Where you live very likely impacts your views and feelings about routine infant male circumcision.
It has long been a part of routine care in the United States.
Apart from some religious communities, in nearly every other western country routine infant circumcision isn’t seen as a necessary (or even an acceptable) part of routine infant care.
Circumcision has been a social media hot debate topic since the advent of early parenting chat rooms and forums.
This was very evident in the last couple of years when a US mother took to social media for support when facing a court battle over circumcision.
One Country’s Entire Medical Board Finds Circumcision Unethical
While it occasionally seems like a topic only for social media parenting wars, it’s truly a debate in the medical community.
One country’s entire medical association recently declared non-therapeutic infant circumcision unethical. Denmark’s 29,000 member Danish Medical Association published a revised stance on circumcision saying:
“Circumcision of boys without a medical indication is ethically unacceptable when the procedure is carried out without informed consent from the person undergoing the surgery. Therefore, circumcision should not be performed before the boy is 18 years old and able to decide whether this is an operation he wants.”
What Is Circumcision?
Circumcision means ‘to cut around’. In male infants, this means pulling the foreskin away from the glans (head) of the penis and surgically cutting to remove the foreskin.
While this sounds straightforward, the reality is there isn’t a clear indication of where exactly the skin removal should end.
Most doctors recommend circumcision be performed with a few days of birth. Some doctors suggest waiting 2-3 weeks after birth. Usually if the baby has been born in a hospital, the procedure happens in the first 48 hours, before going home.
Isn’t Circumcision Medically Necessary?
Being the most common surgical procedure makes one assume there’s a genuine medical reason for this procedure.
However, the vast majority of circumcisions are done for religious or social reasons.
A study published in Pediatrics found that 99.5% of intact (meaning those without their foreskin removed) will not need a medically indicated circumcision in the first 18 years of life.
Does it make sense for 200 surgeries to happen to prevent the future surgery of 1? According to Danish doctors, that’s unethical.
Why Would Doctors Find Routine Circumcision Unethical?
For Danish doctors, as well as the majority of medical providers outside the US (as well as some US providers), performing an unnecessary surgical procedure on an infant (who obviously cannot consent) goes against the Hippocratic oath (”first do no harm”) and is in conflict the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
When a procedure is very routine, it can desensitise us to the potential risks. As with all medical procedures, it’s important to weigh the benefits with the risks.
Because circumcision is a surgical procedure with risks, many medical providers, like the Danish Medical Association, feel it is unethical to subject a non-consenting individual to an elective surgery.
While rare, there is the risk of death. Around 100 US and 16 UK infants die each year from circumcision related complications.
While that doesn’t amount to a high percentage overall, they’re preventable deaths as the procedure is rarely medically indicated in infants.
There is also the risk of infection (and the risks associated with treatment of infection), damage or disfigurement from cutting too much tissue, hemorrhage, and more.
While there are situations where an intact male will need a medically necessary circumcision, consider the many other health complications we could eventually need surgery for.
Some children need tubes in their ears, some require an appendectomy, some a tonsillectomy, etc. However, we would likely be shocked if a doctor recommended all of the above procedures ‘just in case.’
Should I Circumcise My Son?
Many in the US would say this is a very personal decision and one each parent should make for themselves. Others would say it’s unethical for parents to make a decision which permanently alters their child’s body without clear health benefits.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics has a stance that parents should be able to choose and they publish what they feel are health benefits and evidence for circumcision, internationally you would be hard pressed to find a single medical organisation in support of routine infant circumcision.
In fact, there are a growing number of countries actively working to reduce the rate of circumcision.
You can read more about deciding whether or not to circumcise in BellyBelly’s article Circumcision – Should You Circumcise? which is written in part by a paediatrician.
Why Do Other Countries’ Medical Stances Matter?
If you live in the US, you might wonder what use the information is from other countries. After all, their culture is different and that’s a big factor when it comes to circumcision, right?
Well, medical evidence isn’t really culture dependent when it comes to circumcision. It’s important that all medical providers utilise evidence. When research, publicised statements, and more are shared among all providers, we have more evidence available to all. The evidence may be interpreted and put into practice differently, but the evidence itself isn’t culture dependent.