Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The cruelty of male circumcision

Today it is quite unthinkable to question the cruelty of female circumcision if you are a relatively informed person. However, to my own amazement, male circumcision (see picture) is still considered by many to be perfectly justified. It must evidently be so, considering how often this surgery is performed on young naive infants.

At one point in my life I actually became a little bit ambiguous as to whether circumcision might perhaps be justified. It was last year when, during my exchange year at UCSB, I attended some highly entertaining and informative lectures on Human Sexuality taught by two very charismatic (and married) professors John Baldwin and Janice Baldwin. You can read more about the Baldwins' view on circumcision here. I am not being ironic when I say that these were indeed great lectures, and that is perhaps why they almost convinced me that the costs and benefits associated with male circumcision more or less cancels out. As far as I can remember they referred to two positive consequences associated with male circumcision. One is the supposedly improved hygiene, which by the way is one of the most common justifications that people in favor of circumcision refers to. However, bad hygiene under the foreskin is only a problem for guys who never clean under the foreskin, so if we would simply remind guys that they need to remember to clean their more private regions this would not be a big problem. In any case I hardly think that this justifies circumcision….

The other favorable effect of male circumcision, the one that made me think that perhaps it was justified, is the reduced risk of being infected with the HIV virus. A few studies of this kind have been made and the effects superficially seem quite large. However, the studies which have shown this difference have been of poor quality, with poor control. Just as an example, in one large and frequently cited study, circumcised males were given advice on sexual behavior whereas those who had not been circumcised did not get this offer. Was the lower incidence of HIV among the circumcised due to the sexual advice or the circumcision? Studies with better control i.e. studies which try to rule out alternative explanations, have found smaller effects (see here for more information). I will not go as far as to say that circumcision does not give any improved protection at all, on the contrary, I believe that there is some truth in this. Nevertheless, it seems that the effects are significantly smaller than what the original studies suggested.

The fact that there seems to be no great benefits of circumcision is however not my main problem with it. Neither do I dislike it just because it is very much entangled with religion. I think it is a good example of how religious beliefs sometimes takes the upper hand over rational arguments, but it is not the main reason why I disprove of male circumcision. So what is the main reason? The reason is that the foreskin, which is removed during a circumcision, has a lot of very important functions. I think that this is hardly surprising because if the foreskin had been completely useless or even a burden to us, natural selection would probably have taken care of it long ago. The benefits of having a foreskin are many. To name a few, the foreskin is important because it gives protection to the glans penis, it reduces friction during intercourse, it gives important feedback to our brain about the "state" of the penis, it aids erection, and it regulates the timing of the ejaculation (people who have been circumcised often either ejaculate too early or too late). You can read about these as well as other function of the foreskin on this excellent page.

However, I think that the most important function of the foreskin, and hence also the most important reason why circumcision should not be allowed, is that it brings sexual pleasure to its owner. This of course also means that lack of foreskin will result in reduced pleasure. Sex, along with drink and food and neuroscience (that last one is probably rather personal), are things that make life worth living, and taking away the pleasure associated with sex just seems rather cruel to me. Now I am not saying that circumcised people do not feel any pleasure, I would not know, all I am saying is that there is good reason to believe that they feel less pleasure.

Summing up, besides just being a nasty and invasive surgical procedure which could well cause some kind of trauma in the infant, taking away the foreskin is associated with many other disadvantages. Even if the risk of contracting HIV would be slightly reduced, this hardly justifies circumcision.

11 comments:

z said...

....don't know just how that circucision passage in the bible came about! Must be a huge misunderstanding, 2 Mos (Exodus) Chap 4:24. Weird.

Some advice is good though, like "Don't eat an animal which is already dead when you find it", or so. I mean, those guys probably didn't know about the existence of something too small to see, germs.

no, i'm more into the gospels in NT

David said...

Excellent analysis. I agree completely.

rasmussenanders said...

It seems that the old testament got somethings right and somethings quite wrong. That is why I don't bother with it at all. In science, when making new theories we find the good ideas from the past and let go of the bad ones. Why not write a new Bible with only the "good" parts in it? But then of course there would be disagreement about which parts are the good parts... In science such disputes are (ideally) solved by looking at the empirical record whereas in religion there really is no way of solving it as I see it...

Anonymous said...

Check out this site, (if you speak swedish):
http://childrens-genital-integrity.blogspot.com/

Mannen

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the link, it was very interesting.

Pongo said...

I enjoyed reading your comments on the issue of neonatal circumcision. I wholeheartedly agree with you on this issue. I read with interest your exchanges with the individual who goes to ridiculous lengths to justify the routine circumcision of neonates, likening it to a vaccination. This argument is egregious to say the least. A vaccine is a medicine which confers immunity to the individual. Of course the benefit of administering medicines to babies and children to give them immunity to life threatening and debilitating diseases such as diptheria, smallpox, polio, etc., exceeds the risks of giving them the medicine.

Circumcision, on the other hand, is surgery, not medicine. There is no medical or pediatric association in the world that recommends the cutting of newborn boys. The best they can say is there are "potential" benefits to having the surgery. The claim that it "reduces the risk of the sexual transmission of HIV" is dubious to say the least. Furthermore, claiming that circumcision of newborns may reduce the risk of HIV exposure in some unspecified instance down the road is nowhere near the same thing as immunity.

The problem with people like the superannuated circumcision propronent you have engaged in debate is they will believe what they want. No amount of evidence and reasoned argument will get through to them.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of hygenic reasons for male circumcision, including the increased rates of STD transmission among the uncircumcised, and increased rates of infection among partners. There are also cleanliness issues for males when they become older and unable to clean themselves - and others have to do it.

saving a man from a lifetime of recurring infections, and recurring infections for his partner is plenty of reason for circumcision.

Try looking at medical literature if you can afford to spend some of your well meaning ignorance on f.a.c.t.s.

Jesus was circumcised :-)))

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for your comment,

Based on the literature that I have looked circumcision does not improve penile hygiene. Maybe you would like to share some of your enlightened sources...

Even though Jesus seems to have been a good guy with some original philosophical ideas, it doesn't mean that everything he did is necessarily good or right. He also adviced his deciples to leave their families, is that something you think is good in general as well?

Mothers Against Circumcision said...

I am so glad to find someone else who feels the same way as I do. My two sons are NOT circumcised, however, when we were in the hospital, the nursed asked at least five times if we were ready for them to be circumcised yet...as if we were going to change our minds!

Anonymous said...

I've been told by several women that they prefer men who were not circumcised because it helps prevent dryness, not really sure how that works though.

Anthony said...

Jesus was circumcised as an 8 day old infant (as the story goes). He had no say in the matter. But he did not advocate for circumcision. There are various references to this in the Gospels, but perhaps the most striking is a verse from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas wherein Jesus answers the question "Rabbi, is circumcision of use?" by saying "If circumcision were of use then the Father would have begotten you circumcised from your mother's womb". Additional to this, it is a plain fact in modern day Christianity that circumcision is not required by the Church or the New Testament. Jesus was a Jew but he rebuked many of the Jewish practices and leaders of the time because they had strayed so far from the Truth.