treatment of circumcision. I have an unfavorable opinion about it based on that, but skimming isn’t enough to rate it.

She has read it. That doesn’t excuse that she engaged in nonsense in her review, as she also does now in her current article. It’s odd to suggest that “hundreds” of people are rating the book down when the number that could be attributed to opponents is obviously under 100. Exactly one 5-star review has more than 100 “unhelpful” ratings, and that one belongs to Professor Brian Morris, who engaged in the same sort of unhelpful ad hominem evidenced in Ms. Banerjee’s article. The math doesn’t add up to this being widespread among all intactivists, unless she honestly believes opposition to circumcision consists of fewer than one hundred people. The population who would do this probably is that small, but she painted opposition with the broadest brush possible, as she inexcusably does in her current Slate article.

It’s also silly to assume one has to shun science and hard fact to oppose non-therapeutic child circumcision. I don’t shun either science or hard fact. My position is that there are probably flaws in the methodology, but I don’t worry about them in my position because the correct position starts with present health and the ethics involved in consent. I assume every potential benefit is real, including reduced female-to-male HIV transmission in high-risk populations with low circumcision rates. But I am not a utilitarian who ignores individual rights, including the rights to bodily integrity/autonomy and self-determination. The right to be free from unwanted – and critically in this case, unnecessary – harm supersedes every potential benefit until the individual can weigh in with his personal preference on which he values more, the benefits or his foreskin. Where public policy or Tinderbox limits itself to voluntary, adult circumcision, I have no issues. The former rarely does, to its great discredit. The latter appears to follow the same pattern. For example, in Note 18 on page 352, Timberg and Halperin write:

… There has also been some confusion caused by mistaken comparisons with “female genital mutilation,” which is a very different type of procedure and can have serious negative medical consequences. …

This ignores the science and hard facts of male circumcision. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is unethical whether it’s forced on a girl or a boy. Gender doesn’t matter here because all people, including male minors, possess the same basic human rights equally. That’s the ethical principle being ignored. That must stop.

Timberg and Halperin mistakenly imply that male circumcision is innocuous. All non-therapeutic genital surgeries have negative medical consequences for the individual that he or she may not want. (e.g. loss of foreskin, severed nerve endings, damage to/loss of frenulum) And some number of males have serious negative medical consequences, including partial or full amputation, as well as death. Perhaps they discuss this in the book. From my review of the indexed circumcision segments, I’m not convinced they take this into account. (During my prior reviews of Halperin’s work, most notably in this two part series on an awful paper to which he attached his name, I’ve seen no evidence that he assigns any weight to these facts.)

Continuing with Note 18 on page 352:

… Further confusing the issue of male circumcision are the protests of a small but vocal community of activists who often call themselves “intactivists” because of their belief that the male genitalia should remain entirely intact. This constituency has launched aggressive campaigns, including one that resulted in getting an initiative on the ballot in San Francisco to ban the performance of any circumcisions on minors in the city. California officials later ruled that cities had no authority over medical proceduress (sic). …

Neither I nor anyone I know believes that the male genitalia should remain entirely intact. That’s too simplistic and unconcerned with hard fact. I believe my gentials should have remained intact because I was healthy and my foreskin belonged to me. I believe every other male child’s healthy penis and foreskin should also remain intact until he may choose for himself, even if he ultimately chooses circumcision. The issue is bodily integrity and autonomy, not opposition to circumcision full stop. The San Francisco ballot initiative would’ve prohibited the performance of any circumcision on healthy, non-consenting minors in the city, not “any circumcisions on minors”. Omitting key words incorrectly frames the discussion and dismisses valid ethical (and scientific) concerns.

It’s also indefensible to engage in ad hominem (i.e. “ideological quacks” who “would rather let Africans die from a preventable disease than admit they don’t understand science”), as Ms. Banerjee does, without understanding the necessary qualifiers. Personally, I think everyone should use condoms because they prevent the transmission of HIV. If the adult male is so inclined, he may also volunteer to undergo circumcision. I don’t want anyone to die from HIV, but I don’t want anyone’s rights violated in a condescending good faith effort to force on him what someone else thinks he should want. If Ms. Banerjee wants to limit the discussion to voluntary adult male circumcision, that’s fine. She fails to explicitly limit the application of the science to the bodies of adult volunteers. From what I’ve read of Tinderbox, Timberg and Halperin fail to do so, as well. They should all recognize that they’re ignoring the ethical distinction between voluntary adult circumcision and non-therapeutic child circumcision.

Since this is indirectly a critique of Tinderbox, consider another footnote, note 18 on page 385.

… Meanwhile, some critics have suggested that male circumcision is similar to “female genital mutilation’ because it allegedly also reduces sexual functioning and pleasure. Unlike male circumcision, however, these practices-particularly the most extreme forms such as infibulation-can pose significant health risks for women. …

They’re repeating their error, treating male circumcision as if it carries an irrelevant risk of serious complications. But circumcision also changes the form of the penis, which changes the function. The mechanics are different. Maybe that’s better, maybe it isn’t. It’s unique to the individual, contrary to the majoritarian argument they’re about to make.

… In the rigorous studies that have investigated male circumcision’s effect on sexual pleasure, (115-28) nearly all men and their female partners report that after men become circumcised sexual pleasure is the same or enhanced, for both partners. During the 2005-2006 Swaziland pilot circumcision program mentioned in chapter 26, many women began saying that after getting circumcised their partners could have sex longer before reaching orgasm. Some of the clinic nurses reported that women would use metaphors such as, “He used to go from here [Mbabane] to Manzini [a city half an hour’s drive away], now he can go all the way to the border.”

Source 123, “Sensation and sexual arousal in circumcised and uncircumcised men”, states:

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.

They (unintentionally?) demonstrate as much in their footnote, if only they were interested in the issue. The conclusion is that (voluntary, adult) circumcision doesn’t damage sexual pleasure because it is the same or enhanced for nearly all men and their female partners. So? This dismisses the diminished sexual pleasure for those outside the “nearly all” group. Those individuals matter, and no one should expect them to be mollified because another male is happy with his circumcision.

This approach is also based on “heads I win, tails you lose”. Circumcision is the same or better, and men can have sex longer. What logical reason can we think of that might explain lasting longer? Maybe this is good, but sexual pleasure involves a degree of individual preference. Not all males (or females) will want or need sex to last longer to enjoy it to the maximum extent for themselves.

Ms. Banerjee endorses this flawed argument in her article:

Although tens of thousands of men who were circumcised as adults and were studied in several large-scale clinical trials (and in a Slate series) reported no loss—and in many cases an increase—in sexual pleasure and function, the intactivists claim that male circumcision is equivalent to female genital mutilation, a practice whose purpose is to constrain a woman’s sexuality and impair sexual function. In one of its worst forms, a pre-teen girl’s clitoris and entire external genitalia are cut, scraped, or burned out, which can cause severe pain, infection, life-long incontinence, obstructed labor and delivery, and even death. To be truly equivalent, one would have to cut off a man’s entire penis in order to produce the same effect, rather than a small flap of skin.

First, that Slate series was ridiculous. I refuted it here and here.

Second, the possibility that one person might not like being circumcised as a healthy child exposes the ethical problem that she fails to address. Male circumcision involves control, and can be intended to directly impair sexual function. (It definitively alters sexual function.) Most forms of FGM result in far more harm than a typical circumcision, but civil law recognizes no level of acceptable harm from non-therapeutic female genital cutting, including forms less harmful than male circumcision. One does not have to remove the entire penis to produce the same effect that is legally prohibited for female minors. Male circumcision is not acceptable because FGM is usually worse. Even if the foreskin should be viewed as a “small flap of skin”, it is the male’s small flap of skin. Self-ownership rights do not disappear because possible benefits exist from a non-therapeutic surgical intervention.

Where she challenges the appropriateness of the comments attached to Tinderbox’s Amazon page, Ms. Banerjee is correct. Where she expands that into an indictment of any position against circumcision, she stumbles. There is more to the application of science to healthy individuals, whether adults or minors, than just a limited subset of science and hard fact. No male’s healthy body is a platform for expressing another’s personal preferences and fears, whether those of parents or technocratic public health officials.

¹ Sampled on September 26, 2012, except for the rating on Ms. Banerjee’s review. I updated that today because I kept the link.

Flawed Circumcision Defense: Jesse Bering

It requires education to see the world through disease-coloured glasses.” – Thomas Szasz (“Circumcision and the birth of the therapeutic state”)

Jesse Bering, PhD, endorses the AAP’s revised policy statement on non-therapeutic male child circumcision. He asks readers to replace the God he doesn’t believe in with the god he does believe in. He starts with some introduction about himself being circumcised, while his partner is intact. He then writes:

Whatever the reasons that previous generations may have had for choosing to remove their infant sons’ foreskins, they were almost always unconvincing. All else being equal – … – all else being equal, any dubious benefits derived from religious, social, hygienic, or aesthetic reasons are clearly outweighed by the costs of male circumcision. …

It might be surprising that I disagree with that. The costs clearly outweigh the benefits for me, then and now. But I do not believe that’s an objective conclusion for everyone. Each person has his own preferences unique to himself. It’s not for me to demand that anyone accept my opinion for myself as a substitute for his own opinion about his body. This involves the individual and his lack of need, and what those two details require for proxy consent.

Today, however, all is no longer equal, and the balance between the relative risks and benefits of male circumcision has clearly shifted in the other direction. That is, it has according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which just earlier this week put out its revised position statement on infant male circumcision. Here’s the money quote:

Systematic evaluation of English-language peer-reviewed literature from 1995 through 2010 indicates that preventive health benefits of elective circumcision of male newborns outweigh the risks of the procedure. Benefits include significant reductions in the risk of urinary tract infection in the first year of life and, subsequently, in the risk of heterosexual acquisition of HIV and the transmission of other sexually transmitted infections.

There is no way for these relative inputs to clearly demonstrate the universal conclusion endorsed by either. The AAP and Bering demand too much. And the money quote is not what Bering provides, but instead this quote from the 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.

As I wrote earlier, the highlighted statement is the ethical argument. It demonstrates the flaw in pretending that “preventive health benefits of elective circumcision of male newborns outweigh the risks” is an objective conclusion, or that it justifies proxy consent for non-therapeutic male child circumcision. The AAP Task Force stating its evaluation based on its members’ subjective weighting does not change the ethical and rights violation. Individuals – males, only – should not be forced to live with a permanent, non-therapeutic alteration to their bodies based on their parents’ subjective preferences.

… The more vocal “intactivists,” who’ve long been protesting what they regard as an antiquated, cruel and unnecessary ritual act against little boys that is just as abhorrent as female clitoridectomy, have also responded bitterly to this newest AAP development, seeing fresh strands in an ongoing web of conspiracy between the major health organizations, third-party insurance companies implementing the policy views of these organizations, and greedy practitioners who mislead parents about the benefits of circumcision only to reap insurance payouts for “mutilating” children’s genitals.

Even though there are instances of conspiracy thinking, which are inexcusable, this is a straw man. I quoted the key sentence from the AAP’s policy statement above. There are valid issues involved that do not require conspiracy thinking to reject the AAP’s recommendation. Erecting straw men doesn’t negate those issues. For example, bodily harm, physical integrity, self-determination, and equal protection. Something more than weak caricatures of opposing positions would be useful. Engage in an Ideological Turing Test, at least. That would be respectable, unlike “just watch the reactions to this little essay of mine”.

What is vital to understand about the AAP’s recommendation is that the Academy is not discounting, in any way, the biological purpose or function of foreskin. …

I can’t find anything in either the policy statement or the technical report that discusses the biological purpose or function of the foreskin in a manner suggesting someone might want it. I also won’t ignore the implication throughout that parents should be allowed to discount the foreskin in any way they wish for their son(s). That implication is a critical part of the analysis, since that’s where the AAP and Jesse Bering believe this non-therapeutic, unethical decision may be made.

Within the two columns of one page where the Task Force discusses the foreskin, it pursues only the question of whether sensitivity and/or function are altered. That is different than stating advantages of having a foreskin. The abstract merely states: “Male circumcision does not appear to adversely affect penile sexual function/sensitivity or sexual satisfaction.” Within those two columns in the Sexual Function and Penile Sexual Sensitivity section on page 769, the technical report is a bit stronger :

The literature review does not support the belief that male circumcision adversely affects penile sexual function or sensitivity, or sexual satisfaction, regardless of how these factors are defined.

The problem is that the literature doesn’t seem to support the belief that male circumcision does not adversely affect penile sexual function or sensitivity, either. (Circumcision always alters the mechanics of the penis.) From the two “good quality randomized controlled trials that evaluated the effect of adult circumcision on sexual satisfaction and sensitivity in Uganda and Kenya” since 1995, the reports were compelling. Except for the caveats:

… [The Ugandan] study included no measures of time to ejaculation or sensory changes on the penis. In the Kenyan study (which had a nearly identical design and similar results), 64% of circumcised men reported much greater penile sensitivity postcircumcision.127 At the 2-year followup, 55% of circumcised men reported having an easier time reaching orgasm than they had precircumcision, although the findings did not reach statistical significance. The studies’ limitation is that the outcomes of interest were subjective, self-reported measures rather than objective measures.

It doesn’t bother me if a male is happy with being circumcised, even if his parents made his decision in childhood. That doesn’t change the ethical issue. I’m questioning the applicability of these studies on adults to newborns. Those limitations are critical. It’s also hardly compelling to imagine that individual preferences should be ignored in favor of population-based opinions. Within every finding in those two studies, there are males who do not conclude that circumcision is neutral or better for themselves.

From the Sexual Function section:

There is both good and fair evidence that sexual function is not adversely affected in circumcised men compared with uncircumcised men.131,134–136 …

Quoting the the study in footnote 136, “Sensation and sexual arousal in circumcised and uncircumcised men”:

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.

Maybe that should’ve been included in the Sexual Satisfaction and Sensitivity section? To restate the obvious: the foreskin is removed during circumcision. Comparing that in circumcised men is impossible. Or, as the technical report states:

Limitations to consider with respect to this issue include the timing of IELT [intravaginal ejaculation latency time] studies after circumcision, because studies of sexual function at 12 weeks postcircumcision by using IELT measures may not accurately reflect sexual function at a later period. …

Studying whether or not adult circumcision adversely affects sexual sensitivity or function does not necessarily answer the same question for males circumcised as infants.

Back to Bering’s post:

… What the task force has implied, rather, is that whatever the advantages to being an intact male – such as increased sensitivity of the glans, protection, lubrication facilitating better heterosexual intercourse (in addition to the lubricating properties of shed skin cells and oils that accumulate under foreskins, an accentuated coronal ridge may also retract more vaginal fluids during copulative thrusting) – these advantages are overshadowed in importance by the prophylactic benefits of removing highly receptive HIV target cells that are found on the inner mucosal surface of the foreskin. …

Did the Task Force consider any of the advantages Bering listed? I didn’t see any of them stated in the policy statement. That suggests to me that the Task Force discounted the foreskin. They don’t appear to have considered the foreskin in any meaningful way. The recommendation that the benefits outweigh the risks is subjective and lacking in universal applicability. They proved no overshadowing.

To quote Task Force member Douglas Diekema, male circumcision “does have medical benefit. Not everyone would trade that foreskin for that medical benefit.” That seems obvious, especially since it’s implied in the ethical issues section of the technical report. That’s what makes it odd to see the nonsensical declaration in the abstract. And from Bering:

To circumcise, or not to circumcise? To me, at least, that’s no longer even a question. It remains as much a no-brainer as it was when I first wrote about this issue two years ago. If male circumcision reduces the probability of contracting the HIV virus even a fraction of a percent—let alone the estimated 60 percent reduction that scientists believe it does—…

From the technical report:

Mathematical modeling by the CDC shows that, taking an average efficacy of 60% from the African trials, and assuming the protective effect of circumcision applies only to heterosexually acquired HIV, there would be a 15.7% reduction in lifetime HIV risk for all males.

I’m aware of no studies showing a reduced risk from circumcision for anything other than female-to-male transmission through vaginal intercourse, so that assumption is perhaps reasonable. (The difference in context between the U.S. and the high epidemic in Africa may reduce the number further.) Thus, the 60 percent relative risk is not the correct number. The estimated 15.7% lifetime relative risk reduction becomes a fraction of a percent reduction in absolute risk of heterosexually acquired HIV in the United States.

… then why on earth wouldn’t you choose circumcision? …

Because the healthy child does not need and may not want to be circumcised? Because he still has to wear a condom? Because there are risks and costs from circumcision? Because not everyone would trade that foreskin for that medical benefit? Because all individual tastes and preferences are unique? That’s why on earth parents shouldn’t choose circumcision for their healthy sons.

In the context of the quote that opens this post:

… Have you ever seen a person slowly succumb to AIDS? The pain inherent therein is not even in the same galaxy of subjective experience as whatever minute qualia of pleasure may or may not be lost to such a “mutilation.” The sacrifice is no longer one made to a mythological deity, but to the child himself. HIV is not just an African problem, the logistics apply to any part of the world where the virus is found, …

Do we know the subjective experience difference is a minute qualia of pleasure? Does the child want that sacrifice made to him? He doesn’t need it and has ways to achieve the same benefit in greater measure.

… and circumcision protects against more than this one virus alone. If you want to invest in the probability that your son will grow up to become so unfailingly logical that lust will never, not even once, overcome his level-headedness, and that he will always have both a condom on hand and use it every single time that an opportunity to have intercourse with a potentially infected stranger arises, that’s your prerogative. You’ve probably not interacted with many actual human beings in your life, but, hey, it’s your kid.

I am so unfailingly logical that lust has never, not even once, overcome my level-headedness. I do not want or need that benefit in exchange for my foreskin, yet I no longer have my choice about my body. But, hey, I’m my parents’ kid. My foreskin belonged to them, so why I should I reject their decision about my body?

One can either listen to …, the overwrought intactivists attempting to intimidate new parents through strong rhetoric and graphic images of botched circumcisions, …

What does “Have you ever seen a person slowly succumb to AIDS?” qualify as, if not strong rhetoric?

What was once unquestionably “inhumane” and “unethical” has, oddly enough, made a complete about-face as a consequence of vitally important scientific data emerging over the brief span of two highly productive decades. Yet many parents continue to be emotionally sabotaged by the baby-harming language of intactivists and online blowhards, whose rhetoric primes them to either see these critical developments in conspiratorial terms or to indulge in amateurish debunking of complicated research.

Debunk? I’m not trying to do that. I accept the reality of every potential benefit, without relevant caveats. If nothing else, it’s because I don’t need them. It’s all in the truth that not everyone’s cost-benefit analysis will reach the same conclusion. Parents aren’t psychic for what their sons will want.

But I can read the policy statement abstract, the technical report, and its sources to understand where they don’t quite mesh. They don’t support the sweeping, conclusive statements the AAP makes that Bering endorses.

So here’s one of those rhetorical devices that intactivists should appreciate: Cut it out. For every amazing prepuce you save, you’re adding an element of risk and uncertainty for the person attached to it. Nobody can possibly know what viral foes a man will come up against in his life, and if one of them is HIV, your crusade, admirable though you feel it is, may be costing some other parent their child’s life.

Every circumcision adds an element of risk and uncertainty for the person attached to the foreskin. Nobody can possibly know what viral foes a man will come up against in his life, including his parents. If one of them is HIV, he should be wearing a condom. (And maybe consent to voluntary circumcision as an adult, if he’s inclined.) If he becomes infected, the responsibility rests with him, not me. Not that HIV is automatically fatal anymore. It’s also worth considering the possibility that other solutions may be discovered in the future, and maybe before a child born today becomes sexually active.

The framing of costing a parent their child’s life is bizarre, as if parents own their children. Permitting (and encouraging) non-therapeutic male child circumcision treats parents as the owners of their son’s prepuce, which is odd from a human rights perspective, but also from the reality that parents are legally prohibited from acting as if they own their daughter’s prepuce.

AAP Circumcision Policy – Flawed Ethics

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.

The New Marketing in Action

Last month I showed that the marketing for circumcision had changed again to eliminate any remaining concern for either voluntary or adult. Voluntary, adult male circumcision had been rebranded down to “safe male circumcision”. Here is the inevitable goal being realized in Botswana. Babies to be circumcised:

As a long term plan to fight the HIV/AIDS spread the Ministry of Health will now introduce a Safe Male Circumcision (SMC) programme targeted at male babies and infants. In the past few years the government has been preaching SMC to males who are in sexually active ages.

“Towards the end of this year we want to enrol babies in the SMC programme and parents will be sensitised on the programme and its procedures. We have realised that targeting sexually active aged men and youth is not enough; we should have a long term vision for our strategies; targeting babies will result in the country having less people at risk of being infected with the virus in the next 15 to 20 years,” [Conrad Ntsuape, the National SMC Coordinator in the Ministry of Health] said.

When public health officials say voluntary or adult, they never mean voluntary or adult. They are “targeting” and “enrolling” infant males. It’s propaganda.

Also notice the fallacy that circumcising infants will result in fewer people at risk of being infected with HIV in the next 15 to 20 years. That is inaccurate, and a warning sign that they do not understand what they are doing. Circumcising infants will (allegedly) result in more males with a reduced risk of becoming HIV infected during vaginal intercourse with an HIV-positive female. Each male still retains a risk of infection, and without other (more effective) changes, including consistent condom use, men – and their partners – will still become infected. Spreading this incorrect understanding is an effective way to continue the spread of HIV.

Relevant to this problem with marketing:

Media were singled out as not playing a visible role in relaying the message on SMC. Beauty Gakale, the SMC Regional Coordinator said SMC should be given wide coverage to avoid confusion and misconceptions about it in the public. “Media, especially private media have been less active in relaying the SMC message and it is high time they played a role in this. We are also urging political leaders to play their role by encouraging men to undergo the SMC. ”

Public officials should worry about their own mistakes before demanding that media assist them in pushing propaganda. For example:

Asked why the advantages of the SMC are communicated to the public while the disadvantages are hardly discussed, Dr. [Adrienne] Musiige said SMC is like any other surgery and can be susceptible to infection if not well managed.

That didn’t answer the question.

Brian D. Earp on the AAP’s Flawed Circumcision Policy Statement

If you read only one analysis on the AAP’s revised policy statement on infant circumcision, make it this fantastic deconstruction by Brian D. Earp. It’s almost too perfect to excerpt. This is a great sample, but his entire post is required reading.

Here they depart from their 1999 statement in asserting that (1) the benefits of the surgery definitively outweigh the risks and costs and (2) that it is therefore justifiable to perform the operation without the informed consent of the patient. This does not follow. In medical ethics, the risk/benefit rule was devised for therapeutic procedures aimed at treating an extant pathological condition, and for minor prophylactic interventions such as vaccination. It has no relevance to nonessential amputative surgery, especially when it involves the painful removal of healthy, functional erogenous tissue from the genitals, and when safer, more effective substitute strategies exist for achieving the same ends.

You may be surprised to learn that the word “condom” does not appear even once in the 28 page AAP report.

In making their risk/benefit calculations, then, the AAP simply leaves out a critical bulk of factors relevant to the equation, including the existence of a range of proven healthcare tools like condoms, vaccines (including an effective HPV vaccine), and antibiotics. If they had bothered to consider human rights and bodily integrity issues, the function of the foreskin, its value to the individual, and his possible wishes in later life, as well, their computations would quite plainly yield a very different answer.

Seriously, it’s worth the time. And share it far and wide.

Flawed Circumcision Defense: Yair Rosenberg, Part 2

In response to the AAP’s pending release of its revised policy statement on non-therapeutic male child circumcision, Yair Rosenberg repeats the mistakes in his prior analysis. He perpetuates appeals to authority, omits relevant information, and ignores inconvenient facts. One might even say he’s being obscurantist.

This isn’t just an issue of religious freedom—it’s a basic question of public health. That’s because according to the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization, among others, circumcision is one of the global health community’s best HIV prevention techniques. As Eric Goosby, the U.S. AIDS coordinator, has said, “Male circumcision is a highly significant, lifetime intervention. It is the gift that keeps on giving. It makes sense to put extraordinary resources into it.” To that end, anti-AIDS organizations are partnering to circumcise 20 million African men by 2015. …

Until now, the scientific consensus surrounding circumcision has driven policy in Africa, but not the United States. Today, that changes.

Individual humans make up “public health”. What is – and is not – acceptable to do to individual bodies in the name of public health is the question of ethics that Rosenberg, Goosby, the AAP, and every other circumcision advocate ignores. This is especially true because circumcision is not the least invasive or the most effective method available for reducing HIV (or any other) risk. It’s also still not particularly useful in contexts outside of parts of Africa. As I wrote in my prior post, the risk reduction is in female-to-male HIV transmission in high-risk populations. That isn’t compelling within the scope of the AAP’s focus. Context matters. Obscurantist journalists ignore that.

The importance of this [updated policy] cannot be overstated. …

It can be. Rosenberg’s post is proof.

… The AAP is a driving force behind health policy in America, and the experts involved in its new statement are already going on record in major media outlets to advocate that circumcision be covered on public health plans like Medicaid. The statement solidifies the scientific consensus behind the advisability of infant male circumcision (noting that complications are more likely to arise when the procedure is performed later in life) and places the traditional practice squarely within the realm of sound medical science.

This is only true if ethical considerations are not a part of sound medical science. It’s fine if Rosenberg or others do not wish for ethics to be applied to their own bodies. But not everyone shares that odd, limited view. Some of us appreciate the basic concept of human rights, including those of physical integrity and self-determination, and wish they had been applied to us. It’s too late for too many males, but there is never a bad time to stop violating human rights.

Also, the question of possible benefits and their applicability to any particular individual is separate from the public policy question of paying for non-therapeutic surgical interventions on non-consenting individuals. Non-therapeutic infant circumcision is an irresponsible use of funds in pursuit of subjective goals via unethical means. There is nothing good about it, regardless of how “prestigious” an organization promoting the idea is irrationally perceived to be. An organization that advocates violating human rights deserves no prestige.

This is not just good news for the United States, where obscurantist anti-circumcision groups have sought to completely ban this medically beneficial practice rather than allow families to choose whether to perform it. …

Rosenberg’s prior essay was obscurantist propaganda. Unlike his writing, I’ve acknowledged the arguments offered in favor of circumcision. I’ve explained why they’re inferior in the debate as it pertains to individuals. Mr. Rosenberg has not done the same. Instead, he offers condescending evasions:

… It’s also a powerful rebuttal to the flawed reasoning of the German court in Cologne, which ruled that circumcision generally constitutes “bodily harm,” yet made allowances for circumcisions performed for “medical reasons.” Thanks to the AAP, we can now state that all circumcisions are medically beneficial. …

The German court in Cologne ruled that non-therapeutic circumcision on non-consenting children violates their rights to physical integrity and self-determination. There is no flaw in that expression of basic human rights. The are the same rights that form the basis for prohibitions on FGC/M.

The court’s finding that circumcision constitutes bodily harm, no quotes, is consistent with permitting circumcision for medical need. The existence of a problem necessitates considering interventions. Ethically proxy consent will choose the least invasive, most effective solution. That is rarely circumcision when there is a need. But where it is necessary, the goal is an objective net benefit, that the surgery will remedy the problem. The outcome is presumed to outweigh the harm imposed to achieve it. The key is the outcome can be measured immediately and directly. Is the malady resolved?

With non-therapeutic circumcision, there is no objective net benefit because there is no malady. There is only objective harm for subjective benefits. The subjective benefits may not be valued or desired by the individual. In that case it’s objective harm to the individual for the subjective preferences of another. That is unethical. Because surgery on children involves proxy consent, medical need is required. The court was correct and consistent. The AAP is incorrect and encouraging unethical rights violations.

So, can we really state that all circumcisions are medically beneficial? Including the ones where the boy suffers a complication? If he loses his glans, is he still benefited? What about his entire penis? What about the thankfully rare instances where the boy loses his life? At least the benefits accrued over his short lifetime? Since all of these scenarios happen, even if we ignore my focus on individuals who suffer only the expected harm, isn’t it a bit obscurantist to state that all circumcisions are medically beneficial?

… If German courts continue to prosecute Jews and Muslims for practicing circumcision, then we will know that this animus is rooted not in science or fact, but in ignorance and prejudice.

I won’t say I expected his screed to end with something other than a preemptive ad hominem attack. It’s still pathetic.

Update: Walter Russell Mead uncritically endorses Rosenberg’s flawed post and makes a request:

Hopefully anti-circumcision zealots will take a deep breath and rethink their fevered stance on the issue. Beyond the fact that their bans impinge on the rights of Jews and Muslims to practice their religion as they see fit, they ought to consider that there is legitimate science pointing to the practice being beneficial to infant male health.

The only legitimate science involving infants is on UTIs, and possibly penile cancer. The former are uncommon in intact males in the first year (1%) and almost always easily treatable. The latter is more reasonably associated with other causes, with U.S. rates similar to those in mostly intact Europe. Everything else involves adult volunteers. The possibility of health benefits, or even religious benefits, does not render non-therapeutic circumcision on a child ethical.

No court in the United States endorses a right to practice one’s religion as members “see fit”. There are limits that may be imposed based on constitutional tests. Non-therapeutic child circumcision should fail that test because it is physical harm.

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.

The Marketing Changes Again

Hospital Male Circumcision has been sold with evolving euphemisms in an attempt to hide the ethical flaw in the associated public health policies. First, it was Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision, which never meant voluntary or even medical. The only requirement was a penis with a foreskin. Then it changed to Medical Male Circumcision. That involved 50% less pretense, while retaining 100% of the ethical omission. Now, it’s changed again:

Health facilities across the country have run out of supplies for Safe Male Circumcision kits, an HIV expert has said.

It’s better that they dropped medical, but replacing it with safe is little better. First, males will suffer complications beyond the guaranteed loss of the foreskin. Most of them will be minor. Some of them will be significant. Safe will be false.

It’s also possible the word’s meaning will be misconstrued.

The medical practice is intended to prevent HIV infection but it is not 100% safe, medical experts claim.

According to World Health Organisation and United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) trials in Uganda, South Africa and Kenya have shown that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.

I can’t fathom a scenario in which the public health officials intended safe to describe HIV after circumcision. Yet, that’s what this reporter took from it. That does not bode well. That’s a danger of propaganda. It’s inexcusable because there are lives at stake.

The premise of the article is worth addressing, too. They’ve run out of supplies. The article implies that they’re not circumcising while they lack supplies. That’s the right answer, of course, so I hope that’s what is happening. But I’m also concerned by the description of the kits as containing “reusable and disposable supplies”. Are they adhering to that distinction? And are the reusable supplies being sterilized properly?

The Core of Public Health Circumcision Promotion

From the awful WHO Fact Sheet, “Voluntary [sic] medical male circumcision for HIV prevention” (bold added):

In line with global goals such as Millennium Development Goal 6 to halt and reverse the spread of HIV and the WHO Global Health Sector Strategy on HIV/AIDS, a five-year Joint strategic action framework to accelerate the scale-up of voluntary medical male circumcision for HIV prevention in Eastern and Southern Africa 2012-2016 was developed by WHO and UNAIDS with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank and in consultation with national ministries of health. The framework calls for an intensified response by countries and partners to ‘catch up’ with men 15 to 49 years old who were not previously circumcised and to establish sustainable services for infants and adolescents for the longer term. The framework promotes country ownership, a combination of approaches and strategic, coordinated action.

Infants and adolescents don’t consent. This indicts WHO, UNAIDS, PEPFAR, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Bank. They are all directly complicit in the violation of basic human rights in Africa. They are also propagandists willing to use a word (“voluntary”) that they have no intention of following.

That Word Doesn’t Mean What Secretary Clinton Thinks It Means

October 1, 2015 update: I changed the word “condemnable” to “commendable” to reflect the intended meaning of a sentence. Additionally, the link to Secretary Clinton’s comments is now here.

The United States government encourages and funds circumcisions. It shouldn’t, of course, if we’re to adhere to the basic principles of human rights. (We don’t on this.) But it shouldn’t be promoted with lies. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke yesterday at the 2012 International AIDS Conference. (emphasis added)

As of last fall, every agency in the United States Government involved in this effort is working together to get us on that path to an AIDS-free generation. We’re focusing on what we call combination prevention. Our strategy includes condoms, counseling and testing, and places special emphasis on three other interventions: treatment as prevention, voluntary medical [sic] male circumcision, and stopping the transmission of HIV from mothers to children.

Any familiarity with this subject provides a spoiler alert on what voluntary really means. Sure enough, shortly after that paragraph:

On male circumcision, we’ve supported more than 400,000 procedures since last December alone. And I’m pleased to announce that PEPFAR will provide an additional $40 million to support South Africa’s plans to provide voluntary [sic] medical [sic] circumcisions for almost half a million boys and men in the coming year. (Applause.) You know and we want the world to know that this procedure reduces the risk of female-to-male transmission by more than 60 percent and for the rest of the man’s life, so the impact can be phenomenal.

In Kenya and Tanzania, mothers asked for circumcision campaigns during school vacations so their teenage sons could participate. …

Voluntary circumcision requires the consent of the circumcised. Consent from anyone else for non-therapeutic circumcision is unethical.

And, no, it isn’t “medical” circumcision. It’s medicalized circumcision, which merely indicates that it’s performed in a modern, sterile operating theater. That is commendable in its limited focus, but it is not enough to render the non-therapeutic surgery ethical. Consent is also necessary. The perceived benefit of a reduced risk of female-to-male HIV transmission is a speculative pursuit and may not be necessary or desired by the individual.