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American Circumcision Apologists Getting Worried

Cardiologist, former deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Reagan administration, current advisor to George W. Bush via his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and Health Editor for U.S.News & World Report Bernadine Healy M.D. has published a stunning opinion piece about male circumcision.

Entitled “Don't Be Scared to Circumcise Your Baby Boy” and subtitled “It's not mutilation; it should be the parents' choice.”, it is stunning not merely for the omission of evidence which contradict her position, but for the chilling and ethically void reasoning she employs.Her piece is in response to British National Health Service consultant Geoff Hinchley, who argues in the December 7th issue of the British Medical Journal that circumcision must ethically be self-chosen, not parentally imposed.

My aim here is not to re-hash all the available information about circumcision.  Parents today can learn all they need to know by going to Google and entering “circumcision.”  I will only note that there is not a single medical society in the world which recommends it, and that the United States stands alone in that its medical community facilitates the circumcision of a majority of infant boys.

Dr. Healy writes:

…it's a bit much to claim that the 2 million or more parents in this country who have their infant sons circumcised each year—and the thousands of doctors and hospitals that enable the procedure—are guilty of child abuse and genital mutilation.

The old canard… it can't be wrong, because so many people are still doing it.  Sounds a little like saying that if the president does it, then it isn't illegal.  But this statement deliberately blurs the line between the intent and effect.  Of course parents who allow doctors to circumcise their sons don't intend it as abuse.  They think they are doing what's normal, what's customary, what's hygienic, what's expected.  But can an infant distinguish an unnecessary bodily amputation done with good intentions from one done with abusive intentions?  Mere intent does not, and cannot fully inform the question of whether an act violates the rights of a child.

He [Hinchley] asserts that the procedure damages young boys by decreasing penile sensitivity, something that has been disputed in recent medical reports

Dr. Healy's statement is disingenuously selective.  The most methodologically sound study ever performed, released this year and cited by Mr. Hinchley, strongly supports the obvious reality that circumcision reduces sensitivity, at the very least, in the subsequently absent foreskin.  By not ignoring the fact that the foreskin itself must be measured for sensitivity, the study demonstrated that circumcision obliterates the most sensitive parts of the penis.  The study in it's entirety is available for download here.  Mostly ignored by the media, criticism has largely been the organizational equivalent of ad-hominem, noting that it was funded by the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers.  There is no study which included measuring foreskin sensitivity that has found found contrary results.

I caution parents, however, against delaying the decision until the child is old enough to decide for himself. Get real. Not many teenage boys would relish the discussion, let alone the act.

The thought process employed in that statement must offend the sensibility a rational person.  Circumcision, she says, should not be the choice of the individual, precisely because that individual would almost certainly not want it!  Excuse me, Dr. Healy, but do you think an infant “relishes” forskin amputation any more than a teenager?  Is your golden rule of medical ethics “do unto infants what they would almost certainly object to once fully informed and given the opportunity to consent or decline for themselves”?

What is not healthy in this free flow of ideas is to diminish the real abuse of female genital mutilation with a trumped-up portrayal of the “abuse” that infant circumcision allegedly exacts on our helpless baby boys.

Defending genital integrity for male and intersex children in no way diminishes the defense of genital integrity for females.  Quite the contrary, unequal standards for young boys and girls give female circumcising cultures (which universally circumcise males too) the opportunity to demonstrate that our admonitions are in fact hypocritical.

What Dr. Healy does not know or refuses to acknowledge is that female circumcision is not always more drastic and harmful than its male counterpart.  In Singapore, for example, some loving parents take their daughters to the hospital for a circumcision, and even blog about it casually, just like some Americans do for their sons.  Their form of female circumcision is not the kind Americans highlight to draw a sharp distinction based on sex.  In fact, it involves “nicking the prepuce, the skin covering the clitoris.” Male circumcision, by contrast, fully amputates the prepuce.

Dr Healy, your stance against female genital mutilation is admirable.  Intact genitals are so fundamental a human right that we should defend and advocate for that right across all cultural boundaries.  But I sincerely hope you (and all Americans) will re-evaluate the denial of these same rights to those within your own culture whom you so aptly label “our helpless baby boys.”

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