Circumcision has been a controversial topic in United States healthcare for a long time. Recently, a more vocal movement against the practice of male infant circumcision has been established. With different debates and perspectives on this issue, it can be hard to choose a position on the matter. This paper will provide an outline of the different perspectives in this debate, as well as whether this issue is indeed an issue.
The practice of male infant circumcision is relatively rare in the world, with only a third of the male population being circumcised. Aside from the United States, only parts of Northern Africa, Southern Indonesia, and Malaysia heavily practice circumcision, and primarily for religious reasons. With a relatively low practicing Muslim population in the United States, why is this practice still so common? There are multiple reasons for this. The initial promotion of circumcision in America was done by Lewis Sayer, who was one of the founders of the American Medical Association.
Initially, he promoted the practice as a possible cure for paralysis and other motor problems. Unfortunately, this belief was based on a false theory of “reflex neurosis” that stated that excessive stimulation of male genitals could lead to a misbalance in the nervous system of the person causing various problems. The attitude toward masturbation was extremely negative at the time, and the act was seen as a social ill. This idea led to the popularization of the practice despite its basis in a false idea (Darby, 2013).
This creates an ethical issue around this practice. Is it appropriate to recommend infant circumcision despite its basis in falsehoods and social beliefs from hundreds of years ago? The practice is safe when done by a confident practitioner, but some risks exist. One of them is in removing too much or too little foreskin which occurs in a fraction of cases. Another lies in the dangers that occur when the operation is performed on an older person, or by an inexperienced practitioner. However, for the American physicians, the majority of these risks are considered too low to outweigh the currently monitored benefits such as cleanliness and possible prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (Freedman, 2016).
The most vocal opponents of this practice, however, touch upon a more human type of problem. People who were circumcised never had a choice in the matter. For some this leads to psychological complexes ranging from discomfort to perceiving the procedure as a sexual assault. To cope with this experience, some people engage in the practice of foreskin restoration. This is not a quantifiable issue because its roots lie in the human perception of the issue which is impossible to predict before the person becomes able to make decisions. However, the cavalier recommendation of the practice in the United States can be considered extraneous (Earp, 2013).
It is hard to tell whether this is an issue that truly requires the amount of attention it is getting. On the one hand, it is a rather uncommon practice worldwide, originally based on dubious claims and with people actively protesting it. On the other, it has some medical benefits, and it is impossible to predict the psychological reaction to this issue. I believe that there is merit in the implementation of it being a voluntary procedure, but perhaps it should not be considered the default option for every male infant in the United States.
Circumcision is a complicated topic. Its history in the United States is ethically problematic and deserves a reassessment. The people negatively affected by it had no say in the matter, which complicates the issue further. However, it is not as serious of an issue as the debate around it can make it seem.
Darby, R. (2013). A surgical temptation: The demonization of the foreskin and the rise of circumcision in Britain. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Earp, B. (2013). The ethics of infant male circumcision. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(7), 418-420.
Freedman, A. (2016). The circumcision debate: Beyond benefits and risks. PEDIATRICS, 137(5), 594.