Summary:

Unless there are pressing medical reasons for circumcision the practice is both unnecessary and cruel, and should be halted.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

If my parents had gone along with a medical procedure that was common around the time I was born in 1947, my tonsils would have been removed, sparing me from years of discomfort and pain caused by a pair of grossly enlarged vestigial organs that became inflamed with monotonous regularity.

During one bout of tonsillitis, I angrily told my parents that, instead of having me “snipped,” they should have chosen to have my tonsils removed.

Circumcision was a choice thousands of parents made for their children. My mom and dad thought it was unnecessary, but, for reasons best known to themselves, they were perfectly okay with having me genitally mutilated.

In routinely carrying out tonsillectomies South Africa was following a trend in the Britain.

At the start of the 20th century, tonsillectomies were routinely performed in Britain. At least 80,000 schoolchildren each year had their tonsils removed. However, by the 1980s, public and professional discourse condemned the operation as a “dangerous fad and complete fell from favour.”

The country’s unquestioning adoption of circumcision came from America. In 2012 The U.S. had the third highest rate of circumcisions in the world (75.5 percent) according to the BBC, but mercifully the U.K. has the lowest rate (8.5 percent).

Surprisingly, according to a 2012 Haaretz report, more and more Israeli parents are choosing not to have their sons circumcised.

Circumcision’s long history

The practice of non-therapeutic genital cutting has a long history in numerous
cultures world-wide. Although genital cutting can occur at any age, most genital
cutting has traditionally been, and continues to be, imposed involuntarily upon
infants and children, according to the International NGO Council on Genital Autonomy (INGOGCA).

Whereas prior to the twentieth century, the practice was largely unquestioned, global developments in medical ethics, human rights jurisprudence, and child safeguarding standards have increasingly called the practice into question. Such cutting violates the child’s right to bodily autonomy, causing pain and permanent loss by cutting and in some cases excising erogenous bodily tissue.

Genital cutting often causes scarring of the genitals, violates the child’s own exercise of its right to freedom of religion and belief, and fails to extend to the child the minimum personal rights afforded to adults. As such, it constitutes a harm that is neither justifiable within a modern humanrights framework, nor authorised by any qualified rights of the parents.

Circumcision took hold in the United States in the late 19th century. Prominent doctors advocated the surgery as a cure for paralysis, epilepsy, venereal disease, even mental illness.

Throughout the Victorian era, it was extolled for its virtue of cleanliness and as a cure for masturbation.

Latest studies

In January this year, Dr Antony Lempert, chair of the UK’s National Secular Society’s Medical Forum, wrote a piece for the NSS in which he referred to two new studies that show that the risks of the procedure outweigh the benefits.

The first, by Matthew Deacon and Gordon Muir and published in Nature, analyses the evidence behind the most common claims of the apparent benefits of circumcision, such as preventing urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and penile cancer.

It picks out the flaws in previous studies sometimes cited as proof of these supposed benefits, and finds that most are generally outweighed by risks. Complications that can result from circumcision, the review paper finds, include bleeding, infections and impaired sexual function, in addition to the excruciating pain the procedure inevitably causes.

The article concludes:

From the perspective of the individual boy, there is no medical justification for performing a circumcision prior to an age that he can assess the known risks and potential benefits, and choose to give or withhold informed consent himself.

The second article, published in European Urology Focus, finds from research at a Canadian hospital that the risks of neonatal circumcision are “greater than generally assumed”. From 2000-2013, 19 previously healthy newborn babies were admitted for acute complications following circumcision. Eight boys required surgery, three for severe bleeding. Seven were admitted to an intensive care unit, and two of these died.

“Intactivists” protesting in the U.S. Image via YouTube.

Because I felt that I had been violated by the circumcision performed on me I became an early “intactivist” and over many decades I have vigorously campaigned against all forms of circumcision. Therefore, I was delighted to learn that, in South Africa under the Children’s Act of 2005, male circumcision is prohibited under the age of 16, unless it conforms to prescribed religious practices or is medically necessary.

Circumcision of boys of 16 and over must be carried out in a prescribed manner and only with the boy’s consent, given after appropriate counseling. The Act further states that ‘Taking into consideration the child’s age, maturity and stage of development, every male child has the right to refuse circumcision.’

The Act says circumcision for religious or medical purposes must only be carried out after a special form has been signed by a parent or guardian. Circumcision on a boy aged 16 or over for social and cultural reasons requires both the boy and his parents to sign another form.

Pro-circumcisionists

I’ve written extensively about what I call genital mutilation and they have not been received well by those people who are pro-circumcision.

Back in 2012, after writing about the issue in a print edition of The Freethinker, I received a letter from a Scotsman called John Hein. It read:

Whilst I have no problem with rattling the cage of Judaism or any other superstition, I don’t see why it has to be at the cost of banning paediatric penile improvement … Not being forced to wait until I was an adult before having the operation, I thus avoided considerable pain and inconvenience—something over which friends who have been circumcised for medical or cosmetic reasons later in life have often expressed jealousy!

Whereas I am largely guided by the aesthetic in my championship of the circumcised penis, there is one practical consideration surely relevant to a seaside loving nation like the British: sand. As a pacifist, it concerns me that, in recent conflicts in the Middle East, the largest number of non-combat related hospital admissions of western troops has been due to sand in the foreskin.

While fact-checking his claim, I found this report, concerning New Zealand and Australian troops, which dismisses the sand-under-the-foreskin claim as a myth:

The official history says skin inflammations were a hazard of desert warfare, and they were exacerbated by the very fine sand, but it makes no mention of the foreskin or preputial cavity as a site, nor of circumcision as a treatment.

On the contrary, it records that damaging the skin was avoided, as was performing surgery that was not ‘urgent or else offered the prospect of permanent relief of symptoms sufficient to enable a man to be retained in useful employment overseas.’

Now I have to admit that, until I read that report, I’d never heard of foreskins being called “lace curtains.”

Hein concluded:

Of all the things for which I thank my parents, the greatest is my circumcised organ.

An online event

This past week, I received an email from the National Secular Society, advising me that a free online conference—Genital Cutting and Children’s Rights—is due to take place on Wednesday, June 8.

The invitation to join the event says:

Bodily autonomy is one of the most basic human rights. Yet every year, millions of children are forcibly subjected to permanent and painful cutting of their genitals for religious or cultural reasons.

While increasing numbers of countries give girls legal protection from all forms of non-therapeutic genital cutting (female genital mutilation), not a single country affords similar protections to boys.

In this event, representatives from the International NGO Council on Genital Autonomy (INGOCGA) will make the case for ensuring all children are protected from non-therapeutic genital cutting. They will explain why forced genital cutting is a violation of children’s fundamental rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and dispel some of the myths surrounding FGM and male circumcision.

And they will share ideas on what needs to happen to ensure all children, whatever their sex or cultural background, are given equal rights to make decisions about their bodies for themselves.

John Hein may be pleased that his parents chose to have him circumcised, but—75 years after I was turned into a “round-head”—I still haven’t forgiven my parents for their decision. But I am pleased to see that the National Secular Society, together with the International NGO Council on Genital Autonomy, are determined to warn people of to the barbarity and dangers of non-therapeutic circumcisions through the events such as the one due to be held on June 8.

Some tentative moves have been to protect boys in Australia, which banned circumcision at public hospitals, but it’s legal to have it done privately.

In Germany, it can be performed by “specially qualified members of religious communities” for boys under six months, after which it must be performed by a doctor. Meanwhile Sweden requires a doctor or nurse to be present during circumcision, and mandates the use of anesthesia.

These moves are to be welcomed, but to my mind do not nearly far enough.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....