The Centers for Disease Control is currently considering recommending a public policy supporting circumcision of newborn baby boys. Doctors, health practitioners, medical ethicists and advocacy groups like Intact America are urging the CDC to examine the ethics, risks and facts about circumcision, a medically unnecessary surgery that violates medical ethics and the human rights of non-consenting infants.
The American Medical Association calls circumcision “nontherapeutic,” and no major medical association in America—not the AMA, not the American Academy of Pediatrics and, so far, not the CDC—recommends circumcision, seeing no medical benefits justifying the painful and risky removal of healthy functional tissue from a baby boy.
“The CDC is moving down a path towards an indefensible recommendation in favor of subjecting newborn baby boys to unnecessary and potentially risky surgery with no medical benefit,” says Georganne Chapin, a healthcare executive who heads Intact America. “Preventing HIV requires use of a condom or other safe sexual practices. Those same African studies that suggest circumcision could help slow female-to-male HIV transmission also found unacceptable levels of male-to-female transmission, because circumcision is not the answer.”
Approximately 75 percent of the men in the world are not circumcised, and remain intact throughout their lives. Even in America, which continues to lead the industrialized world in male circumcision of infant boys, the rate of circumcision has dropped from 85 percent to less than 60 percent as parents learn facts that for years have gone unexamined. Intact America is working to promote awareness about the normal, intact body and the value of the male foreskin as a normal, sensitive and functional part of the body. The foreskin serves to protect the penis from injury and contamination, and also has a role in sexual pleasure, due to its specialized nerve endings and its natural lubricating function.
The most common method of circumcision involves the infant being strapped to a board. In some cases, an analgesic is applied to the baby’s pubic area to somewhat lessen the pain, but many circumcisions are performed with no pain control at all. A metal instrument is used to forcibly separate the foreskin from the head of the penis, and the foreskin is then cut off. The surgery takes up to 15 minutes. The open wound it creates is exposed to urine and feces for several days as it heals. In addition to pain, the baby is subjected to the potential complications that accompany any surgery, including, as occurs more than 100 times annually, complications leading to death.
Doctors began routinely circumcising infant boys in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when it was viewed as a means to discourage masturbation, and the evils that were believed to be associated with masturbation. Claims over the years that circumcision prevents various diseases—including, in recent decades, sexually transmitted diseases—have been found to be mistaken or exaggerated.
“Infant male circumcision is medically unnecessary, ethically indefensible and, at a time when the country is struggling to reform our healthcare system, adds billions of dollars annually to the cost of that system,” says John W. Travis, M.D., M.P.H., founder of the first wellness center in the United States. “It would be unconscionable for the CDC to use African studies of adult men to recommend surgery on infant boys who cannot consent to the removal of healthy bodily tissue, on the chance they might engage in unsafe sexual activity twenty years into the future.”
Soraya Miré, a Somali filmmaker who has been a leading global voice against forced female circumcision, argues that male circumcision presents the same ethical and human rights challenges as the banned practice of female circumcision. “The same universal human right to an intact body that I have fought for on behalf of women and girls must apply to boys as well, especially those who are too young to make an informed decision about the integrity of their bodies,” says Miré. “We need to ask ourselves, how can it be wrong to surgically alter the genitals of a baby girl without her consent but okay to surgically alter the genitals of a baby boy?”
Robert Van Howe, M.D., a Michigan pediatrician and professor at the Michigan State University medical school, is one of many doctors who refuses to perform circumcision, seeing it as a violation of his oath to do no harm. “Physicians have an obligation to look after the well-being of their patients. The child is the patient, not the parent. Neonatal circumcision is definitely not in the patient’s best interest,” says Dr. Van Howe, noting that the surgery yields more harm than benefit for the baby boy, who cannot give informed consent. “It is a violation of the child’s most basic human rights, and a violation of a physician’s oath to do no harm.”
To take action and tell the CDC to not recommend the medically and ethically indefensible practice of circumcision as public policy, visit Intact America’s website at intactamerica.org. Look for an extensive article on the impending recommendations for infant circumcision in an upcoming issue of Pathways.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #27.
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