Does science support infant circumcision?

Two very distinguished scholars write a rebuttal to a disingenuous Australian “scientist” who advocates for making the practice of circumcision mandatory. If you are interested in the subject, the extensive reference section after the article is worth saving in your computer. The entire article is rather lengthy, so please read it on the web. Here’s a snippet…

According to Brian Morris in a recent issue of The Skeptic, “Science supports infant circumcision” and “so should skeptics.” It would be more accurate to say that “Brian Morris supports infant circumcision” and that skeptics can think for themselves.

For well over a decade, Professor Morris has been waging a quixotic campaign against the foreskin. Although he has “no involvement in clinical medicine” and “cannot claim any more expertise on the topic of male circumcision than any other scientist,” Morris has sought to demonize the humble prepuce. So dangerous is this particular part of the normal male anatomy, according to Morris, that it must be removed from a child’s body before he can form his own opinion.

This argument is not new. It can be found in Morris’s 1999 trade book, In Favour of Circumcision, as well as in numerous additional publications rehearsing the same perspective. In this book—just as in his piece for The Skeptic — Morris draws on the highest possible extremes of available morbidity statistics, and describes them “in their grimmest possible light.” According to Professor Basil Donovan, a leading sexual health researcher, the book was so “unbalanced” in this respect, and even “dangerous” in its misleading assertions, that it provided “sufficient grounds for the publishers to withdraw…”

Conclusion

We have covered just a few of the distortions, misrepresentations, and inadequately referenced claims in Morris’s hymn of praise to childhood circumcision. To pile on more examples would lead us away from the central point. The most one can say about the medical evidence concerning circumcision is that it is contested and inconclusive. On a global scale, there is a strong balance of opinion among experts in paediatric medicine that the foreskin is not inherently harmful to health, and that the circumcision of infants is entirely unnecessary.

In 2011 alone, nearly a dozen infant boys had to be treated for “life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis” as a result of their non-therapeutic circumcisions at a single children’s hospital in Birmingham.[96] This information was made public due to a specific freedom of information request, and so would not otherwise have been reported. It is clear, then, that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg in terms of risks and complications.

Since circumcision does carry risk, therefore—as with any surgical procedure—and since it removes a healthy, and indeed private, part of the body, the individual who must wear the lifelong consequences of the intervention should be the one to make the decision.

Professor Morris has a different view, and he is entitled to express it; but he does not speak on behalf of ‘science.’ As historians of medicine remind us, since the mid-nineteenth century all sorts of dubious theories about the nature of the foreskin (and the “health benefits” of infant circumcision) have been advanced and then later debunked. The appropriate attitude for a skeptic is not to swallow these claims unblinkingly, but rather to approach them with suspicion and subject them to a rigorous critique.

About the authors

Brian D. Earp is a scientist and ethicist who holds degrees from Yale and Oxford universities. He has served as Guest Editor for the Journal of Medical Ethics, and is currently a Cambridge Trust Scholar and Rausing Award recipient studying the history and philosophy of science and medicine at the University of Cambridge. Note that this article has been edited for length, and that a more in-depth version will be posted at https://oxford.academia.edu/BrianEarp.

Robert Darby is an independent scholar with a PhD from the University of New South Wales and is the author of numerous articles on the history and ethics of male and female genital surgeries. His book, A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2005) is recognized as the standard account. His most recent publication is a rebuttal of Morris’s claims that “circumcision arose in the Middle East to solve problems caused by sand and dust” and can be accessed here: http://www.circinfo.org/Circumcision_and_sand.html. He lives in Canberra, Australia.

Read more and find the references at The Skeptic.

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