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Is circumcision a much-needed minor medical intervention that helps prevent conditions like penile cancer, HIV, and urinary tract infections? Or is it nothing more than genital mutilation — something which should really be a crime?
I am a European. Few Europeans opt to have a routine circumcision performed on their newborn sons. As such, I spent most of my adult life oblivious to the fact that people who aren't Jewish or Muslim practice routine infant circumcision on a fairly wide scale in the United States.
That all changed a few years ago. I was expecting my first child, and planning a home birth This led me to some fairly radical natural parenting discussion boards on the internet. Here, I learned two things — many American parents feel that circumcision is the best choice to make for their infant sons, but there is also a very passionate and vocal minority that is strongly opposed to this fact.
Online discussions about infant circumcision always seem to devolve into name-calling feasts where those who are pro-circumcision and those who are opposed to it accuse each other of all kinds of terrible things. I was fascinated, and decided to do some further research. I wanted to know if being circumcised offers significant medical benefits, particularly after hearing that it might help prevent HIV transmission. But I also wanted to know why some people were so very much opposed to circumcision that they believe it should be a crime, or that parents who decide to have the procedure carried out should have their children taken away, because they are abusive.
Circumcision — What Are Its Benefits?
Finding reliable information on the benefits of circumcision proved harder than I thought. Parents considering making the choice of circumcision vs no circumcision have a tough time, there is no doubt about that. Full texts of studies are rarely available for free, and even where they are, one needs to be able to interpret the data and assess how unbiased the researchers are. The best sources for information about the medical benefits of circumcision include the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the British National Healthcare Service.
Among the purported medical benefits of circumcision are:
- A decreased risk of urinary tract infections.
- A reduced risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV and HIV.
- Prevention of penile cancer for the circumcised man, and cervical cancer for his partner.
- Prevention of inflammations in the glans and foreskin, as well as phimosis, a condition in which the man is unable to retract his foreskin.
- Better personal hygiene — in other words no build-up of smegma between the glans and foreskin.
The World Health Organization is in favor of male circumcision, and states that it reduces the risk of heterosexual HIV transmission by 60 percent. The point out that the procedure has been shown to be safe, if carried out in the right setting by a knowledgeable physician. The WHO recommends circumcision as an effective intervention, particularly in countries with a HIV epidemic. It does add that circumcision merely reduces the risk of HIV transmission, and that circumcised men should still engage only in safe and responsible sexual activities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) can be considered one of the foremost authorities on pediatric matters in the United States. It amended its policy statement on circumcision in 2012. The AAP, based on a review of available studies, concluded that the benefits of circumcision outweigh its risks. However, it also found that the benefits of infant circumcision are not great enough to recommend it as a universal procedure. Instead, it calls on parents to make the decision on whether or not to circumcise baby boys within their own cultural, religious and ethical contexts. The AAP does believe that every baby boy should have access to the procedure, and that it should be covered under social insurance policies.
In Britain, the National Healthcare Service (NHS) reached the opposite conclusion. The NHS recognizes that circumcision may help prevent certain infections, but believes that the risks of the procedure generally outweigh its benefits. While the NHS concurs that circumcision may sometimes be a good option if a boy has phimosis and other problems with the foreskin, it believes that alternative treatments should be pursued first.