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Rough Cut: Weighing the Emotional and Medical Cases Against Circumcision Rough Cut: Weighing the Emotional and Medical Cases Against Circumcision

Rough Cut: Weighing the Emotional and Medical Cases Against Circumcision

by Amanda Hess

July 28, 2011

A slowly percolating body of evidence suggests that circumcision could have real—if not always drastic—health benefits in men. New research out of Australia suggests that uncircumcised men are 50 times more likely than circumcised men to develop penile cancer. In South Africa, adult male circumcision has been linked to huge drops in HIV transmission in the region. One CDC study of men in Baltimore found that among straight black men who had been exposed to HIV, those who contracted the virus were twice as likely to be uncircumcised. The CDC has considered recommending routine circumcision in an effort to fight HIV.

But I'm not sure any study could actually convince me to change my longstanding opposition to circumcising newborns, a position that has sustained challenges from several boyfriends, friend's parents, and internet commentators. So far, the handful of medical findings in circumcision's favor has similarly failed to sway my stance on preemptively shearing tiny baby penises, which I've cultivated from a lifetime of family influence, regional background, sexual history, and general grossed-outedness over the idea of taking a scalpel to a healthy baby's genitals.

I've got some medical arguments in my arsenal, too: Uncircumcised men have a lifetime to elect to snip their own foreskin, and in the United States, few do. For most, condoms and hygiene work just fine. But mainly, my position is visceral. And I'm not alone. As more studies have established the health benefits of circumcision, support for the procedure has eroded in the United States, plummeting from 56 percent of newborn boys in 2006 to 32 percent by 2009. "People who oppose circumcision are animated by a kind of rage and longing that seems larger than the thing itself," Hanna Rosin once wrote about people like us. "The foreskin is the new fetus—the object that has been imbued with magical powers to halt a merciless, violent world—a world that is particularly callous to children."

To be fair, circumcision advocates have long made irrational personal justifications for lopping off the foreskin—everything from ancient religious ceremony to Sex and the City-approved penile aesthetics. For many of them, the small constellation of studies that recommend circumcision are used only to prop up the pre-assigned narrative, not build a new paradigm that reasonably weighs the costs and benefits of infant circumcision. Even Rosin admits that she is "Jewish enough that I never considered not circumcising my sons" before launching into her stirring scientific defense of the practice. 

But despite what Rosin characterizes as my outsized "rage and longing," I don't disagree with her assessment of the foreskin's elevated new status. Parents have never had so much personal control over the birthing process, and for many of them, circumcision is no longer a decision they can easily pass off to God or behind-the-scenes standard practices. Removing an infant's foreskin is an act that reflects on parents personally, down to the scalpel, the tears, and the bloody diapers. These effects are more immediate than those decades-out calculations of minute upticks in HIV or cancer, devastating illnesses that will never affect most American baby boys. Sometimes it's easier to choose to do nothing at all.

Photo (cc) via D Sharon Pruitt