Circumcision: Rewind to 2010

Any day now the American Academy of Pediatrics is expected to release its new policy statement on male circumcision.  As I’ve already written, because of data suggesting that circumcision reduces the risk of males acquiring HIV through heterosexual intercourse, the AAP is expected to move from a neutral position to a more encouraging one.  I can predict how the news coverage will read:  a paragraph or two explaining the new position and its rationale, a few choice quotes from intactivists, comments from physicians and maybe a mohel.  All pretty standard stuff. 

This will be a walk in the park for the AAP, particularly compared to last spring.  That was when the AAP released its policy statement on female circumcision, which repeatedly decried all forms of female genital cutting.  Wisely, however, the AAP also recognized that female genital cutting is a cultural and religious practice and hence won’t disappear just because it is made illegal or because medical organizations reject it.  The AAP therefore left open the possibility that doctors, in a hospital and with anesthetic, might make a ritual nick on girls whose parents request it.  The goal was twofold: (1) give parents an alternative so that they would not send their daughters back to their native countries for far more drastic forms of genital cutting; and (2) begin to change cultural norms within certain immigrant communities.   As for how this all played out, suffice to say that the AAP retracted the policy statement a few weeks later to make certain, as the AAP’s president explained, that “the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting, both here in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world.” 

The contrast between that brouhaha and the yawn that is likely to herald the new statement on male circumcision should prompt a re-examination of American attitudes toward male genital cutting.  Because there are so many degrees of female circumcision—each increasingly horrific and terrifying to Western observers—it’s easy to put male and female circumcision into separate mental compartments.  In the “mildest” form of female circumcision, however, the clitoris is left intact and the clitoral prepuce (which is homologous with the male foreskin) is removed.  Consistency would demand that anyone who supports the parental choice to cut off a son’s foreskin also support the parental choice to cut off a daughter’s clitoral prepuce.    But very few Americans hold consistent views about male and female circumcision.   

Those of us with inconsistent views cannot satisfactorily justify them by pointing to the health benefits of male circumcision.  Even if all the medical authorities agreed that male circumcision had no health benefits, it is inconceivable that cutting off the male prepuce (also known as the foreskin) would be criminalized in the same way that federal law criminalizes cutting off the clitoral prepuce.  Put differently, even if cutting off the clitoral prepuce reduced the risk of urinary tract infection and of contracting HIV, the AAP wouldn’t recommend it and American parents wouldn’t do it.  This is because circumcision is a cultural practice and not a medical one. 

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that we resolve these inconsistent views by endorsing or in any way supporting female circumcision.   I do think, however, that last Spring’s firestorm and the anticipated quiet reception of the AAP’s new policy statement on male circumcision reveal more than a little hypocrisy about our own cultural practices.

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9 Responses

  1. Arthur says:

    Where did you hear that a new policy statement is going to be released?

  2. It wouldn’t matter if circumcision could cure every disease on earth. An adult can have it done, but forcing someone to live without their foreskin for life is a HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION, and A SEX CRIME.

    Do you know what the foreskin is there for? See the results of this study…

    Circumcision removes the most sensitive part of a man’s penis. The five most sensitive areas of the penis are on the foreskin. The transitional region from the external to the internal foreskin is the most sensitive region of the fully intact penis, and more sensitive than the most sensitive region of the circumcised penis.
    Fine-Touch Pressure Thresholds In The Adult Penis
    British Journal of Urology International,
    2007, Vol. 99, No. 4, 864-869
    Sorrells et al.

  3. The sexism surrounding circumcision is quite apparent to anyone who casts a critical eye upon the practice. What surprises me is how difficult is has been to get people to even look at this problem, doubly so in this era of equal rights for everyone–except of course baby boys.

    Anyone who promotes circumcision is a culprit; parents, grandparents, circumcision researachers, doctors, and nurses. But the real culprit are the docs and hospitals that enjoy the increased revenue. It has been estimated that the circumcision market is almost $2 Billion annually. We could buy a lot of healthcare for children with two billion.

  4. Jimbino says:

    Religion poisons everything.

    And don’t forget that the removed foreskin is sold by the hospital for medical research. You have no right to your own foreskin once removed.

    People are totally messed up regarding sex. I have a small statue in front of my house of a mannequin pis, the patron saint of Brussels–the figure of a small naked boy peeing in a forward stream. Imagine the outcry if I put next to him a little girl squatting and peeing!

    When as a kid I asked my dad about my own intact foreskin, he passed on the advice he said his mother gave him: “Son, you’ll just have to wear it off.”

  5. Joe says:

    Hey, I am going to start a new religion that requires the cutting off of the baby toe of newborns as an “initiation.” It’s my right as a parent, right?

  6. Hugh7 says:

    “it is inconceivable that cutting off the male prepuce (also known as the foreskin) would be criminalized in the same way that federal law criminalizes cutting off the clitoral prepuce.”
    Today, yes, but some of us are planting a tree whose shade we will never enjoy.

  7. Maryland Conservatarian says:

    Prospective Dilemna – what happens when surgical expertise develops such that these cultural practices can be performed during the pregnancy? Could committed pro-choicers continue their opposition to them?

  8. “Even if all the medical authorities agreed that male circumcision had no health benefits, it is inconceivable that cutting off the male prepuce (also known as the foreskin) would be criminalized in the same way that federal law criminalizes cutting off the clitoral prepuce.”

    In that case, I wouldn’t have had it done on my son, since the health benefits were why I had it done. And I expect that, in that case, the doctor wouldn’t have been neutral on the subject, or even mildly supportive, as he was. So, if there weren’t any health benefits, (But there ARE, unlike female circumcision.) we might anticipate a gradual slide in it’s frequency, eventually leading to a situation where criminalization WOULD be possible.

    It’s criminalization in the US remains impossible *because* there’s a medical case for it.

    And, you know, we do a lot of things to our kids, like jabbing needles into them, which we don’t give them any choice about, for the health benefits. So I don’t see any special issue here.

  9. Shag from Brookline says:

    Recall the Seinfeld episode of “Shaky, the Moile” where Kramer tried to stop the briss. Mandatory viewing of this episode by parents should be required before the event.