Male Circumcision in the United States and Consent

For the past two weeks I’ve talked about consent in the context of sex and how consent relates to individuals who are intersex. This week I want to broaden the discussion on a child’s right to decide what happens to their body through an exploration on circumcision.

During the Victorian Era, circumcision became a widespread practice as a treatment for masturbation. At this time, it was the belief of many doctors that masturbation led to many diseases, and that by removing one of the most sensitive parts of the penis, it could be prevented. Male circumcision was not just prevalent in the United States, but in all English-speaking countries at the time, such as Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. However, the practice decreased significantly in all of those countries except the United States in the following years. Now, between 60 to 90% of American boys are circumcised, depending on the region they live in, but only 16% of boys in Great Britain are circumcised, even though both countries were influenced by the ideas in the Victorian Era. So why is the United States still engaging in this practice?

The biggest reason why circumcision is such a constant in the United States is culture. Many parents feel pressure to circumcise their children simply because of this constraint. A midwife writes in her blog, “I have seen mothers sobbing as they send their babies to be circumcised, saying they do not want to do it and wish they didn’t ‘have to.’ I have seen them do it anyway, even as the doctor who is about to take the baby assures them that it is an elective procedure they are free to decline, and that many parents are doing just that.  These parents seem to be unable to let their own intuition and parental authority trump the enormous internal and external pressure they feel to follow this deeply ingrained cultural practice.” Another example of the cultural pressure to be circumcised is that some men are choosing to be circumcised as adults because of aesthetic reasons. Apparently, some women are “disgusted” by an uncircumcised penis, and don’t find it sexually gratifying, so men will get circumcised to please their partner. Not only that, but some men feel like an uncircumcised penis is the cause for “social embarrassment,” even though circumcision is really only normal the United States, excluding countries where it is done widely for religious purposes. However, the rate of adult male circumcision in the United States is only about 3 in 1,000, which suggests that most uncircumcised men are not unhappy that their penises were left intact. Another reason that infants continue to be circumcised is because fathers are uncomfortable with their son being uncircumcised if they are circumcised.

Parents may choose to get their child circumcised because of the so-called “medical benefits” as described by the American Academy of Pediatrics, such as the prevention of urinary tract infections, cancer, and STIs. But, removing a child’s foreskin to prevent cancer is the equivalent of removing a young girl’s breast tissue to keep her from getting breast cancer (which isn’t a common practice even though the rates of breast cancer are ten times higher in the United States.) Removing a child’s foreskin to prevent urinary tract infections for their first year of life is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Urinary tract infections are extremely rare, even among infants that are uncircumcised, and when they are contracted, they are extremely treatable. Lastly, removing a child’s foreskin to prevent STIs is completely pointless because condoms are widely available and they are much more effective. Hygiene is another major concern for parents, but hygiene doesn’t become an issue until the foreskin separates from the head of the penis slightly before the child starts puberty. All that is required to keep it clean at that point is warm water and a little bit of soap.

Here’s the bottom line: circumcision is an unnecessary procedure that our society has normalized. Since it is completely unnecessary, it is unethical for parents to circumcise their sons. We’re talking about the removal of highly-sensitive tissue. A child, from the moment they are born, should have the right to decide whether or not permanent changes are made to their body. It’s time for circumcision to be taken more seriously; it shouldn’t be a routine practice that parents blindly agree to. In fact, it shouldn’t be a decision that the parents are allowed to make at all.

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