Russell: Circumcision: an unnecessary, brutal practice for those who can’t consent

Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 6:54 pm

Natalie Russell / Columnist | 0 comments

“Here’s this little bundle … First let’s find a sharp stone or knife and start hacking at the genitalia,” begins journalist Christopher Hitchens, setting up a scenario that about 58 percent of male infants born in the United States went through in 2010. “Because, as it turns out,” Hitchens continues, “the design isn’t that great, and in a crucial feature, too.”

He concludes, “No morally decent person would do this if it wasn’t for superstition.”

Infant male circumcision is a practice not often questioned by new parents. It’s either divinely warranted or it’s just something that people do.  But witnessing a ceremony like this should cause outrage in any morally normal person.

Reputable studies by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have shown that there is evidence of circumcision preventing the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases such as HPV and HIV. This is reasonable, considering there is a 44 percent lower rate of HIV infection among circumcised men.

“But doesn’t that contradict your point?” you might ask.

I would answer: no. My point isn’t that male circumcision is always morally wrong, but that it’s a sinister practice to inflict on non-consenting infants.

These studies are likely as significant as they sound, but we can rest assured that a child is not at risk for STDs in his infancy or in childhood. A procedure that is unnecessary, painful, traumatic and even life-threatening should never be inflicted on a child until he is able to consent to the operation himself.

Alternatively, circumcision in the late teenage and early adult years is a relatively simple procedure that affords safe administration of anesthesia, typically costs less than $1,000 and, more importantly, allows the person to give consent. According to Dr. Aaron Tobian from Johns Hopkins University, infant circumcision typically costs between $250 and $300.

But, let’s talk about hygiene — a favorite subject of circumcision advocates. Is there any evidence to conclude that an uncircumcised penis is less hygienic? It’s a popular truism, but certainly not a well-supported one.

It’s true that an uncircumcised penis is generally more difficult to clean compared with one that is circumcised. But it’s no more difficult than proper cleaning of a woman’s genitalia. If hygiene were a standalone argument for circumcision, there would be no reason not to circumcise the labia on female infants.

Worse than the hygiene argument is reasoning backed by social standards, such as meshing well socially in the locker room or embodying the stereotypical traditions of their fathers. No one wants their child to be uncomfortable with his body or outcast from his peers. But if the cost of fitting in is subjecting an infant to torturous levels of pain and high volumes of blood loss, the better choice should be obvious.

It’s unlikely that an uncircumcised penis will even be all that unusual in social circumstances in the future anyway, since the rate of procedures has been steadily decreasing.

Over the past three decades, the rate of circumcisions performed on newborn boys in U.S. hospitals has dropped six percentage points, according to U.S. government data. The rate was 64.5 percent in 1979, with an all-time high of 64.9 percent in 1981. An all-time low was recorded in 2007 with 55.4 percent of newborns circumcised, and more recent data has shown just a slight increase at 58.3 percent in 2010.

Part of this decline has to do with greater public awareness of the risks of the procedure, but another major driving force is perhaps even more telling. The federal Medicaid program has cut off funding for circumcisions in 18 states under the premise that the procedure hasn’t proven to be medically necessary. Insurers have also increasingly limited coverage for infant male circumcision for the same reason.

Maimonides, the canonized Jewish philosopher, argued that the primary purpose for circumcision was to reduce a man’s sexual desire and pleasure. This is a likely consequence, since the foreskin can contain as many as 70,000 erogenous nerve endings, which, I might add, speaks volumes about the potential pain of circumcision. It’s under this same premise that women across the world are regularly circumcised — where the clitoris, labia or both are removed — particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Although it has no basis in Islamic texts, female genital mutilation is commonly performed in Islamic countries as a means of preserving the purity and chastity of women.

If “religious freedom” gives parents the authority to subject their infant children to genital mutilation, perhaps a circumcision should be performed on this immoral bind of church and state.