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Circumcision: A Man’s Right to Choose

When most people think of reproductive rights, they think of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, her right to decide whether, when, and how to start a family. Men’s reproductive rights, if discussed, usually boils down to more of a reproductive responsibility: wear a condom.

“If men could become pregnant,” predicts NPR reporter Michelle Andrews, “they’d probably visit the doctor more often.” But since they can’t, men might have a more difficult time thinking about what “reproductive rights” as opposed to “reproductive responsibilities” means to them.

One men’s rights issue that’s come up recently is that of infant circumcision, the removal of the foreskin from a baby’s penis. While the news story focused on a rare circumcision method, for men I talked to, it re-opened the very question of infant circumcision as a de rigueur sexual health practice in the United States.

From a public health standpoint, studies demonstrate male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of men acquiring HIV from female partners, it prevents infant urinary tract infections, penile cancer, inflammation of the foreskin and glans, and phimosis. In terms of women, it reduces the risk, among other things, of HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer.

The case against infant male circumcision is pretty simple: we shouldn’t unnecessarily cut off part of child. Infant circumcision is a permanent decision that a baby’s parents/hospital make for him. He has no say in what happens to his body.

Further, if HIV transmission is the key concern, then aren’t there other, less violent options for men? Like education and condom use?

The Tell Them Bill of Rights declares that we all have the RIGHT “to make medical decision about [our] health care personally, privately and freely.” Doesn’t this include a man’s right to choose if his foreskin gets clipped?

To be clear, I’m speaking my OWN opinion, not that of Tell Them’s. But this is a genuine question for me: if circumcision is merely one way to help prevent HIV, shouldn’t a man have a choice in his circumcision?

8 thoughts on “Circumcision: A Man’s Right to Choose

  1. Don’t swallow the “public health” claims uncritically. At best, circumcision provides slight protection against rare diseases of late onset that can be better prevented by other means, or treated as they occur. Penile cancer, for example, is a very rare cancer of old men men who have neglected their hygiene, and (even the AAP admits) have abnormal (phimotic) foreskins. “Reduces the risk” is weasel-wording: how great is the risk, and how great the reduction? At worst the claims are completely bogus.

    Circumcision has been a “cure” looking for a disease for over a century, an intervention in search of an excuse for millenia, since it began in the mists of time as a magic-blood-sex ritual.

    You rightly note that as a health practice, it is confined to the United States. The rest of the English-speaking world did the experiment in the mid-twentieth century, Australian and New Zealand circumcising almost all boys in the 1950s, now fewer than one in 8 in Australia, one in 20 in New Zealand (and those for cultural reasons). There have been no outbreaks of any of the things it is supposed to be good against. New Zealand’s HIV rate is one of the lowest in the world. And a generation has grown up looking different from their fathers, with no problems their, either.

  2. I have neither a child nor a penis but I have to question the practice of cursory nonconsentual body modification. If not having a foreskin is a sexually healthy choice that would be great information to present a man with so he could weigh it against the benefits of keeping the foreskin intact while he decides whether or not he wishes to alter his penis. Apart from the physical dangers that exist in infant circumcision, it feels to me like the very first act of denying a child physical/sexual autonomy by handing ownership of the penis over to the parents.

    And with that I think I just achieved my full hippie potential :-)

  3. The ‘health’ reasons for circumcision are nearly all suspect. Phimosis and UTIs are generally caused by forcible retraction of the foreskin. While the risk of HIV transmission and cervical cancer may be marginally higher – and I’ll come back to post links about why hose stats are also iffy – they don’t merit hacking off a boy’s genitalia. Unless you’re Jewish, leave it be. New parents do well to educate themselves before they make an irrevocable decision that will ate t their sons’ lives forever.

  4. I weighed both sides and decided against circumcision–the “health” reasons, as several point out above, are circumspect (UTIs are rare in infants; the HIV risk can be reduced by other means); and the bottom line was: I didn’t feel comfortable making that decision for my infant son. And I took A LOT of heat for this decision from people who were less informed and less progressive–from family to pediatricians. But even the doctors wildly disagree–one called it “mutilation,” and one sniffed her nose at me and acted as if I had condemned him for life by leaving his foreskin intact (both women, btw).

  5. I had no idea there were so many anti-circumcision-ers out there! Your support makes me feel comfortable asking my real question: what’s at stake for the pro-circumcision doctors/medical community? Jill, why were your doctors so hostile? I feel like I’m missing something…

    And Elizabeth, yes, please share the links!

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