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Editorial Cartoon: Peace in Gaza
Editorial Cartoon: Peace in Gaza
Published April 19, 2024

A critical look at male circumcision

It is a wonder boys are not provided such a measure of protection.

Female genital mutilation has received a great deal of attention, and the overwhelming opinion is that it should not be tolerated under any circumstances. Several nations, including the United States, have banned the practice, and it rightfully has been condemned as an antiquated and barbaric practice. Curiously, the public has not taken similar actions to control male circumcision. It is not worth comparing the two procedures directly, but neither should be allowed to continue because of specious reasoning. In both cases, the habits do not die easily, and it takes effort to change public opinion if the practice is prevalent.

The ritual of circumcision is almost as old as civilization itself, and tribal feelings often allow it to spread among groups of people. Jews practiced it in order to distinguish themselves and to fulfill what they felt was their covenant with God. Islam has made circumcision almost automatic for its male followers, but no scripture in the Torah, Bible or Qur’an explicitly orders that its adherents do it.

The first argument for circumcision is often that of hygiene, which is one of society’s preoccupations, but the foreskin is no more germ-laden than any other part of the body. Smegma is probably the most misunderstood of the body’s secretion, but it is simply a collection of dead skin cells or sperm. It keeps the glans lubricated and moist, allowing it to respond easily to stimulation. Females also produce it to keep the clitoris and the labia supple and prevent infection. As Dr. Thomas J. Ritter has observed, “The animal kingdom would probably cease to exist without smegma.”

Circumcision is offered as a solution before people are sure of the problem. In the English-speaking world during the Victorian era, circumcision was suggested as a means to curb masturbation, which was feared to cause a litany of diseases. Insanity, homosexuality or even “afflictions” as trivial as hiccups often were attributed to excessive sexual pleasure. It was commonly known that the foreskin contributed to this pleasure, being an integral part of the penis and containing several nerve endings. Ignoring what is lost seems like a strange way to act, but it has allowed the practice to be perpetuated.

Urinary tract infections, AIDS and penile cancer are among the major concerns used to justify male circumcision in the United States. Urinary tract infections are rare among boys, and boys with deformed or malfunctioning urinary tracts usually are spared circumcision. Cancer of the penis is rare, and although a study found circumcised men are less likely to develop it, the rate of penile cancer in noncircumcised U.S. men was found to be one in 100,000. The rate of deaths and complications among circumcised infants is not well-known or rigorously studied. It is likely much higher than the death rate from penile cancer. Clearly, circumcision fails as a “cure” for these diseases and the studies that claim its preventive qualities have not been tested. The medical system must practice real prevention and preserve the health and integrity of newborn babies before it truly can understand how the body is naturally affected by disease.

Every medically advanced nation besides the United States has abandoned routine infant circumcision. Sweden and Finland, often ahead of the curve on human-rights concerns, are the only nations that restrict it. For a short period in the middle of the 19th century, doctors and clergy members in the British Commonwealth also would remove the clitoris on female patients until this action was dismissed as too barbaric. Although the clitoris and the clitoral hood that surrounds it contain more nerve endings than the glans (head) of the penis and the foreskin, the two organs are very similar in structure. It is illegal to surgically alter female genitalia in any manner unless found medically necessary. Medical necessity in this case also does not allow the “prevention” of cancer, urinary tract infections, AIDS or any other diseases that affect women as well as men.

In a country that long has exalted equality as one of its cornerstones, it is a wonder that men are not provided such a measure of protection. Infant boys are placed at the mercy of the doctors or mohels, and the idea that men are stronger seems to apply even to helpless newborn babies. As long as this act is overlooked, it will continue, and society must make a coordinated effort to preserve the body’s integrity.

Daniel Meyer is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected].

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