Straight, No Chaser: Circumcision – To Do or Not to Do?

As a medical professional, circumcision has long been one of those things that’s made me go hmmm…. If your religious beliefs include this as a ritual or ceremony, fine.  I get it, and I have no criticism at all.  No disrespect is intended.  Otherwise, circumcision is largely a procedure looking for an indication.  Quick, tell me what other elective surgical procedure or harmful activity of any type is allowed on children, much less newborns?  While I’m waiting for you to think about an answer that doesn’t exist, let’s recap the procedure and the medical logic behind it.
As you know (and men are painfully aware – pun intended), circumcision is the surgical removal of the skin over the glans (tip) of the penis.  Over the last 30 years, the rate of males receiving the procedure has dropped from 64.5% to 58.3%, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.  Worldwide about 30% of males are circumcised, and of those receiving it, the religious influence is largely present. 69% of those being circumcised are Muslim and 1% are Jewish (Circumcision is part of religious rituals in both religions.).
Let’s cut to the chase (no pun intended): Here are the best arguments for circumcision.

  • It helps prevent certain infections (e.g. yeast and UTIs – which most males aren’t especially prone to anyway).
  • The cells of the inner surface of the foreskin may provide an optimal target for the HIV virus (This is theoretical and not conclusively decided in the medical literature.  In any event, this is NOT the same as saying uncircumcised males do or are more likely to contract HIV.).
  • Circumcised males have a lower rate of penile cancer (which is very low under any circumstances).
  • Now, there are emergency indications for circumcision; the one I’ve had to address (once in twenty years) is an inability to readjust a foreskin that too tightly adhered to the shaft of the penis (paraphimosis).  Obviously, that’s a medical emergency and not something frequently seen enough to justify universal circumcision any more than a much higher rate of appendicitis would warrant universal and elective removal of everyone’s appendix.

Here are criticisms of the decision to have circumcision.

  • Any surgical procedure has complications, and that should be taken seriously.  That said, the complication rate for circumcision is very small and includes bleeding infection and pain.
  • Circumcision is a violation of a child’s body and is unnecessary and disfiguring.  The foreskin might not be cut the appropriate length, might not heal properly and may require addition surgery because the remaining foreskin incorrectly attaches to the end of the penile shaft.

Honestly, both the risks and benefits are quite overstated.  Circumcision doesn’t appear to be a medically necessary procedure, but it isn’t an especially dangerous one.  Interestingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest comment on circumcision is that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, which stops short of recommending routine circumcision for all.  Even that equivocal smacks of conflict of interest, given who’s performing the procedure at a significant cost to the consumer.  Again, this appears to be a procedure looking for an indication…
If I was having this conversation in Africa, where the sexually transmitted infection rate is substantially higher and can be significantly reduced by circumcision, we’d be having a different conversation.  If my Jewish or Muslim friends and colleagues were asking my medical advice on the safety of getting the procedure done as part of their religious ceremonies, we’d be having a different conversation.  However, we’re not, and for the population in general, it’s safe to say that – various preferences (for various reasons) aside – there’s no compelling reason to recommend circumcision on all newborn males.  Make your judgment based on facts, not a whim.  And that’s medical straight talk.  Oh, and guys – sorry about the picture.  That wasn’t a good day.

0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: Circumcision – To Do or Not to Do?

    1. Hi Brett. I’m very familiar with HPV transmission and cervical cancer rates. In fact, I blogged on it here.
      What that tells me (and this is more or less the prevailing attitude of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics) is when the time comes, everyone should be vaccinated for HPV, not that everyone should receive circumcisions. Thanks for the comment.

  1. Reblogged this on inkyspider and commented:
    I noticed this while looking at other people’s ideas and thought it was an interesting (and better written) set of arguments for and against circumcision.

  2. Very good article Dr. Sterling. As usual, very insightful and straight to the point. I need to use you as my Doctor…LOL. ’06