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Circumcision, Its Legality and Morality


The question of whether circumcision is a medical right or a human right issue has been discussed for many decades in various forums by numerous scholars. Medical researchers and social scientists have focused on the different aspects of the issue to come to a conclusive answer as to the nature of this phenomenon (Androus, 2009). Some of them were preoccupied with the relation between “concepts of health and medical systems” while others concentrated on the legal aspects of the issue (Androus, 2009; Rogers, 2013). This paper will explore the question of the legality and morality of circumcision from various viewpoints.

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Human Rights and Circumcision

It can be argued that the concept of universality of human rights is often being disregarded by the seemingly random application of the law to different categories of people (Rogers, 2013). However, according to the theory of human rights, there should not be any ambivalence as to the universality of its principle — “all human beings are born equal in dignity and human right” (Rogers, 2013). Therefore, making exceptions to the application of those rights should be considered a blatant disregard for the philosophical imperatives of the rule of law. In other words, the human rights of all groups of people have to be treated as sacred. On the surface it might seem like an easy principle to follow, however, after closer examination, it becomes clear that it has numerous practical implications that significantly complicate the issue. On the one hand, permeating someone’s body without permission can be considered an act that breaks the principle of bodily integrity or the right of a person to be inviolate (Rogers, 2013). On the other hand, it can be argued that the medical benefits of male circumcision outweigh the negative connotation of the violation of consent which cannot be obtained in the case of the neonatal procedure. According to Dworkin, the “flat principle of bodily integrity” belongs to the framework of conventional morality that was developed a long time ago (as cited in Burley, 2004). He argues that the prohibition on the use of force for subjecting an individual to medical treatment or procedure should be reconsidered due to the changing paradigm of medical practice (as cited in Burley, 2004).

Medical Aspects of Circumcision

Male circumcision is a medical procedure that is performed during the neonatal period. The procedure is very common in the United States and around the world (Blank et al., 2012). The Task Force that consisted of a group of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) specialists from different areas, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Obstetricians evaluated recent peer-reviewed literature with the help of the American Heart Association’s evidence scale (Blank et al., 2012). According to Circumcision Policy Statement that was issued by AAP after the evaluation, the evidence regarding surgical removal of the foreskin suggests that “preventive health benefits of elective circumcision of male newborns outweigh the risks of the procedure” (2012). The document reveals that circumcision is well tolerated if it is properly performed under sterile conditions with the use of effective pain management (Blank et al., 2012). Moreover, the procedure is not associated with severe complications that occur in rare cases. The study also showed that the incidence rate of complications is correlated with an age of patients; namely, it tends to decrease with older age (Blank et al., 2012).

The evaluation of evidence regarding circumcision also revealed a set of specific benefits associated with the procedure: significant reduction of the risk of urinary tract infection (UTI), prevention of HIV, lowering transmission probabilities of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and penile cancer (Blank et al., 2012). The Task Force concluded that access to the procedure can be justified by numerous benefits it offers (Blank et al., 2012). Therefore, it can be argued that circumcision might be considered a medical right. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the procedure is elective, meaning that it is up to parents to decide whether they want to circumcise their child. Circumcision Policy Statement exhorts health care practitioners to counsel families about potential risks and benefits of circumcision in a manner that would be conducive to their understanding (Blank et al., 2012). Moreover, it strongly recommends clinicians to provide parents with “factually correct, nonbiased information” about the procedure before the conception as it is the time when many people make decisions regarding circumcision (Blank et al., 2012).

Taking into consideration the philosophical clash of the rights-based arguments against circumcision and the enormous health benefits associated with the procedure it is impossible to provide an unequivocal answer to the question of whether it is a medical or a human right. However, since the procedure is elective and it is only performed once parental consent is obtained, it can be argued that its practice should be justified based on universal human rights as one that promotes quality of life.


There is no consensus regarding the question of legality and morality of circumcision. However, it can be said that numerous benefits of the procedure outweigh all possible contradictions associated with the rights-based approach to circumcision making it a medical right issue.


AAP. (2012). Circumcision Policy Statement. Pediatrics, 130(3), 585-586.

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Androus, Z. (2009). Cultural relativism at home and abroad. In G. Denniston & F. Hodges (Eds.), Circumcision and human rights (pp. 33-41). New York, NY: Springer.

Blank, S., Brady, M., Buerk, E., Carlo, W., Diekema, D., Freedman, A.,…Zimmerman, E. (2012) Male circumcision. Pediatrics, 114 (2), 234-241.

Burley, J. (2004). Dworkin and his critics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publisher.

Rogers, J. (2013). Law’s cut on the body of human rights. New York, NY: Routledge.

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