Ethics of circumcision
This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (December 2018)
Male circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin (prepuce) from the human penis. The ethics of non-therapeutic circumcision being imposed on unconsenting minors (babies and children) has been a source of ongoing controversy.
Some medical associations take the position that the parents should determine what is in the best interest of the infant or child. Others say that circumcision is an infringement of the child's autonomy and should be deferred until he is capable of making the decision himself.
Australia and New Zealand
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (2010) released a statement indicating that neonatal male circumcision is "generally considered an ethical procedure", provided that 1) the child's decision makers, typically the parents, are acting in best interest of child and have been given full knowledge and 2) the procedure is performed by a competent provider, with sufficient analgesia, and does not unnecessarily harm the child or have substantial risks. They argue that parents should be allowed to be the primary decision-makers because providers may not understand the full psychosocial benefits of circumcision. Additionally, this procedure does not present substantial harm compared to its potential benefits, so parents should be allowed full decision-making capacity as long as they are educated properly.
This statement also recognizes that waiting until the boy is of sufficient age to make his own decision would better respect his autonomy, but points out that this may interfere with a child's religious inclusion that circumcision was meant to confer. With neonatal male circumcision, they acknowledge that the child may later on disagree with the parents' decision  but using the same reasoning, an uncircumcised child may also disagree with his parents' decision not to have him circumcised in infancy.
The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) issued a position statement on September 8, 2015, which highlighted the ethical issue surrounding the child's inability to give consent. Since children require a substituted decision maker acting in their best interests, they recommend to hold off non-medically indicated procedures, such as circumcision, until children can make their own decisions. Yet the CPS also states that parents of male newborns must receive unbiased information about neonatal circumcision, so that they can weigh specific risks and benefits of circumcision in the context of their own familial, religious and cultural beliefs.
The Danish Medical Association (Lægeforeningen) has released a statement (2016) regarding the circumcision of boys under the age of eighteen years. The organization says that the decision to circumcise should be "an informed personal choice" that men should make for themselves in adulthood. According to Dr. Lise Møller, the chairwoman of the Doctors’ Association's Ethics Board, allowing the individual to make this decision himself when he is of age respects his right of self-determination.
The Danish College of General Practitioners has defined non-medical circumcision as mutilation.
The Royal Dutch Medical Association (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot bevordering der Geneeskunst) (KNMG) and several Dutch specialist medical societies published a statement of position regarding circumcision of male children on 27 May 2010. The KNMG argues against circumcising male minors due to lack of evidence the procedure is useful or necessary, its associated risks, and violate the child's autonomy. They recommend deferring circumcision until the child is old enough to decide for himself. The Royal Dutch Medical Association questions why the ethics regarding male genital alterations should be viewed any differently from female genital alterations, when there are mild forms of female genital alterations (like pricking the clitoral hood without removing any tissue or removing the clitoral hood altogether). They have expressed opposition to both male circumcision and all forms of female circumcision, however they do not advocate a prohibition of male circumcision (even though they argue that there are good reasons for it to be banned) and prefer that circumcisions be done by doctors instead of illegal, underground circumcisers.
The Dutch Council on Public Health and Care does not agree with the Royal Dutch Medical Association and states that they wrongly do not distinguish between male and female circumcision and that they do not take into account freedom of religion and the right of parents to raise their children according their own beliefs or convictions.
In 2013 children's ombudsmen from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland, along with the Chair of the Danish Children's Council and the children's spokesperson for Greenland, passed a resolution that emphasized the decision to be circumcised should belong to the individual, who should be able to give informed consent.
The Nordic Association of Clinical Sexologists supports the position of the Nordic Association of Ombudsmen who reason that circumcision violates the individual's human rights by denying the male child his ability to make the decision for himself.
The medical ethics committee of the British Medical Association also reviewed the ethics behind circumcision. Since circumcision has associated medical and psychological risks with no unequivocally proven medical benefits, they advise physicians to keep up with clinical evidence and only perform this procedure if it's in the child's best interest. However, they acknowledge the procedure as a cultural and religious practice, which may be an important ritual for the child's incorporation into the group. They recognize that parents have the authority to make choices for their child, and they emphasize it is important for parents to act in their child's best interest. They ultimately report that views vary in their community about the benefits and risks of the procedure, and there is no clear policy for this situation.
Commenting on the development of the 2003 British Medical Association guidance on circumcision, Mussell (2004) reports that debate in society is highly polarized, and he attributes it to the different faiths and cultures that make up BMA. He identifies this as a difficulty in achieving consensus within the medical ethics committee. Arguments put forward in discussions, according to Mussell, included the social and cultural benefits of circumcision, the violation of the child's rights, and the violation of the child's autonomy.
In a paper published June 2006, the British Medical Association Committee on Medical Ethics does not consider circumcision of an adult male to be controversial, provided that the adult is of sound mind and grants his personal consent after receiving all material information regarding the known risks, disadvantages, and potential benefits to be derived from the surgical operation.
Circumcision of adults as a public health measure for the purpose of reducing the spread of HIV also involves ethical concerns such as informed consent and concerns about reducing attention paid to other measures. According to the CDC website, research has documented a significant reduction of HIV/AIDS transmission when a male is circumcised.
In the same British Medical Association paper, circumcision of a child to treat a clear and present medical indication after a trial of conservative treatment also is not considered to be ethically questionable, provided that a suitable surrogate has granted surrogate consent after receiving all material information regarding the known risks, disadvantages, and potential benefits to be derived from the surgical operation.
Criticism and revision of BMA statement
The BMA statement of 2003 took the position that non-therapeutic circumcision of children is lawful in the United Kingdom. British law professors Fox & Thomson (2005), citing the House of Lords case of R v Brown, challenged this statement. They argued that consent cannot make an unlawful act lawful. The BMA issued a revised statement in 2006 and now reports the controversy regarding the lawfulness of non-therapeutic child circumcision and recommends that doctors obtain the consent of both parents before performing non-therapeutic circumcision of a male minor. The revised statement now mentions that male circumcision is generally assumed to be lawful provided that it is performed competently, is believed to be in the child's best interests, and there is valid consent from both parent or the child if it is capable of expressing a view.
American Academy of Pediatrics
The circumcision policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that "Systematic evaluation of English-language peer-reviewed literature from 1995 through 2010 indicates that preventive health benefits of elective circumcision of male newborns outweigh the risks of the procedure," but ultimately concluded that the decision of whether or not to circumcise should be made by parents after considering the medical benefits and risks along with "religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs and practices" and that the medical benefits are such that third-party payment for circumcision of male newborns is warranted. The policy statement also noted that the risk of complications is considerably lower when circumcision is performed during the newborn period, as opposed to when it is performed later in life. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists had endorsed the American Academy of Pediatrics' circumcision policy statement.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) position statement on male circumcision (2012) has attracted significant critical comment, including from the AAP itself.
In a dissenting paper, Frisch et al. point out "Circumcision fails to meet the criteria to serve as a preventive measure for UTI [...] As a preventive measure for penile cancer, circumcision also fails to meet the criteria for preventive medicine [...] circumcision for HIV protection in Western countries fails to meet the criteria for preventive medicine [...] Circumcision fails to meet the commonly accepted criteria for the justification of preventive medical procedures in children."
Frisch et al. conclude that "The AAP report lacks a serious discussion of the central ethical dilemma with, on one side, parents’ right to act in the best interest of the child on the basis of cultural, religious, and health-related beliefs and wishes and, on the other side, infant boys’ basic right to physical integrity in the absence of compelling reasons for surgery. Physical integrity is one of the most fundamental and inalienable rights a child has. Physicians and their professional organizations have a professional duty to protect this right, irrespective of the gender of the child."
Van Howe & Svoboda (2013) criticize the AAP's statement because it failed to include important points, inaccurately analyzed and interpret current medical literature, and made unsupported conclusions.
Frisch et al. (2013) pointed out the difference of the AAP's statements in comparison to other Western countries, such as Canada, Australia, and various European countries. They attribute this to cultural bias since non-therapeutic male circumcision is prevalent in the United States. They also criticized the strength of the health benefits the statement had claimed, such as protection from HIV and other STIs. The American Academy of Pediatrics responded that because about half of American males are circumcised and half are not, there may be a more tolerant view concerning circumcision in the US, but that if there is any cultural “bias” among the AAP taskforce who wrote the Circumcision Policy statement, it is much less important than the bias Frisch et al. may hold because of clear prejudices against the practice that can be found in Europe. The AAP elaborately explained why they reached conclusions regarding the health benefits of circumcision that are different from the ones reached by some of their European counterparts.
American Medical Association Journal of Ethics
In August 2017, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics featured two separate articles challenging the morality of performing non-therapeutic infant circumcision.
Svoboda argues against non-therapeutic circumcision. He states that this decision should be considered in the context of benefit vs risk of harm, rather than simply risk-benefit due to the non-therapeutic nature of the procedure. He states that benefits do not outweigh the risks, and also claims that foreskin removal should be considered a sexual harm. He also goes on to conclude that non-therapeutic circumcision largely violates the physician's duty to respect a patient's autonomy since many procedures take place before a patient is able to freely give consent himself.
Reis and Reis's article explore the role physicians play in neonatal circumcision. They state that if physicians outline all the currently known risks and benefits of the procedure to the parents and believes the procedure is indeed medically indicated, they cannot be held accountable for any harm from the procedure. However, they still advise against physicians recommending unnecessary, irreversible surgeries, which is a category circumcision falls in frequently.
JME symposium on circumcision, June 2004
The Journal of Medical Ethics published a "symposium on circumcision" in its June 2004 issue. The symposium published the original version (2003) of the BMA policy statement and six articles by various individuals with a wide spectrum of views on the ethicality of circumcision of male minors. In the introduction, Holm (2004) states:
"It is therefore very interesting that the piece of evidence we really need to have in order to be able to assess the status of circumcision is singularly lacking. We simply do not have valid comparative data concerning the effects of early circumcision on adult sexual function and satisfaction. Until such data become available, the circumcision debate cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and there will always be a lingering suspicion that the sometimes rather strident opposition to circumcision is partly driven by cultural prejudices, dressed up as ethical arguments."
Hutson (2004) states:
"The most fundamental principle of surgery is that no operation should be done if there is no disease, as it cannot be justified if the risk of the procedure is not balanced by the risk of a disease. Even when patients have significant disease, potentially dangerous operations can hardly be justified if their risks are much greater than the disease itself. The problem for routine circumcision is that since there is no disease, no complication whatsoever can be tolerated, since the risks of the procedure are not being balanced against the risks of any present disease."
Short (2004) disputes Hutson's claims and argues that male circumcision has future prophylactic benefits that make it worthwhile. He concludes:
"If we believe in evidence based medicine, then there can be no debate about male circumcision; it has become a desirable option for the whole world. Paradoxically, this simple procedure is a life saver; it can also bring about major improvements to both male and female reproductive health. Rather than condemning it, we in the developed world have a duty to develop better procedures that are neither physically cruel nor potentially dangerous, so that male circumcision can take its rightful place as the kindest cut of all."
Viens (2004) contends that "we do not know in any robust or determinate sense that infant male circumcision is harmful in itself, nor can we say the same with respect to its purported harmful consequences." He suggests that one must distinguish between practices that are grievously harmful and those that enhance a child's cultural or religious identity. He suggests that medical professionals, and bioethicists especially, "must take as their starting point the fact that reasonable people will disagree about what is valuable and what is harmful."
Hellsten (2004), however, describes arguments in support of circumcision as "rationalisations", and states that infant circumcision can be "clearly condemned as a violation of children’s rights whether or not they cause direct pain." He argues that, to question the ethical acceptability of the practice, "we need to focus on child rights protection." Hellsten concludes, "Rather, with further education and knowledge the cultural smokescreen around the real reasons for the maintenance of the practice can be overcome in all societies no matter what their cultural background.
Mussell (2004) examined the process by which the BMA arrived at a position on non-therapeutic circumcision male minors, when the organisation had groups and individuals of different ethnicities, religion, culture, and widely varying viewpoints.
Arguments were put forward that non-therapeutic male circumcision is a net benefit for some because it helps them to integrate in the community.
Arguments were also put forward that non-therapeutic male circumcision is a net harm because it is seen as a breach of children's rights—the right of the child to be free from physical intrusion and the right of the child to choose in the future. This argument was given emphasis by Britain's incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998.
The BMA produced a document that set forth legal and ethical concerns but left the final decision on whether or not to perform a non-therapeutic circumcision to the attending physician.
The last document published by the Journal of Medical Ethics in its symposium on circumcision was a reprint of the BMA statement: "The law and ethics of male circumcision: guidance for doctors (2003).
Journal of Medical Ethics circumcision issue, July 2013
The Journal of Medical Ethics devoted the entire July 2013 issue to the controversial issue of non-therapeutic circumcision of male children. The numerous articles represent a diverse variety of views.
Povenmire (1988) argues that parents should not have the power to consent to neonatal non-therapeutic circumcision.
Richards (1996) argues that parents only have power to consent to therapeutic procedures.
Somerville (2000) argues that the nature of the medical benefits cited as a justification for infant circumcision are such that the potential medical problems can be avoided or, if they occur, treated in far less invasive ways than circumcision. She states that the removal of healthy genital tissue from a minor should not be subject to parental discretion, or that physicians who perform the procedure are not acting in accordance with their ethical duties to the patient, regardless of parental consent.
Canning (2002) commented that "[i]f circumcision becomes less commonly performed in North America [...] the legal system may no longer be able to ignore the conflict between the practice of circumcision and the legal and ethical duties of medical specialists."
Benatar and Benatar (2003) argue that "it is far from obvious that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure," and that "it is far from clear that non-circumcision leaves open a future person’s options in every regard." They continue: "It does preserve the option of future circumcised or uncircumcised status. But it makes other options far more difficult to exercise. Transforming from the uncircumcised to the circumcised state will have psychological and other costs for an adult that are absent for a child. ... Nor are these costs “negligible”, [...]. At the very least, they are not more negligible than the risks and costs of circumcision."
The Committee on Medical Ethics of the British Medical Association (2003) published a paper to guide doctors on the law and ethics of circumcision. It advises medical doctors to proceed on a case by case basis to determine the best interests of the child before deciding to perform a circumcision. The doctor must consider the child's legal and human rights in making his or her determination. It states that a physician has a right to refuse to perform a non-therapeutic circumcision. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia took a similar position.
Fox and Thomson (2005) state that in the absence of "unequivocal evidence of medical benefit", it is "ethically inappropriate to subject a child to the acknowledged risks of infant male circumcision." Thus, they believe, "the emerging consensus, whereby parental choice holds sway, appears ethically indefensible".
The Belgian Federal Consultative Committee for Bioethics (Comité Consultatif de Bioéthique de Belgique) (2017), after a three-year study, has ruled that circumcision of male children for non-therapeutic purposes is unethical in Belgium. The process is irreversible, has no medical justification in most cases, and is performed on minors unable to give their own permission, according to the committee. Paul Schotsmans of the University of Leuven, on behalf of the committee, noted "the child’s right to physical integrity, which is protected by the International Treaty on the Rights of the Child, and in particular its protection from physical injury." The Belgian minister of health replied that the federal institute for health insurance cannot check and know whether in (individual cases) a circumcision is medically justified or not and that she will continue to reimburse circumcision of minors as the safety of the child is her primary concern and she wants to avoid botched circumcisions by non-medical circumcisers.
HIV in southern and eastern Africa
Rennie et al. (2007) remark that the results of three randomised controlled trials in sub-Saharan Africa, showing reduced risk of HIV among circumcised men, "alter the terms of the debate over the ethics of male circumcision." However, the methodology of the African RCTs has been severely criticised, thereby invalidating claims that circumcision reduces the sexual transmission of HIV.
Supporters of circumcision argue that using circumcision and other available means to halt the spread of HIV is in the common good (but overlook the fact that HIV is transmitted in the seminal fluid). Rennie et al. argue that "it would be unethical to not seriously consider one of the most promising—although also one of the most controversial—new approaches to HIV-prevention in the 25-year history of the epidemic." However, there clearly remains a risk of transmitting or acquiring HIV while engaging in unprotected sex and other high risk behaviors (circumcised or not).
The World Health Organization (2007) states that provision of circumcision should be consistent with "medical ethics and human rights principles." They state that "[i]nformed consent, confidentiality and absence of coercion should be assured. ... Parents who are responsible for providing consent, including for the circumcision of male infants, should be given sufficient information regarding the benefits and risks of the procedure in order to determine what is in the best interests of the child." However, since babies and children are not sexually active, sexually-transmitted HIV infection is not a relevant concern. Critics of non-therapeutic circumcision argue that advocating circumcision to prevent HIV infection may detract from other efforts to prevent the spread of the virus such as using condoms. If the adult chooses to remain celibate or if a couple remain monogamous, or if HIV is eliminated by the time the child is an adult, the sexual reduction surgery would not have been needed. Moreover, they argue that circumcising a child purportedly to partially protect him from HIV infection in adulthood may be seen as granting permission to engage in dangerous sexual practices. Obviously baby boys do not need such protection and can choose for themselves as consenting adults if they want a circumcision. This stance, however, does not take into account the fact that adult men may already have contracted HIV before getting circumcised.
The UK National Health Service (NHS) has stated that the African studies have "important implications for the control of sexually transmitted infections in Africa", but that in the United Kingdom practicing safe sex including condom use is the best way to prevent sexually-transmitted disease when having sex.
Since children, and especially infants, are legally incompetent to grant informed consent for medical or surgical treatment, that consent must be granted by a surrogate — someone designated to act on behalf of the child-patient, if treatment is to occur.
A surrogate's powers to grant consent are more circumscribed than the powers granted to a competent individual acting on his own behalf. A surrogate may only act in the best interests of the patient. A surrogate may not put a child at risk for religious reasons. A surrogate may grant consent for a medical procedure that has no medical indication only if it is the child's best interests.
The Committee on Bioethics of the AAP (1995) states that parents may only grant surrogate informed permission for diagnosis and treatment with the assent of the child whenever appropriate.
There is an unresolved question whether surrogates may grant effective consent for non-therapeutic child circumcision. Richards (1996) argues that parents may only consent to medical care, so are not empowered to grant consent for non-therapeutic circumcision of a child because it is not medical care. The Canadian Paediatric Society (2015) recommends that circumcisions done in the absence of a medical indication or for personal reasons "should be deferred until the individual concerned is able to make their own choices."
Regardless of these issues, the general practice of the medical community in the United States is to receive surrogate informed consent or permission from parents or legal guardians for non-therapeutic circumcision of children.
- Applied ethics
- Brit shalom (naming ceremony)
- Children's rights
- Medical ethics
- Men's rights
- Prevalence of circumcision
- Violence against men
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The Paediatrics and Child Health Division, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) has prepared this statement on routine circumcision of infants and boys to assist parents who are considering having this procedure undertaken on their male children and for doctors who are asked to advise on or undertake it. After extensive review of the literature the RACP reaffirms that there is no medical indication for routine neonatal circumcision. Circumcision of males has been undertaken for religious and cultural reasons for many thousands of years. It remains an important ritual in some religious and cultural groups.…In recent years there has been evidence of possible health benefits from routine male circumcision. The most important conditions where some benefit may result from circumcision are urinary tract infections, HIV and later cancer of the penis.…The complication rate of neonatal circumcision is reported to be around 1% and includes tenderness, bleeding and unhappy results to the appearance of the penis. Serious complications such as bleeding, septicaemia and may occasionally cause death (1 in 550,000). The possibility that routine circumcision may contravene human rights has been raised because circumcision is performed on a minor and is without proven medical benefit. Whether these legal concerns are valid will be known only if the matter is determined in a court of law. If the operation is to be performed, the medical attendant should ensure this is done by a competent operator, using appropriate anaesthesia and in a safe child-friendly environment. In all cases where parents request a circumcision for their child the medical attendant is obliged to provide accurate information on the risks and benefits of the procedure. Up-to-date, unbiased written material summarizing the evidence should be widely available to parents. Review of the literature in relation to risks and benefits shows there is no evidence of benefit outweighing harm for circumcision as a routine procedure in the neonate.
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