One of the world’s most frequently performed surgeries is also one of its most controversial.
Not long ago, a small, domestic legal dispute in the oceanside community of Boynton Beach, Florida, became the unexpected focal point of a nationwide campaign to shield children from what many consider an unnecessary harm. What form of child abuse was the mother of 4-year-old Chase Nebus-Hironimus — and the legions of “Saving Chase” activists — trying to protect the boy from? His father’s desire to have him circumcised.
The court ruled in favor of the father, and the battle for Chase’s foreskin was lost, but not the escalating war being waged against the ancient rite of circumcision itself. Even as some American medical authorities claim the potential benefits of the procedure outweigh the harms, rates of neonatal circumcision — the removal of a male infant’s foreskin — continue to decline in the U.S. Meanwhile, in many European countries, the procedure is not only rare but authorities are also taking deliberate steps to protect boys from the scalpel, arguing that circumcision should be seen for what it really is: a form of child abuse, like any other intentional infliction of harm upon the bodily integrity of a child. Americans should consider doing the same.
AROUND 80 PERCENT OF AMERICAN MALES HAVE BEEN CIRCUMCISED.
Male circumcision has for centuries been an established practice in Jewish and Muslim communities, but it came into wider use in the 19th century in the U.S. and U.K., where it was initially believed to counter the perceived ills of masturbation and wet dreams. That medical rationale did not survive, but the procedure did: According to a 2014 Mayo Clinic Proceedings study, around 80 percent of American males have been circumcised. Those in the U.S. who insist circumcision’s benefits outweigh its risks, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, point to studies suggesting it can reduce the risk of contracting urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases like herpes and HPV, penile and prostate cancer, and HIV.
Opponents of circumcision, however, including those on the other side of the Atlantic where the vast majority of male infants are not operated on, consider it the removal of a healthy body part that can be painful and traumatic for the infant as well as having deleterious consequences later in life, including diminished sexual pleasure. The Royal Dutch Medical Association, for example, claims the practice is “medically unnecessary” and violates boys’ human rights; and the British Medical Association considers it a cultural, non-therapeutic procedure that must require the consent of both parents.
Widespread opposition to the procedure across Europe even led the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to condemn circumcision as “a violation of the physical integrity of children” in 2013, with some courts likening the procedure to a form of criminal assault or child abuse — from which parents and doctors are legally bound to protect children when it is not medically necessary.
Ultimately, though, the law reflects culture, and its social norms, more than it does medical research, and that will likely continue to influence the prevalence of circumcision. “Circumcision is not so much a medical phenomena as a cultural phenomena,” says Sarah Waldeck, a law professor at Seton Hall University. “If male circumcision weren’t as ingrained in our culture [in America] … I don’t think it would matter what the medical profession said about it.”