Friday, June 18, 2010

Circumcision: Yea or Nay?

Snapdragon is a girl, so we will not have to make a decision re: circumcision this time around. Still, the topic comes up from time to time on forums and parenting sites, so I've thought a bit about my position.

In general, I think that questions of body modification should be left to the person inhabiting the body. Body modification runs a broad spectrum — from hair cuts/coloring to ear piercing to tattoos to sex reassignment surgery — and I think that it is difficult to decide what choices should be in the hands of the parents and which in the hands of the child before age 18. My general rule hinges on reversibility. A hair cut is reversible, so a parent can cut a 2-year-old's hair without doing irreparable harm. Ear piercings can close, but leave minor scars, so it should be the child's choice, but I would probably entrust that decision to a 6-yr-old. Body modifications that involve a higher risk of serious infection or are harder to reverse should probably wait until the child is a teen and can offer informed consent.

Since I believe in the importance of bodily autonomy, I would not circumcise an infant.

Here are some of the pro-circumcision arguments I have encountered:

A circumcised penis is easier to clean. Just teach your son to retract his foreskin and wash thoroughly. You'll have to help him out when he's an infant, but this seems a minor concern to me. I wouldn't cut off an ear because it is hard to clean.

He should look like his dad. I wonder how often fathers and sons engage in penis-comparing sessions. Maybe when dad shows junior how to use a urinal? Surely, a young child would notice other differences (size, hairiness) before commenting on the status of their foreskins. Is this really a major concern for people?

He'll be teased in the locker room. Maybe this was true once, but not anymore. About 50% of American boys are circumcised and about 50% are not. It hardly seems likely that not being circumcised will be a tease-worthy offense in the locker rooms of 2025.

It looks better/Girls prefer cut to uncut. I think that cosmetic concerns of this variety should be left up to the person whose junk is being chopped. Just because mommy and daddy think it looks better doesn't mean junior will. If he wants to get snipped when he turns 18, I would not object at all.

Circumcision protects against STDs. Recent studies of HIV transmission in Africa indicate that circumcised men are less likely to contract HIV after having sex with an infected partner than uncircumcised men. Yet, the protection is nowhere near as complete as using a condom. Teach your son to use a condom. It protects against STDs and pregnancy!

Circumcision is a religious/cultural tradition in our family. Well, there's really no arguing with that. Religious rituals are inherently impervious to rational scrutiny, so there's no use in debating them. Needless to say, as an atheist, I have no reason to circumcise my son for religious reasons.

I just haven't heard any arguments that I find compelling enough to make me consider lopping off a piece of my baby's body. Can anyone present me with a more convincing pro-circumcision argument?


  1. I can't provide you with a convincing pro-circumcision argument, but you might want to check out the following:

    Canadian Paediatric Society
    "Recommendation: Circumcision of newborns should not be routinely performed."
    "Circumcision is a 'non-therapeutic' procedure, which means it is not medically necessary."
    "After reviewing the scientific evidence for and against circumcision, the CPS does not recommend routine circumcision for newborn boys. Many paediatricians no longer perform circumcisions.

    RACP Policy Statement on Circumcision
    "After extensive review of the literature, the Paediatrics & Child Health Division of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has concluded that there is no medical reason for routine newborn male circumcision."
    (almost all the men responsible for this statement will be circumcised themselves, as the male circumcision rate in Australia in 1950 was about 90%. "Routine" circumcision is now *banned* in public hospitals in Australia in all states except one.)

    British Medical Association: The law and ethics of male circumcision - guidance for doctors
    "to circumcise for therapeutic reasons where medical research has shown other techniques to be at least as effective and less invasive would be unethical and inappropriate."

    The Royal Dutch Medical Association
    "The official viewpoint of KNMG and other related medical/scientific organisations is that non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors is a violation of children’s rights to autonomy and physical integrity. Contrary to popular belief, circumcision can cause complications – bleeding, infection, urethral stricture and panic attacks are particularly common. KNMG is therefore urging a strong policy of deterrence. KNMG is calling upon doctors to actively and insistently inform parents who are considering the procedure of the absence of medical benefits and the danger of complications."

  2. More information on retraction:

    AAP - "Care of the Uncircumcised Penis"
    "foreskin retraction should never be forced. Until separation occurs, do not try to pull the foreskin back — especially an infant's. Forcing the foreskin to retract before it is ready may severely harm the penis and cause pain, bleeding and tears in the skin."

    RACP policy statement on circumcision
    "The foreskin requires no special care during infancy. It should be left alone. Attempts to forcibly retract it are painful, often injure the foreskin, and can lead to scarring and phimosis." (their bolding)

    Canadian Paediatric Society
    "Keep your baby’s penis clean by gently washing the area during his bath. Do not try to pull back the foreskin. Usually, it is not fully retractable until a boy is 3 to 5 years old, or even until after puberty. Never force it."

  3. Thanks for the links.

    I don't know whether we'll ever have a boy, but we are not inclined to circumcise if we do. It comes up a lot on the forums, though, and I am always surprised by how many people are pro-circumcision (excluding those who do it for religious reasons).

  4. You've pretty much nailed it, pb. Yes, people's adamantine determination to circumcise, come what may, is mysterious. One aspect is the self-perpetuating nature of some ideas (memes). See this page.