The case against circumcision
One of the news stories that you might have missed during the festive season was the death of a two-year-old boy in Italy.
The BBC reported that the boy, living in Monterondo – a suburb of Rome, died from blood-loss following a botched circumcision.
Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the penis, a procedure usually performed as an infant for religious or cultural reasons.
Circumcision is not something that’s provided by public health institutions in Italy. Having the procedure done at a private clinic can cost between €2,000-€4,000. As a result, people looking for less expensive options can end up in the hands of unskilled people who offer circumcision at a lower price.
There are always some risks with the circumcision procedure – particularly blood-loss or infection. Those risks rise exponentially when the procedure is being conducted by an unskilled person in unhygienic conditions.
Whenever there’s a story like this about circumcision, I think of Jonathon Conte.
It’s a couple of years since Jonathon Conte committed suicide. At the time of his death, Conte was 34. He lived in San Francisco. He suffered from depression. His depression was reportedly linked to his circumcision . Conte was an activist campaigning for the end of routine male circumcision. He was an intactivist.
An estimated one-third of males worldwide are circumcised. The procedure is most common in the Muslim world and Israel where it’s near-universal for religious reasons. It’s also very common in the United States – where it’s estimated that four out of five men are circumcised, and also parts of Southeast Asia and Africa. Circumcision is relatively rare in Europe, Latin America, parts of Southern Africa, and most of Asia.
The origin of circumcision is relatively uncertain - the oldest documented evidence for it comes from ancient Egypt. Various theories have been proposed as to its origin, the consensus is generally that it began as some form of religious sacrifice or as a rite of passage marking a boy’s entrance into adulthood. There is also a suggestion that it was used to mark captured soldiers as slaves.
The circumcision of infant males is part of religious law in Judaism, and it’s also an established practice in Islam, Coptic Christianity, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Research indicates that circumcision became a common medical procedure in the UK and the US in the late 19th century – doctors began recommending it as a deterrent to masturbation.
Today, there’s still some discrepancy in the positions of the world’s major medical organisations on the practice of circumcision. Some consider that the elective circumcision of babies and children has no health benefit and involves significant risks to the child, while the guidance from others is that it has a modest health benefit that outweighs the small risks involved.
Putting to one side the complexity of religious requirements, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to circumcise their child. Sure, I’ve met plenty of circumcised guys who don’t think twice about a circumcised penis - it’s all that they’ve known. But they haven’t consented to have that part of their body removed, it’s a decision made by well-meaning but misinformed parents. I can’t help but feel sympathy, if not empathy, for Jonathon Conte and all the men around the world who’ve had their penis mutilated at the request of well-meaning but misinformed parents.
Studies – and conversations with friends who are circumcised – suggest that circumcision doesn’t negatively impact sexual function in any material way. Although it must desensitise the head of the penis to some degree. While it would be impossible to measure any differences that a circumcised guy feels compared to an uncircumcised guy, intuitively, there must be differences. Beyond the physical impact of the procedure, the emotional impact of circumcision seems to be completely unknown – although the depression suffered by Jonathan Conte is probably at the extreme end of the spectrum.
There are obvious parallels between female genital mutilation – FGM – and the circumcision of infant males. While it could be argued that FGM has more obvious impacts on sexual function, it seems fairly obvious that it’s a medical modification of otherwise healthy genitals - purely for the purpose of religious or cultural tradition. At last count, around 52 countries around the world have explicitly banned FGM.
While there are restrictions that have been enacted in various jurisdictions, there are currently no countries that have banned the circumcision of infant males. Let’s put a stop to the mutilation of the genitals of the world’s men. Let’s all be intactivists.